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1182 words
SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

A New Reading of Rilke’s “Elegies”
by John Mood

Reviewed by Duff Brenna

Mellen Press (2009)

Cover of A New Reading of Rilke's Elegies, by John Mood

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The first study John Mood wrote about Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Rilke on Love and Other Difficulties (1975), is still in print and is the second-largest-selling Rilke book in the English-speaking world. The year 2007 brought us Mood’s Rilke on Death and Other Oddities. And now we have his A New Reading of Rilke’s “Elegies,” a work that will serve to keep Rilke’s enduring popularity alive.

Mood’s books on Rilke are not written only for scholars in a scholarly language. Quite the contrary. His unadorned style makes his books accessible to any layman who cares about literature and/or poetry. A clue to Mood’s approach to his subjects can be found in the title of his study on James Joyce: “Ulysses” For Everyone, Or How To Skip Reading It The First Time. For those who just want to know the nuts and bolts of Joyce’s forbidding book, Mood’s playful exuberance is made to order.

He brings much of that same exuberance to A New Reading of Rilke’s “Elegies.” Mood’s academic background (Ph.D. in Religion and Philosophy, professor at Ball State before he retired) never gets in the way of his expressed purpose: to show us how beautiful and magical Rilke’s poetry actually is, even when it is absorbed now and then with the subject of death. In part, A New Reading becomes Mood’s personal meditation on death using Rilke as his guide, his Virgil, his Beatrice.

It is well known that Death is a dominant theme in much of Rilke’s work. He says in an essay, “How is it possible to live when … the elements of this life are utterly incomprehensible to us? If we are continually inadequate in love, uncertain in decision and impotent in the face of death, how is it possible to exist? … Life and Death: they are one, at core entwined.” He tells us that we must “learn to die … all of life is in that.” In an early chapter of Mood’s new book, we are given several pages of Rilke’s reflections regarding death and our need to come to terms with the inescapable fact that all life is in some sense a preparation for the end that awaits us. Rilke closes his deliberations with a reminder that we are far from alone, we “lovers and transformers” take note that “All the worlds of the universe are plunging into the invisible.” And:

Being-here is much, and all this here,
which disappears so, seems to need us and strangely
concerns us. Us, the most disappearing. Once
each, only once. Once and no more.

The repetition of Once takes on more and more existential weight as Mood illustrates the influence and “staying power” of Rilke, whose once on this earth was far from ephemeral. The point being, of course, that because of the works he left us, Rilke is still alive. At least “spiritually.”

Following his thought-provoking, even moody, introduction, Mood switches gears and begins lightheartedly listing various areas of art that have felt Rilke’s influence, beginning with “pop” art itself. “The pop Rilke”? Well, yes, sort of: “As for Rilke genuinely in American pop culture, one is quite surprised at how often he does pop up, as it were, once one begins looking around.” Indeed, Mood’s list of Rilke references in nearly every art and even in some sciences is staggering. Some brief examples from the book may give the reader an idea of the eclectic nature of Mood’s choices.

Making the point that Rilke’s poetry is quoted in numerous publications “of lesser or greater popularity,” Mood begins with ASTRONOMY, specifically the periodical Astronomy, circulation 100,000. Rilke’s poem about the planet Venus setting at dusk appeared in the magazine in December, 1981.

SURFING: … A wave, long-gone now/ seemed to lift itself just for you (from “The First Elegy”). In The First Waves, a book about surfing by Drew Kampion, there is a prose passage from a letter by Rilke.

PROSE: Among other writers, Mood lists lines by and references to Rilke in works by J.D. Salinger, Ken Bruen, Carlos Castaneda, Ted Bishop and Haven Kimmel who wrote a New York Times Bestseller called A Girl Named Zippy, which quotes Rilke at length.

SEX: Mood claims that the reason his first book on Rilke is still in print after nearly 35 years is because it emphasizes sexual love in Rilke’s prose and poetry. Perhaps there is something to such a notion? Mood believes so. He says: “After a while, it became clear that these responses fell into two categories—which I shall call “nasty sex,” and “new age sex.” He gives some examples of where such categories of sex are found in the works of several writers connected to Rilke in one way or another.

MOVIES: Did you know that Marilyn Monroe was a Rilke reader? Neither did I. But the director of one of her movies saw Monroe reading Rilke’s famous Letters to a Young Poet and couldn’t believe his eyes. Truth is, MM haunted bookstores and was very well read, according to John Mood. Woody Allen is a Rilke fan and has used lines from his poetry in a number of his movies. Other than those, there are at least seven movies which include lines or references to Rilke. Mood lists them and gives specific examples.

In all, the movie category provides some of the book’s most lavish illustrations. I found it especially enlightening to learn that Whoopi Goldberg refers to Rilke at length in Sister Act 2. Her character says that her mother “gave me this book …Letters to a Young Poet. Rainer Maria Rilke. A fabulous writer.” She quotes the lines that all Rilke followers know in one translation or another: “Don’t ask me about being a writer. If when you wake up in the morning, you can think of nothing but writing, then you’re a writer.” In Woody Allen’s Another Woman, Gena Rowlands quotes perhaps Rilke’s most famous line of all—“You must change your life.” In Awakenings a voice-over quotes Rilke’s “Panther” to great effect given that the story is about a mental patient who is catatonic, his lively mind locked up, so to speak, inside his own head:

His gaze from staring through the bars
has grown so weary that it can take in nothing more
For him it is as though there were a thousand bars …

[His] great will stands paralyzed …

And the lists can go on and on. Mood brings in Rock Music, more astronomy, the universe, imaginative metaphors, botany, more sex, humor, heroes; ultimately, ending his reading with concise, insightful summaries of each of the ten elegies in Rilke’s 860-line Duinese Elegies. It’s quite a performance. Mood’s vast knowledge about Rilke and those works where nearly “every embrace seems to promise/ eternity” is as sure-handed and intimate and rich and reader-friendly as any book about a poet and his poetry ever gets. A New Reading of Rilke’s “Elegies” is a gift: an investigation that gives us even more evidence as to why Rainer Maria Rilke continues to endure.

—Previously published in Perigee, Issue 27 (January 2010)


SHJ Issue 1
Spring 2010

Duff Brenna

is the author of six novels, and recipient of an AWP Award for Best Novel (The Book of Mamie), a National Endowment for the Arts Award, a South Florida Sun-Sentinel Award for Favorite Book of the year (The Altar of the Body), a Milwaukee Magazine Best Short Story of the Year Award, and a Pushcart Honorable Mention.

Brenna’s stories, poems, and essays have appeared in Cream City Review, SQ, Agni, The Nebraska Review, The Literary Review, The Madison Review, New Letters, and numerous other literary venues. His work has been translated into six languages.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury