Fatal Birds of the Soul
“This cycle is in no way an explication of Rilke, and the German poet would doubtless be horrified at the thought of a young atheist, neo-Romantic American poet of the 1970s making a palimpsest over his work, with the shades of Shelley, Walt Whitman, Poe, and even H. P. Lovecraft looking over his shoulder. That Rilke himself stepped away from the Elegies after writing the first two, only returning to the project some years later, gives some indication of the daunting power of Elegies 1 and 2. I, too, unsure of what I had done, and what was to be done with it, put the project aside.
“Some of my recent work with translations and adaptations gave me the self-confidence to return to this perilous project, this time trusting my own voice and letting even more expansion emerge from the original material. If I have succeeded, Rilke’s own words fit seamlessly into the flow of my own. I was in his thrall for a number of years, and his Letters to a Young Poet gave me comfort and inspiration when it was not coming from those around me. I already had a sense that in poems such as this, one is being “lived through” by language, creating a freestanding work that has its own existence, its own right to be.
“To illustrate this book I turned to some of the Greek sculpture that makes clear some of Rilke’s language about the vocabulary of touching in classic sculpture, and I was able to find a photo of the Latin tomb inscription Rilke found in Venice and copied down. I introduced the god Hermes, who, as a messenger of the gods, served the same role as messenger angels to the Greeks. These visual embellishments may help the reader recreate the visual elements of Rilke’s musings on angels, on sculpture, and on Beauty in general."