This photo is of an oddly-shaped carrot that I bought at the farmer’s market. Not only was it interesting to look at, it was also very crisp and tasty! But I’m not posting it here right now because of its flavor. I decided to use this photo for this blog post because a lot of people told me the carrot looks like a hand. A witch hand, perhaps. And the following annotation on a poem by Rilke is also somewhat focused on strange hands.
“One of the Old Women”
I keep coming back to this one poem of Rainer Maria Rilke’s in the volume The Unknown Rilke, translated by Franz Wright. I keep returning to this poem because I don’t understand it, but it has enough interesting images in it that I want to understand it, so I read it over and over again. It’s not the kind of nonsensical poem that the mind just slides over without being caught by anything. Instead, it feels almost like there’s a part of me that does understand the poem, does draw meaning from the strange characteristics of the old woman, but the part of me that understands isn’t a part of me that my conscious mind is fully in touch with.
This is one of those situations where I wish that I was multilingual and could read the poem in its original language. If I could do that, I could weigh other possible translations of the words that attract and confuse me: “the enigma of their scabs,” “the hand, secretly waiting.” Unfortunately, I only speak English, and a little Spanish, so I have to make do with what I have-this one translation-to try to figure out why this poem attracts me so much. Perhaps also to try to understand the poem’s overall meaning, but I’m ok with having lingering questions about that. I do want to know about that secretly waiting hand though.
Starting at the beginning of things, I can at least pinpoint why the title makes me stop at this poem when I’m flipping through the book. It’s because, in general, I like the idea of old women. I will myself one day be an old woman, and I hope also that there’s still some lingering cultural respect for our elders, the wisdom of the crones, etc. And this title makes it clear that there are lots of old women, not just one. The subject of the poem is a single one of them, but the title implies that there are whole flocks of such women wandering the streets of Paris, where the poem is set, and the phrasing of the poem continues throughout to describe them in multiple.
I think perhaps that I have also managed to pinpoint why this poem gives me such a feeling of half-understanding it, even though I can’t quite verbalize exactly what it is that I think I understand. It’s because the poem is speaking to me directly! That is, this poem is written in second-person voice, and even contains a parenthetical aside to the reader in the first two lines: “(you know how that is, don’t you).” The only phrase that comes before this aside is “sometimes in the evening,” giving me, the reader, very little information with which to decide whether I actually do “know how that is.” But the speaker thinks I know. And these words, by addressing me directly, pull me into the poem.
So, suddenly I’m involved with this scene in which an old woman stops ahead of me on a Paris street, then coaxes me along beside “a building with no end.” When I read, in a poem, that something has no end I’m immediately vaulted into symbolic territory. And it may be due to that one line that I became so fixated on the meaning of this poem, and yet so uncertain. It seems possible that without that one line I might have viewed the poem as a description of an actual scene. But a building cannot be endless in real life, and knowing this I begin to see something beyond reality in the rest of the poem. Actually, this reminds me of an interesting statement in another one of Rilke’s poems in this book, “Walk at Night.” The two poems feel similar to me, although “Walk at Night” is much less image-centered than “One of the Old Women.” In it, Rilke says, “here a sudden brilliance or there a glimpse momentarily grazes us as if it were precisely that in which resides what our life is.” I think that “One of the Old Women” has grazed me, and now I’m trying to grasp what it says about what my life is.
And there are these few images in it that stand out to me with huge importance. First, there is the “enigma of their scabs,” which is one of the elements the old women use to coax you (me) along beside that strange eternal building. This stands out to me because scabs are such an unpleasant thought; whether they’re from some illness or from wounds, they’re not a symbol of health. So what is it about them that has a power of attraction enough to pull you (me) to follow the old woman? Maybe this question itself is the enigma. The woman is shabby and somehow unpleasant, yet fascinating at the same time. Why?
Then there’s the strange hand that the old woman hides somewhere within her layers of clothing. In the poem it sounds almost as if she has an extra, mutant hand, just for the purpose of keeping hidden “secretly waiting in back of and under their collar, longing for you.” The longing of this hand has an echo of motherhood. I picture it curled at the woman’s breast. But the most interesting thing about it is the specific idea Rilke gives to the hand’s desire: “longing maybe to wrap up your hands in some piece of paper they’ve saved.” Hands are sensitive, active things. In this poem, and in general, they are a point of connection between two people. And I immediately thought that the scrap of paper in the poem had to be the poem itself. Since this phrase is the end of the poem, I’m left with a feeling of circularity. The poem has reached out its strange old woman’s hand and wrapped itself around my own hands. I’m not sure exactly what to do with it, this scrap of paper, this poem, but I can’t put it down.