On my bookshelves, there is an old paperback edition of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Selected Poems translated by Robert Bly. It’s a constant source of inspiration and now so creased, battered, and well-thumbed that the pages have come loose from their binding.
Over the years, I’ve drawn strength from many of Rilke’s poems. Sometimes a Man Stands Up, The Man Watching, Archaic Torso of Apollo, and Widening Circles have all offered profound insights, metaphors and encouragements. Now, in the first flush of grief, it is the image of “standing on fishes” from Moving Forward that names my condition so precisely that it seems Rilke is speaking directly to my soul.
The foundations of my life that were once so concrete and substantial have liquefied. What was fixed and certain has become fluid and unpredictable. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way; I was supposed to die first, leaving Chris to enjoy her wildly creative middle years and elderhood alone. But it didn’t happen that way so I must learn how to live without her constant presence.
Chris was the solid ground under my feet. Without her, I am ungrounded, sinking, standing on fishes. But our years together have taught me how to swim and I am not drowning. As Rilke says:
The deep parts of my life pour onward,
as if the river shores were opening out.
It seems that things are more like me now,
that I can see farther into paintings.
I feel closer to what language can’t reach.
With my senses, as with birds, I climb
into the windy heaven, out of the oak,
and in the ponds broken off from the sky
my feeling sinks, as if standing on fishes.
And so I write because it is a way of being with Chris and with myself and with the world. I write because it’s how I find and define myself and because she loved the writer in me.