Paul Andersen – Tent time with Rainer Maria
September 22, 2002
The poet from Prague, Rainer Maria Rilke, joined me on a wilderness backpacking trip two weeks ago and shared his world view. Huddled up in the old fart sack, Rilke kept me company while snow piled up on the rain fly of my one-man tent.
Rilke has been with me before. His “Letters to a Young Poet” is a slim volume, just right for my map pouch and light enough not to overburden my pack. Rilke is engaging, but his dreadful complaining is rather annoying on a wilderness trip.
Even with monsoon-like weather and plenty of tent time, I almost tossed Rilke out into the stormy elements. Such a “delicate” man has no place around the campfire with my Neanderthal buddies, but I attempted to convey his thoughts to them anyway.
“Hey guys,” I announced one evening as the boys were getting well-oiled on a variety of intoxicants, “Rilke says that time is a continuum, that past, present and future exist all at once and that we are merely passing through it during our lifetimes.”
“Who the hell is this Wilkie, anyway?” scoffed Scott. “Here, you need some of this.” He shoved the flask of mescal at me, the one containing the worm. “If you want to know about existence, you need to kiss the worm!”
I took a shot of the mescal and felt the burn in my throat and the warmth in my stomach. The worm touched my lips, then sloshed back into the flask. I wondered how Rilke would have handled this and intuited that he would never have kissed a worm unless there was a poem in it.
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“Seriously, you guys” I tried again, “Rilke says that women are more evolved than men because they provide nurture, which gives them a maternal sense of creation. By contrast, men are just carefree, shortsighted hedonists.”
The guys chuckled. “Yeah, so what else is new?” grunted Graeme. “I thought that was common knowledge. Here’s to the evolution of man.” Graeme tossed me the Scotch flask and I took an obligatory gulp. Rilke would not have approved.
A wave of stormy weather floated over the ridge like a black dirigible and we were driven to our tents. I read more Rilke and plumbed the depths of his tortured soul. When he was sent to military school by his parents, Rilke was derided and beaten by his callused peers. He turned the other cheek and was beaten again, suffering inconsolable trauma. Poor Rilke.
When the hail ended, I emerged from my tent with two poems to share. Inspired by Rilke’s sensitive observations, I had written them in a burst of creativity. Despite my dramatic recitation, the guys snickered disdainfully. Now I knew how Rilke felt. I burned the poems in the fire and drowned my shame with more libations.
Rilke said that sadness is a good thing because it causes one to reflect on something new in one’s thoughts. Now that I was sad, I shared Rilke’s need to reflect in solitude, so I retreated to my tent and contemplated life in a meaningful way.
I concluded that it would have been better to bring London, Hemingway or Abbey to the wilderness than the sensitive Rilke. The wilderness and my rugged companions proved a bit too earthy for the likes of Rainer Maria.
Time and space, existence, creativity, art, the evolution of the female human being … these thoughts still permeated my mind. But the most perplexing question of all was why his parents gave Rilke the middle name of Maria?
Then it came to me: the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue.? It must have been like that for Rilke. How else could a sensitive poet exult over sadness and the superiority of women if not for that cursed middle name?
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