Rilke’s Tombs of the Hetaerae


They lie in their long hair, and the brown faces
have long ago withdrawn into themselves.
Eyes shut, as though before too great a distance.
Skeletons, mouths, flowers. Inside the mouths,
the shiny teeth like rows of pocket chessmen.
And flowers, yellow pearls, slender bones,
hands and tunics, woven cloth decaying
over the shriveled heart. But there, beneath
those rings, beneath the talismans and gems
and precious stones like blue eyes (lovers’ keepsakes),
there still remains the silent crypt of sex,
filled to its vaulted roof with flower-petals.
And yellow pearls again, unstrung and scattered,
vessels of fired clay on which their own
portraits once were painted, the green fragments
of perfume jars that smelled like flowers, and images
of little household gods upon their altars:
courtesan-heavens with enraptured gods.
Broken waistbands, scarabs carved in jade,
small statues with enormous genitals,
a laughing mouth, dancing-girls, runners,
golden clasps that look like tiny bows
for shooting bird- and beast-shaped amulets,
ornamented knives and spoons, long needles,
a roundish light-red potsherd upon which
the stiff legs of a team of horses stand
like the dark inscription above an entryway.
And flowers again, pearls that have rolled apart,
the shining flanks of a little gilded lyre;
and in between the veils that fall like mist,
as though it had crept out from the shoe’s chrysalis:
the delicate pale butterfly of the ankle.

And so they lie, filled to the brim with Things,
expensive Things, jewels, toys, utensils,
broken trinkets (how much fell into them!)
and they darken as a river’s bottom darkens.
For they were riverbeds once,
and over them in brief, impetuous waves
(each wanting to prolong itself, forever)
the bodies of countless adolescents surged;
and in them roared the currents of grown men.
And sometimes boys would burst forth from the mountains
of childhood, would descend in timid streams
and play with what they found on the river’s bottom,
until the steep slope gripped their consciousness:

Then they filled, with clear, shallow water,
the whole breadth of this broad canal, and set
little whirlpools turning in the depths,
and for the first time mirrored the green banks
and distant calls of birds—, while in the sky
the starry nights of another, sweeter country
blossomed above them and would never close.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s