The poems in Steven Cramer’s new book, Departures from Rilke, live within a sliver of space between the living and the dead. Once invited in, we discover how this space expands to explore the myriad ways the living encounter and interact with the dead and dying: as witnesses, as the grieving, as the chroniclers, and as the ones who die. They seek to experience something between remembering the dead, which is too detached, and touching them, which is too close. Instead, the poems attempt to conjure the dead so we can see and hear and even speak with those who have gone, perhaps enough to imagine our own death in a way that is less fraught with terror, but not enough to feel compelled to linger too long.
“Olive Country” sets the tone with a speaker angrily invoking a deified “You:” “Why do You insist I pray to you? ... I’m alive with people’s grief. I meant / in You to raise them.” Finding no comfort from a so-called higher power, we can imagine the speaker deciding in this moment to turn to poetry to navigate this grief. A few pages later, in “Morgue,” we find an image of the dead perhaps hoping for this very raising: “Their bodies wait for some intervention: / a ritual—dreamed up too late, of course— / to join them, cold flesh warmed by flesh.” We’re confronted with the palpable despair of the dead, still so close to life they can almost feel its warmth.
Cramer’s poems evoke a variety of death experiences, from the despondent to the rebellious to the sublime. In “Sickbed,” we read of a woman who “rests, weakening, but still has strength / to give her disease both middle fingers.” The speaker in “On my Death Bed” describes dying as “… my life and everything / life taught me leaching from my brain,” an emptying of everything gained which evokes the terror of annihilation. But then, in “Duck,” we read the lines “… we stroll the Earth, / age after age, then shuffle off, like a duck … The duck finds this all infinitely boring / and doesn’t swim away so much as glide.” This image of an easy, disinterested death is followed by one similar in “Going Blind:” “… she’d give up / all walking after that, and start to fly.” Death, these poems discover, can be miserable. It can be insignificant. It can be infuriating. It can also be the easiest thing we ever do.
Three of Cramer’s poems do powerful work in conjuring the dead, with remarkable imagery raising them in our minds. The speaker in “Tombs of the Courtesans” imagines these dead women with “streaming hair” and “teeth glaring like ranks of ivory pawns,” resting with the “rings, charms, and sapphires / of their love gifts.” Then this lush illustration of the courtesan’s seemingly privileged lives is upended: “So here they lie, packed with their things— / prizes, jewels, utensils, gadgets, toys, and all rained down like fallout into a dry creek bed.” Even those who die with the most toys end up discarded and abandoned in the arid dirt.
A conjuring can also become a haunting: those who have left us may not be completely gone. Consider the woman in “Untitled:”
Dead, she’ll still don her shawl
slip on gloves, her bureau’s scent
replacing essences she wore to best
She tidies the room, until it warns
her dearest belongings to watch out—
She’s still alive inside her possessions.
A sense of foreboding takes over the poem—we can never know where the dead may show up, or where they may even now reside, waiting for some unsuspecting living person to disturb them.
In the Afterword, Cramer describes how he interpreted and adapted the work in Rilke’s New Poems, finding the iconic artist a “compelling and chastening presence.” Cramer doesn’t try to translate Rilke in any literal way, finding an accurate translation into English impossible. He describes his “departures” as showing “some likeness to Rilke’s original, despite a great deal of variance in specific features. Some refract my own personal and domestic history through Rilke’s viewpoint.” Indeed, Cramer writes several poems invoking family and friends, including “A Portrait of my Father’s Twin (“The picture fades in my fading hand”) and “Portrait of my Mother” (“Her hugs are givens she holds / at arm’s length”). Cramer’s own dog claims the title of the final poem, “Zeus” (“I see you up there, looking down at me, / as if you’re the world and I’m not”).
In “Death of a Best Friend” we find the most effective synthesis of what a Cramer-as-inspired-by-Rilke poem can achieve. Here, the living commune with the dead in an emotional conjuring that allows the speaker to approach most closely, and dangerously, that thin boundary between us and them. We practically hold our breath before we see them pull back:
About death, I thought what everyone thinks:
Your ways of remaining kind stay fresh…
my best friend making friends among the dead!
Through you, I meet them, we talk, but just
before they give directions to their harbor,
I shut them up. I have my ways to find you.
This kind of intimate encounter is what Cramer’s poems accomplish with powerful imagery, stark cadences, and unflinching observation. Everything about death, dying, and how it brings to the fore life’s “real sun, real woods, very real green” is met with tremulous courage. If we know any kind of loss or grief, we can’t look away from the terribly beautiful, complicated truths of Cramer’s work.
Departures from Rilke can be purchased here.