We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Three stanzas later, the last line of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo runs through my head. You must change your life, he says. I have read this poem again and again over the years, puzzling it out, rolling the words around on my tongue in some odd delight, then duly gut-punched by that last line. You must change your life.
I can wrap my head around the bulk of it, this marbled torso, with muscles smooth. I can almost feel the cold of the stone on my hands as I read the words of each stanza aloud to the quiet room. I am tracking with my poetry boyfriend, Rilke. I am tracking.
Well, until that last line. You must change your life, he says. And that is the line that sticks in me. It sticks like a knife in the ribs. It goes in there between my eleventh and twelfth, I reckon. The floating ribs. I suppose this may be why it hurts to breathe as I consider Rilke’s parting words. They are written to me as a warning, I am convinced of it.
I gave up coffee for one day, and only one day, because of those words. I must change my life, I thought. Is this what Rilke meant? That I should “get healthy?” I should eat better, drink better?
I jumped to this conclusion in the aisle at my grocery store. I pulled the ammunition from my morning coffee without blinking an eye. Even so, I chose the darkest roast of decaf on the shelf. “Medium.” Not great but it’ll do. The task was easy enough in theory: simply replace my usual dark roast with the non-leaded brew. There’s still some caffeine in it, I thought. And, of course, everyone says it’s the ritual that gets people going in the morning, right? It’s not that innocuous little cup of dark chemical heaven. How much difference could it make?
The answer was swift.
The balance of that day was spent in a fog. I was swimming in the mess of it. It was as though I was drowning in the fog. I kept trying to come up for air.
"Is this withdrawal?” I asked my brain.
“It’s too soon for that,” my brain said, but I thought it was a lie.
So, that’s it. I am addicted to this stuff. One cup each morning, dark roast, heavy cream. Is that addiction? I can’t see my hand before my face from all this fog. I struggled through the day like that. Moving my arms around in front of me as if to clear the air, to gain some traction, to finish the tasks on the list, but all I wanted was a nap. My arms were tired, my head ached.
It’ll get better over time, my friends said. I don’t believe it. And what does it meant to get better anyway? I reasoned. Will I somehow naturally acquire the clarity of mind, the drive to produce, the fast impulses from brain to fingers while typing? I don’t trust it. I’m not sure I ever was clear of mind, driven to produce or given to fast impulses from fingers to keyboard.
I cannot remember a version of me before I added this daily cup of coffee, but I’m sure I had a head once, as Apollo did, made when I was made, sculpted when I was sculpted. Was my head set with eyes like ripening fruit? When did it leave my body? When I left for college? When I had my children? It was the coffee that always seemed to return my head to me. I’d drink that cup and find it sitting there. It was on my shoulders all along. Enough of this experiment, I decided.
I am certain I was not always dependent on this small gesture in the early morning hours, slippered feet padding to the Keurig. Standing and watching the drip and the brew, as though in prayer in front of the icon of Our Lady of Promised Wakefulness. And I’m certain too, there will come a time when I will not feel this overwhelming need for a perky brew with the first light.
I will return to those lines of Rilke, as I return to myself, foggy or clear-headed, puzzled and gut-punched. You must change your life, he will say. And I will run my fingers up my neck and find my head sitting there; that thing that was never lost, only temporarily forgotten. It will happen. I’m convinced of it.
That night as I lay in bed, anticipating my return to the land of the fully caffeinated, I thought again of this admonition. You must change your life, he says. The line returns to me, haunts me in my sleepy stupor. Yes, poetry boyfriend, I must and I will, but not like this.
Other Unfinished work in our lives.
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At the moment, the assumption to question is that we humans have a right to be on earth and that it will indefinitely support us. When the very ground is taken from beneath our feet, where can we stand? What is left to us, when the familiar forms of our physical existence are taken away? Nothing, perhaps—yet I wonder.
I would charge that tree at sixty miles per hour, the following curve rated for thirty-five. Headed home after school, in the after-practice gloam, in the dark after work—to turn, or not to turn? That was the question. It was an option. Something to consider. I suspect most of us don’t think of this as a decision, per se, but it is. Every day, we decide, even if for most of us the answer has become reflex.