Dear Eros

Dear Eros,

You keep coming up in recent conversations about literary form. 

Reading this letter from Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva is like entering a story that wants to be told:

…suddenly I fear the necessity (even the inner, even the happy necessity) of a letter like the steepest of tasks before me: insurmountable. I wonder if everything has to be the way your insight tells you? Probably. This sense we have of experience pre-empted: should one bemoan it, exult in it?

I wrote you today a whole poem between the vineyard hills, sitting on a warm (not yet warmed through for good, unfortunately) wall and riveting the lizards in their tracks by intoning it. You see I’m back.

Now that we have arrived at “not wanting,” we deserve some mitigation. Here are my little pictures. Will you “despite everything” send me that other one of yours some time? I don’t want to stop looking forward to it.

Rilke wrote this letter to Tsvetaeva on June 8, 1926, and the envelope included Rilke’s poem, “Elegy for Marina” (pictured above, as written by the poet and displayed in Russia in 2018). 

I don’t know when he mailed the poem, or when Tsvetaeva received it. The two writers hadn’t met each other in real life—but they read each other’s poems, and invented each other somehow in their correspondence. Letters have this capacity to envision the other— to make much of them. “Here are my little pictures,” Rainer says to Marina, before passing her an elegy, a poem written for her own death. 

It’s scandalous, really, that these two poets are writing quasi-obits for each other, or maybe it is poetic… maybe poetry has always clutched the ode and the elegy in the same breath. Certainly, one feels implicated by the intimacy of these letters between two married poets, an intimacy which also defines the transgressive nature of the epistle and its assumption of privacy, on the narrowness of its intended audience, and the strange sense in which we violate intimacy when entering that space. 

The epistolary form started flourishing in the late 1660s, and became central to the novel of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Often, the epistolary was used to indicate a new interiority, or a permission to develop emotions and feelings that were seen as too feminine for plot. The letter is always bound to time, somehow, and that creates suspense within it— one doesn’t have to do as much work in backstory, because the date is at the top of the page. Being marked by time, or mired in it, gives the epistle a palpable resonance as a fictional form or technique.