An essay from 'Are Angels OK?'

1905: Einstein, Rilke, Picasso



The year of the immaculate conception:
           a young man with a wife
                      and baby on the way,
who’d barely scraped into the job
          of technical officer third class,
                     examiner of patents in Bern,
redraws the laws of physics. The relativity paper
           has almost no references,
                     and when famous visitors,
travelled from afar to meet him, enquire
          as to the whereabouts of his theoretical
                    physics department Albert Einstein points
to the contents of his desk drawer.

          That’s legend — but we should
                     know better: each bright
idea has its history,
           its scaffolding and aftermath:
                      the thinker
has a mother and a sister with
          a sound skull; a first wife (Mileva)
                    who’s ‘a book’, their two
sons in whom the uncertain
           future is invested, and then a second
                    (Elsa), more of a book-keeper.

          They’re inclined to vanish into 
              cosmic background radiation 
          in the light of the big bang 
             from a world-altering equation.

That, by the way,
           was Einstein’s kind
                                of verse:
a man who liked
           to doggerel, but mostly
                     when chasing a particularly
pretty cat. So much
          for thinker’s poetry:
                  the moon and June
as close as he ever got.



 ‘He was a poet,
         and hated the approximate.’
                   At Meudon, Rilke begins
his apprenticeship in accuracy —
           six months of answering letters
for Rodin, entranced
          by his Master’s voice —
                    one ear to the gramophone
of the physical world,
          acquiring its muscular syntax
                    in place of airy hymns.
At Chartres he receives
          instruction on the physics
              of large bodies while an angel
with a sundial averts its gaze.
          ‘As we neared the cathedral… a wind…
                      swept unexpectedly round the corner
where the angel is and pierced us through
          and through, mercilessly sharp
                   and cutting. “Oh, I said,
there’s a storm coming up.”
           “Mais vous ne savez pas,” said the Master, “il y a
                    toujours un vent, ce vent-là
autour des grandes Cathédrales.” ’
          The air, he said, was agitated,
                     tormented by their grandeur, falling
from the heights and wandering
          round the building,
                    an explanation admittedly
not entirely scientific
          but based, at least,
                   on observation.

Another morning the poet wakes
         early, to the richness
                   of an unknown voice
singing in the garden.
         Sitting up in bed he can see
                   nothing, but later, at breakfast
in the kitchen, Mme Rodin
          whispers happily,
                    ‘Monsieur Rodin rose
very early. He went down
          into the garden.
                   He was there with his dogs
and his swans
          and was singing,
                    singing everywhere out loud…’
Rilke would spend his life
                     on the happiness of others,
but eventually he had to leave
          Meudon or face existence
                    as a light breeze,
a small dog yapping
          round the Master’s
                     monumental flanks.



That year, in Paris, Picasso took to drinking
         with the clowns and acrobats
                  in the bar at the Cirque Médrano.
For him it was the brief dusk of something —
          the shift from blue to rose
                    a pause for breath before
he set about the hard maths
          of revising space and time
                    in an Avignon bordello.
His Family of Saltimbanques
          was taken up
                     by Frau Hertha Koenig,
so when Rilke, who moved
          across Europe like a migratory
                      bird from one high-ceilinged
apartment or castle of a patron
          to another, arrived in her Paris
                     pied-à-terre, he found he’d moved
in with these six itinerants,
        whose space he shared for long enough
                   that they in turn began to live in him and,
as any ordinary family under the yoke
           of gravity might, suggested that he
                    who could speak should fix them
in print, mixing, if he must, a tint
          of himself into the tale
                   so they need not bow forever
to the force that pulled them down.



Light, says Dinah Hawken, is the word
          for light. And so, of course,
                    is Licht, and lumière.
At the heart of the matter,
           the untranslatable —
                    in this dog-eared
version of the Elegies
           that I’ve had since student days
                    Picasso’s painting shows
the huge capital D 
            that seems to stand 
                    for existence — except
that D, as any child will tell you,
          does not stand for existence
                    in English, but only
in the German Dastehn, a word
         whose simple building blocks mean
                    ‘standing there’.
That the irreducible necessity
        of the letter D is dictated
                    by the consonance between the letter’s
shape and the rough disposition
        of the figures in
                   Picasso’s painting
makes for an apparently
            intractable problem.

                   The thing about science,
any physicist will tell you, is whenever you find
          the answer to one question,
                    two more appear.
A question of language
          whether like Dinah you want to say
                    that light is one,
or prefer to say wave-and-particle,
          revealing the flaw at the heart
                    of the metaphor
which insists that light cannot be
         two, and yet it is.
                   A question, too, of the particular
history of your language,
          the containers it arrived in,
                    whose shoulders you’re standing on
to get the view.

          Rilke making the nouns and verbs jump
                    through hoops to get closer to it.
Einstein and Picasso conjuring possible
          from impossible with little more
                     than a shift in perspective.
The poem/theorem gathering all
           its resources to spring into being
                      as if from nowhere —
a palm tree in the desert,
         a fig tree pressing sap
                   straight into fruit.

Chris Price is the author of Husk (Auckland University Press; winner of the prize for Best First Book of Poems at the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards), and Brief Lives (Auckland University Press), a cross-genre hybrid chosen as one of the best books of 2006 by reviewers for the ListenerDominion Post and Radio New Zealand National. In 2007 she will take up a writing residency in Tasmania, where she plans to work on a poetry collection called The Blind Singer. Her work also appears in Best New Zealand Poems 2001and 2003.

Price comments: ‘This poem is just the start of a much longer verse essay that appears in an anthology of creative collaborations between New Zealand writers and physicists called Are Angels OK? (Victoria University Press.) The book was commissioned by the Royal Society of New Zealand and the International Institute of Modern Letters to mark the International Year of Physics in 2005. While my verse essay and the anthology share the same title, the book was not named after my piece: rather, I adopted — or stole — the project title, simply because it turned out to be the question that set the poem in motion. Perhaps by the time it reappears in a book of my own I’ll have come up with a better or more original title.

‘It was the first time I’d attempted a poem of such length. The process seemed much like painting a large canvas, even down to the need for preliminary sketches. My “sketches” were more like Venn diagrams attempting to pin down in simplified form the relationships between the key figures in the poem, the ways in which they intersected in time and space, and through their thoughts, works, and the imagery associated with them. This section introduces most of those key figures (the missing one, Charles Chaplin, doesn’t arrive in the poem until later on).

‘A note in the published book gives extensive references, but some particular phrases embedded in this part aren’t explained there. Einstein was prone to tantrums in childhood, and his sister Maja reported that he attacked her with a bowling ball on one occasion and with a child’s hoe on another, resulting in her oft-quoted comment that “to be the sister of a thinker you need a sound skull”. His first wife Mileva studied physics, but her cleverness did not impress her future mother-in-law, who told her son, “Like you she is a book — but you ought to have a wife.” (His second wife Elsa was more successful at performing the conventional wifely duties.) The poem ‘Light is the word for light’ is in Dinah Hawken’s Water, Leaves, Stones (Victoria University Press, 1995). And the remark about two further questions appearing each time one is answered paraphrases a comment made by the physicist Freeman Dyson in a radio programme about Einstein and God.’

Poem source details >



New Zealand Book Council writer file
Victoria University Press book listing
Are Angel's OK? book launch listing
Chris Price