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:
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
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,
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
‘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
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
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
makes for an apparently
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 Listener, Dominion 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.’