Sunday, April 1, 2007

visiting rilke's panther

On a gray somber afternoon in late November, you walk purposefully across the Pont de Sully and turn onto the Quai Saint-Bernard towards the entrance of the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes.
You are here to pay homage to a long caged up soul... one that has seized your imagination ever since you had read about him in Rainer Maria Rilke's poem 'The Panther in the Jardin des Plantes, Paris'.
You wonder if the panther is still here, and if he is the same one, now old and subdued... his spirit withered in this forsaken jail, dying a little more each day.
A Panther in Paris... so far from home, from that jungle that was his to roam.
You commiserate, but you are not forever locked up in a cage like him.
You have fantasies of freeing him, but would he come with you now?

His gaze has grown so tired from the bars
Passing, it can't hold anything anymore.
It is as if there were a thousand bars
And behind a thousand bars no world.

You sense his presence as you approach the large cats' area of the ménagerie.
A sculptor is modeling a miniature jaguar in clay at his portable stand; he ignores you.
You see the Panther...

The soft gait of powerful supple strides
Which turns in the smallest of all circles
Is like a dance of strength around a center
Where an imperious will stands stunned.

You are mesmerized by his beauty and his potency, but you feel his saturnine anger and frustration at the same time.
He does not look at you, but continues his pacing, back and forth, back and forth behind the thick iron bars.

Only at times the curtain of the pupils
Silently opens... Then an image enters
Passes through the taut stillness of the limbs
And in the heart ceases to be.

You sadly contemplate his restlessness.
Invoking the spirit of Rilke, who had perhaps stood in the very spot as you a century ago, you observe in silence, moved by what had inspired Rilke's poem.
You appraise his magnificence, yet disturbed at the infliction of his captivity.
You witness the injustice of a forfeited life, and decry his isolation from his own kind.
You ache intensely for him, all the while helpless to liberate him.
Then you, too, have to leave him to be for now.
The deus ex machina has not appeared, and you have to go.
Night is falling, black as his coat...
The Panther remains behind at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris...

'Visiting Rilke's Panther...a pilgrimage of sorts by Mme.V' by g. verster, 2004