chaleur perdue

Lost Warmth

a series of poetic games about colorizing our distance

mediated through Rainer Rilke’s Duino Elegies

as translated by Stephen Mitchell

a modal/duality modality
dedicated to the only inspiration
for these ensuing works,

Photosensitive Epilepsy Seizure Warning
This page contains rapidly flashing colors.

chaleur perdue is an interactive story about my attempts to understand distance through color.

I often find it difficult to interpret art, so I’ve included a Statement of Intention at the end detailing my goals.

If you like, you can click here to play music.
The track is Arvo Pärt’s De Profundis.

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Please read the poetry aloud!

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Below is textual content intended for users without JavaScript. It does not include any of the interactive games that make chaleur perdue unique.

The First Elegy

Roma pleut / Il fume

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’

hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me

suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed

in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing

but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,

and we are so awed because it serenely disdains

to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying. Rainer Rilke, Duino Elegies 1.1-7

Often a star was waiting for you

to notice it. 1.26-27

I waited twenty years; you one less—but it wasn’t until we were in the correct location that, pressed against your heart, I first noticed you.

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The Second Elegy

L’enfant de la Renaissance

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,

I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul,

knowing about you… 2.1-3

But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we

breathe ourselves out and away; from moment to moment

our emotion grows fainter, like a perfume. 2.18-20

Lovers, if they knew how, might utter strange, marvelous

words in the night air. For it seems that everything

hides us… 2.37-39

…I know,

you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves,

because the place you so tenderly cover

does not vanish; because underneath it

you feel pure duration. So you promise eternity; almost,

from the embrace. And yet, when you have survived

the terror of the first glances, the longing at the window,

and the first walk together, once only, through the garden:

lovers, are you the same? 2.55-63

If only we too could discover a pure, contained,

human place, our own strip of fruit-bearing soil

between river and rock. For our own heart always exceeds us,

as theirs did… 2.74-77

Like our hazy memories of the little stone eaglets perched stoicly upon the Tuscan columns, my thoughts appeared to me then as blurred images. Guided by these references, I searched for the words which together could add up to coherent emotion: words I could give to you.

But I remained silent.

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The Fourth Elegy


O trees of life, when does your winter come?

We are not in harmony, our blood does not forewarn us

like migratory birds’… 4.1-3

As when for some quick sketch, a wide background

of contrast is laboriously prepared

so that we can see more clearly: we never know

the actual, vital contour of our own

emotions—just what forms them from outside. 4.14-18

…you, which I always turned away from

because the space in your features grew, changed,

even while I loved it, into cosmic space,

where you no longer were— 4.49-52

…If no one else, the dying

must notice how unreal, how full of pretense,

is all that we accomplish here, where nothing

is allowed to be itself… 4.63-66

…But this: that one can contain

death, the whole of death, even before

life has begun, can hold it to one’s heart

gently, and not refuse to go on living,

is inexpressible. 4.83-87

Watching you sketch a laurel nymph against the mythic green walls of the Galleria—gentle eyebrows contracted in tunneling concentration, an off-white scarf tracing out a contrapposto with such vitality that it seemed to extend beyond the floor—I looked down at my own effort. It was a bit trite.

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But tell me, who are they, these wanderers, even more

transient than we ourselves, who from their earliest days

are savagely wrung out

by a never-satisfied will (for whose sake)? Yet it wrings them,

bends them, twists them, swings them, and flings them

and catches them again… 5.1-6

And hardly has it appeared

when, standing there, upright, is: the large capital D

that begins Duration…, and the always-approaching grip

takes them again, as a joke, even the strongest

men, and crushes them, the way King Augustus the Strong

would crush a pewter plate. 5.13-18

Squares, oh square in Paris, infinite showplace

where the milliner Madame Lamort

twists and winds the restless paths of the earth… 5.90-92

A grid of free-hanging reflective photographs divided the room into rows. Starting on opposite sides, we slowly made our way to a central rendezvous, occasionally stealing questioning glances at each other between the gaps across the vaulted room. We ended up meeting much closer to my origin than yours, owing to one particular rendering of tautological grafitti.

You tilted your head and smiled before walking past me, and so I felt a great urge to rush through the rest of the grid, as if the Universal Hourglass suddenly began to rumble, terrifying its disciples. Having allotted each photograph only The Minimal Proper Amount Of Contemplation At A Museum, I don’t recall any of works in the second half.

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The Sixth Elegy

From Exe to Wye with Peroni

But we still linger, alas,

we, whose pride is in blossoming; we enter the overdue

interior of our final fruit and are already betrayed.

In only a few does the urge to action rise up

so powerfully that they stop, glowing in their heart’s abundance,

while, like the soft night air, the temptation to blossom

touches their tender mouths, touches their eyelids, softly:

heroes perhaps, and those chosen to disappear early,

whose veins Death the gardener twists into a different pattern. 6.8-16

The hero is strangely close to those who died young.


does not concern him… 6.20-22

For whenever the hero stormed through the stations of love,

each heartbeat intended for him lifted him up, beyond it;

and, turning away, he stood there, at the end of all smiles,—transfigured. 6.43-45

Aimlessly walking around the city—our watches and compasses banished from sight—you pointed out minute architectural details of every building we passed. You brought my attention to sultry pilasters after the gentle Alberti, Gothic vault ornamentation co-opted by Fascist builders, the acoustic features of Jesuit churches versus Catholic cathedrals.

Answering my questions with hesitant diction yet an unwavering perspicacity, shimmering excitement shone through your beaming eyes with an intensity rivaling even that of Moonshine.

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The Seventh Elegy

Parapluie (Our Rainflower)

Not wooing, no longer shall wooing, voice that has outgrown it

be the nature of your cry; but instead, you would cry out as purely as a bird… 7.1-2

but also the nights! But also the lofty summer

nights, and the stars as well, the stars of the earth.

Oh to be dead at last and know them endlessly,

all the stars: for how, how could we ever forget them! 7.26-29

But we can so easily forget what our laughing neighbor

neither confirms nor envies. We want to display it,

to make it visible, though even the most visible happiness

can’t reveal itself to us until we transform it, within. 7.45-48

Nowhere, Beloved, will world be but within us. Our life

passes in transformation. And the external

shrinks into less and less. Where once an enduring house was,

now a cerebral structure crosses our path, completely

belonging to the realm of concepts, as though it still stood in the brain.

Our age has built itself vast reservoirs of power,

formless as the straining energy that it wrests from the earth. 7.49-55

Each torpid turn of the world has such disinherited ones,

to whom neither the past belongs, nor yet what has nearly arrived.

For even the nearest moment is far from mankind… 7.62-64

…So, after all, we have not

failed to make use of these generous spaces, these

spaces of ours. (How frighteningly great they must be,

since thousands of years have not made them overflow with our feelings.) 7.76-79

Don’t think that I’m wooing.

Angel, and even if I were, you would not come. For my call

is always filled with departure; against such a powerful

current you cannot move… 7.84-87

Having exchanged one Euro for an ephemeral radiance, we stared at Pozzo’s illusion for two fully-qualified minutes. Though we successfully transformed the real, transient reality into persistent artifice, your expression betrayed a vague sense of regret as the lights dimmed.

Through this work you may be reading right now, I seek to revisit our togetherness with neither honesty nor yearning, but rather, with consideration. Which colors found their way into your heart that day? Or was it rather a colorful transformation that succeeded? A memoryless one-way permutation?

You claimed that writing, sketching, painting immortalizes our thoughts faithfully, yet the colors you received today induced transformations I was never close to discovering. Transformations too rapid to overcome our distance.

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The Eighth Elegy

Senza Zucchero, Plus Sublimity

With all its eyes the natural world looks out

into the Open. Only our eyes are turned

backward, and surround plant, animal, child

like traps, as they emerge into their freedom.

We know what is really out there only from

the animal’s gaze; for we take the very young

child and force it around, so that it sees

objects—not the Open, which is so

deep in animals’ faces. Free from death.

We, only, can see death… 8.1-10

Never, not for a single day, do we have

before us that pure space into which flowers

endlessly open… 8.14-16

For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares

beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast gaze. 8.23-24

…But it feels its life as boundless,

unfathomably, and without regard

to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze.

And where we see the future, it sees all time

and itself within all time, forever healed. 8.40-44

Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies

the pain and burden of an enormous sadness

For it too feels the presence of what often

overwhelms us: a memory… 8.45-48

And how bewildered is any womb-born creature

that has to fly. As if terrified and fleeing

from itself, it zigzags through the air, the way

a crack runs through a teacup. So the bat

quivers across the porcelain of evening. 8.64-68

We’re both slightly tipsy, and as our conversation grows increasingly iridule, I’m sure I’ll be able to find my way to a familiar home. But you were always staring off into the distance—the Open—and I can’t go with you this time.
Please be careful.

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Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely

in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all

other green, with tiny waves on the edges

of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)—: why then

have to be human—and, escaping from fate,

keep longing for fate?… 9.1-6

…because truly being here is so much; because everything here

apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way

keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. 9.10-12

For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,

he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead

some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue

gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—

at most: column, tower…. But to say them, you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves

ever dreamed of existing. 9.28-35

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.

Speak and bear witness… 9.42-43

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,

you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe

where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him

something simple which, formed over generations,

lives as our own, near our hand, and within our gaze.

Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished… 9.52-57

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future

grows any smaller…Superabundant being

wells up in my heart. 9.77-79

“I think the bees are their family’s symbol.”
«Quoi? “bees”?»
«Oui…sais pas le mot, comme…“bzzzz”»
«Les mouches!»
«Non…venez avec moi»

I dragged you back to the fountain with the little stone bees atop their whited sepulchre of an apiary.

«Ah, les abeilles
«Les abbeiles?»
«Les abeilles; en français double-l is «ayyy».»

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The Tenth Elegy

To Reify Lost Warmth

Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight,

let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels.

Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart

fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful,

or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face

make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise

and blossom. 10.1-7

The young man is drawn on, farther; perhaps he is in love with a young

Lament…He comes out behind her, into the meadows. She says:

—It’s a long walk. We live way out there…

Where? And the youth

follows. He is touched by her manner. Her shoulders, her neck—, perhaps

she is of noble descent. But he leaves her, turns around,

looks back, waves…What’s the use? She is a Lament. 10.41-47

Only those who died young, in their first condition

of timeless equanimity, while they are being weaned

follow her lovingly. 10.48-50

…With young men she walks

in silence. 10.53-54

And gently she guides him through the vast landscape of Lament,

shows him the pillars of the temples, and the ruined walls

of those castles from which, long ago, the princes of Lament

wisely ruled the land. Shows him the tall

trees of tears and the fields of blossoming grief… 10.62-66

And higher, the stars. The new stars of the land of grief.

Slowly the Lament names them:—Look, there:

the Rider, the Staff, and the larger constellation

called Garland of Fruit. Then, farther up toward the Pole:

Cradle; Path; The Burning Book; Puppet; Window. 10.89-93

But the dead youth must go on by himself, and silently the elder Lament

takes him as far as the ravine,

where shimmering in the moonlight

is the fountainhead of joy. With reverence

she names it and says:—Among men

it is a mighty stream.—

They stand at the foot of the mountain-range.

And she embraces him, weeping.

Alone, he climbs on, up the mountains of primal grief.

And not once do his footsteps echo from the soundless path. 10.97-106

And we, who have always thought

of happiness as rising, would feel

the emotion that almost overwhelms us

whenever a happy thing falls. 10.111-114

Like all memories, ours are fading. Slowly at first, and now with increasing celerity. In the days after we parted (adieu!), now over ten thousand kilometers apart, I spent my time gently encasing our memories in the concrete detail of a graphite sketch, or a journal entry.

But time erodes even concrete blocks, so I was forced to build—build towers of meditation, bridges of warmth, fountains of presence. On idle days: adding new memories, rearranging to go even higher, wider, more discerning. Through this architecture, I understood more closely the small deviations and eccentricities present in each block that determined its unique color.

Some were appropriate for building libraries overflowing with forgotten worlds. These I placed into fictive poetry.

Others were destined for the foundations and careful frames of student galleries. These I placed into fictive drawings.

But the rest, the majority…I was unable to classify. Too intertwined to be isolated, too volatile to be cleanly represented; their essence leaped out of any medium I tried to coerce them into.

chaleur perdue is a work written in the only language I know that all others reduce to. A work about building in which you, the artist, are provided new colors, a blank easel, and optional instructions each time you visit. A work containing all other works: you must materialize the ones you believe are worth constructing. It’s true, sometimes arranging the given colors properly is hard or even impossible. I believe this is only natural. Tomorrow you will receive new colors, and you can try again, and build structures I have never imagined, and yet, with the same materials.

Perhaps one day I will build a castle of lost memories, enduring, delicate. For now, all I can do is show you my process, and my failed attempts.

As long as I have the strength, I will continue building, each day with more memories, each day a new arrangement created in view of all the ones before it, in the hopes of eventually reifying our lost warmth.


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Thank you for playing chaleur perdue.

Your memories appear below.
They seem to be quite capricious today.
You can click the memory-box to save it (for now).

The poetry excerpts included are from Rainer Rilke’s Duino Elegies. I recommend the Stephen Mitchell translation, though there exist other free translations online.

If you enjoyed chaleur perdue, you may be interested in the other works in my series To My Didactic Katydid:
Statement of Intention, a brief explanation of chaleur perdue
absintheish, a game about the problem of describing color
The First Faithful Topology of the Library of Babel