Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Review: "The Book of Hours" by Rainer Maria Rilke

Every aspiring writer, at some point in their studies, will get Letters To A Young Poet quoted at them. This is a fact and a certainty, much like the sun rising in the east or the line at Starbucks Coffee. For most, that is the only contact ever made with German writer Rainer Maria Rilke.

A month ago, I stumbled across Stephen Crane's magnificent poetry and realized that I have never once read The Red Badge of Courage. It turned out that I preferred his poetry. But this got me reading other war novels: All Quiet on the Western Front, City of Thieves, Code Name Verity... and since I have the brain of a ptarmigan hen (to quote the latter), I mistook Erich Maria Remarque for Rainer Maria Rilke and added The Book of Hours to my library list.

This progression--from poetry to war novels and back to poetry--may have been accidental. But, like falling into a pit and discovering an ancient king's tomb, it led to glorious things.

It is difficult to recommend a collection of poetry, and impossible to summarize. Preferences of subject matter and style are more personal and specific in poetry than in fiction. One cannot say with any confidence "You will like this, because you enjoyed this other thing." So I do not know, dear reader, whether you will relish Rilke's odd, fluid, spiritual poetry as I did. I only know that to not offer it to you would be a failure on my part.
Your first word of all was light,and time began. Then for long you were silent. 
Your second word was man, and fear began,
which grips us still. 
Are you about to speak again?
I don't want your third word. 
Sometimes I pray: Please don't talk.
Let all your doing be by gesture only.
Go on writing in faces and stone
what your silence means. 
Be our refuge from the wrath
that drove us out of Paradise.
Be our shepherd, but never call us--
we can't bear to know what's head.
The Book of Hours is composed of three sets of poems, each written over a series of few days, many years apart. They are short and conversational. They read best altogether, each set at a time, since the poems are often continuations of an earlier "thought" rather than a discrete creation. Word choices and structure call back and forth between the pages.

For someone with ambivalent feelings toward faith and spiritual things, Rilke's poetry is staggering. The subtitle of the collection, "Love Poems to God," is more accurate than can be conceived. In Rilke's poetry, dogma and ritual have no place. It is like a kaleidoscope, transforming familiar images into radiant new shapes. It asks deep, strange questions about what the relationship must look like between a creator and a creation.

The collection has an infectious passion about it. It changes how one sees the very idea of God, and of oneself. After reading just the first set of poems, I was left thinking: we expect so little, and we understand nothing at all.

This all starts to sound rather "churchy" as I read over it, so let me pause: there is no "church" to be found in The Book of Hours. There is, instead, a strange and moving portrait of someone infinite and lonely. Rilke's ideas are unique and daring. He envisions his deity as a son rather than a father, for "it is sons who inherit, while fathers die;" he worries about his immortal beloved as a figure almost of pity, who is left abandoned when the poet himself dies.

I keep using the word "strange," because to fully express how this poetry reads to me would require a full orchestra and a light show. It is lyrical, emotional, transformative. It is affirming in a way I have rarely found in spiritual poetry.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night,
These are the words we dimly hear: 
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don't let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
I look forward to owning a copy of the poems. I look forward even more to memorizing them. I would dearly love to know if they have the same effect upon you, dear reader. Take my accidental stumbling into The Book of Hours as a favor to yourself and seek out these poems purposefully. Let me know what you think.

(The particular translation I have, published in 2005 by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, includes the original German text alongside the English verse. I know just enough German to be occasionally vexed by their decisions, but it ultimately deepens the experience.)

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