Sunday, September 07, 2008

Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Book Review by Zinta Aistars

Paperback: 272 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Trade, 2005
Price: $15.00
ISBN-10: 1594481563
ISBN-13: 978-1594481567

The task of a translator, I think, has always been unappreciated. It is a demanding one, a task that can never be done to the perfection it begs. Language is a living, breathing thing, and it holds within it an entire culture, and in that culture, an entire people, and within these people, an entire world. It is not possible to withdraw one such world and make it fit into the shape of another.

Yet if we are to even try to understand one another, the many of us on this earth and our ways, then translating the great works of any culture is a much needed task that some very brave soul must undertake. Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy are such brave souls, and the two friends are bonded by their deep love for the work of German poet (but born in Prague), Rainer Maria Rilke. While I know a very little of German, I cannot by any measure judge their success in translation. I have read Rilke in two languages, German being neither of them, and only from that experience can I say, cautiously, that I believe them to be as successful as any translators may hope to be. And it may be enough that a translator love a work so deeply and with such devotion that this in itself carries through the spirit of what is intended.

How can one not fall in love with Rilke? The poet transcends time, expressing what humankind has tried to express, surely, since self-awareness first blushed at its own face. In this particular collection, Rilke’s poetry is a kind of love letter to God. As love letters do, his poems speak of longing, of devotion, of the desire to serve and please, of the fears of separation, of the joy of reunion. He wishes to present himself to God as he is, with open heart, in praise, one lonely being, perhaps, to another lonely being, both craving to love and be loved.

You, God, who live next door—

If at times, through the long night, I trouble you
with my urgent knocking—
this is why: I hear you breathe so seldom.
I know you’re all alone in that room.
If you should be thirsty, there’s no one
to get you a glass of water.
I wait listening, always. Just give me a sigh!
I’m right here.

As it happens, the wall between us
is very thin. Why couldn’t a cry
from one of us
break it down? It would crumble

it would barely make a sound.

For Rilke, God is most intimate, most personal. He speaks to Him as if they stand side by side, and indeed they do. The need for company is mutual. Rilke’s work is arguably a perfect blend of male and female sensibilities, with both the masculine in its demand and the feminine in its open heart. As Rilke was in his first years raised, oddly enough, as a daughter—his mother had longed for one, and in something weirdly like denial, dressed her long-locked boy as a girl in dresses and called him Rene—so in later years, his father sent him to military school, to toughen him up and teach him a very male discipline. Rilke would find his own good mix. He fit neither of their plans, nor the conventional of a working society.

Poetry was his love for as long as memory, and in whatever context his life, it was the one steady rock. He could and would not do any other work, forever seeking sponsors and mentors so that he may devote himself fully to his art. When he fell in love for the first time, the woman he loved urged him to use the more masculine version of his name, Rainer. And so ever after, he did. But all of this seems like sideline matters, mere tangents, including the love itself, as he had numerous relationships, holding none steady, including a marriage that produced a child. Nothing else came first. Nothing. Only the word in verse.

When Rilke worked alongside sculptor, Auguste Rodin, he watched the sculptor’s intensity and passion for his art, and was inspired. They were a match, if not in medium, then in devotion. This was how to live one’s life as an artist. With a singular vision, an undistracted dedication. If Rodin created in stone, Rilke created in language, and so he sculpted verse, and in verse, his ongoing and lifelong prayer:

Only in our doing can we grasp you.
Only with our hands can we illumine you.
The mind is but a visitor:
it thinks us out of our world.

Each mind fabricates itself.
We sense its limits, for we have made them.
And just when we would flee them, you come
and make of yourself an offering.

I don’t want to think a place for you.
Speak to me from everywhere.
Your Gospel can be comprehended
without looking for its source.

When I go toward you
it is with my whole life.

No doubt, God was listening and listens still. If most of us pray in stutters and whispers, Rilke prayed in lyrical poetry, from the heart to God’s ear. Through his, the rest of us feel that much closer to the divine, as well.

1 comment:

Anna said...

This is a beautiful book. I love having the original German alongside the English translation. One can feel the cadence and melody of the poems as they were written. Rilke's understanding of the heart's longing for beauty and truth and the comfort found in reaching out to God and being seen by Him is poignant.