Poems from the Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke

Put out my eyes, and I can see you still;
slam my ears to, and I can hear you yet;
and without any feet can go to you;
and tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
and grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
and if you set this brain of mine afire,
upon my blood I then will carry you.

Explanations and apologies first.  It has been a bit hectic around here.  What with a trip to France, a new puppy and working on an adoption application, BookSexy has suffered from neglect.  Fortunately, things are now settling down, so I’m pleased to say that there will be no more interruptions.

Seeing Paris was a lifelong dream.  Visiting Shakespeare & Co. was a pilgrimage.  And Rainer Maria Rilke’s Poems from the Book of Hours, published by New Directions, made it a triple play. The cover is soft green textured paper with french flaps and gold embossing.  The book opens with a preface by Ursula K. Le Guin followed by an introduction by the translator Babette Deutsch.  The poems are printed with the original German on the left page followed by the English translation on the right.  I love this book.  The presentation is as beautiful and thoughtful as the words within.

I discovered Rilke, like many people, when I was young (Le Guin tells a funny story about her own first encounter  with the poet’s works and subsequent enthusiasm).  Rilke is one of those authors who, if you connect to his writing, the connection stays with you for life.  I was originally drawn to his prose: The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge and Letters to a Young Poet.  I re-read these two books every few years.  The poetry came to me late and my response to it has always been lukewarm.  The truth is that I bought Poems from the Book of Hours as much for its cover as I did because of name recognition.

The Book of Hours, which I believe was a larger work from which the poems in the New Directions edition were selected, was Rilke’s first published book of poetry.  It was completed  in parts during the years of 1899, 1901 & 1903. The poems were written as meditations, conversations between the poet &  God (the original edition bore the subtitle: Love Poems to God). It is religious, but in a way that very much reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.  Like Dickinson addressing her anonymous “Master”, the subject matter of Rilke’s poems frequently appears secular in nature.   Lines like: “No, my life is not this precipitous hour through which you see me passing at a run” do not scream God!  Instead, the poems focus on their author’s preoccupations.   Rilke writes about youth and mortality, human isolation, spirituality; not about organized religion.  In fact, I wouldn’t have made the connection to God at all if the preface & introduction hadn’t both pointed me in that direction.

There are basically two kinds of poetry.  The first freezes a moment in time and then explores it from every angle.  The other, the type of poem Rilke writes, takes an abstract concept or emotion and solidifies it into something tangible.  The result can be a poem like the one I opened the post with.  The last line of which, “upon my blood I then will carry you” demonstrates the value in subtlety.  The choice of the word “upon”, rather than “in” is significant.  Its use highlights the isolation between the the poet and who he addresses his poem to.  For Rilke individual consciousness is a bridge which cannot be crossed.  It is an idea that he struggles with and returns to again and again.  Always with a quiet thoughtfulness, which the translator manages to convey while still retaining the directness of  the original German language.  (Excellent work Babette Deutsch).

If I have one criticism of Poems from the Book of Hours it is that the cover flap, the preface and the intro all stress that the poems the book contains are only examples of his early, immature work.  That these poems are not Rilke’s best and were written before he’d fully developed as a poet.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine.  Please don’t tell me that what I’m about to read is mediocre.  I believe that all criticisms should be put at the end of a book.  Allow me, the reader,to form my own opinions without anonymous influence.  Because if you delve into Poems from the Book of Hours  without preconceptions,  to my mind it holds its own against Rilke’s other works.

***A quick note on New Directions Publishing Co.  I was familiar with the name, but hadn’t realized what beautiful editions they put out until after I’d googled the company.  They also have an impressive catalog of authors.  If you haven’t already familiarized yourself with their offerings, it’s definitely worth checking out their website.


Publisher:  New York, New Directions Books (2009).
ISBN:  978 0 8112 1853 5

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