Rilke’s Book of Hours (Love Poems to God) by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy)
While I love many books of poems, I keep this one on my nightstand. In these poems, Rilke captures the ever-competing forces of my yearning for God and my distance from Him. Rilke reaches out into the world, up to God, and into his own pain and wonder. He sometimes finds a quiet peace; other times, he wrestles with God until he bleeds. Here’s one of my dog-eared poems in the book:
I am praying again, Awesome One.
You hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.
I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.
In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
they eyes with which I once beheld you.
– The Book of Pilgrimage, II, 2
When I got my MFA, my creative thesis (a collection of poetry plus an analytical introduction) was titled Evening Body, and it was divided into four sections that kept with a body theme: Mind, Voice, Heart, and Breath. The initial poem, also called Evening Body, was about the way trees look at winter dusk – how they seem like merely black shadows, fragile, even though we know a tree is a strong thing. Poems are like that, too – bodies in which so many “parts” are working to make the whole – meter and tone and metaphor and word choice and even the poet’s own life – guilt and love and disappointment – trying to press down on it. Poems can change the world, but they are fragile things too. So all this to say that I used a poem from Book of Hours as an introductory poem for my manuscript.
“Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
And without feet I can make my way to you,
without a mouth I can swear your name.
Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of blood.”
– Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Pilgrimage, II,7
What is your favorite book of poetry?
You can read about Karla’s here.
You picked my favorite. I keep Rilke’s Book of Hours on my nightstand too, but I also love Mary Oliver’s American Primitive.