Rilke Through the Storm

A string of very dark nights, post-Superstorm Sandy were lighted by a new collection of Rilke poems, Prayers of a Young Poet translated by Mark S. Burrows and just out from Paraclete Press. These are supple renderings of poems some of which we’ve never seen before in English.  Without electricity for a week, I lit the hurricane lamp and read “I love the dark hours of my being,/ for they deepen my senses…”and followed the voice of the monk traipsing through the dark forest of his soul.

A bit more than a month later, we were inundated with another wave of bleaker darkness as the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School left unspeakable grief in its wake. Poetry is not a  cure nor can it protect us from evil, but  in it we hear the human voice of anguish:  “You are the forest of contradictions./ I could rock You like a child,/ and yet Your curses reach their goal/ and wreak havoc among the people.”

It’s really too much to burden these poem-prayers with our contemporary events but through them we plumb the depths to arrive at constants.  We hear the strivings of one seeking wholeness: “This is my daily work over which/ my shadow lies like  a shell./ And even if I’m like leaves and loam,/ whenever I pray or paint/ it becomes Sunday once again, and in the valley/ I’m the voice of a praising Jerusalem.”  These earnest “prayers” of the young poet Rilke, cry out not from the mountaintop, but from deep within that dark valley, a troubling night when searching is all.

In his Afterword, Mark Burrows comments on his translations: ” My hope is that these renditions enable Rilke’s poems to gesture beyond what they say, thereby conveying a sense that is as free and dynamic in English as in the original German. When they do this, they call us to ‘widen [our] solitudes/ from one new beginning to the next’ , glimpsing with the poet what he calls ‘the radiance of a new page/ on which everything could still come to be.’

This New Year, this 2013, let it be so.

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