Thursday, April 5, 2012

Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke

I almost feel uncomfortable writing a review for this because of how personally I responded to it.  It's stunningly beautiful.  Rilke wrote three smaller books to make up this one: The Book of a Monastic Life, The Book of Pilgrimage, and The Book of Poverty and Death.  He wrote each in one sitting, in a sort of mystic, spiritual outpouring.  I think the first and the last are separated by about 12 years.

Rilke's spirituality seems so modern for when he wrote this (around 1899).  One of the running threads between all three books is a lament that we try to capture God in paintings and grand sculptures and gold robes and sceptres, when, for Rilke, he lives more in dark woods and mist, and is better portrayed "not with lapis or gold, but with colors made of apple bark."  At other times Rilke is almost mourning humanity's waning love for God, crying for him and to him, still ecstatic that he's kept alive by the devoted few.  The rest is peppered with environmentalist manifestos, a sort of reverence for poverty, and just damn beautiful, quiet, eloquent love letters of his personal experience with the divine.
You come and go. The doors swing closed ever more gently, almost without a shudder. Of all those who move through the quiet houses, you are the quietest. 
We become so accustomed to you, we no longer look up when your shadow falls over the book we are reading and makes it glow. For all things sing you: at times we just hear them more clearly.  
Often when I imagine you your wholeness cascades into many shapes. You run like a herd of luminous deer and I am dark, I am forest.  
You are a wheel at which I stand, whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up, revolve me nearer to the center. Then all the work I put my hand to widens from turn to turn. 
He also borrows extensively from Buddhist imagery, with references to wheels and nets, and the circular, impermanent nature of existence, and I don't know if it was intentional or not.  It fits beautiful and seamlessly with the nature ethos that runs through all of his poems.  He also acknowledges and celebrates the darkness and terror of God, of the 'staring into the abyss' that comes with self-examination.

I found myself getting annoyed with the translators during: the German text is printed opposite the English translation, and I don't have to read German to know when entire lines have been omitted, or line breaks rearranged.  They did a good job of justifying their edits in the footnotes and introduction, saying that they had work within the confines of English to get Rilke's original intent across.  But it seems a little presumptuous to me to claim to know Rilke's intention, and to edit his work for clarity like a high school English teacher (lookin' at you, Chris...).

I want to put every poem from this book in this review, but I won't.  I dog-eared so many pages that the book won't close properly anymore.  
Sometimes a man rises from the supper table and goes outside. And he keeps going because somewhere to the east there's a church. His children bless his name as if he were dead. 
Another man stays at home until he dies, stays with plates and glasses. So then it is his children who go out into the world, seeking the church that he forgot.


Christopher said...

This sounds really great. Can I borrow it?

Christopher said...

Also, since it's April, maybe we should all read a book of poetry!

Carlton Farmer said...

This sounds really interesting.

Brent Waggoner said...

I'll read the other John Berryman book I have. And I agree, this sounds great. What edition did you use? I could use it to practice my (bad) German.

Nathan said...

This one:

They published a new edition for the 100th anniversary. Apparently these translators were the first to translate the Book of Hours into English, pretty cool.

Chris, you can absolutely borrow it, I'll bring it to you soon

spike mason said...

Just thought I'd comment on your post - as I thought you might be interested that I've released an album called "Widening Circles". I have become totally smitten by Rilke and so the album features the english translation of a handful of the poems from the Book of Hours set to my compositions.
You can watch a short film of the recording process
here ==>
You can have a listen to the album to see if you like it
here ==>