“a song to build with…”

My introduction to Rainer Maria Rilke was through a quote from a calendar years (decades!) ago.

I picked up In Praise of Mortality at the campus bookstore a week or two ago. Over the past two days, since attending a funeral service, I’ve read the introduction by the two translators. They quote from some of his letters, which I find as interesting and inspiring as his poetry.

Rilke writes (to his ex-wife), during the First World War (when he was unable to write poetry for over a decade), of the “inner will for the great changes that would be needed to save the world” (2005:2-3), and of the need to “submit to [his “indescribable”] suffering [rather] than make any concession in the essential” (3).

Gifts of Translation

The translators, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, discuss their labor of translating his Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus as “work [that] soon took us where we needed to go, offering ways to dignify our pain for the world and deepen our capacity for gratitude” (5-6). Is it a social metonymy that Rilke’s work spoke to them? “Like Rilke during the First World War, we at the beginning of the twenty-first century have felt refuted and weighted with dread as our nation mounts preemptive war and arms itself for domination of the world” (3).

Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
Be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.”
(Part Two, Sonnet XIII, p. 22)

“Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible” (22) by “liv[ing] death at the heart of each moment” (21).

And, at the same time, know what it is
not to be.
That emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate
in resonance with our world. Use it for once.”
(Part Two, Sonnet XIII, p. 22)


Not a criticism (as if we never vibrate at the pulse of life), rather — Rilke refers to embracing “the onceness of our lives [which] calls us to be more fully present” (19). Practicing such intensive presence can heighten “intuitive awareness of our oneness with nature and the ecological roots of consciousness” (14), preparing us for “a reciprocal transformation. To a real extent, we become each other. It is a sort of resurrection, in which our intrinsic belonging to each other is conscious and complete” (14).

“In the First Elegy, Rilke suggests that our very capacity to let go of attachments has an effect upon the world, allowing more spaciousness for other creatures to enjoy (13-14):

Fling the nothing you are grasping
out into the spaces we breathe.
Maybe the birds
will feel in their flight
how the air has expanded.

Three parts of the services for a colleague’s husband affected me the most: the sixties protest music before and after the actual ceremony, the spontaneous testimonials, and the missing poem. The description of the poem intrigued me, both for its theme of family resemblance and the imagery invoked about the hand as tool. This sensibility came back to me as I read these lines (II, 25) from Rilke’s first famous work, The Book of Hours:

No yearning for an afterlife, no looking beyond,
no belittling of death…
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving Earth. Lest we remain unused.

It seemed to me that the missing poem is evidence of the “courage born of the … acceptance of mortality” (23), which does not shy away from “naming what is doomed to disappear” (23).

There You Are, Singing Still

Listening to the testimonials, I was reminded of Sam. Combining that with the work of one’s own hands &emdash; literally and figuratively: the evidence of one’s use to others, to the Earth, to life. I was also reminded of Alec. And the music. Of all choices! How like “Orpheus, the singing god, who confronted and redeemed the realm of death” (20) through “his refusal to allow it to destroy the basic intention of his life” (8):

falling prey to the pack of Maenads,
you wove their shrieking into wider harmonies
and brought from that destruction a song to build with . . .

Hounded by hatred, you were torn to pieces
while your music still rang amidst rocks and lions,
trees and birds. There you are singing still.
(Part One, Sonnet XXVI)

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