December 31, 2011

The Flower of Farewell

bee with pollen
photo by Ruth

Somewhere the flower of farewell is blooming.
Endlessly it yields its pollen, which we breathe.
Even in the breeze of this beginning hour we breathe farewell.

Uncollected Poems

December 30, 2011

Last Thing

The Artist at the Window

Come, you last thing. I recognize you,
unholy agony in the body's weave.
Just as I burned in my mind, now I burn in you.
The wood has long resisted, holding back
from the flames you ignite—
now I feed you and blaze in you.
In the grip of your rage my natural mildness
becomes a raging hell, unlike anything.
Quite pure, free of all thoughts,
I climb the twisted pyre of future suffering,
knowing now that there is nothing I can purchase
for the comfort of this heart. All its learnings now are silent.
Is it still I who burn beyond recognition?
I will not drag memories inside.
Oh Life, Life: to be outside.
I am in flames. No one who knows me.

Last entry in Rilke's last notebook,
included among his uncollected poems

December 29, 2011

The Poet's Epitaph

Rose photo, by Ruth

Rose, oh pure paradox, desire
to be no one's sleep beneath
the many eyelids of your petals.

Uncollected Poems
(Lines composed on October 27, 1925,
with instructions to be carved on his gravestone)

December 28, 2011

Wheel of God

Water Wheels of Mill at Gennep

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.

From The Book of Hours I, 45

December 27, 2011

Probe the Depths from Which Your Life Springs

Man Writing Facing Left

My only advice for you is this. Go within yourself and probe the depths from which your life springs, and there at its source you'll find the answer to the question of whether you must write. Accept this answer, just as you hear it, without hesitation. It may be revealed that you are called to be an artist. Then take this lot upon you, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without asking for any external reward. For the creative artist must be a world for himself, and find everything within himself—and in nature, to which he is devoted.

Paris, February 17, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet

December 26, 2011

The Double Realm

Reflections in the Water

Only he who lifts his lyre
in the Underworld as well
may come back
to praising, endlessly.

Only he who has eaten
the food of the dead
will make music so clear
that even the softest tone is heard.

Though the reflection in the pool
often ripples away,
take the image within you.

Only in the double realm
do our voices carry
all they can say.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 9

December 25, 2011

Be Comforted and Glad

 Corfu, by George McHenry of Transit Notes

Is there anything that can take from you the hope of being someday in the God you are helping to create in each attentive act of love?

Please celebrate this Christmas with the earnest faith that He may need this very anguish of yours in order to begin. These very days that are such a trial for you may well be the time when everything in you is working at Him, as once you so urgently did as a child. Be patient and without resentment, and know that the least we can do is to make His Becoming no more difficult than Earth makes it for spring when it wants to arrive. Be comforted and glad.

Rome, December 23, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet

December 24, 2011

For the Sake of One Line of Poetry

Old Woman with a Ball of Yarn

. . . And to think of all these things is still not enough. One must remember many nights of love, of which none was like another. One must remember the cries of women in labor and the pale, distracted sleep of those who have just given birth and begin to close again. But one must also have been with the dying and sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the fitful sounds of life. And it is still not enough to have memories: one must be able to forget them when they crowd the mind and one must have the immense patience to wait until they come again. For it is not the memories themselves. Only when they become our blood, our glance, our gesture, nameless and indistinguishable from who we are only then can it happen that in a very rare hour the first word of a poem rises from their midst and goes forth.

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

December 23, 2011

Wait and Gather

Cemetery pebbles and stones in Kraków
photo by Lorenzo of Alchemist's Pillow
(photo cropped by Ruth)

Poems don't come to much when they are written too soon. One should wait and gather the feeling and flavors of a whole life, and a long life if possible, and then, just at the end, one might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people suppose, emotions—those come easily and quickly enough. They are experiences.

For the sake of one line of poetry, one must see many cities, people, and  things. One must be acquainted with animals and feel how the birds fly, and know the gestures of small flowers opening at the first light. One must be able to think back on paths taken through unknown places, on unanticipated meetings, and on farewells one had long seen coming, on days of childhood not yet understood; on parents one disappointed when they offered some pleasure one could not grasp (it was a pleasure suited to another); on childhood illnesses that came on so strangely, altering everything; on days in closed and quiet rooms and on mornings by the sea; on the sea itself, on all seas; on night journeys that rose and flew with the stars....

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

December 22, 2011

On The Elegies and The Sonnets

Frigate on the Sea

The Elegies and The Sonnets support each other reciprocally, and I see it as an endless blessing that I, with the same breath, was able to fill both sails: the small, rust-colored sail of the sonnets and the great white canvas of the Elegies.

Letter to Witold Hulewicz
November 13, 1925

December 21, 2011

Necessary Experiences

abstract photo by George McHenry of Transit Notes

Two inner experiences were necessary for the creation of these books (The Sonnets to Orpheus and The Duino Elegies). One is the increasingly conscious decision to hold life open to death. The other is the spiritual imperative to present, in this wider context, the transformations of love that are not possible in a narrower circle where Death is simply excluded as The Other.

Letter to Nanny von Escher
December 22, 1923

December 20, 2011


Dear friend, now at last I can breathe. Everything is doable now. For this was huge beyond imagining. In these days and nights I bellowed as I did back then at Duino. But even after that struggle I did not dream that such a storm of heart and spirit could come over me. That I survived it! That I survived it.

Enough. It is here.

I went outside in the cold moonlight and I caressed this little chateau Muzot as though it were a living thing—the old walls that harbored me—just as Duino once did.

Let this be called: The Duino Elegies.

Letter to Anton Kippenberg
February 9, 1922

December 19, 2011

Piously We Produce

The Church in Auvers-sur-Oise,
View from the Chevet

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.

And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

From The Book of Hours I, 4

December 18, 2011

Autumn's End

Autumn Landscape at Dusk

I have seen for some time
how everything changes.
There is that which arises and acts,
kills and causes grief.

Each time I look at them
the gardens are different—
a slow decay
from gold to brown.
How long for me the way has been.

Now it is empty where I stand
and look down the avenues.
Almost as far as the farthest ocean
I can see the heavy
forbidding sky.

Book of Images

December 17, 2011

Along with the Laughter

Lovers in Pink

Awakening desire,
make a place where pain can enter.
That's how we grow.

Along with their laughter,
lovers bring suffering
and longings that had slept and now awaken
to weep in a stranger's arms.

From The Book of Hours II, 10

December 16, 2011

The Ancient One

Tree Roots

At the bottom,
the ancient one,
tangled root of all that has been,
forgotten fountain left unseen.

Helmet's and hunters' horns,
old men muttering,
brothers betrayed,
women played upon.

Branch thrusts upon branch,
nowhere a free one.
Yes, up there! Keep climbing!

See if they'll hold you.
That high one bends already
to become a lyre.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 17

December 15, 2011

The Capacity to Be Alone

Could there be a solitude that had no value to it? There is only one solitude; it is vast and hard to bear. How often do we gladly exchange it for any kind of sociability, however trivial and cheap, or trade it for the appearance of agreement, however small, with the first person who comes along. But those may be the very moments when your solitude can grow; its growing is painful as the growing of boys and sad as the beginning of spring. But don't be confused. All that is needed is the capacity to be alone with yourself, to go into yourself and meet no one for hours—that is what you need to achieve. To be alone, the way you were as a child, when the grown-ups walked around so busy and distracted by matters that seemed important because they were beyond your comprehension.

Rome, December 23, 1903
Letters to a Young Poet

December 14, 2011

Echoing the Ocean's Vastness

View of the Sea from Villerville

The silence must be immense where you are living right now, immense enough to allow such tumult of sound and motion. And if you think that in the ocean's vastness there exists not only the present moment but reverberations of primordial harmonies, then you can be patient and trust the great and indelible solitude at work in you. This will be a nameless influence in all that lies ahead for you to experience and accomplish, rather as if the blood of our ancestors moves in us and combines with ours in the unique, unrepeatable being that at every turn of our life we are.

Paris, December 26, 1908
Letter to a Young Poet

December 13, 2011

All Will Come Again into Its Strength

Mont Saint-Victoire, 1867

All will come again into its strength:
the fields undivided, the waters undammed,
the trees towering and the walls built low.
And in the valleys, people as strong
and varied as the land.
And no churches where God
is imprisoned and lamented
like a trapped and wounded animal.

From The Book of Hours II, 25

December 12, 2011

A Woman Going Blind

Woman in a Dark Dress

She sat quite like the others, having tea.
She seemed, I noted, to hold her cup
somewhat differently from the others.
She smiled once. It almost hurt to see.

When everyone stood at the end and moved about,
chatting and laughing, and as it happened,
drifting through the rooms of the house,
I watched her. She followed after,

holding back a little, as if she feared
to draw attention to herself.
On her eyes, bright with happiness,
light shone as on the surface of a pond.

She moved at her own pace and took her time
as though there were something yet to be learned;
some threshold, which once she crossed over,
she would no longer feel her way, but fly.

New Poems

December 11, 2011

The Sybil

Marcello's bronze Pythian Sibyl,
larkspur painting by Henri Fantin-Latour
photo by Lorenzo

They called her old even long ago.
But she kept living on, coming down the same street
day after day. They began to reckon
her age in centuries, the way they do with forests.

There she was every evening,
standing in the same place
like the tower of a ruined fortress,
unbent and hollowed out by fire.

Words that, against her will,
swarmed within her,
now fly around her, shrieking,
while others that she still holds back,
lurk in the caverns of her eyes,
waiting for night.

New Poems

December 10, 2011

The Island of the Sirens

Ulysses and the Sirens

When his hosts would ask him late in the evening
to tell of his voyages and the perils they brought,
the words came easily enough,
but he never knew

just how to convey the fear and with what startling
language to let them perceive, as he had,
that distant island turn to gold
across the blue and sudden stillness of the sea.

The sight of it announces a menace
different from the storm and fury
which had always signaled danger.
Silently it casts its spell upon the sailors.

They know that on that golden island
there is sometimes a singing—
and they lean on their oars, like blind men,
as though imprisoned

by the stillness. That quiet contains
all that is. It enters the ear
as if it were the other side
of the singing that no one resists.

New Poems

December 9, 2011

Were You Not Always Distracted

Great Egret at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge
by George McHenry of Transit Notes

Were you not always distracted by yearning,
as though some lover were about to appear?

Let yourself feel it, that yearning.
It connects you with those
who have sung it through the ages,
sung especially of love unrequited.
Shouldn't this oldest of sufferings
finally bear fruit for us?

From the First Duino Elegy

December 8, 2011

Like a Flower I Knew

The Crouching Woman

It's you, dear Vera, I would remember now,
like a flower I knew before I could name it.
I would show you to the gods,
you vanished one, you unforgotten cry.

Dancer before all else, you hesitated,
paused, as if your youth could be cast in bronze.
Bringing grief and a strange attention,
your music changed the heart.

Then the illness came. Shadows gathered,
a darkness in the blood,
cutting short your springtime.

And, as if your dancing
were a knocking at the door,
it opened, and you entered.

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 25

December 7, 2011

The Life Being Lived

The Dance by Marc Chagall

And yet, though we strain
against the deadening grip
of daily necessity,
I sense there is this mystery:

All life is being lived.

Who is living it, then?
Is it the things themselves,
or something waiting inside them,
like an unplayed melody in a flute?

Is it the winds blowing over the waters?
Is it the branches that signal to each other?

Is it flowers
interweaving their fragrances,
or streets, as they wind through time?

Is it animals, warmly moving,
or the birds, that suddenly rise up?

Who lives it, then? God, are you the one
who is living life?

The Book of Hours II, 12

December 6, 2011


Orchard in Blossom (Plum Trees)

I have felt what it is to part.
I know it still: a dark, invincible
cruel something, which reveals again
the depth of our bond, and tears it in two.

How unguarded I was as I faced it.
I felt you pulling me and letting me go,
while staying behind, merging with all women,
becoming nothing more than this:

a waving hand, no longer intended for me alone;
a waving that continues and grows indistinct.
Perhaps a blossoming plum tree
from which a bird has just taken flight.

New Poems

December 5, 2011

Both a Breath and a Shout

orange leaf, by George McHenry of Transit Notes

I want to praise him.
Loud as a trumpet
in the vanguard of an army,
I will run ahead and proclaim.

My words will be sweet to hear.
My people will drink them in like wine
and not get drunk.

And on moonless nights, when few remain
around my tent, I will make music as soft
as a last warm wind that hovers
late and tender before the winter's chill.

So my voice becomes both a breath and a shout.
One prepares the way, the other
surrounds my loneliness with angels.

The Book of Hours III, 11

December 4, 2011

Two Solitudes Protecting Each Other

The experience of loving, that now disappoints so many, can actually change and be transformed from the ground up into the building of a relationship between two human beings, not just a man and a woman. And this more authentic love will be evident in the utterly considerate, gentle, and clear manner of its binding and releasing. It will resemble what we now struggle to prepare: the love that consists of two solitudes which border, protect, and greet each other.

Rome, May 14, 1904
Letters to a Young Poet

December 3, 2011

For the Animals

Old Nag, by Vincent van Gogh

For the animals their death
is, as it were, completed.

What's ahead is God.
And when they move,

they move in timelessness,
as fountains do.

From the Eighth Duino Elegy

December 2, 2011

In Your Sight

Still Life with Italian Earthenware Jar

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for when I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.

The Book of Hours I, 13

December 1, 2011

Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower


Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29

Photo of Rodin statue found here

November 30, 2011

The Things I Am

The Artist's Mother

I would describe myself
like a landscape I've studied
at length, in detail;
like a word I'm coming to understand;
like a pitcher I pour from at mealtime;
like my mother's face;
like a ship that carried me
when the waters raged.

From The Book of Hours I, 13

November 29, 2011

All Creation Holds Its Breath

Window with View on the Island Bréhat

All creation holds its breath, listening with me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.

At my senses' horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.

Yet standing here, peering out,
I'm all the time seen by you.

From The Book of Hours I, 18

November 28, 2011

The Homeless Ones

A Pair of Shoes, by Vincent van Gogh

There's also this to see: They will live on, they will increase,
no longer pawns of time.
They will grow like the sweet wild berries
the forest ripens as its treasure.

Then blessed are those who never turned away
and blessed are those who stood quietly in the rain.
Theirs shall be the harvest; for them the fruits.

They will outlast the pomp and power,
whose meaning and structures will crumble.
When all else is exhausted and bled of purpose,
they will lift their hands, that have survived.

The Book of Hours III, 28

November 27, 2011

The Care in a Human Gesture

Haven't you been moved, in those early Greek carvings,
by the care you see in human gesture?
Weren't love and loss so gently laid upon the shoulders
that people seemed made of different stuff
than in our day?

Think of the hands, how they touch without pressure,
although there is strength in the torso.
These figures seem to know,
"We have come this far.
This is given to us, to touch
each other in this way.
The gods may lean on us more strongly,
but it is their nature."

From the Second Duino Elegy

Greek sculpture found here

November 26, 2011

Enter Death (II)

Orpheus and Eurydice

When you died, there broke across the stage,
through the gash your leaving made,
a shaft of reality: green of real green,
real sunlight, real trees.

Still we keep acting: fearful and solemn,
reciting our script, taking on gestures.
But you, who have been withdrawn from us,
subtracted from our very being,

now and again you overcome us,
showing us the reality we glimpsed,
so that for a while, jolted back, we are life
with no thought of applause.

New Poems

November 25, 2011

Enter Death (I)

Orpheus and Eurydice

We know nothing of this going.
It excludes us. Faced with death,
what cause have we to respond
with the fear and grief or even hatred

that twist the features to a mask of tragedy?
On this side of death we play roles.
So long as we seek to please the audience,
death, who needs no approval, plays us.

New Poems

November 24, 2011

When Time Stops

In the Forest of Fontainebleu

In the fading forest a bird call sounds.
How out of place in a fading forest.
And yet the bird call roundly rests
in this moment that it made,
as wide as the sky above the fading forest.

All things sound together in that cry:
the whole land seems to lie within it,
the great wind seems to rest within it,
and the moment, which wants to persist,
stops, still, as if knowing things
arising from that cry
that you would have to die to know.

Book of Images

November 23, 2011


The Quilting Bee, by Grandma Moses

Friends can only be compared to dance and music. You cannot approach them intentionally, but only out of some involuntary need.

Friends must be the ends and not the means. Otherwise they can get in the way.

Early Journals

November 22, 2011

Pont du Carousel

Pont du Carrousel, Afternoon
by Camille Pissaro

The blind man who stands on the bridge
is a milestone marking the edge of the nameless.
He is the unchanging thing
around which the heavens turn,
the motionless midpoint of the stars.
All else is hurry and display.

He is the upright and unmoving one
set down amidst entangled paths.
In a heedless generation
he is a dark doorway to the underworld.

Book of Images

November 21, 2011

Autumn Tree

Parsonage Garden at Nuenen with Pond and Figures

Oh tall tree of our knowing, shedding its leaves:
It's a matter now of facing the preponderance
of sky appearing through its branches.
Filled by summer, it seemed deep and thick,
filling our minds, too, so comfortably.
Now its whole interior is an avenue of stars.
And the stars do not know us.

Uncollected Poems

November 20, 2011


Winter Landscape, by Vasily Kandinsky

I am most struck by the small paintings you sent. I experience in them your old form, in miniature, where vast inner space is mirrored, where even winter and snow (and we have our share of both!) bespeak huge distance and wandering, the freshness and joy of pure undiluted youth.

Letters to Countess Margot Sizzo-Noris-Crouy
April 12, 1922

November 19, 2011


Two Poplars on a Hill

And we: always and everywhere spectators,
turned not toward the Open
but to the stuff of our lives.
It downs us. We set it in order.
It falls apart. We order it again
and fall apart ourselves.

Who has turned us around like this?
Whatever we do, we are in the posture
of one who is about to depart.
Like a person lingering
for a moment on the last hill
where he can see his whole valley—
that is how we live, forever
taking our leave.

From the Eighth Duino Elegy

November 18, 2011


Brooklyn Bridge
by Edward Steichen

How far from us everything is,
and long gone.
I think the star whose light
reaches me now
has been dead for thousands of years.

I think I heard
in the boat that went by
something anxious being said.

In a house, a clock
has struck the hour...
In which house?
I would like to go out from my heart
and stand under the great sky.
I would like to pray.
One of all those stars
must surely still live.

I think I used to know
which star may have kept on shining—
which one, like a white city,
rises still at the far end of its light.

Book of Images

November 17, 2011

Orpheus, Do You Hear?

Orpheus, by Auguste Rodin

Orpheus, do you hear
the new sound
droning and roaring?
Many now exult in it.

Though the Machine
insists on our praise,
who can listen
with all this noise?

See, it rolls over everything,
weakening us
and taking our place.

Since its strength is of our making,
why can't it serve
and not possess us?

Sonnets to Orpheus I, 18

November 16, 2011

Not Caught in the Drama

Adam and Eve with the Forbidden Fruit

I can still only think of God as the One who allows everything, the One who is not caught up in the whole inexhaustible drama.

Letter to Marianne von Goldschmidt-Rothschild
December 5, 1914

November 15, 2011

Onto a Vast Plain

Winter Garden, by Vincent van Gogh

Summer was like your house: you know
where each thing stood.
Now you must go out into your heart
as onto a vast plain. Now
the immense loneliness begins.

The days go numb, the wind
sucks the world from your senses like withered leaves.

Through the empty branches the sky remains.
It is what you have.
Be earth now, and evensong.
Be the ground lying under that sky.
Be modest now, like a thing
ripened until it is real,
so that he who began it all
can feel you when he reaches for you.

From The Book of Hours II, 1

November 14, 2011

Song of the Drunkard

The Drunkard, by Marc Chagall

It was not always with me. It would come and go.
I wanted to hold it. The wine held it for me.
What it was, I no longer know.
But I was the one being held, held this way and that,
until I could do nothing else.
I, fool.

Now I am trapped in his game,
dealt out with contempt, to be lost
over and over again to brutish death.
Each time death wins, he uses me,
a filthy card, to scratch his grey scabs,
before tossing me on the dung heap.

Book of Images

November 13, 2011

Song of the Beggar

Beggar Man and Beggar Woman
by Rembrandt van Rijn

You'll find me in all weathers beyond the gate,
unsheltered from rain and sun.
Every so often I cradle my right ear
in my right hand.
Then my own voice sounds to me
as no one ever hears it.

Then I can't tell for certain
who is screaming:
me or someone else.
Poets cry out for more important matters.

At times I even close my eyes
so my face can disappear.
The way it lies with its full weight in my hands,
it is almost like rest.
Then no one can think I lack a place
to lay my head.

New Poems

November 12, 2011

The Voices

Orphan Man in Sunday Clothes
with an Eye Patch

The rich and the happy can choose to keep silent,
no need to bid for attention.
But the desperate must reveal themselves,
must say: I am blind
or: I am going blind
or: It's not good for me here on Earth
or: My child is sick
or: I am not holding it together...

But when is that really enough?
So, lest people pass them by like objects,
sometimes they sing.

And sometimes their songs are beautiful.

Book of Images