May 6, 2011

The Departure of the Prodigal Son

Sculpture by Auguste Rodin

To go forth now
from all the entanglement
that is ours and yet not ours,
that, like the water in an old well,
reflects us in fragments, distorts what we are.

From all that clings like burrs and brambles—
to go forth
and see for once, close up, afresh,
what we had ceased to see—
so familiar it had become.
To glimpse how vast and how impersonal
is the suffering that filled your childhood.

Yes, to go forth, hand pulling away from hand.
Go forth to what? To uncertainty,
to a country with no connections to us
and indifferent to the dramas of our life.

What drives you to go forth? Impatience, instinct,
a dark need, the incapacity to understand.

To bow to all this.
To let go—
even if you have to die alone.

Is this the start of a new life?

New Poems


  1. Well, it is. The start of a new life, I mean. Or can be. I feel I start a new life every morning. Certainly we have to 'to go forth ... from all the entanglement' (which is part of us, but not the real and complete us). But go forth to what? Rilke says: to what was there before, that which was familiar and which was so familiar that we disregarded it. To face the vast suffering of the past, of childhood (I certainly suffered as a child). But how was this suffering 'impersonal', when it seemed so personal? Perhaps because suffering is universal - we all go through it in one guise or another; perhaps because suffering just 'is', is part and parcel of the whole 'circle', as Rilke stated in a recently featured piece.

    This country of the future, which is also the country of the past, is no secure one: what can be secure in this mortal world of suffering and uncertainty? It's a country where the great dramas of nature are played out without any regard for our individual selves; again, this is a fact of life, of nature, of science, of experience. Yet we are driven forth nevertheless - despite this uncertainty, this apparent bleakness. Why? Because we need to, we instinctively have to, we are impatient not to, we want to understand. Finally Rilke says that the way forward is 'to bow to all this', 'to let go' and to recognise our existential aloneness. Through acceptance - of impersonal nature, of suffering, of the fragility and confusion of the human self - we may approach the start of a new life. Once more Rilke seems to embrace a kind of Buddhist outlook here.

    It helps me try to grasp the poem by scribbling out my spontaneous thoughts like this.

  2. Every artist has to leave the womb -- that safe, sanctified, mommified, easy place -- in order to begin. A hand has to be let go of, a door walked out through. It's a terribly selfish act -- the farm will suffer in his or her absence -- but no new creation is possible without that heading out into the unknown, "to a country with no connections to us / and indifferent to the dramas of our life." From the personal to the impersonal.

    To "start a new life" even if it means "you have to die alone." But to the Prodigal, it only seems that way, setting out; there comes a point where whatever is found out there has to be returned to the tribe, returned to home soil, sown into the furrow there. Wendell Berry nailed it in his poem, "Setting Out":

    Even love must pass through loneliness,
    the husbandmen become again
    the Long Hunter, and set out
    not to the familiar woods of home
    but to the forest of the night,
    the true wilderness, where renewal
    is found, the lay of the ground
    a premonition of the unknown.
    Blowing leaf and flying wren
    lead him on. He can no longer be at home,
    he cannot return, unless he begin
    the circle that first will carry him away.

    And why the imperative to depart? "Impatience, instinct, /
    a dark need, the incapacity to understand" -- who knows why. It's just a space, a lacuna, an empty womb the artist needs to gestate and bring forth whatever forms in darkness.

    Solitary Walker, I'm sure you also feel it heading out on the next day's walk, a walk most fascinating when into strange new lands, most satisfying in the prodigal turn which finds the road home.

    - Brendan

  3. Robert, your scribblings help me think it through too. We’ll each find something different here, from our own past, when we have left what was familiar. As you say about suffering being personal and universal, in these comment boxes, when I read your response, and Brendan’s, and those of others, I recognize myself, or something else is opened from the reading.

    (By the way, Robert, my comment response to you on my current bin Laden post sounds as though I might disagree with you in yours; I hope you didn’t take it that way, for on the contrary, I felt you joining with me in the question: How have we come to this? And we go on and ask together, How did we lose control? Sorry to use this space for that, but it seems the most efficacious at the moment.)

    Brendan, thanks for the Berry poem and your thoughts. I love the image of the circle, the pulling out with the flying leaves and birds, that will eventually circle back home. Your point that the sojourner has to bring back what she has found in the ‘out there’ is important.

    Shedding the “burrs and brambles” daily, starting fresh every day like a babe, seeing with new eyes, especially seeing myself outside the familiar, to find the universal connections with others and see that I have suffered only what others have suffered, and only in part, to gain perspective on it — how essential this is to losing ego attachments that confound growth. We have to get out of our own skin and put ourselves into the skin of the other — culturally, individually — to see the world in a country with no connections to us / and indifferent to the dramas of our life to shake out the stale beliefs we have.

  4. Re, your response to my comment, Ruth - I didn't take it that way at all! No worries.

    And Brendan - yes, a long walk is like that, isn't it? Each long trek is really just a long walk home. I love the rich symbolism which pervades every aspect of the trail, which is really a soul journey - a theme I developed in a series I did earlier this year about the significance of walking.

  5. I loved Robert's series on the layered meanings and values of walking. I strongly recommend it.

    And YAY for understanding in comment boxes!

  6. Something that both Ruth and I have discussed when we organize and talk about this blog is the great difference we feel in our individual response to Rilke's words when we first read them on uploading each excerpt, and then how they seem to sing out to us when they are actually posted and published. Time and again, poems or fragments that did not seem to say much of anything to me when I type them in on the blog, a few days ahead of their post date, seem to take on fabulous energy and depth and wave after gentle wave of meaning once they are here. On a few occasions, I could swear that I had never seen them before, even though I knew I had typed them here just a few days earlier.

    I am sure there are many factors that contribute to that 'transformation' (which obviously is in my head and heart, not in Rilke's words), but one that stands out above all the others is enormous contribution made to this blog and to my own appreciation of Rilke by commenters like Robert and Brendan and Ruth (just to mention today's; there are certainly others). Just to know and feel that I am reading the words in the company of readers like all of you charges my own reading with greater energy, just as the 'spontaneous thoughts', musings, connections with other poets and insights you offer enriches my own personal understanding and enjoyment of Rilke.

  7. I feel exactly the same, Lorenzo. The process of sharing and mutual appreciation (even if the poems affect us all differently) energizes me too.

  8. I have just recently found this blog. It gives me more perspective and more time to savor. I have a few friends reading the book each day. but I do not see them daily. I am on the east coast. so I wake to the poem and all of your wonderful analysis. Thanks, everyone!

  9. I am on the east coast, so I wake to the poem and your wonderful analysis each day. I have some friends reading the book with me but do not see them daily. The blog gives me your varied perspectives and more time to savor the ideas. Thanks, everyone!


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!