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Posts Tagged ‘Translation’

Rilke’s Book of Hours

Monday, March 1, 2010 @ 10:03 PM  posted by Mark

Last week, I caught a head cold at about the same time Obama and the Congress were hashing out health care reform, so I thought it an opportune moment to review a series of books about sickness, death and the body. I then promptly became too ill to carry on and spent the rest of the week in bed drinking hot blueberry tea, which is also where I find myself now, at the beginning of a new week. In case you’re holding your breath for the conclusion of the series on sickness and health, I won’t keep you waiting long, but in the meantime, I’d like to offer for your consideration a book of poems, which does not deal in illness per se but makes an excellent companion when you can do little more than loll your head pathetically against a stack of pillows.

Rainer Maria Rilke‘s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy) is typical of Rilke in many ways, offering paradoxical visions that lead to silence and contemplation, sentiments so direct in their simplicity that they become profound, and unexpected approaches to material that is otherwise utterly familiar. This translation is particularly deft, maintaining the mysticism of the German while lucidly translating concrete images, so that the epiphanies of the original rise naturally out of the new language. The subtitle, Love Poems to God, is something of a misnomer, since Rilke challenges and cajoles his God as much as he humbles himself before Him. Often, Rilke addresses himself not to God as a Being or a Concept but rather to mystery as a fact, for instance:

I love the dark hours of my being.

My mind deepens into them.

There I can find, as in old letters,

the days of my life, already lived,

and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open

to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree

rustling over a gravesite

and making real the dream

of the one its living roots

embrace:

a dream once lost

among sorrows and songs.

The poems are ineffable enough to reward repeated readings with new insights, so that you can read the whole collection and pick it up the next day as if you’d found an entirely new book, full of fresh mystery and novel images—just the thing you need when you can’t crawl out of bed.

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