Poetic Prayer: a book review

I came to appreciate the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke while in seminary.  I had read some of his poems before in literature classes and his Letters to a Young Poet had been on my permanent ‘to read’ pile for quite sometime, but during one semester at seminary I took my Sabbaths at the sister seminary on campus. The Vancouver School of Theology houses the Thomas Merton Reading Room in their library. I would go, find a quite corner and listen to cassette tapes of Merton’s lectures to novice monks. Sometimes he spoke about the Catholic faith or Cistercian vows. Most often he lectured on literature. I remember hearing a lecture he gave on Rilke where he read a single poem in  a couple of English translations and then in the German so that his students could hear the sounds and get the sense of it. The German sang while Merton read it.

Prayers of a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke trans. by Mark S. Burrows

I do not know German so my enjoyment of Rilke is mediated to me through a translator. Mark Burrows does a deft job of bringing these poems to life in his publication of Prayers of a Young PoetBetween September 20th and October 14th, 1899, Rilke composed sixty-eight poems utilizing the voice of an old Russian Orthodox monk. These poems would  later be published as the first part of The Book of Hours; however these early poems are arranged chronologically here with Rilke’s prose narration. This  makes the entire collection one cohesive work and Rilke gives interpretive clues to understanding some of these poems. Sometimes Rilke gives the setting and occasion for each poem and even the subject troubling the mind of the monk.

Burrows includes an introductory essay and an Afterword on reading and translating Rilke. These essays themselves are worth the price of the book, but the real treat is reading Burrows translations. This is the first time these poems have been translated into English in this format and there is a freshness to them.

These poems are prayer poems. Rilke’s prayers (or the prayer of the old monk of the poems) dovetails nicely with my own prayers in places.  Rilke’s monk is full of spiritual longing, sees the transcendence of God and the interconnection of all things. At other points Rilke’s meanings are opaque and challenging.  Poetry like this is not made for quick consumption but should be carefully chewed and digested. There is a lot here.

Rilke’s monk does not address God directly but calls him, most often, “You.”  Here is [11] from this collection:

You, darkness from which I come,

I love you more than the flame

that bounds the world,

shining

in a single ring

beyond which no creature knows of it.

But the darkness seizes everything,

floods and flames–

how it grasps them,

people and powers . . .

And it is possible that a great strength

stirs in my neighborhood:

I believe in nights.

This poem and others speak of God–transcendent and immanent. however Rilke also explores the themes of poetry and iconography, death and mortality, faith and love, doubts and questions and the solitary self.  I love the words of these poems for the way they play in my ears.  This is really a beautiful collection written by a young Rilke (before he wrote Letters to a Young Poet).  I found Rilke’s old monk fascinating, occasionally irreverent (or perhaps just odd) but always interesting.  I would not consult Rilke’s monk for spiritual guidance, except at one point: the poetic voice of these poems prays honest prayers and does not hide behind platitudes and pretense. These are simple and beautiful offerings.

I highly recommend this book to any fellow lover of poetry or appreciator of Rilke. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Truth Told Slant: a book review

i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson  by Kristin Lemay

Emily Dickinson is a poet warmly appreciated for her wit and insight, remembered both for her prodigious output (mostly published posthumously) and her eccentric  manner. She lived to age 55 but never left her yard after her late thirties.  When she passed away her sister found nearly eight hundred poems in the bottom drawer of her dresser (as her poems were collected, nearly 1800 were discovered).  Her poetry is colloquial–punctuated with dashes,full of slant rhymes, irregular meters and unconventional capitalization.  A cursory read of her poetry does not reveal their full meaning. Her poems were meditations on various themes and therefore require a slow meditative reading.

But what are we to make of Emily’s spiritual life? Her poems touch on God, on Christ, on death, on immortality,  on beauty. She is sometimes claimed as a doubter and skeptic but her poems show her as a an occasional believer who did not so much eschew faith as easy faith and formulaic spirituality. Emily is more complicated than her portrait as a rebel, spinster waif. Her faith is also more complex than it may seem at first brush.

In i told my soul to sing: finding God with Emily Dickinson, Kristin LeMay explores the nature of Emily’s search for God. Emily claimed that she ‘could not pray,’ but LeMay mines twenty-five poems to see what they show us about the spiritual life as they relate to five broad themes: Belief, Prayer, Mortality, Immortality, and Beauty. LeMay is both analytical and intuitive in her reading of Emily and intertwines her exploration of theses poems with pieces of Emily’s biography and her own.

In discussing Emily’s Belief, LeMay explores Emily’s ‘conversion’ which meant for Emily letting go of her own life. She failed to have a ‘conversion experience’ but her poems reveal the process by which she continued to wrestle with God and the ways that her poetry were her working out her  own salvation. Likewise LeMay  delves into the way Emily wrestles with her understanding of Scripture (the Center not the Circumference), the way Doubt is a form of Faith, and the way that belief brings understanding.

As LeMay explores the theme of Prayer, she observes that while Emily claims she cannot pray, her poems are a means of prayer (what Emily eschews is prayer as a scientific experiment).  LeMay also reflects on the influence of hymn meter on Emily, the way she addresses the Divine and her understanding of God’s presence.  When so much prayer is technique and formula designed to force God’s hand, Emily’s critique is a good one.

Emily is sometimes described as overly morbid and obsessed with death. But Dickinson was surrounded by the death of loved ones and LeMay argues  that  Emily’s poems plumb the depths of human experience. And she does not regard death as a grim finality but holds out the hope of Immortality. However it is her exploration of Beauty where Emily speaks most profoundly about the ineffable.

I appreciate LeMay’s exploration of Dickinson and the homage she pays to her poetry.  LeMay is a teacher of writing and adept at analyzing these poems(i.e. the way Dickinson uses meter to enhance meaning, and her unique syntax and vocabulary).  While LeMay is sometimes intuiting what she feels is the best explanation of Emily’s faith, her observations are based in a detailed reading of Emily’s poems. She finds a kindred spirit in ‘saint Emily Dickinson’ as one who has struggled to come to terms with belief, Christian creeds, the experience of faith and the church. That being said, her own story and experience of faith is somewhat different from Dickinson’s and she is more forthright in sharing her own journey.

This book is a good introduction to the spirituality of Emily Dickinson and bears a certain similarity to Susan Vanzanten’s Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Cascade Books, 2011). Dickinson was not an orthodox Christian and it is unclear how much of the creeds she could affirm. However, what Dickinson models is the honest struggle with faith and doubt. She doesn’t resort to pious formulas but asks hard question and irreverently balks at tradition which she cannot square with her own experience. But she isn’t so much a mocking skeptic as an honest seeker.   I would commend this book to those who are interested in exploring Dickinson’s faith or to her fellow strugglers. May we wrestle with God and not let go.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.  Below is a link to a book trailer for this book, which has a reading from a chapter called “Grasped By God” in the Beauty section of this book.

Easter week 3/ Earth Day 2012 poems

Having spent yesterday weeding and trying to ready a garden plot, for this years vegetables. I spent a good part of yesterday with my hands in the dirt, hunched over and seeing how much the soil teems with life–beetles and spiders, worms and slugs and the odd gardner snake warming herself on a stone. In the northern hemisphere Easter coincides with new life and growth. So I thought it appropriate to share some poems which reflect on this seasonal rising. Below are two poems taken from Luci Shaw’s The Green Earth: Poems of Creation and one poem from Wendell Berry’s A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997.

From Luci Shaw

Rising: the Underground Tree
(Cornus sanguinea and cornus candensis)

One spring in Tennessee I walked a tunnel
under dogwood trees, noting the petals
(in fours like crosses) and at each tender apex
four russet stains dark as Christ’s wounds.
I knew that with the year the dogwood flower heads
would ripen into berry clusters bright as drops of gore.

Last week, a double-click on Botony
startled me with the kinship of those trees
and bunchberries, whose densely crowded mat
carpets the deep woods around my valley cabin.
Only their flowers — those white quartets of petals —
suggest the blood relationship. Since then I see

the miniature leaves and buds as tips of trees
burgeoning underground, knotted roots like limbs
pushing up to light through rocks and humus.
The pure cross-flowers at my feet redeem
their long, dark burial in the ground, show how even
a weight of stony soil cannot keep Easter at bay.

—-

Stigmata

The tree, a beech, casts the
melancholy of shadow across the road.
It seems to bear the enormous weight of
the sky on the tips of its branches.
The smooth trunk invites me to finger

five bruise-dark holes where rot
was cut away. Years have pursed
the thickened skin around the scars
into the mouths that sigh,
“Wounded. Wounded.”

As the hurt feels me out,
wind possesses the tree and
overheard a hush comes; not that
all other sounds die, but half a million
beech leaves rub together in the air,

washing out bird calls, footsteps,
filling my ears with the memory of
old pain and a song of cells in the sun.
“Hush,” they say with green lips.
“Hush.”

From Wendell Berry

Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where no path

Is worm, but wears its maker out.
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons. The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves

In the risen season. Past life
Lives in the living. Resurrection
Is in the way each maple leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection

Outreaching understanding. What rises
Rises into comprehension
And beyond. Even falling raises
In praise of light. What is begun

Is unfinished. And so the mind
That comes to rest among the bluebells
Comes to rest in motion, refined
By alteration. The bud swells,

Opens, makes seed, falls, is well,
Being becoming what is:
Miracle and parable
Exceeding thought, because it is

Immeasurable; the understander
Encloses understanding, thus
Darkens the light. We can stand under
No ray that is not dimmed by us.

The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.