{#npm’17: p7, talking back to Rilke}

It’s the first Friday of National Poetry Month, which means a doubly special poetry challenge, participated in by Kelly, Sara, Liz calling in from the road; Laura, and Tricia (Andi is sitting this one out) as part of the Poetry Seven’s Year in Poetry challenge. This month, Sara chose a poem by Rilke for us to respond to directly –

You, darkness, of whom I am born—

I love you more than the flame
that limits the world
to the circle it illumines
and excludes all the rest.

But the dark embraces everything
shapes and shadows, creatures and me,
people, nations—just as they are.

It lets me imagine
a great presence stirring beside me

I believe in the night.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy

Stirling Holy Rood Church T 13

We all read this poem a few times, and then a few more, and then decided what to do with it. I tried to write a line-to-line response first, which didn’t work at all. Then I tried to write a kind of …Big Picture Thought about how the poem made me feel. Also didn’t work. As I was trying to work through my daily poem challenges for National Poetry Month, I begin to get a little worried… Rilke, with his usual straightforwardness, was not striking any sparks with me.

And then, I started thinking about sparks… little spangles of light, illumination. And the opposite of said. Sparks don’t actually let us do anything but see that there’s contrast. They don’t help us see anything but the light itself, and what is it, really?

This is a dude who likes the dark. I respect that about him. Few people actually do. Oh, we think we love the dark, the stars. We quote “When I Heard The Learn’d Astronomer,” and gaze up wistfully. But, where most of us live is so much light pollution we don’t actually have dark. I have become acquainted with the night, because I briefly lived way out in the country, in Glasgow. Our neighbors were sheep. It was flippin’ dark out on those country lanes. It was …kind of amazing. And, I knew I was walking right next to spiders. I had to decide how much I was going to let that bother me.

In the end, I decided that I agreed with ‘ol Rainer, because I like the dark, but I also want to like the dark. Being who I am, the literal girlchild who has thought a great deal about the word “black” as reflected in theology and hymnody, darkness is going to mean a little something different to me — and I could see that reflected in the seven’s poetry, as we wrote on our shared Google document. I may be the only one who likes the dark, but I won’t hold that against anyone. I have walked a different (spider-adjacent) road, and I tend to have to reject the experience that “most” people have with darkness – because I am not most people.

Took me long enough to figure that out.

“the absence of color”

from darkness thou art formed & dust thou art
first secreted within thy mother’s womb
deep shadows, holding fast creation’s start
to secret hopes in dreamer’s sleep entombed

(blackness is sin, a moody study’s brown
and white holds light, a purity renown
a Presence stirs, beneath the surface bright
foul fiend, forfend, or wisdom’s erudite?)

before the light can drown thy timid sheen
enlightening with fact that still deceives
hold to thine task: believe what is not seen
and be ye bless├ęd by the unperceived.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Irene Lantham at her blog, LIVE YOUR POEM. Check it out, for more!

8 Replies to “{#npm’17: p7, talking back to Rilke}”

  1. You are not and never will be most people, and I am most grateful for that. Having written about the dark forest, I was aware of the metaphoric uses of “blackness” and “darkness” and part of what drew me to Rilke was his insistence that the night embraces us all, just as we are. That’s one reason I find so much comfort in nature—it just IS, without judgement or bias.

    I’m still deeply in love with your ending. Be ye blessed…

  2. I adore this poem. I don’t know how I missed it when I read your draft, but I love the alliteration of “foul fiend, forfend.” And the first stanza takes my breath away.

    I grew up in the country and know real dark very well. I loved it as a kid, but wasn’t allowed out in it often. I don’t get much true darkness these days, but I did last summer when I visited the Natural Bridge caverns and they turned out the lights so we could see what the absence of light looks like. It was pretty terrifying to be in complete and utter darkness.

    Love your poem, friend.

  3. That’s one reason I struggled with writing my poem–I actually like the dark. At least in some circumstances. Being in a lava tube cave in Iceland with no light whatsoever was amazing. But I don’t love the darkness that Rilke describes. It feels like a cop-out to me. So, I had to respond negatively to that dark, which conflicted me.

    Anyway, I love the beautiful darkness of your first stanza, especially. It feels so tender and beloved!

    1. @LauraSalas: Rilke’s darkness seemed very accepting at first blush – but that’s what I loved about your poem, that you didn’t let him uncritically just accept that the darkness was some blanketing, warm friendly thing solely — everything has depth and dimension and the moon has two faces. Darkness is not just one thing, indeed.

  4. I adored your poem, with its religious and racial overtones. And it’s not that I don’t like the dark, but I like it the way you described – with stars. Or a bit of light to focus on. (And with fewer spiders.)

    I love the poem you came up with.

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