Poetry for the end of this year
I belong to a wonderful book group that has been meeting for more than 20 years. One of the things I’ve come to love most about this group is that instead of discussing a book each December, we read poetry. I want to share with you the poems I shared with them, and why they are meaningful to me this year.
I, 59, The Book of a Monastic Life
from Book of Hours: Love Poems to God
by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
by Kathleen Norris
from Poetry 156 (April 1990)I have lately come to the conclusion that I am Eve,
alias Mrs. Adam. You know, there is no account
of her death in the Bible, and why am I not Eve?
Emily Dickinson in a letter,
12 January, 1846Wake up,
you’ll need your wits about you.
This is not a dream
but a woman who loves you, speaking.
She was there
when you cried out;
she brushed the terror away.
she knew when it was time to sin.
You were wise
to let her handle it,
and leave that place.
We couldn’t speak at first
for the bitter knowledge,
the sweet taste of memory
on our tongues.
Listen, it’s time.
You were chosen too,
to put the world together.
I see these two poems as companion messages from the divine, perhaps one from Father and one from Mother. Perhaps both from the same source, but different manifestations of it. I need them both. I love the idea that we are visiting this place called life, and that God is in it, though hard to apprehend (Rilke also wrote, “Of all who move through the quiet houses/you are the quietest.” Book of Hours is the most poignant thing I’ve ever read on seeking.) The last line, “Give me your hand,” stills me. I think of a parent unable to accompany her child on a journey, but sending off and welcoming with warm hands.
The second poem tells me about things I need in this country, and that I cannot avoid journeying through it. But I’m not just a traveler, I am a citizen, too, a builder and creator in the space I occupy. I must be present in this world, with the beauty and the terror. It gives me courage to know that no feeling is final, especially when my feelings over the past few months have been hard to live with. Particularly about the Church’s new policies on same-sex marriage, gun violence in the United States, the Syrian refugee crisis, and heightened feelings about Islam around the world. I’m finding it hard to feel joy this Christmas season. I am struggling again with my relationship to the Church.
But if I step away, I lose something. Don’t let yourself lose me. I feel like the policy changes should be the last straw for me, but I don’t want them to be. I still feel the pull of something, perhaps of being chosen to be a citizen in this peculiar little church, and to be a helper in building it. Again, Rilke:
I, 45, The Book of Monastic Life
You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder.
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.
We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.
Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark, I am forest.
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.