Poetry inspired by poetry. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a huge bitchard (gender-neutral form of “bitch/bastard,” tell your friends) about poetry. I’m only willing to admit to liking a poet if I’ve been blown away by literally everything I’ve read of theirs. 100% quality or nothin’. It’s not about mechanical aptitude; it’s not about format. Mostly it’s about the poet’s heart. I recognize a heart like mine when I see one, by how it’s constantly bleeding all over everything.
One of the three poets who have managed to pass muster by this completely bullshit standard, Rainer Maria Rilke, was a German Romantic, better known for his passionate letters to his loved ones than his poetry in this country. The first poem of his I ever read is still my favorite, and I’m going to reproduce it here, because it’s short and great and he’s very dead now, and because it inspired the sonnet today:
Come thou, thou last one, whom I recognize,
unbearable pain throughout this body's fabric:
as I in my spirit burned, see, I now burn in thee:
the wood that long resisted the advancing flames
which thou kept flaring, I now am nourishing
and burn in thee.
My gentle and mild being through they ruthless fury
has turned into a raging hell that is not from here.
Quite pure, quite free of future planning, I mounted
the tangled funeral pyre built for my suffering,
so sure of nothing more to buy for future needs,
while in my heart the stored reserves kept silent.
Is it still I, who there past all recognition burn?
Memories I do not seize and bring inside.
O life! O living! O to be outside!
And I in flames. And no one here who knows me.
It’s the last poem Rilke ever wrote, the last entry in his notebook two weeks before his death of leukemia at age 51. I love his personalization of Death as a friend, someone kindly who comes to pull him away from the suffering of his body. Rilke believed that we grow our deaths inside us from the moment we’re born. I find that idea elegant.
There’s something morbidly lovely about the idea of nurturing and building our particular Death within us all our lives, our one duty in life to bring this being into the world – Death is an infant born the second we die. It takes every second of our lives to create her, every pain and every joy, every scar and sorrow and mistake. That’s why she has such kind eyes – because she knows that all of your mistakes make her wiser, more tender, more understanding. All of your life is part of her, indispensable, even the bad parts, do you see? If you let her, she heals your wounds with her hands, as if every touch laid skin grafts over your raw and aching soul. She’s the only person in the universe who loves you more when you fail.
There are a lot of voices in my head,
and then there’s someone else who never speaks.
She smiles a lot, and dresses like a priest.
The others say that she’ll talk when I’m dead.
I’ve found she’s more softhearted than you’d think –
cries whenever we go to the movies,
always the begger
never that choosey
but when I mention suicide, she winks
and shakes her head. Refuses to be rushed.
I’ve tried to make her speak a thousand ways –
She has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen,
and when the hammer falls she’s never crushed,
but she won’t take command of this machine,
just hangs around, awaiting the end of days.