PUT OUT MY EYES, AND I CAN SEE YOU STILL;
slam my ears to, and I can hear you yet;
and without any feet I can go to you;
and tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
and grasp you with my heart as if with a hand;
arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
and if you set this brain of mine afire,
upon my blood I then will carry you.
Poems from the Book of Hours, Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Babette Deutsch. (New Directions) $12.95
This pocket-sized bilingual edition of Rilke’s Poems from the Book of Hours contains only the 19 poems that translator Babette Deutsch felt could maintain, in translation, the intensity of Rilke’s German. Indeed the poems within do maintain an almost manic intensity, as Rilke writes as a poet “not yet perfected… the wine that has not yet ripened,” having received the texts through a method of inner dictation. Deutsch’s introduction is illuminating, exploring connections to the work of Blake, discussing Rilke’s own religous background, and recounting some of her selection process. The preface by Ursula K. Le Guin is a brief memoir of Rilke’s influence on her own life, especially suited for recipients of this gift edition. Like other books in New Direction’s gift edition series, this one is beautifully produced, in a brighter green than the image here, with metallic-print clocks on its cover.
The poems themselves are a brave dialogue with God. At times Rilke appears to grant himself the upper hand: “WHAT WILL YOU DO GOD, WHEN I DIE?… you lose your meaning, losing me.” At others the he concedes: “God, you are vast.” More than anything these poems prove the vastness of Rilke’s spiritual hunger, his confident spirituality—or rather, his confidence to examine and explore his relationship to god honestly. That he achieved this level of transparency and vision in his early twenties is nearly incomprehensible. The New Directions Poems from the Book of Hours is an important text in the best available translation, presented in an edition nearly as striking as its contents.