I made a special point of listening to the recent Being program in which Joanna Macy elucidates the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. I was unfamiliar with Joanna Macy and, until the title of one of her Rilke translations was mentioned did I connect her with The Book of Hours, a volume I have long had on my poetry shelves.
Rilke has always been a poet I turn to in times of grief, and when my husband died suddenly this past February, the Duino Elegies once again topped the stack of books on my nightstand. I made copies of a Rilke poem that has always been special to both of us to give out at his funeral. It is from The Sonnets of Orpheus—“Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were/ behind you, like the winter that has just gone by….”
My husband underwent many successful transformations in his 66 years—athlete (college swim team, bicyclist, Taekwando black belt, rollerblader), US Naval officer, scientist (he held a Ph.D. in Biology), farrier (after grad school he rebelled against animal research and attended the Oklahoma Farriers’ College), financial analyst (earned his Certified Financial Analyst designation), and, in the last year of his life, a devout Catholic—but through all of it, he was primarily a seeker. Although he was not a serious reader of poetry and never understood my own poems, something in Rilke’s work touched him deeply. The lines he quoted often were from Dove that ventured outside: “Ah the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,/ doesn't it fill our hands differently with its return:/ heavier by the weight of where it has been.”
He seemed, in his intense living, determined to be heavier at his end by the weight of where he had been despite his genetically flawed heart. After forty years in a partnership, the sudden loss of that partner has shattered my way of being, but I have found comfort in many wonderful ways: solitude (I often walk to our beautiful garden cemetery downtown and sit among the graves of Emily Dickinson’s cousins), art (drawing, folding origami cranes), film (esp the films of Ingmar Bergman), and Tai Chi (learning the 108 moves and now doing the complete set several times a week has calmed my anxiety). But highest on my list of resources are nature and literature: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking helped me understand the emotional/physical reality of sudden loss (she, too, had been married 40 years and her husband also died of ventricular fibrillation); Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard reinforced the power and miracle of nature in grief (his wife had just died of cancer when he undertook this journey into the Himalayans); and Rilke has taught me how to go down into the dark cave of grief and mine it for self-understanding:
It’s possible I am pushing through solid rockin flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;I am such a long way in I see no way through,and no space: everything is close to my face,and everything close to my face is stone.I don’t have much knowledge yet in griefso this massive darkness makes me small.You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:then your great transforming will happen to me,and my great grief cry will happen to you.Rainer Maria Rilke(Translated by Robert Bly)
There is the best kind of hope in that. Thank you for Being. --Judy Loest
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