independent study: the poetry of search

by bam

dispatch from 02139 (in which the bleary-eyed one demonstrates that she can rise to fumble with a college paper from 3 till 5 in the morning, return to faux slumber, then get back up and start all over again) …

so here we are, just an hour ago, back before i went to bed the second time, the sky out the front window that looks out over franklin street, and beyond to where the atlantic tickles the shore, it was pitch-black velvet stitched with one french-knot of a star and, dangling just above that, as if buttoned there, one silver crescent of moon.

now, it’s all poufy pink ruffles, backlit in gold, an underskirt of grey inching its way up the legs of the day. the sun rises over boston, over cambridge, over the whole eastern seaboard. the wind in the willows just two yards away, it’s already starting to rustle. the forecast is gloom for today. but when you’re up early, you get the first — sometimes the only — snippets of heaven on earth.

and that’s what i’m looking for here, that’s why i’ve pressed my nose against glass here of late.

oh, i suppose i always knew that behind the story of this trooping off to college, me and my old-fashioned pens and my notebooks (why, i might as well dip quill into inkwell, scritch-scratch my notes onto papyrus, so out-of-date, obsolete, i do seem to be in the land of laptops and iPads), i’d had a hunch that there just might be one other plot line. one other reason for being plucked up and re-planted, half a land mass from home.

i picked up on it early on. back before the start of summer, perhaps, when i first tiptoed through this apartment, spotted the books on the desk of the man who would become my landlord, yes, but more so my lighthouse keeper and guide. he had tall stacks, tomes of poetry, titles that spoke of the sacred. poetry and the divine, it was there in nearly every corner. and i kept poking along.

as i trace my fingers along his bookshelves, in the weeks and months since, i’ve often felt the pull to not leave the apartment, to slide a thin volume off the shelf — any shelf — (there’s wendell berry, thomas merton, a whole thicket of mary oliver, squeezed in between wislawa szymborska, the nobel laureate; there’s e.e. cummings, emily dickinson, and t.s eliot, to run through the c, d and e’s. wallace stevens abounds, as does octavio paz, and a good dash of old robert frost).

i imagine nothing so fine as a seminar for two, if you count bound pages as one half of that pair. i imagine curling up under one of the afghans i’ve pulled from high-above cabinets this week, as autumn’s chill has crept in through the windows. i’ve imagined beginning and launching my poetry school right here where i scramble up eggs, and scrub the sink of its leftover toothpaste.

the school didn’t wait, didn’t dawdle. didn’t put off what october demands (for we pull up stakes, turn back into pumpkins in a mere seven school months).

i knew, back in the summer, that my friend and soon-to-be landlord was writing a book, a book he told me might be the one thing in this world he was meant to make.

the book arrived with a thud on my doorstep this week. it’s titled, “prayers of a young poet: rainer maria rilke,” translated by mark s. burrows.

it’s a beautiful book, a book covered in gold, with a grainy turn-of-the-last-century sepia photo of the great german poet, best known, perhaps, for two works: “letters to a young poet,” published in 1929, and “the book of hours,” in 1905.

“prayers of a young poet” contains, for the first time, rilke’s raw drafts of a cycle of 67 prayers and one long letter written in verse, all penned over the course of three-and-a-half weeks, back in the fall of 1899, in berlin.

they belong, burrows writes, in the genre known as “the poetry of search.”

burrows goes on to tell his afghan-draped pupil that the allure of these prayers is that they give voice to what rilke calls “the stillness between two notes / that don’t easily harmonize.” and there, writes rilke, writes burrows, is where God dwells, within “the dark interval.”

rilke is a poet drawn to the woods, and to the monastery. in these newborn poems, he imagines a monk is the writer, the discoverer of the divine “behind trembling trees,” in the “mushrooms [that] stood up in the forest,” and in the “wet leaves of the blood-red, withering vine.”

but what is pulling me even deeper into the syllabus that spreads across 132 pages is that rilke’s “God,” according to burrows, “is one who is always becoming, ‘the dawning one from whom the morning rose.'”

rilke’s God is not known in intricate trace. rilke’s God is the God of primal darkness, “not sheer absence, but…rather a gesture toward a presence we can ‘sense’ but cannot know.” darkness, burrows writes, is the place of God’s becoming — for rilke, for apostles of rilke.

the poet writes: “I love the dark hours of my being / for they deepen my senses… / From them I’ve come to know that I have room / for a second life, timeless and wide.”

and so, for a student who has dwelled in the murky fog of not knowing for far too long, achingly long, these words come as a trumpet blast of hope.

here, on the pages of a book that landed thwop on my doorstep, i’ve discovered a matchstick to strike in my darkness.

i’m only just 61 pages in, but already i’ve felt its pull, a stirring deep where the pulse begins. i understand that i need to carve out quiet, embroider my days with stillness. it is the poetry of search.

i find it here in the nooks and crannies, the holy sacred rooms this city offers.

in the light-dappled pews of memorial church, on harvard yard, where i slid in yesterday morning, me and my red-strapped backpack, just as the reading began of an amy hempel story that served as scripture.

and, again, just past noon yesterday, when i shoved open the great wood-planked door of the monastery at the bend in the charles river.

i tiptoed in, and found the monks deep in noon song. i fell to my knees on a blue needlepoint cushion. i struck a match, and licked its flame against the wick inside a cobalt blue glass jar.

the blue glowed, a white light of halo within it, behind it. i bowed my head, and did not mind, for once, the not knowing. i am peeling back the poetry of search, and learning that in the darkness of my hours, i just might find what i’ve been waiting for, for so so long.

you can find mark’s rilke book here. who is the author of your most sacred prayer?

must dash (posting this as roughest of  draft); long day of classes, and grammy comes in on the train from portland, maine. big weekend here in 02139.