#3 from A Book for the Hours of Prayer (Das Studenbuch)By Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Robert Bly)
We don’t dare to do paintings of you as we want to:you are the early dawn, from whom the whole morning rose.
We haul out the ancient color boxes
the same strokes and the same brilliant light
with which the Great Saint kept you secret.
We construct paintings all around you like walls,so that thousands of walls are standing around you now.
Our pious hands lay a cover over you
whenever we feel that you are open toward us.
I am not much for napping in the middle of the day anymore, but just to lie there and feel the blood moving through my skin reacting to the temperature shift from outside cool-sunshine to inside warm-shade; it makes me feel strangely alive. I notice things that move me: the cold numbness of my right pointer finger and my big toes, the tingling of my cheek apples, the smells of sunblock and furniture polish.
I cannot be still another moment. My fingers must pick up a pen or pick away at the keyboard. I choose the keyboard this time.
I wonder if Rilke felt this way when his first group of poems in Das Studenbuch came pouring out of him like a flood. The third in this “Book of Monkish Life” feels that way, like he had something secret he wanted to blurt out quickly before he lost his nerve. I read this poem as a prayer, as though Rilke was speaking to God, the “you” being the One we try to cover with color and light, paint and hands – whatever will keep him safely distant and Other.
I love this English translation – thank you, Robert Bly – but (and? because?) it makes me long for the ability to read the German. I see those crisp interesting words on the left page, just across from the more accessible English on the right, and the German blood in me wants to say them and hear them.
Wir dürfen dirch nicht eigenmächtig malen | We don’t dare to do paintings of you as we want to
I plug “eigenmächtig malen” into an online translation tool and come up with “arbitrarily paint.” How very interesting, and different from the Bly translation. We don’t dare arbitrarily paint you, God.
Wir holen aus den alten Farbenschalen | We haul out of the ancient color boxes
No, we need to use the authorized Farbenschalen (“color bowls” says one robo-translator, “color shells” another). Bowls, shells, or boxes, I picture a worn and formidable thing, sturdy, powerful in its plain way of carrying the light of tradition.
Denn dich verhüllen unsre frommen Hande | Our pious hands lay a cover over you
How ludicrous, this idea that our own tiny dirty hands could cover over (or veil, “verhüllen”) untamable Holiness with our own safe sense of piety. I believe Rilke was toying with us, daring us to make unauthorized art. But carefully.
The New Year opens up such dares in the quiet of our minds and the movement of the blood beneath our skin. We think it is up to us how to respond. But maybe it is not. Maybe we need to stick to the ancient Farbenschalen. Rilke leaves the question unasked and unanswered.
For my part, I am satisfied with this tension and ringing in my ears that proves me living.
Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and trans. Robert Bly (Harper & Row, New York, 1981)