2017 was a rough year in this country.
Some practices by way of which I have tended (and continue to tend) my own mental health include participation (in both resistance and support in the public sphere), yoga (and regular meditation practice) in the personal sphere, and —again and again— poetry.
I have been especially drawn back lately to the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, especially his Duino Elegies. Rilke was born in 1875 in Prague, but after its occupation lived most of his life in France, writing in German.
I’ve also been reading the poems of the more contemporary Eastern European poets whose lives and work were forged in the fires of fascist and totalitarian political regimes. Among many poets from these countries and eras (Adam Zagajewski, Wisława Szymborska, and others), I have been re-reading Czesław Miłosz in particular. Having lived in California for decades after his political exile from Lithuania in 1940, he was eventually able, in his final years, to return there in 1981, after the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.
At a time in which “political catastrophe has defined the nature of our age,” as Terrence Des Pres has put it, Miłosz’s poems grapple with the central issues of our time, those being (Terrence Des Pres again:) “the impact of history upon moral being [and] the search for ways to survive spiritual ruin in a ruined world.” As does Rilke, in his way, grapple over and over with the mystery of being, and with the potential of sorrow and of longing to deepen and transform our existence, to the degree we participate and surrender to Mystery as our very mission…
Both poets also explore the ways in which there are many voices and forces within each of us, not particularly in harmony, and about the way poetry offer witness and shelter for one and all. When so much of the suffering that we as a species inflict on each other is a direct result of the way we project all our own inner “demons” (all those parts of ourselves with which we are most uncomfortable) onto “the other,” demonizing the other instead (“the wounds by way of which we wound others” as I have heard “sin” defined), the importance of poetry as a home and a mirror for all that we contain cannot be overstated. As Milosz writes in the poem “Ars Poetica,”
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests will come in and out at will.”
So here are a couple more excerpts from some others of Miłosz’s poems (all of which can be found in his Selected Poems, 1931-2004.), and two excerpts from Rilke’s Duino Elegies. And while, for me, the excerpts themselves stand alone powerfully as aphorisms, I hope they will lure you into the deeper dive of the poems from which they come.
“This hasn’t been the age for the righteous and the decent.
I know what it means to beget monsters
And to recognize them in myself. ”
(From “Winter,” Miłosz)
“In our lives we should not succumb to despair because of our
errors and our sins, for the past is never closed down, and receives the
meaning we give it by our subsequent acts”
(From “What I Learned from Jeanne Hersch” Miłosz)
How we squander our hours of pain
How we peer past these into the bitter distance
to see if they have an end. Though they are really
our own seasons, our winter evergreen foliage,
ponds, meadows, our interior landscape,
where birds and reed-dwelling creatures are at home.
(from Rainer Maria Rilke, “The Tenth Elegy” [translation mine])
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?
Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.
Yes–the springtimes needed you. Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,
or as you walked under an open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
All this was mission. But could you accomplish it?
(excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke, “The First Elegy” [trans. Stephen Mitchell])