Let me, though, when again I have all around me
the chaos of cities, the tangled
skein of commotion, the blare of the traffic, alone,
let me, above the most dense confusion,
remember this sky and the darkening rim of the valley
where the flock appeared, echoing on its way home.
Let my courage be like a rock,
let the daily task of the shepherd seem possible to me,
as he moves about and, throwing a stone to measure it,
fixes the hem of his flock where it has grown ragged.
His solemn, unhurried steps, his contemplative body,
his majesty when he stands, even today a god
could secretly enter this form and not be diminished.
He alternately lingers and moves like the day itself,
and shadows of clouds
pass through him, like thoughts which space
is thinking slowly for him.
Let him be whomever you wish. Like a fluttering candle
into a stormlamp, I place myself there inside him.
A glow becomes peaceful. May death
more easily find its way.
+Commentary: This one poem changed my life, humbles me every time I read it, and also while seemingly melancholy it has exactly the opposite effect. As with almost everything Rilke wrote, it is flawless. Without flaw, without peer, and sublime in ways that very few modern poets ever reach. This isn’t to dull any shine other poet’s have. Some are earthy, others familial, while some even manage to make us laugh or transcend in the mundane. Rainer Maria Rilke among others has reached such a place in modern thought, as to almost be overlooked. Not really worthy of modern scholarship or another “reinterpretation” via modern literary critique.
This is not hyperbole, nor is it merely just my considered, if completely biased opinion. It is fact: he is revered, with good reason, and rarely mentioned these days. Also his personal story is so fascinating. Some years ago, in the 90s, a small independent bookstore on Lincoln Road, a rare and charming place carried The Vintage International: “The Selected Poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke” on sale and display. Having fled my home of a decade in Washington, DC and fleeing all that I’d been and pent up until then. Finding myself alone on the shores of Miami Beach as it began the long slog into reinventing itself from a backdrop for Scarface, to the Disney-fication, playground billion-dollar sandbar for the rich & powerful the world over.
That moment in its history when it held so much promise, wanting to preserve its cultural heritage, was seeming a refuge for so many souls fleeing other environs, and I was in good company. A dear friend had just moved there to make a break with their old life, and that sounded like just the ticket to me at 27. Living in a “studio” that was nearly the size of my old walk-in closet in DC, was a paradigm shift. Sharing that same space with someone and being so far from home for the first time in my life. It was both exhilarating and terrifying. Finding a job wasn’t easy, and it never was with me, but I’d find something.
During that time the public library, as the MLK in DC had been months earlier, became the font of both creativity and knowledge that an autodidact like myself needs to anchor themselves. South Beach at the time, was a hub of all this creative energy, straight, gay, undefined or other. Also there was loads of businesses just starting up and people risking all on a dream. Famous names swirled, but like a tidal pool tended to flock around and gather on the most prominent or jutting edges. Like a constant ebb and flow. In just the short time there, under two years, places closed & opened like the Egoiste commercial by Jean-Paul Goude.
Where in the end it happened a job opened up, briefly, because my roommate worked there part-time, in what was the “Dean & Deluca” of South Beach square in the heart of Lincoln Road. That description was literally their “brand strategy” ~ and oft quoted, both in press & conversation. They thought flattery is sincere when it is that bold, not mere imitation. It was to D&D what saccharine is to sugar, whole raw sugar too. It was a disaster & long before the word was in such common usage, my stint as a ‘Barista’ was an unqualified, and unmitigated disaster. In an act not seen for another twenty years I told the “bosses” Lyon Frerés that they were a sham, that this was no way to run a business, listed no less than 5 things that are NOT done in the food service anywhere, except holes-in-the-wall without food-handling licences. Then went on to tell them that they would no doubt be out of business, and their “plans for expansion” we discussed a week before (during a mandatory staff meeting) were their biggest folly. “Apparently running this one store seems too much!”
Whipped off my apron, pulled up what was left of my dignity, and exited shoulders back & head held a haught. To go home to that 8×8 box, and wonder what would become of my life in such a beautiful place if the pressures of a Latinx event at the Sony theater diagonally across & its subsequent rush of humanity would send me to such anxiety & fury that my only chance of survival could so carelessly & vainly be thrown aside.
Within a month, I was on food stamps. Soul-searching comes with that, not pride, nor a feeling that one is getting over on a system. Far from it, having to go to the grocery store for the first time in my adult life and plan, check to see if that was permissible by the rules (which are much stricter now), having the scorn of fellow shoppers & your cashier or bagboy was a new experience for me. It was the full panopticon experience. An old rebel by this time, a casual indifference was easy to affect. Yet the effect would stay with me to this day.
Even growing up in poverty, we’d never been on public assistance. Relying instead on the kindness of family and the shared bonds we had, and ability to support one another when necessary. We weren’t that kind of white trash, no sir. We had respectability, and were decent hardworking people. The letters home during this time waxed poetic, with a tinge of sadness, a lost melancholy that had not visited me since my angst-riddled teen years.
So this poem with its structure of a person, from the city, saying a solemn prayer while witnessing a shepherd tend his flock in some far flung landscape resonates. The deeply reverential and in your face god-to-shepherd tendency shouldn’t sit well with an avowed atheist, but it did. For the spirit expressed transcends his religious ideology and has a philosophical tone well beyond the reach of what we more modern people even consider religious. It is profoundly spiritual in today’s nomenclature. Yet it is basically about longing & desire for the simplicity and purpose of this humble soul, when returned to the “chaos of cities” with their “dense confusion” seems almost naive. He is basically projecting the simplicity he witnesses, a reverence for someone who seemingly has control over things, has them in hand, by just tossing a rock. That person also just happens to be passing by, and fleeting. They are comfortable or comforting, full of a humility and grace, to the eye.
Like it is clear that this search for the zen, the simple, the alluring bucolic and one could even say prehistoric life. This agrarian ideal, even at a time when that was still marginally an option. Set apart, and starkly juxtaposed to the modern life. While today this same poet could be reduced to watching an artisanal farmhand in designer overalls at a Farmer’s Market. Or even wishing for that small comfort from inside a cold cavernous Whole Foods warehouse experience where something or anything would strike him as corporeal enough to write poetry about.
We’ve come a long way, almost light years since he wrote this simple poem. Being a person from humble beginnings and choosing to live my life in the very pinnacle of commotion that is New York City, it is almost a comical role reversal. It is a contradiction profoundly acute in every reading. Yet the power of this one poem, encountered at that time, transports me to dragging a sleeping bag out to the beach & falling asleep as the moon rose over the Atlantic Ocean. A majesty so profound that nothing can erase that moment from my memory. Alone, marooned but yet surrounded by humanity at all sides. Picking up a seashell and tossing it in any direction with all my might, I’d probably hit someone or something. Yet with all that to my back, gazing lovingly into the meditative powers of the lunar ascension was able to peacefully exist on my own deserted island.
So what Rilke saw in this shepherd, is plainly visible in a mother struggling to get a baby stroller (with a child inside) up subway steps. By herself. That is even more profound for having to take place amidst a tumult of confusion and danger. Like Orpheé ascending from hell, beset by demons, both internal & external, struggling the whole while against the desire to look back for reassurance. It is in the everyday act of kindness of a stranger forfeiting their seat to an elder, or picking up their dropped glove.
That they do not dwell in this state, and resume their lives by shoving their head back into their reading or playing the music that had transported them heretofore been preoccupied. That they are able like the flame in this poem to become peaceful amidst all the other forces. Surely they might be rude or scurry off shoving someone in the process, but the shepherd may get home, hating his solitary life that seemed so peaceful afar, and drink himself into a stupor or abuse the wife & goats. We aren’t as poets & readers seeing the Shepherd but as a vessel for our projections, a manifestation of our longings.
The poet at the very end is placing himself inside this vessel/human like climbing into a coffin and hoping for a peaceful death. The one he surely imagined often enough to have settled on his eptitaph in advance:
Rose, oh pure contradiction, delight
of being no one’s sleep under so
Everything about his poetry is contradiction and tension. Angels & roses. Yet my very first introduction to Rilke was during my very first trip to NYC, very first steps into this great cavernous opening of humanity. A train ride in from Jersey, and there we were in Astor Place, 1984. Right there steps from the subway exit was a tiny independent bookstore. Today there is a Starbucks on the corner where a restaurant previously was, and the bookstore is gone with a giant Barnes & Noble across the street.
Just under that is the Astor Place Barbershop, where my friend got a haircut, a ritual that decided our first stop. While utterly bored with the crowded & stuffy wait, I ventured out & across to this simple space. Wandered the aisles of this bookshop, even though I spent my days in DC working at a B. Dalton in the mall with this friend. This had an air to it, that was so far removed from what a bookstore was or could be. It was cool & crisp like a New York fashionista.
The allure held me, touched each & everything, flipped through them. There it was, a book, with a blocky modern type on the face with midcentury geometric design. Utterly demure on one hand, while bold on another. It was “Letters to a Young Poet.” It too altered the course of my life, I bought it. Have never read it since, excerpts perhaps, quotes, but not the whole thing cover to cover. Much the way or for reasons akin to not reading old love letters from an ex.
So in a way, less than a decade later to throw myself in to his entire oeuvre makes complete sense. Another seminal moment, more soul searching. Little did I know or realize at the end of my time in SoBe, I’d depart for New York to what has become a life. That purchasing the letters years before would vault my life into a creative existence, that I named & owned after finishing it. It seems almost hackneyed & trivial, but like he was speaking through a translator across time in a language only I could hear.
So my profound love for Rilke will never cease or abate, and he’ll always have a place in my heart right next to Maya Angelou, or others that bridge this space-time continuum easily with just a few words carefully arranged on a page. That is the power of poetry, language, love to unite our hearts, strengthen our minds, and renew our spirit.
Lines that resonate especially deeply for me:
- skein of commotion
- even today a god could secretly enter this form and not be diminished
- shadows of clouds pass through him, like thoughts which space is thinking