Paying Attention – Rilke and Hirschfield

Petal of the poor man's orchid in Ossie Murray's garden in Jamaica

Petal of the poor man’s orchid in Ossie Murray’s garden in Jamaica



from The Ninth Duino Elegy

Nor does the wanderer bring down a handful of earth
from his high mountain slope to the valley (for earth, too, is mute),
but a word he has plucked from the climbing: the yellow and blue
gentian. Are we, perhaps, here just to utter: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –
at most: column, tower…but to utter them, remember,
to speak in a way which the named never dreamed
they could be? Isn’t it the hidden purpose
of this cunning earth, in urging on lovers,
to realize, through their rapture, rapture for all?

Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by William Gass in Reading Rilke by William Gass, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000,

I was put in mind of the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke (1875-1926) this morning when I read today was his birthday. Specifically, I remembered the lines from his Ninth Duino Elegy which make the epigraph for this post.

In February 1922 Rilke composed the last four of the Duino Elegies and the fifty five Sonnets to Orpheus. Some literary critics say these remarkable poetic outpourings have no, or few, equals in literary history. Translator Stephen Mitchell says: The Duino Elegies are widely acknowledged to be the greatest poem of the twentieth century.

The lines in the epigraph to this post are my cold-water wake up call especially in moments of self focus, worry or grief. Those moments when I stop paying attention to the so-called ordinary things of everyday. When I no longer, as if I really mean it, say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, tower, jug, fruit tree, window.

Here in Jamaica, after the death of my beloved Father-in-Law, Oswald (Ossie) Uriah Murray, I am reminded of the names of his favorite trees and flowers from his garden. I have tried to avoid them and not say their names. They remind me too much of his absence. But now after reading Rilke I utter them: yellow Allamanda, sugar banana, guango, blue mahoe, poor man’s orchid, red ixora, red hibiscus, pink poui, lychee, mango and otaheite apple.

In the late afternoon sun while writing this I went and visited each of these plants and trees. And something awoke in me. And I was reminded in that moment of a line from a poem by the American poet, Jane Hirschfield: Rilke, too, believed the object longs to awaken in us. That line comes from her prose poem I Write These Words To Delay.

Another favorite Hirschfield poem of mine seems to hold echoes of Rilke inside it as well.

Only When I am Quiet
And Do Not Speak

Only when I am quiet for a long time
and do not speak
do the objects of my life draw near.

Shy, the scissors and spoons, the blue mug.
Hesitant even the towels,
for all their intimate knowledge and scent of fresh bleach.

How steady their regard as they ponder,
dreaming and waking,
the entrancement of my daily wanderings and tasks.
Drunk on the honey of feelings, the honey of purpose,
they seem to be thinking,
a quiet judgment that glistens between the glass doorknobs.

Yet theirs is not the false reserve
of a scarcely concealed ill-will,
nor that other, active shying: of pelted rocks.

No, not that. For I hear the sigh of happiness
each object gives off
if I glimpse for even an instant the actual instant –

As if they believed it possible
I might join
their circle of simple, passionate thusness,
their hidden rituals of luck and solitude,
the joyous gap in them where appears in us the pronoun I.

Jane Hirschfield (b. 1953) from Given Sugar, Given Salt , 2001

If only I could look at something that intently. If only I could contain that thusness and ditch my troublesome I.

For those that would like to read The Ninth Duino Elegy in its entirety I have pasted it below.

The Ninth Elegy

Why, if the seasons of life could be passed
as a laurel, a little darker than all other green,
with tiny waves on the edge of each leaf,
like the smile of a wind -: why, then,
must we be human – and shunning our Destiny,
long for Fate?…
Oh, not because happiness –
that profit snatched hastily from threatening loss –
exists: not from curiousity, not simply to practice
a heart that could live quite as well in a laurel…
but because it is much just to be here,
because all that is fleeting here ,
strangely concerns us. Us, most fleeting of all.
Just once. Everything. Only once. Once and no more.
And we as well: once. Then never again. But this
having been once, although only once,
having been earthed – can it ever be cancelled?

And so we push ourselves on and pray to achieve it,
to hold it in our simple hands,
in our ever more crowded gaze, in our speechless heart.
Pray to become it. To give it to someone? We’d rather
keep it a keepsake forever…But to that other land,
alas, what can be taken? Not our power of perceiving,
learned here so slowly; nothing here that’s happened.
Nothing. But possibly suffering. Above all, the hardness of life,
and the long endurance of love – wholly
untellable things. But later, when the stars have us under them,
what then is the use? The stars are still better unspoken.
Nor does the wanderer bring down a handful of earth
from his high mountain slope to the valley (for earth, too, is
but a word he has plucked from the climbing: the yellow and
gentian. Are we, perhaps, here just to utter: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –
at most: column, tower…but to utter them, remember,
to speak in a way which the named never dreamed
they could be? Isn’t it the hidden purpose
of this cunning earth, in urging on lovers,
to realize, through their rapture, rapture for all?
Threshold: what it can mean for two lovers
to foot down their threshold a little,
just as the many who’ve come through have worn it,
and ahead of the many to follow…so slightly.

Here is the time for words, here is its home.
Speak and proclaim. More than ever,
the things we can live with are falling away,
and imageless action’s usurping their place.
Real acts will quickly crack their shells
when what’s working within them
bring forth a new form.

Our heart dwells between hammers,
like the tongue between the teeth,
where it remains, notwithstanding,
a continual creator of praise.

Praise this world to the Angel, not the unutterable one.
You cannot impress him with the splendour you’ve felt,
for in the heaven of heavens, where he feels so sublimely,
you’re but a beginner. Show him some simple thing, then,
that’s been changed in its passage through human ages
till it lives in our hands, in the shine of our eyes, as a part
of ourselves. Tell him things. He’ll stand more astonished,
as you stood by the roper in Rome or the potter in Egypt.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent and ours;
how even Sorrow, in the midst of lamenting, is determined to
to serve as a thing, or fade in a thing – to escape
into beauty beyond violining. These things whose life
is a constant leaving, they know when you praise them.
Transient they trust us, the most transient, to come
to their rescue; they wish us to alter them utterly,
within our invisible hearts, into – so endlessly – us!
Whoever we may finally be.

You earthly things – is this not what you want,
to arise visible in us? Is not your dream
to be one day invisible? Earth! – things! – invisible!
What, if not this deep translation, is your ardent aim?
Earth, my loved one, I will. Believe me.
You need no more of your springtimes to win me.
Already one is more than my blood can endure.
Beyond all the words I can speak I am yours,
as I have been from the beginning. Always, you were right,
and your holiest thought’s been of death, our most intimate
But look – I live. Oh, on what? Neither childhood nor
future grows less. Abundant existence
wells up in my heart.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Trans. William Gass in Reading Rilke, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2000


  1. Heidi Garnett
    Posted December 4, 2014 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    “Give me the names for things, just give me their real names, not what we call them, but what they call themselves when no one’s listening.” Charles Wright from The Writing Life in Appalachia.

  2. Richard
    Posted December 5, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Heidi – great quote! Thank you. How to look at things as if you had no idea what they were or their name? Now that would be poetry.

  3. ann gw
    Posted December 6, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    Sugar banana, guango, blue maho, poor man’s orchid. Richard –and Somae -,so sad to hear of Ossie’s death. I had no idea. He seemed so immortal. in so many ways..but perhaps now has taken that step half-taken so many times every time he sensed her in his room and imagined her face. Only I cant remember his wife’s name. Richard my feeling, my own personal feeling is that in the naming of the flowers there is not a confrontation w absence so much as an uttering of the words from which presence springs. Especially if said aloud like acanticle. xxxA

  4. Richard
    Posted December 7, 2014 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    Dear, dear Annie How perceptive this comment! Ossie’s wife was Joan. And I love your “Half-step”. You are such a confident and accomplished writer. I am chewing on your naming of names as not a confrontation with absense but an invocation of presence. Today I say: streamertail, Dr Bird – the tiny hummingbird with the extravagant tail. I say banana quit, nightingale, mango hummingbird, vervaine hummingbird. I say pink and red wild ginger, I say croton and bougainvillea. I say thank you for you!

  5. Martha
    Posted December 27, 2014 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    I know it’s almost the end of December but I have to throw in my two or three cents on objects. From blesséd Wallace Stevens…
    “Is it to sit among mattresses of the dead,
    Bottles, pots, shoes and grass and murmur aptest eve:
    Is it to hear the blatter of grackles and say
    Invisible priest; is it to eject, to pull
    The day to pieces and cry stanza my stone?
    Where was it one first heard of the truth? The the.”
    from “Man on the Dump”.

    Love you, Richard.

  6. Richard
    Posted December 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

    Never too late to respond to poems! Dear Martha thank you for this. ANd the reminder of Stevens and his marvellous “the the”. As well as the whole poem. Thank you for bringing Stevens to mind again. Last summer I found a copy in book form of “The Blue Guitar” illustrated by David Hockney. Stevens is worth coming back to. ANd thanks to you I am going back to read him tonight! Bless you! Richard

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