Oyster Boy Review 20  
  Summer 2012
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Pocket Poetry

Jeffery Beam

  Poems from the Book of Hours = Das Stundenbuch.
Rainer Maria Rilke.
Babette Deutsch, translator.
New Directions, 2009.
43 pages, $12.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811218538

  Songs of Love, Moon, & Wind: Poems from the Chinese.
Kenneth Rexroth, translator.
New Directions, 2009.
90 pages, $12.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811218368

  Written on the Sky: Poems from the Japanese.
Kenneth Rexroth, translator.
New Directions, 2009.
90 pages, $12.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 0811218376

  The Pocket Emily Dickinson.
Brenda Hillman, editor.
Shambhala Pocket Classics, 2009.
165 pages, $6.95 (paperback).
ISBN: 1590307003

There's a grand tradition of pocket-sized books of inspirational literature and poetry, and a few really desirable ones have recently been published. How many City Lights Pocket Poets have traveled in my pants? My copies of Cid Corman's three volume translations of haiku published by Jonathan Greene's Gnomon Press frequently rest on the night stand for guests, as well as previously published Shambhala Pocket Classic editions of Rilke's Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. These four new titles happily join them. I wonder, with e-books, is this tradition doomed? I hope not. I first came across the Cormans on the night stand at Jonathan Williams' Skywinding Farm—my first acquaintance with Cid's work as a translator. Jonathan always chose specific books for guests.

Babette Deutsch's 1941 translations of selected poems from Rilke's Book of Hours suffer from their antiquated style, as compared to the more contemporary versions we've become used to from Robert Bly, Stephen Mitchell, and others. But in the context of this little inspirational pocket volume they work—their formality and psalm-like intensities lend themselves to the moment's sustenance. Deutsch believed the entire collection was untranslatable and chose to only translate those poems which rendered, for her, Rilke's ringing call. As a result the final more complex section of the book, The Book of Poverty and Death, in which Rilke argues that the urban masses' anonymity in poverty and death must be made individual and whole by the Deity, doesn't appear at all.

The Book of Hours was the young poet's proving ground—that moment in his work in which he began to synthesize an aesthetic into the spiritual gaze and challenge which would lead immediately to the more mature work of The Book of Pictures, the ground-breaking New Poems, and ultimately to The Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus.

I am the rest between two notes
which, struck together, sound discordantly,
because death's note would claim a higher key.

But in the dark pause, trembling, the notes meet,
        And the song continues sweet.

In the Book of Hours, Rilke's intense longing is framed by an almost overabundance of rhythm and rhyme and thus the poems seem no less focused, but more picturesque and conventionally religious. Nevertheless, the argument with Deity and Being is as fierce, if not as refined, as in the later poems. Rilke begins to envision the Divine as less an anthropomorphic being, but rather an evolving mutual presence, in some sense created by human thought and need:

I am, you anxious one. Do you not hear me
rush to claim you with each eager sense?

For Rilke, this Divinity, so immense, so unfathomable, so distance, seems to blink in and out of view—a quantum thought dependent on our thinking It into existence:

You are the future, the great sunrise red . . .
You are the deep epitome of things
that keeps its being's secret with locked lips,
and shows itself to others otherwise:
to the ship, a haven—to the land, a ship.

Rilke is moving toward the indefinable oneness his poems eventually achieve, but here one feels Rilke stretching and sensing the contradictions of his beliefs. He begins to sense that our very thinking blocks our sensing.

You, Neighbor God, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with a loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe
and know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always, I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.

Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound.

The wall is builded of your images.

His awareness deepens, and he understands that Divinity is un-chainable:

No churches to encircle God as though
he were a fugitive, and then bewail him
as if he were a captured wounded creature—
all houses will prove friendly

This little booklet also includes an observant personal preface by Ursula Le Guin about the transformative power of Rilke's verse, adding another layer of richness to this inspirational text.

The two lovely little Rexroth volumes bring together selected poems from Rexroth's Japanese and Chinese translations previously published by New Directions as One Hundred Poems from the Japanese, One Hundred Poems from the Chinese, and Love and the Turning Year: One Hundred More Poems from the Chinese.

Decades after their original appearance the translations remain as original and authentic as ever. The poems span all historical periods and include the greats of Japanese poetry such as Basho and Akiko, love lyrics, folk songs, haiku, the lyric poetry of Tu Fu and Tung-P'O, many women poets from both traditions, including the contemporary Japanese poet Marichiko and the classic poems of Ono No Komachi and Li Ch'ing-Chao. Each tradition speaks with pathos and sparkling beauty, and the crystalline echo of the moment:

No one spoke,
The host, the guests,
The white chrysanthemums.

(Ōshima Ryōta)

Kill that crowing cock.
Drive away the chattering birds.
Shoot the cawing crows.
I want this night to last
And morning never come back.
I don't want to see another dawn
For at least a year.

(Anonymous—Six Dynasties—China)

I love the variety in Shambhala's Pocket Classics series including the above-mentioned Rilke. But I also own a copy of the Art of War, selections from Thomas Merton, and Chőgyam Trungpa's Meditation in Action. The Dickinson is a reprint of the 1995 edition eschewing the thematic organization of the early version, but with the same insightful introduction by editor poet Brenda Hillman. What more could one want than this superlative pocket-sized selection of Dickinson's poems (how to choose from the over 1,700 always amazing poems from this "spiritual mother" of American poetry as Hillman calls her). You can't go wrong carrying this around with you all the time, giving it as a gift, and, as stated earlier, leaving it by the bedside for guests.

. . .