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by Karl Plank

(Re-writing Rilke)                                                                                    

1.         You, God, who live next door--
            . . .
            As it happens, the wall between us
            is very thin.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.6*

Hi Neighbor.  It’s me on this side.  I thought I should explain the racket last night.  That banging, all the knocking. I know it was late and you must have wondered how long I’d stay at it.  What can I say?  I didn’t mean to be trouble. It’s just that it got too quiet. I wasn’t sure you were breathing.  At least when you snore I know you’re alive for Christ’s sake! I got concerned, Boss, if you want to know the truth. It’s been what—months, years?  I miss the noise. I listen, think about you alone, how maybe you need a drink. I’m just saying: if you do, I’m here; let me know. There’s not much to this wall.  We’d hear each other, even the mumbles. It’d be like the wall wasn’t there. As if someone took it down. Without clamor (as you might say). Scarcely a sound. I doubt anyone would notice.

2.         I believe in all that has never yet been spoken.
I want to free what waits within me
Rilke, The Book of Hours 1.12

There’s something I’ve got to say.  I’ve never said it before.  Not sure I’ve even thought it before or have any words for it. But, by God, I can feel it.  It’s filling me up and starting to rise, like the creek after rain, like something that’s going to pour out my spout and flood everywhere. We’ll be swimming in it. It’ll be loud, like children shouting in the stream.  It’s got to be. It’s about you, Boss.

3.         I would describe myself
like a landscape I’ve studied
at length, in detail
    Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.13

This face. It’s like the hummock out back; the furrows are my own.

I like the word alacrity, the way it snaps when you say it.

I drink coffee from the same plain mug I’ve always used.

My mother was joyous.

I’ve got sense enough to come in when it storms, but I’ve gotten wet.

You know how I am, Boss.

4.         Even when we don’t desire it,
God is ripening.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.16

Knock, knock, Boss. If you were a watermelon, I know how you’d be just now. Like the Almanac said: not too dull, not too shiny, and buttery yellow on the field spot. If I thumped, you’d make the right sound, like there was room inside. You know how it’s done: knock with the knuckles or flick with the finger; listen for the plunk, not the thwack, they say. If I squeezed, your skin would give a little, but not much. If I took a whiff, you’d smell sweet, just like you’d taste inside. That’s how you’d be, Boss, whether I knocked or not. Even if I didn’t want any watermelon.

5.         Why am I reaching again for the brushes?
            When I paint your portrait, God,
            nothing happens.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.18

I thought it might help. I could tape it on the wall and pretend we were having a talk. I can draw all right, that’s not the problem. Here’s the paper, Boss. You can see how far I got. I know it looks like a square, but that’s the frame. A portrait ought to have a frame, so I drew that first. I didn’t just quit. I held that pencil a long time, taking it to the paper and coming up short. Those smudges are the eraser. They’re what’s left. I’m going to put it up anyhow. At least it’s not a mirror. That’s not the face I want to see, not the face at all.

6.         . . . Leave me alone.
            I feel I’m almost there—
            where the great terror
            can dismember me.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.23

Not now, Boss. Really. Go away.

There’s horror here.

The pounding inside. If it don’t blast me to pieces, I’ll do it myself.

It’s too hot. Too hot in this room.

7.         You, the great homesickness we could never shake off.
Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.25

I didn’t start out here, you know. None of us did. There was before and someplace else. It was sweet. That’s the word for it: sweet, like that cold spring water in the hollow.  We’d drink all we wanted and let it drip and spill and splash without giving it a thought. I can’t describe it, Boss, but it, well, satisfied. Like nothing else. Great God, if I could taste it again, I think I’d be all right. I’d have what I need.

8.         Your first word of all was light . . .
            Your second word was man, and fear began. . .
            I don’t want your third word.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.44

Before you did anything else, you walked in and flipped the switch. There in the dark, you reached out, turned it on and left. And it was quiet for a good long while. And bright. Not enough to turn from, but enough to see what silence looked like, no one speaking, no one wanting to, no one knowing what to say.  Only the clock on the wall made noise. We looked at it; the hands, the only thing moving in the room. Then you came back and said, “Come here. Let me take a look at you.” Why’d you say that, Boss?  What comes next?  Not sure I want to know.

9.         You come and go. . .
            Of all who move through the quiet houses,
            you are the quietest
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.45

There are mice in that field that make more noise than you do, Boss. One minute the door’s wide open, then it’s shut and I never heard a thing, but I know you’re in here. You’re like the shadow that grows as the sun drops, creeping across the grass, stretching out. You ever felt like someone was reading over your shoulder, but when you turned around no one was there? It’s like that, Boss. I’m not saying I’m spooked. It’s an easy enough feeling. But if you cleared your throat now and then or kicked the table leg, I wouldn’t mind. That, or I need to listen better.

10.       I come home from the soaring
            in which I lost myself.
            I was song, and the refrain which is God
            is still roaring in my ears.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.50

I’m back. Here and feeling like before. But what a trip. I found the stairs and climbed to the top. Went out up there where the walls don’t reach. Where the wind, Goda’mighty, it blows strong and you can hardly think of anything except how far you can see. I forgot for a while, the whole rigmarole. Have you been up there, Boss? I thought I might find you there. I wanted to say “Well here you are, you old coot” and see if you’d laugh. I guess you were someplace else. My ears are still ringing, though, I can tell you that.  Don’t know if it’s a good thing or not.

11.       And God said to me, Write . . .
            And God said to me, Paint . . .
            And God said to me, Go forth . . .
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.53

Let’s see if I’ve got it straight, what you want me to do. First of all, you don’t want me to act like a politician. Just sit here with paper and pencil and get the words down. Second, there should be pictures. Not of how you look, but how you feel. I should start by drawing the face of a widow or someone with a bandage and that’s probably the best I can do. Third, take a look around and pay attention. Out there. That’s how you’ll know. I see, Boss.

12.       I want to utter you. . .
            There is no image I could invent
            that your presence would not eclipse.
            I want then, simply
            to say the names of things.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.60

Boss, is that your name? It’s what I’ve been calling you, but I just picked it up. How’d they put it back home? “Here, catch, Boss.” “Brush your teeth, Boss.”  “Sure, I’d like to go out Saturday, Boss.” Doesn’t sound right, if you get me. But then again, what would? A name should fit like a glove. But you’re too much. It’s like you and names don’t go together, Boss. But maybe that’s what it means to be Boss. How would I know? I’d like to get it right, though. I could name some things and hope you’re in there somehow: window, tree out the window, goldfinch in the tree out the window, the bright yellow of the goldfinch. Not politician, lawyer, quack. Not Lige down the hall.

13.       I want only seven days, seven
            on which no one has ever written himself—
            seven pages of solitude.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.61

On Monday, I’ll write about snow, how it blankets the field and takes your breath away; how cold your feet can get.
On Tuesday, about sweat coming out your pores.
Wednesday, I’ll devote to the hornbeam on the hill, the native flame as it turns red in fall and the feathered thorn.
Then on Thursday, I’ll get down how the faces look at bedside.
For Friday, I will record the ten words and what I’ve heard at night.
On Saturday, I will describe in detail the day before, what I did.
I cannot yet say what I will note on Sunday. Whatever comes to me.
I can do this, Boss, if everyone will leave me alone for just this while.
For after, Boss. For the others.

14.       I thank you, deep power
           that works me ever more lightly
           in ways I can’t make out.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.62

Got a second, Boss? I’ve been feeling different. Not all at once different like someone threw a switch, just better, like my boots aren’t so heavy. Do I look taller? You know how it is when you feel all stretched out, like when you’re trying to change a light you can’t quite reach? It’s like that, but in a good way. Stretched out all over.  Beats me. I wondered if you had anything to do with it. It was so hard when I came here. The work, all stooped  . . . Yesterday I remembered stroking her face.  These rough hands . . . these same hands. I thought I should tell someone, say thanks.

15.       Maybe you don’t know what the nights are like
            for people who can’t sleep.
Rilke, The Book of Hours, 2.3

It’s dark outside. The lights are off and my eyes squeezed shut. Still hard to sleep. Words come with the dark, clanking around in my head. The sheets are sweaty and I’ve kicked the covers every which way. I’ll take on the pillow next. I may have to get up and walk around. Join the pacers. There are footsteps everywhere, nightcreepers trying to figure out what to say should the chance come. How to say. . . I don’t know. Listen to them, Boss. Hear what it sounds like when folks can’t sleep in the dark. Once I heard you patter down the hall. What do you do in the dark, Boss? Are you awake?

16.       No one lives his life . . .
           Maybe all paths lead there,
           to the repository of unlived things.
                                                                       Rilke, The Book of Hours, 2. 11

It’s a mask I see in the mirror.  God knows it’s familiar, Boss. The same every morning. We grow a face like we farm a field. It shows what we did, but not underneath the ground, where the roots hide. It doesn’t let on what we wanted to do, but didn’t.  Where do those things go, Boss?  Are they out there somewhere waiting for us?  A second chance.

17.       This is what the things can teach us:
            to fall,
            patiently to trust our heaviness.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 2.16

Have you ever thought about it this way, Boss? What it would be like if we could leap in the air and stay afloat?  I think I’d have to lose a lot of weight. The view would be nice and I’d like to feel the cushion of air carrying me along, but it wouldn’t be right. The birds don’t seem to worry about it, but even they land sometime. They find the branch in the hedge, or the tree limb, or the bit of snow to scrape like the sparrows do. They come to the grass and ground. No other way to eat. No other way to fly. You got to take off from somewhere.

18.       Sometimes a man rises from the supper table
            and goes outside. And he keeps on going
            because somewhere to the east there’s a church.
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 2.19

Boss, give me a minute. I’m not sure I understand this myself. I finished my pot pie and left. No jacket, no cap, no bother. The door was open, why not? You know how it goes. One foot, then the other. I headed east and walked for a while until I saw Lige coming the other way. His pants were ripped from the wire and he said he needed to tell me something. I turned around and came back, as you can see. The two of us did. I’d do it again, walk out that is and maybe keep going. No, I don’t know what he wanted to say. Never paid him any mind, not that one, crazy bastard.

19.       I have seen them moving like a tide.
           Since then, I think the winds themselves
           are stirred by the blowing of their cloaks,
           and subside again when they lie down . . .
                                                                        Rilke, The Book of Hours, 2.27

It’s about the dog-tired, Boss. About all of them at the end of the day. You can see them march across the field when the sun drops. One foot in front of the other. Then again. And again. If they were to stop, they’d fall over right where they are. Like Dagon before the Ark, crumbled to the dirt. But here’s the thing. They don’t stop. You can feel the earth vibrate with their steps, see the dust trail behind them. Rags and tatters wrapped around them, they flap and agitate the air until it blows hot in your face. Somehow they make it in, Boss. Then they stop and the breeze dies down. But you still think about it: the steps, one after another; the heat on your cheek; the dust in the air. It’s hard to sleep.

20.       It feels as though I make my way
            through massive rock
            like a vein of ore
            alone, encased.
                                                                         Rilke, The Book of Hours, 3.1

Where in the world am I, Boss?  How’d I get here? It’s like I’ve been clawing through boulders with my fingernails, from the inside out.  I’m walled in. Can’t stand up or turn around.  Shit, I’m like coal buried in rock; a heap of bing. They’re going to have to blast me out of here, or stoop and pick, pick, pick. Have at it, Boss, but hurry. Bring a light.

21.       If it’s you, though—
            press down hard on me, break in
            that I may know the weight of your hand,
            and you the fullness of my cry.
                                                                         Rilke, The Book of Hours, 3.1

Crowded by myself. That’s a hard way to be alone, Boss. There’s got to be room for something else in here. Hammer away from the other side, Boss. Hit it as hard as you can. A hole big enough for a hand to get through. That’d be enough for now and you might at least hear me howling, how loud and how long.

22.       Do I move inside you now?. . .
            Or is it fear
            I am caught in?
                                                                         Rilke, The Book of Hours, 3.2

Maybe it’s you, Boss. Maybe the squeeze is you holding me tight. These walls, your arms. Why so tight? Is there a ledge I can’t see? You saving me from getting so lost I’ll never find my way back? Or, is this a death-grip, crushing the air out of me? Maybe it’s not you at all, Boss. Maybe I’m trapped in my own mind. Maybe that’s why I’m here in the first place . . . Boss?

23.       They need only, as a tree does,
            a little space in which to grow.
Rilke, The Book of Hours, 3.29

We’re shut-ins, all of us, Boss. Trying to breathe. To move without breaking something.

24.       What will you do, God, when I die?
Rilke, The Book of Hours, 1.36

Thanks for coming, Boss. The nurse was just by. She looked at my glass and asked if my water was about gone. I said, yeah, it and me too. Dying—that’s nature’s cure for insomnia. Do you mind if I ask?  Are you going to be all right, you know, after?  I aim to listen out for you, but it can’t be the same. I can’t imagine. I really can’t imagine.

25.       God give us each our own death,
            the dying that proceeds
            from each of our lives.
                                                                         Rilke, The Book of Hours, 3.6

I think I’m done, Boss. Help me go. You’ll know what to say. 

That I tried to love them.

That I thought trying mattered and didn’t matter much at all.

That I knew my need.  That I needed you, Boss, and that was enough.

That’s all.

*All quotations are from Rilke’s Book of Hours. Love Poems to God, tr. A. Barrows and J. Macy (NY: Riverhead, 2005).


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