‘You come and go’:Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke

You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a shudder
Of all who move through the quiet houses,
you are the quietest.

We become so accustomed to you,
we no longer look up
when your shadow falls over the book we are reading
and makes it glow. For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.

Often when I imagine you
your wholeness cascades into many shapes.
You run like a herd of luminous deer
and I am dark. I am a forest.

You are a wheel at which I stand,
whose dark spokes sometimes catch me up,
revolve me nearer to the centre.
Then all the work I put my hand to
widens from turn to turn.

[From ‘The Book of Hours’ which Rilke published in April 1905. ‘These poems explore the Christian search for God and the nature of Prayer, using symbolism from Saint Francis and Rilke’s observation of Orthodox Christianity during his travels in Russia in the early years of the twentieth century’.
Recommended by Margaret Place]


Singing Bowl: Malcolm Guite

Singing bowlsSinging Bowl

Begin the song exactly where you are,
Remain within the world of which you’re made.
Call nothing common in the earth or air,

Accept it all and let it be for good.
Start with the very breath you breathe in now,
This moment’s pulse, this rhythm in your blood

And listen to it, ringing soft and low.
Stay with the music, words will come in time.
Slow down your breathing. Keep it deep and slow.

Become an open singing-bowl, whose chime
Is richness rising out of emptiness,
And timelessness resounding into time.

And when the heart is full of quietness
Begin the song exactly where you are.

Malcolm Guite
(Recommended by Colleen Sturrock)

Just Because: BW Vilakazi

minersJust because I smile and smile
And happiness is my coat
And my song tuneful and strong
Though you send me down below
Into unbelievable regions
Of the blue rocks of the earth –
You think I am a gatepost
Numb to the stab of pain.

Just because of the laugh on my lips
And my eyes lowered in respect,
Pants rolled up above the knees
And my dark hair all dun-coloured
And thick with the roadside dust,
My hands swinging a pick,
And the back stripped out of my shirt –
You think I am like a stone
And don’t know what it is to die.

Because at the fall of dark
When I’ve unloosened the chains
Of my days long labour
And I fall in with my brothers
Stamping the ground in a tribal dance
And we sing songs of old times
That stir up our fighting blood
Driving away all our cares –
For you think that I’m a beast
That breeds its kind and dies.

Because I seem to you a simpleton
Knocked over by plain ignorance
and the laws beyond my understanding,
except maybe that they rob me.
And the house I built for myself
under the hang of the rock,
a hut of grass for my home,
my clothing an empty sack –
You think I am just an antheap;
and not one tear have I in me
to drip out from my own heart
and run over the pure hands
of the souls who see all.

[Translated from Zulu; I’m afraid I can’t remember by whom, and I’m not certain of the punctuation, as I copied it rather roughly into a notebook about 40 years ago. I came across Dr Benedict Wallet Vilakazi when I was about 16, and found his poetry very moving, inured as we often were to the plight of black people we pushed to the margins of society and our minds by convincing ourselves they were invited into our society as outsiders. He was born on 1 January 1906 in Groutville, Natal (previously Umvoti: a mission station near Stanger, the site of Chaka’s royal kraal). Vilakazi was appointed bantu languages assistant at the University of Witwatersrand in 1935: the 1st black lecturer appointed to a white university. He held the BA degree of the University of South Africa and was a prize winner of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures, before completing his Masters at Wits. He was a distinguished Zulu poet and wrote the first book of Zulu poems to be published, some of which were traditional “praise-songs” in ‘Inkondlo kaZu’, published by Wits before his apppointment in 1935. He also wrote three novels in Zulu: ‘NomaNini’ (1935); ‘Udingiswyo kaJobe’ (1939); ‘Nje Nempela” (1943). However I am not sure if they have been translated into English. Vilakazi became the first Black person in the Union to receive the degree of doctor of literature in 1946, but tragically died on 26 October 1947 in Johannesburg at the age of just 41.

As luck would have it, packing books for our move to Johannesburg, I found another translation of this poem by Florence Louie Friedman: Wits, 1973. Vilakazi had found a friend in Daniel McKinnon Malcolm (‘Chief Inspector of Native Education’ in Natal 1920-1944, and a lecturer in Zulu in the University of Natal in his retirement) who made a rough translation of his poems, and then passed them on to Friedman, who in turn was assisted by JM Sikakana, also from Wits, in researching Vilakazi’s background and family, before she re-translated them. Partly because it was the first I encountered, I prefer the one above, but Friedman’s translation is interesting because for me it gives a completely different slant on the last 5 lines, which in the above translation had always bothered me.

You think I am just an antheap; [You think that I accept my lot]
and not one tear have I in me [And have not cause to weep.]
to drip out from my own heart [But tears secreted in the heart,]
and run over the pure hands [Flow only onto sacred hands]
of the souls who see all. [Of spirits never blind to human anguish.]

The 1st had always bothered me because it seemed to suggest a bitterness inconsistent with the little I had read of Vilakazi (without denying that he had every right to be so), with no tears left for ‘the souls who see all’, who I had therefore always taken to be white people! But the 2nd clarifies that those tears are indeed real, secreted in the heart, and are released to the spirits who are ‘never blind to human anguish’.]

Ngoba…Sewuthi (Because…)

Because you always see me smile,
You think that I must be content:
Because I sing with all my voice,
The while you drive me underground
To find the treasure hidden there –
Those diamonds tinting earth with blue:
You say that I am like a log
Insensitive to pain.

Because you see my laughing lips,
My downcast eyes,
My trousers rolled above the knee,
My matted hair like ochre
From dust of sandy roads,
My hand around a pick,
My shirt without a back:
You say I am insentient
And durable as rock.

Because, when night approaches,
You see me loosening the chains
Of daily drudgery,
And, meeting people black like me,
Dance with new-born energy
While chanting tribal songs
That rouse our stifled zest
And banish weariness:
You think me but an animal
Who, should it die, is soon replaced.

Because I am a simple dupe
Who pays the price of ignorance
And cannot understand these laws
That use, abuse me and exploit me;
Because you see me build my shack
Beneath the rocky krantz
And know my home is made of grass,
My garment but a sack –
You think that I accept my lot
And have not cause to weep.
But tears secreted in the heart,
Flow only onto sacred hands
Of spirits never blind to human anguish.

For the New Year, 1981: Denise Levertov



I have a small grain of hope—
one small crystal that gleams
clear colors out of transparency.

I need more.

I break off a fragment
to send you.

Please take
this grain of a grain of hope
so that mine won’t shrink.

Please share your fragment
so that yours will grow.

Only so, by division,
will hope increase,

like a clump of irises, which will cease to flower
unless you distribute
the clustered roots, unlikely source—
clumsy and earth-covered—
of grace.

Unutterable Name: David Whyte


Cross-currents and tumbling desire
of aspens in a summer wind,
shimmering in a rustle and whisper

of leaf undersides turned pale
yellow, each upper side
a trembling of bright green.

The whole frame a lit firework
of feeling where all
surfaces and shoulders of wood

and leaf touch and quiver
to the wind’s
quaking unspoken desire.

Not to be lightly spoken of.
Your species name
so common on our tongue

the mind’s eye forgets the continued
revelation of your kind.
A single branch, a copse, a nest of bright

copper for the dying year. All the
forests of the world
were wild wood once and proclaim

the leafy hope and snares of human paradise.
The wild wood, bramble, columbine,
the oak tree’s deciduous stability of half-light.

In your branches the robin and the wren,
the crows, the rooks, the owls, the sparrow-
hawk gliding the fine speckled corridors of light.

Of all your many worlds I’ll start by naming home,
this sharp evergreen night’s
rough-barked verticality of totem and grey wood

lifted two hundred feet to a cold sky,
its grey clouds unseen above the world’s
green turn of pine and hemlock, fir and cedar

shadowing the paddled needle beds
in their brown sleep.
Even here, Pan’s mad flute wakes them all,

a scurry of chipmunks and tremulous mice,
a moment’s panic before the
creaking whine of a branch lifts the hair

straight on the neck, the owl’s prey screams
in discovered claws and the patient empty
darkness of the deep wood returns to quiet.

Even then, the still temple of the northern night
opening its doors to the first delicate light
and the nightjar burring at a branch edge

is nothing to the jungle’s southern tumult and tropic
dark panoply of explosive sound.
In that equatorial fusion of heat and noise,

where a scream would be lost in the whistling,
cawing, shuddering, sighing
rippling, spider-monkeyed laugh and great shaking

of the canopy’s jungle dark essence,
there lies that eternally moving
half-hidden, essentially frightening

forest of our own inner night. Down below,
the dream of those dark limbs turning
now feminine, now snake-like, erotically

refusing to be found, leads us down
into that glistering world-wide
treasure of wetness and wild abandon, the marsh.

The dank water’s cool refusal of dryness
a sworn enemy to the clarity
our yearning demands, every footstep

filled with mud, every feeling a mere mushroom
subsumed by damp, a fever
of scents, sounds and recollection, how the bark

smells, how the frogs breathe, how the greens
seem darker still. How the faint
brushing sting of nettle feels on passing skin.

The stagnant still fullness of it all with no place
to rest, sit, camp, cook, build,
get in, get out, lie down with self or other.

The infuriating self-satisfied independent
non-human presence
of this methane-flitted, black and fiery

incandescence of wetness eschewing our praise,
resting into its own eternal wet grave
of damp hidden mischief. The damned and lovely swamp.

Not forgetting for one moment the dry desert
branches of the world’s
desiccated, rough-barked, wax-leafed elders.

The pinon, chaparral, boll-weed and wind-dried
dust-loving Joshua, even the names
have a dry mouth salted by heat and smothered

by thirst. Tenacity a prize of their kind,
living patiently through the hard
baked inhospitable prison of eternal summer,

and they need, we still do not believe it,
just the one, gifted, single drop
of fecund rain swimming through red earth

to break out in a blood red, snow white
festival of still flowers.
Or a lit inextinguishable fire of perfect yellow.

All your many kinds are filled with our stories.
We know you, name you
Aspen, Rowan, Linden, Oak, and remember

Pan’s stable of haunting desire,
Kevin’s seat of still prayer,
Buddha’s explosive clarity beneath

the Bodhi’s protecting shadow of knowledge.
Christ’s arms like branches
on the still sapling of longing and loss.

Your stories are our welcome night sign
of stop and rest and sky and stars
and forgotten sleep where we wake again

to find we are surrounded, embellished,
frighted, nourished,
sheltered, restored, rejected and inhabited

by – how shall I ever say your name?
Wood, trunk, branch, leaf,
boreal harmony of green in-breath,

my hands clapping, eyes opened,
mouth attempting the song
of your unspeakable gifts and grace

again and again- the full hidden
not to be said, mysterious
and unutterable name of your full breath. Tree.

[David Whyte. River Flow: New & Selected Poems Revised Edition
(Kindle Locations 887-890). Many Rivers Press. Kindle Edition.]

Fire in the Earth: David Whyte

And we know, when Moses was told,
in the way he was told,
“Take off your shoes!” He grew pale from that simple

reminder of fire in the dusty earth.
He never recovered
his complicated way of loving again

and was free to love in the same way
he felt the fire licking at his heels loved him.
As if the lion earth could roar

and take him in one movement.
Every step he took
from there was carefully placed.

Everything he said mattered as if he knew
the constant witness of the ground
and remembered his own face in the dust

the moment before revelation.
Since then thousands have felt
the same immobile tongue with which he tried to speak.

Like the moment you too saw, for the first time,
your own house turned to ashes.
Everything consumed so the road could open again.

Your entire presence in your eyes
and the world turning slowly
into a single branch of flame.

[David Whyte. River Flow: New & Selected Poems Revised Edition
(Kindle Locations 746-763). Many Rivers Press. Kindle Edition.]