How these things are forgotten

In “The Bowl of Roses” (full text below), the poet Rilke spends eight lines painting an ugly picture. And then:

But now you know how these things are forgotten:
for here before you stands a bowl full of roses…

Thus begin sixty-four exquisite lines of instruction on how these things are forgotten. Eight lines of discarded gazes and pure hate are balanced by sixty-four lines in which roses dampen down their inner power to see, as if better to concentrate on the alchemy of distilling a deep and beautiful truth.

A fawn and Rosie

A fawn gazing in at Rosie

In the poem’s economy, to forget each one line of evil, you need eight lines of beauty. That ratio seems about right.

A few mornings ago a fawn stopped outside my window where I live in the Oakland hills. Its fear gave way to curiosity when it saw our cat Rosie, and it stood for a long time, intent on Rosie’s every move.

It was close enough for me to see its dark, dilated pupils, its straight eyelashes, and the white markings on its black nose. I tried not to startle it, because I wanted more time to gaze.

It was fully present. Its own life filled it. It made me think of Rilke’s rose “containing nothing but itself.”

Gazing at this lovely wild animal as it gazed at Rosie … I forgot a few things.


The Bowl of Roses

You saw angry ones flare, saw two boys
clump themselves together into a something
that was pure hate, thrashing in the dirt
like an animal set upon by bees;
actors, piled up exaggerators,
careening horses crashed to the ground,
their gaze discarded, baring their teeth
as if the skull peeled itself out through the mouth.

But now you know how these things are forgotten:
for here before you stands a bowl full of roses,
which is unforgettable and filled up
with ultimate instances of being and bowing down,
of offering themselves, of being unable to give, of standing there
almost as part of us: ultimates for us too.

Noiseless life, endlessly opening,
filling space without taking space away
from the space other things in it diminish,
almost without an outline, like something omitted,
and pure inwardness, with much curious softness,
shining into itself—right up to the rim:
is anything as known to us as this?

And this: that a feeling arises
because petals are being touched by petals?
And this: that one opens itself, like a lid,
and beneath lies nothing but eyelids,
all closed, as if tenfold sleep
had to dampen down an inner power to see.
And, above all, this: that through these petals
light has to pass. Slowly they filter out
from a thousand skies the drop of darkness
in whose fiery glow the jumbled bundle
of stamens becomes aroused and rears up.

And look, what activity in the roses:
movements with angles of deflection so small
no one would see them, were it not
for infinite space where their rays diverge.

See this white one, so blissfully opened,
standing among its huge spreading petals
like a Venus upright in her shell;
and how this one, the blushing one, turns,
as if confused, toward the cooler one,
and how the cooler one, impassive, draws back,
and the cold one stands tightly wrapped in itself
among these opened ones, that shed everything.
And what they shed, how it can be
at once light and heavy, a cloak, a burden,
a wing, and a mask, it all depends,
and how they shed it: as before a lover.

Is there anything they can’t be: wasn’t this yellow one
that lies here hollow and open the rind
of a fruit of which the same yellow,
concentrated, more orange-red, was the juice?
And this one, could opening have been too much for it,
since, touched by air, its indescribable pink
has picked up the bitter aftertaste of lilac?
And isn’t this batiste one a dress, with
the chemise still inside it, soft and breath-warm,
both of them flung off together
in morning shade at the bathing pool in the woods?
And this, opalescent porcelain,
fragile, a shallow china cup
filled with little lighted butterflies,—
and this one, containing nothing but itself.

And aren’t they all doing the same: simply containing themselves,
if to contain oneself means: to transform the world outside
and wind and rain and patience of spring
and guilt and restlessness and disguised fate
and darkness of earth at evening
all the way to the errancy, flight, and coming on of clouds
all the way to the vague influence of the distant stars
into a handful of inwardness.

Now it lies free of cares in the open roses.

–Rainer Maria Rilke, in The Essential Rilke, by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann

Handmade (a poem about evidence)

I gaze at the heavens,
searching for you, my God. (Ps. 123:1, ICEL Psalter)

Handmade

Barefoot in the dirt outside our tent
in the dark, I bend back my head
and open my heart to the sky.

I hope to see heaven unravel,
galaxies take up the thread
then spin, then snap as
larger, more practiced hands
pull spacetime taut
weaving, reweaving
uncountable yards of stuff and nothing,
endless bolts of evidence—

Meanwhile, after billion-year trips,
photons land without fanfare
in my skin
in my eyes
right where I stand;
primordial lights
like jewels, sewn by hand
onto the dress
of a princess.

—K.S.

Pang (a poem about preaching)

Pang*

What can sustain us through the Winter?
Cans of green beans, I guess,
creak-creak opened by
weary pastors with their
key-to-scripture can openers, limp
calories forked onto our plates by
servers like ourselves who’ve
long since forgotten there’s
any such thing
as local produce—
any such thing
as tureens of slow-cooked winter stew
mindfully prepared;
fresh-baked bread, warm, broken,
and passed among friends;
sanctified wine poured from the lip
of a dark green bottle;
an expectant hush
as one among us rises to deliver
a well-crafted toast:

a story of Spring
to make our mouths water in anticipation
of still-warm backyard tomatoes
that we will burst open with our teeth
just seconds 
after we pick them.

—K.S.


* I wrote this poem several years ago and am only just publishing it now.

A rain poem

The Favor (for Cookie the neighbor cat)

I said,
“May I pet you? What an honor it would be.”
You replied with
some drawn-out “mmm” syllable of complaint as if
it cost you money to arch your back up to meet my hand, as if
you were not free to run back out
into the rain.

First Principle and Foundation

One of my first tasks in going through the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises in 2005 was to meditate on the First Principle and Foundation and come up with my own way of saying it: Why do I exist?

My cat Rosie would lounge on my lap during these meditations…napping, dozing, stretching, purring, and just generally reveling in my company. I began to notice her more and more, and to think that maybe she was onto something. Maybe God’s reason for creating me is like my reason for keeping Rosie: I don’t need her, but I do love her.

One day I was talking to my spiritual director about this, and he leaned over and took a book of poetry from his shelf and read D. H. Lawrence’s “Pax” to me.

Pax

All that matters is to be at one with the living God
to be a creature in the house of the God of Life.

Like a cat asleep on a chair
at peace, in peace
and at one with the master of the house, with the mistress,
at home, at home in the house of the living,
sleeping on the hearth, and yawning before the fire.

Sleeping on the hearth of the living world
yawning at home before the fire of life
feeling the presence of the living God
like a great reassurance
a deep calm in the heart
a presence
as of the master sitting at the board
in his own and greater being,
in the house of life.

—D.H. Lawrence

I took the poem with me into my meditations. So…all that matters is for me to be in my right place with God, and my right place is like that of a cat asleep by the fire in a great, orderly, prosperous household? Humbling. This metaphor neutralizes any fantasy of being a hero, of being the linchpin of any operation of real consequence.

I can’t figure out how life works, I can’t control people or events or God. But I am loved, valued, part of the household, employed, and in a close relationship with my inexplicable God.

Related:

To be found

Luke 15:8–9

Suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she will call in her friends and neighbors and say, “Rejoice with me because I have found my lost coin.”

This Sunday’s scripture is one I pondered a few years ago when my spiritual director assigned it as part of the first week of the Ignatian Exercises. I wrote this poem during that time and just revised it.

My fevered search for the lost shiny coin
that was God Who Made Sense:
Light the bright lamps of the mind!
Sweep the corners of reason!
Empty the pockets of theodicy!

What work!

At last work wears out
and I fall exhausted on the floor
and lie flat and deathly
and the silence makes room for a question:
Is the story about the woman’s search—
not mine
but hers?
her fevered search for the lost shiny coin
that is me?
She calls for lamps,
She sweeps the corners,
She empties her pockets….

And what more can a coin do
(small, flat, and round
lost in dust under a bookshelf
or the kitchen stove)
but lie there
and hope like anything that the woman
driven by love
will never call off her search?