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