Jeremiah : Rainer Maria Rilke

The end of this poem is fairly confounding and each translation I’ve seen is different, but here’s my rendering:


Once I was as tender as young wheat,
but you, O Wild One, were able to
rouse the heart held out to you,
so now it’s boiling like a lion’s heart.

What a mouth commanded you in me;
at that time, I was hardly a boy:
it was a wound: now it bleeds
year by year disastrously.

Each day I rang with new needs
which you devised, Ravener,
but they could not deaden my mouth;
see to it, how you will quench it

when we, who grind and wreck,
are lost and scattered far
and are passed by danger:
for then amidst the ruin
finally I’ll hear my voice again
which from the beginning was a roar.

by Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Remy Wilkins

For comparison, here’s Edward Snow’s translation:

Once I was as tender as young wheat,
yet you, you raging one, were able
to inflame the heart held out to you
so that now it boils like a lion’s.

What a mouth you demanded of me,
back then when I was almost a boy;
it became a wound; out of it now
bleeds year after doom-pronounced year.

Each day I sounded with new afflictions
which you, insatiate one, devised,
and none of them could kill my mouth;
consider now how you will quiet it

when those we devastate and crush
are finally lost and driven far away
and have perished in the danger:
for I want then amidst the rubble-heaps
finally to hear my own voice again —
which from its first moments was a howling.

And for good measure a third version.

Here’s the original German.

My other translations of Rilke:
Lady on a Balcony
Autumn Day
The Beggars

Good & Evil : E.E. Cummings & Rae Armantrout

maybe god

is a child
‘s hand)very carefully
to you and to
me(and quite with
out crushing)the

papery weightless diminutive

with a hole in
it out
of which demons with wings would be streaming if
something had(maybe they couldn’t
agree)not happened(and floating-
ly int


-E.E. Cummings

Theodicy has been too long in the hands of philosophers. Men with minds least likely to enter heaven are ill equipped to deal with the issue. Poets do better with their deep play. ”Amen, I say unto you, unless you turn and become as children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” saith the man from Nazareth. Here, Cummings, in the voice of a child, posits the  problem of evil and its resolution. Maybe god is a child’s hand bringing to us the world out of which demons would be streaming had he not placed his hand into it. [Here is a more full discussion of the above poem]


I was reminded of Cummings’ poem when I read the following poem by Rae Armantrout:


My dreams are cruel
children. They taunt me.
I dream I’m telling a story
the punch line of which
will involve deviled eggs.
                           I’m saying
some idiot
asked me where they originated.
I found that funny
or unfair.
Launched into this anecdote,
this dream, this poem,
I’m already worried. Now I see
the pair I’m addressing
have put their heads together,
hatching something,
over the crosswords.
A joke, of course, is a story that has a punchline, but what joke ends with deviled eggs? Perhaps: what does the devil eat for breakfast? or more likely: from where does the devil come? This is the question of the poem: whence evil? In the dream, the speaker is telling the joke and some “idiot” asks the origin of “deviled eggs” (the ole chicken or the egg dilemma). The speaker finds this funny/unfair; funny because the idiot is missing the point, unfair because the pursuit of theodicy is not for bullies.

Launched into this telling, the speaker records two people putting “their heads together” to solve a problem (perhaps butting their heads? there’s the idiot, but who is the other addressed?), “hatching” something over “the crosswords”. The scene is the kitchen table, the newspaper before them, and the idiot and the other are solving (resolving) a problem over over the crossword puzzle, but there’s more than that. In her economy Armantrout has excised ”puzzle” and rather than say “crossword” she uses “the crosswords”. So the idiot and the other entity are indeed opposed, using cross words, angry words, to solve this problem of evil. But perhaps even further these crosswords are the words of the Cross, the answer, perhaps the punchline to the problem of evil.

The speaker here, searching for answers, taunted by dreams (no doubt “chicken! chicken!”), feels the anxiety, feels the puzzle and gives us the yearning for these answers, the resolution, for the final waking.

Rae Armantrout After Gerard Manley Hopkins

God’s Grandeur
by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; Bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins descends from the grand declaration of the first line to the murky admission of man’s failure to uplift the world. Some have taken “flame out” in the modern sense of “to go out in a blaze of glory”; a meaning that doesn’t jive with its referent “shining from shook foil,” a shining that does not end. However, the view that takes foil as an entendre with the French sword I find enlightening, connecting that to the Rod two lines later.

After the derogation of the earth by man, the second stanza gives hope, climaxing with perhaps the greatest exhalation in all of poetry: “ah! bright wings”.


by Rae Armantrout
for Gerard Manley Hopkins

“Off the brown brink.”

Over smog colored

the same split

the exhaustive, glancing

It flashes
but doesn’t gather.

It rhymes and does not

Rae Armantrout is quite a different poet than GMH, but surprisingly lyrical nonetheless. In Day she offers a sequel to Grandeur. The same wings of the Spirit, but there’s tension, they’re split, aflutter. The world flashes, but does not gather; the world does not rise, it does not converge. We are left in tension, awaiting the great “Ah!”

Death & Prayer : Dickinson & Doran

I never lost as much but twice,
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!

Angels — twice descending
Reimbursed my store –
Burglar! Banker — Father!
I am poor once more!

-Emily Dickinson

One of the reasons Dickinson is so imminently readable is her simple plaintive poems that call up the deep experiences of life. The poem above depicts a prayerful struggle with God over death of a third child.  Twice before the speaker of the poem has lost as much, each time angels descend to give reimbursement, recalling the annunciation, and now the speaker calls on God again, but in a mixture of anger and love, “Burglar! Banker” with piety triumphing in the end “Father!”.  Few poems of such economy do as much.

I was recently reminded of this poem after rereading “Hurry the Iowa Cornfields” by Geri Doran (from her excellent award winning debut Resin):

Hurry the Iowa Cornfields

Harder to live a life than cross a field.
–Russian Proverb

Twice now in the declining light
I’ve carried my prayer to the field,
the flashlight’s fluttering oval

like lamplight in a library not yet dark–
a shield of the wary
against inescapable consequences.

And though I make my bid
in a field of near-ripe corn
my floundering god refuses me,

leaves me the rattle of stalks,
the shapes of my desires
numerous and thin.

Here it is nothing to remember
the purblind shriek of the bird,
domestic and white,

sensing hawk–nothing
to remember its idiot call,
here I am, caged.

If caged, you dare not call.
Yet to a field of corn I cannot cross
I come at dusk to stand in the rows,

rummaging in inadequate light
for gold silk turned to brown,
for ripeness, answering.

“Twice now” is the first clue that harkens to Dickinson’s poem, but both are prayers and deal with death. Death imagery stems from the attention to darkness: “declining light”, “not yet dark”, “dusk” and “inadequate light”. Just as the seasons are a common metaphor for birth, maturation, and death, so too is a day a picture of life. The speaker carries a flashlight as “a shield…against inescapable consequences” something that isn’t true of darkness, darkness can be escaped from, but Death cannot be.

But more than this is the section toward the end of the bird startled from the field. To understand this image we must know that birds shriek in danger (“sensing hawk”) to draw attention to themselves thereby drawing danger away from their nest. For the bird to call out “here I am, caged” but to be caged would be foolish (“you dare not call”); the bird only calls to attract attention away from her young. The speaker in a poem comes to a field to struggle with god, her floundering god. Like Job the speaker is bold to lay charges against this power and demands an answer.

The answer given is oblique. The poem ends with the speaker rummaging for ripeness in a near-ripe cornfield. It is the end of summer, near harvest, the corn stalks are dying, the gold silk turning brown, and once brown the corn will be ready to harvest. This cornfield, near death, is answering the speaker’s “idiot call”, the “purblind shriek” that hopes to draw off the stumbling god who uses death so inescapably. The only answer for a question of such pain and sorrow (Why death? Burglar! floundering god!) could only be answered by an uncrossable field.

from Inferno Canto XX : Two Translations

Certo io piangea, poggiato a un de’ rocchi
del duro scoglio, sì che la mia scorta
mi disse: «Ancor se’ tu de li altri sciocchi?

Qui vive la pietà quand’ è ben morta;
chi è più scellerato che colui
che al giudicio divin passion comporta?

-Inferno, XX Ln.25-30


In the 8th circle of hell, in the 4th ditch, where astrologists, seers and are punished, Dante falls into yet another crying jag for the sinners. Vergil, his guide, rebukes him for his impiety  (translation by Anthony Esolen):

I leaned upon an outcrop of the bridge
and surely wept; I wept so, that my guide
said, “Even now, with all the other fools!

Here pity lives the best when it is dead.
Who is more wicked than the man who longs
to make God’s judgment yield to human force?”

My translation:

Truly I wept, leaning upon the rock
of hard stumbling, so that my guide
said, “Are you as foolish as the rest?

Here pieta lives when it is best left dead.
Who is more wicked than the one
who feels compassion at divine judgment?”


1 Peter 2:8 “And a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offence, even to them which stumble at the word, being disobedient: whereunto also they were appointed.”

Pietà can mean both Pity and Piety and both senses play a role in Dante’s transformation so therefore I favor a transliteration so that the reader must struggle alongside of Dante: piety or pity?