– Thoughts about poems by Kabir, Rumi, and Rilke –
How did we ever get here? What did we do with our lives? What will it be like ten years from now? In these uncertain times we two had to make a few decisions that feel a bit scary, but, looking back, what are we scared of?
We should have been scared when we were young; but then we didn’t know. Now we know; we know that we don’t know. The mind responds like an echo that naturally only reflects what you shout out into the world, like a mirror that blindly returns what ever was presented to it; the mind responds the only way it knows. The drama, the scare (and by the way, the exhilaration too) is only the story about a story. It is deep inside of the mind where stories dissolve, the stillness, the background, so vast, so empty and full, so close that it just takes your breath away and nothing more needs to be thought or said.
* * *
Among many others it was the ancient poet Kabir who spoke about this – to me. Kabir the funny one, distinct, alive, awake, and surprising. I fell in love with him a long time ago. He would say what no one wants to hear. With a smiling, infinitely loving tone he would speak out what I hated to hear, what I was scared beyond words to hear – over and over, right in my face. I did not want to hear it, but I liked it. I was riveted to his tone. He catches you on the wrong foot, and you fall. You fall because the way you stood was unbearable.
He would say: “Death is coming; no way around it. And when it does, you’ll turn into rotten meat.” – Who wants to hear that? But, oh this mystery, I did, I wanted the truth.
He would say: “You are a liar, you deceive yourself and others, you know that you do and do it anyway, you are addicted to lying. This habitual betrayal has unavoidable consequences; no one gets away with it.” – I didn’t want to hear that, and yet I did, oh, I wanted to end the waste.
He would say: “The things you run to for comfort, for security will never provide it. What you run to is a mirage. There is no such thing as certainty.” – Hell, I roared in protest, called him a charlatan and a fool, and no way did I want to hear that. But deep inside I knew that he was right, and I am the fool, and I wanted to face it, stand up against fear and come clean, come home.
And he also gently but relentlessly reminded me that loss is unavoidable, that having even the dearest thing is only one half of the story, the other half, inseparably, unnegotiably connected, is: losing it again. In the midst of pleasure and joy we must know its impermanence. – What a kill joy! What a pessimist! But I wanted to hear it, I didn’t want to hide behind unconscious preferences, I wanted to be real and free.
* * *
Everybody somehow knows all these things. But with poetry these things enter your soul.
In every-day language the mind resists to receive the truth, it rather judges, compares, and checks how what it hears relates to what it already knows. We don’t really hear the words, we hear the meaning, and the meaning is nothing but convention, nothing but accumulated, checked, screened, conditioned burden.
Poetry is refined language, it often leaves the usual rules behind, sometimes in imperceptible ways, and, like magic, enters the soul directly. In poetry the familiar rules are broken. To use a computer analogy – the anti-virus alert would come on. You can resist and deny entry, assume safety; or you can distrust the wisdom of convention, allow entry without screening and trust your heart instead to figure it out.
* * *
And there are others; it was Rumi, the mystic, or Rilke, my German soul brother, who spoke in the same tone and many quite different poets who speak with words you don’t hear every day, with words that don’t make sense unless you lean out of your mind into the open space beyond and just listen.
* * *
Stay alert. A thief is entering the city.
Stay awake. Death is entering your body.
He aims no arrow or pistol,
fires no rifle.
He ignores the rest of the city,
but wants to grab you.
He doesn’t break down the fort’s gate
or attack the castle.
He’s invisible. No one can see him coming or going.
He’s strolling around
The darling kids you clothed and fed
will tie you to a bamboo bed
and toss you out.
They’re scared of ghosts.
Kabir says, this is an alien country,
no one belongs to you. Fool,
you came to this world with fists clenched,
you leave with hands open.
* * *
Phrase your question
Why doesn’t a soul fly when it hears the call?
Fish on the beach always move toward wave sound.
A falcon hears the drum and brings the quarry home.
Why is not every dervish dancing in the sun?
You have escaped the cage.
Your wings are stretched out.
You have slept in sheds and outbuildings
so long that you think you live there.
How many years, like children,
do we have to collect sticks and pieces of broken pottery
and pretend that they are valuable?
Leave childhood. Go to the banquet of true human beings.
Split open the cultural mold.
Put your head up out of the sack.
Hold this book in the air with your right hand.
Are you old enough to know right from left?
A voice says to your clarity, Walk.
Move into the moment of your death.
Learn some discipline there.
To the soul, move into the invisible,
and take what’s given. You are the king.
Phrase your question and expect an answer.
* * *
Content with ignorance
I did not know that love would make me this crazy,
with my eyes like the River Ceyhun
carrying me in its rapids to the sea,
where every bit of my shattered boat sinks to the bottom.
An alligator lifts its head and swallows the ocean,
then the ocean floor becomes a desert
covering the alligator in sand and drifts.
Changes do happen. I do not know how,
or what remains of what has disappeared into the absolute.
I hear so many stories and explanations,
but I keep quiet,
because I do not know everything,
and because something I swallowed in the ocean
has made me completely content with ignorance.
* * *
By the way the titles are invented by translators; Rumi’s poems never had titles.
* * *
Da neigt sich die Stunde und rührt mich an
by Rainer Maria Rilke
The hour is striking so close above me,
so clear and sharp,
that all my senses ring with it.
I feel it now: there’s a power in me
to grasp and give shape to my world.
I know that nothing has ever been real
without my beholding it.
All becoming ripens things,
and they come toward me, to meet and be met.
* * *
Klaus May 30. 2011