Poetry Review: “Sometimes a Man Stands Up” by Rainer Maria Rilke

Selected-poems-of-RilkeLast week my two daughters were abroad on a trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. My wife and I stayed home, spending a week painting rooms for an upcoming graduation party, because in Suburban Minnesota it is customary to throw an elaborate open-house for high school graduation [even though graduating from high school.. like being toilet trained and being able to eat with utensils… is the very LEAST we expect from people in our society].

Rilke’s poem “Sometimes a Man Stands Up” was understandably on my mind during that week. I first read this Robert Bly translation of the poem 30 years ago… at a much different place and time in my life.  Funny how time and circumstance can make you see a poem so differently.

As a 21-year-old wanderer with a wide-open future it was a poem about growing up. I recognized its tragic undertones but did not fully “feel” them… though for that, how much of true tragedy can we recognize and feel when we are young and full of promise (only the middle-aged man truly trembles when watching King Lear).

Now… three decades past, the poem is something quite different altogether: a tragedy I know now from the inside as well as out… a melancholy story I know only too well.

It is spring at last in the North Country. Juncos have returned… feeding on the ground beneath the feeders outside our porch. Walking near a marsh near our house I have heard, though not yet seen, red-winged blackbirds… the clearest of all signs of spring to me.

My heart should be light in the longer light of the days… but it is not. It is restless…. but than again it is always restless. Restlessness is, after all, at the very heart of the human condition… as Rilke’s poem so clearly conveys.


Sometimes a Man Stands Up

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

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