For over a year, I woke at dawn and came to my writing table set before a wide sliding-glass window. I greeted the sky, three redwood trees across the way, the tall birch tree in our garden, and mourning doves, crows, squirrels, ring-necked pigeons and robins there on any given day. Then I opened The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke. Each morning I read one poem, and found myself in a call and response, writing a new poem with one of Rilke’s lines as a title.
The process began during a month-long solitary retreat on Bere Island, a small, cliff-edged island off Ireland’s southwest coast. After two weeks of silence in the Irish air, and many hours outdoors with the ancient stones and the land, I could feel the sacred presence alive within the Earth.
In these quiet days I began to read Rilke’s Book of Hours. The poems, written over a century ago, rang in me like supple chimes. I came to see that each poem, often short and simple, was so full of sublime beauty that I needed to read only one each day, in order to drink its medicine deeply. It was indeed a Book of Hours, a daily hymnal.
Toward the end of my retreat, I wrote out two of Rilke’s stanzas, including the beautiful line, You take pleasure in the faces of those who know they thirst. And wrote: I too am a petitioner. The poem that ensued led me into a new poetic and spiritual journey. I found myself spontaneously addressing the sacred presence of the earth directly, as “Beloved.” In that moment the divine essence, often called God as well as many other names in the world’s spiritual traditions, became for me an intimate beloved, the embodied earth herself, living daily with us, within and among the trees, creatures, stones, flowers, and within ourselves.
After I returned from Ireland I set up a writing table at a wide sliding-glass window, and each morning rose early to greet the Beloved. Then I turned a new page of The Book of Hours. Like so many readers for more than a hundred years, I was startled and transformed by the poems’ beauty, their amazing prescience and deep soul. Each morning a line would emerge that spoke in an uncanny way to the moment. I wrote out that line as title, and began.
The poems I wrote were not comments upon Rilke’s work; nor were they attempts to address or answer Rilke’s brilliant lyric poetry. My work was to write the daily songs and laments arising within me, and to sing love poems to the holy presence within the earth. Ultimately, I wrote through The Book of Hours twice, producing more than 150 poems. This collection of fifty poems is arranged to invoke the many sides of prayer and love for divine—from awakening to the intimate Beloved and the holy essence of the earth, to spiritual disconnection and our shared heartbreak at environmental indignities, concluding with poems that embody a daily and ongoing communion.
All spiritual practitioners know that this arc is repeated again and again. One arrives in communion only to be thrown by life into spiritual loneliness, then awakening, and arriving again. All of these moments, sometimes especially moments of grief and heartbreak, hold an essential beauty. It is said that a thousand poems are written each day in praise of the divine. These poems include that, and also moments of spiritual loss and the struggle to become quiet within, humble and open-hearted, to become the lover who can offer that praise.
To work inside a flowing stream is where any writer wishes to be. To live there for a year, in community with a chorus of earth, trees, animals and poetic companions was blessing indeed. I offer thanks to Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows for their beautiful translation of The Book of Hours. I offer thanks to Rilke him¬self, who was, in the end, simply a man; yet he managed to created within himself, in the midst of his own wounds or perhaps because of them, a vessel for some of the greatest lyric poetry of the twentieth century. I offer unending gratitude to the many wild creatures, trees, clouds, earth, and blades of grass who accom¬pany my quiet mornings. And in the end, we all exist in one place: within the heart of the divine Presence of our blessed Earth. Beloved, thank you. All the work of my life, these hands, this heart, everything: all yours.