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January 2017

When I visited Prague in 2016, I encountered two writers of the past as I wandered the streets: Franz Kafka and Rainer Maria Rilke. They were both born in Prague. Like Kafka, Rilke's family had a plan for his life's work. They wanted him to be a lawyer and take over his uncle’s law firm. But both men wanted to be writers, if that was a possible career.

Rilke published some "love poetry" and it gained some popularity, so law was left behind.

He led a much more Romantic and romantic life than Franz. He was part of the Munich arts scene. He fell in love with a woman fifteen years his senior who helped him develop as a more serious poet. When they broke up, he became a bit of a gigolo, seducing rich noblewomen who supported him.  He wasn’t particularly good looking, but he seems to have used his poetry quite well with women.

He met Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis, another rich, older woman. But she didn't like the way Rilke treated women and refused to be seduced. They were close friends and wrote hundreds of letters, and she let Rilke stay in her castle in Trieste, on the Adriatic Sea.

At Castle Duino one winter while he was living there alone, Rilke said he heard a voice in the wind while walking along the cliffs. Then an angel appeared and spoke to him about life and death, beauty and humanity. It set Rilke to immediately begin writing what would become The Duino Elegies.

The elegies are made up of ten long verses. The two sequences, Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus are his most famous poems. They have made him a poet described as one of "romantic transformation and spiritual quest" and the poems are often described as "ecstatic."

I was surprised to learn that Rilke's angel symbolism was influenced by their depiction in Islam. There they represent the embodiment of transcendental beauty.

What interests me this month about the The Duino Elegies is their inspiration. They are intensely religious and mystical poems, but I don't expect that many of you reading this have had similar "angelic" inspirational moments.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them
pressed me against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.
Every angel is terrifying.

Some people would define an angel as a spiritual being acting as an agent, or messenger of God. Conventionally, they are represented in human form with wings and perhaps clothed in a long robe. Some people see angels as more Earthly persons of exemplary conduct or virtue or transcendental beauty.

I believe that Rilke’s angels are invisible. They are manifested human longing. They are outside any language, but we only have language for our expression.

I feel sorry for his angels who are trapped in a realm of living in both the present and the past simultaneously. They exist in the real and the unreal. That must be terrifying.

As Rilke writes:

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you,
almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing about you.
But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us:  our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death.

Terrifying and yet we call upon them. And they have no voice but through Rilke and you.

This month we write about angels or the angelic.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.

a sculpture by Marian Bruce

He wears his nakedness as a disguise:
charred stumps of feather, blackened blistered skin
taut on the rack of fractured bone. Bird-thin,
light as a bird but chained, he cannot rise.

Gaunt hag, hunched over her empty heart,
she flaunts her freedom, taunts him with his chains
and with a ruined beauty he disdains.
A wary unforgiveness keeps them apart.

Two silent dancers in a cone of light
stand outside time, unmoving, head to head.
The air is thick with what they've left unsaid.
Darkness has comprehended them tonight.

Stripped of everything but the will to live
each dies for what the other cannot give.

Ama Bolton

Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich. - Rilke

At the edge of cliff, a pull that isn’t gravity.
Wind emptying, putting on wings. Edge between
what is and isn’t. An urge to fly.
On the climb through aspen I heard it whisper,
and wondered about angels. Not sweet,
but more inner. Wind or wings? And later,
camped at the blue verge, lake silent below us,
past midnight I shifted bones against granite
in my mummy-bag – who could sleep
among the high-lonesome angels? or name
them by laws of physics, mind’s aberrations?
Nighthawks. Invisible flight rumpling the tops
of firs. The Milky Way absorbed every
particle of dust and made it stars. Wind or wings
wiped clean the trail. My footprints gone.
Past midnight I called them angels. Guardians
of blue, aspen singers, wings rooted
in ice. If they answered, it was in their own
language, their own terms.

Taylor Graham


Angels in flames of candles
Lit to say goodbye to her
And him and him

And the dog named Virgil
And the man who drowned
In the mouth of the harbor
On New Year’s Eve

And the baby shaken
For crying too long

Angels mix up the air
In my lungs
They run in packs
Like wolves and puppies
And children who skip for no reason

They hide when you need them
Slip into the beams
And boughs of branches
And empty buildings

Angels don’t weep they sing
I wish I were one now

Patty Joslyn


revelation - as through pinpricks
in the canvas backdrop of a dream -
unbuckled chronicles
in the direction of the beginning...
sung beneath the blind unblinking stars,
songs of tumbling, tumbling - mossy narratives
of wrestling waves run restless as foam -
birthing, bending towards - while slender tigers -
of fevered gaze and flicking tail -
roam silent amidst the rubbled, crumbling
rock debris of surpassed kingdoms,
licking the dust of dead rajas;
towards, towards
a never-ending beginning
spawning, spinning, drawn
forward to the fabulous first Fiat !
hoarfrosted enchantment -
columned, wreathed and bountiful -
beyond man-devouring time
and listless yearnings - towards
ever towards the threshold Eden
of sanity where the Almighty that is Love
slips to sleep wakeful, soft beneath
the slant of sternum, shielded only
by a snow feather once blown
by twice laughing winds that grazed
the archangel's wing...

Timea Deinhardt


The sun-bleached, whitewashed purity of the stone angel
in this ninth hour of daylight at St. Michaels' Cemetery,
can't change that this is the death hour.
She does not turn to follow me as I

walk hurriedly over the graves until
I am standing at the edge of this crazy cliff.
I glance at "Agnus Dei" tattooed on my wrist
and look down to the rocks below.

I am moving 186,000 miles per second
and everything is slowing down.
Eyes closed, feeling my body sway,
I whisper what must be a prayer.

Pamela Milne


Angel of the dawn, your
smile lingers long into the
day, it gambols through
beguiling fields, like a cantank-
erous breeze blowing the tall grass.
A quiet electricity shrouds only
you, my angel, so that everywhere
I follow you, I find the air crackling
and warm. I know I can never touch
that hidden, immutable cheek,
but whisper to me once before you go,
before you take every ounce of my desire
with you, I not knowing if
you will ever return.

R. Bremner


because it had been a rough night.
Her eyes are blue as heaven’s dome,
staring past me, so I turn around
following her gaze – a child drawing stars –
turn back, and she has miraculously flown.

Ken Ronkowitz


From the hard lines of Cimabue and Giotto
To the Orthodox icons,
They all look so serious,
As if the game of salvation is such a strain.
They have the eyes of the prematurely old ballplayers
On the baseball cards I had as a kid.

I’d like to know their stories,
Just like I wanted to know how to become a Dodger.
If it weren’t for the laser security system,
I’d turn the portraits over
And check if there are brief biographies
On the backs of Michael and Gabriel,

Like those on Koufax and Drysdale.
What universe are they from?
What eon did they break in?
In what minor choirs did they spend a century or two
Perfecting their raw talents,
Before they made it to the show?

I’d like to study their statistics,
Like their career wins and losses against the devil.
Did they ever set any records,
Such as the most consecutive souls sent to Purgatory?
How many centuries were they guardians before quitting,
And how did they know it was time?

Were the wings the first to go,
Too often arriving an instant after lust;
Or did their eyes fail them, from winking so much at things
Like eating meat on Friday and adultery?
Or did they simply lose the fire in the belly,
And quit?

Ron Yazinski


That was the summer I stayed up in Annandale
in a big old Victorian house off-campus,
smoking weed and translating Rilke
up on the roof. It was an independent
study and I got two credits for ten Elegies.
I got really tan up there too. I got the weed
from the bass player who lived in the basement apartment.
We’d smoke a bone and have the creative
juices flowing by breakfast. Then I would climb
out on the roof with my Coppertone and dictionary
while he got down with his jazz in the basement
where it was cool. And we’d improvise till sundown,
his funky bass line buzzing up through the bones
of that creepy old castle, me straddling the ridge
of the roof, which felt like the the nape of some enormous
archangel, the pitched slopes like great forbidding wings
just beginning to unfurl beneath my thighs
as I turned the pages of my Langenscheidt,
searching for just the right words in English
to describe the terrible beauty of the celestial hierarchy.
The more stoned I got, the closer I felt I was getting
to Rilke’s mystical vision, climbing higher and higher
across the hot roof tiles--and with nothing but
a diminishing joint between my lips for a balancing pole--
over the forehead to the very nose of the angel,
which was the dormer jutting out of the adjacent slope,
which I bestrode with the easy grace of a born horseman,
and flung the roach into the empty spaces, perhaps that the birds
might feel the expanded air with more intimate flight.

Paul Hostovsky


there are angels here
their wings fallen away

in stray feathers on the beach
mistaken for a common seagull's
there is goodness left

a quill could be salvaged
to write the sins of our past
on our consciences

then we might yet see the light
within us

hands at the small of our backs
sure as our spines are strong

there are angels here
their wings fallen away

they have flown too far
to be with us

Anita Sanz

“Her disposition is devout,
Her countenance angelical;”
Coventry Patmore. The Angel in the House. Canto IV.

The Angel in the house left
     Long ago. She’ll not come
Back to do her morning chores,
     Nor feed the messy child.

She’ll no longer iron his shirts,
     Pour the coffee in his mug,
Nor listen with uplifted face
     To his insightful words.

Left to his own devices, he
     Must cook and clean, take
His daughter to her school, then
     On to work to pay the bills.

She lives with her female lover
     In some dim outer purlieu,
Writes poetry, marches for rights,
     Works online for distant bosses.

She’ll not be bound by empty ties,
     Nor duties handed down
From ages past; she’ll not live in
     A doll’s house, like her mother.

The past in tatters, both
     Live with one-night stands,
Tweets and likes, and stare in hope
     At their crowded screens.

Robert Miller


i can tell that you're still in there
your hazel eyes still follow,
glisten in the afternoon sun

i see you blush, half smile during
your daydreams. my heart rises and
falls with each breath you take

the heart must be made of some kind
of magical fiber, one that binds us
in ways i can't express

i see the angels standing behind you
they do not hover or beckon
for that is an earthly way

tidal waves of memories spout
from deep, red places in our
souls, decorate the room.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


Angels exist in many forms and places
(not least: smiles on strangers’ faces).
Then, too, words are angels, or contain them;
and everyone contains words.
Angels, therefore, may be nothing but sound –
which means there's nowhere they can't be found.
My desire to write may be angelic.
It gets me high as any drug (hard or psychedelic),
but it's in no way a relic
of times (or poets) past.
I refuse to cast
poets and poems far older as less like angels.
Contemporary poets are no less rhyme-evangels
than those from any previous century.
There's no such thing as an elite poets’ gentry
in any place or time.
Suffice to say: I believe in angels – of rhyme.

Jethro McClellan


One night I took the ferry home
it was very late
and the sky roiled thick with clouds
like tsunami stirred ocean waves
the moon muted
with nary a star in sight
and I, the only passenger out on deck
It was bitter cold
and the gloom matched my mood
and the cold, the numbed sadness within my heart

As we approached the Statue of Liberty
I saw them through the fog
An army of angels winged and wicked
They held lanterns for they emitted no light
Wielding huge pick axes , they chipped away at the lady before them

I got up from my seat
and stood at the railing
hands gripped
Not believing what I was seeing

I went to call out to the other passengers
but my words lay frozen upon my tongue
My legs and arms weak with terror
Time stilled and the ferry rooted in its spot
as I bore witness to the horror before me

They were singing as they worked
but no beautiful music did they make
a hoarse menacing chant carried over the ocean
forced repetition
without soul, without spirit

They were tearing away brick like blocks
and had amassed a good pile stacked one atop the other
Angel imps -those who had long ago cast their lot with a prideful rebel
Flayed grotesques with serpent eyes and tongues

I felt about to sink to my feet
When thunder struck from above
and with it a multitude of Seraphim
Lightning accompanied their arrival
illuminating their former brethren
Axes dropped and the satanic horde flew into the sea
which steamed and bubbled up like inky Vesuvian liquid

The angels quickly dispersed
some guarding the shore sand searching the ocean depths
Swathed with swords, multi-winged and towering in height
Others of equal or greater stature,
set to work like enormous hummingbirds
hovering in the frigid air
rebuilding our lovely lady
with hands working like magic- unseen, untouching

The restoration, too otherworldly for human eyes
continued on as the ferry, no longer locked in place moved onward
I gathered myself and ran toward the end of the vessel
not once taking my eyes from the scene

I reached out over the railing with both arms,
like a worshipper filled with the spirit
and as I did an orb of light appeared
I looked into it searching its depth seeking its center
My breathing calmed and my heart steadied

Do not forget what you have seen
Do not forget the crowned lady
or those that would destroy her
For surely evil walks here
Unleashed and empowered

It cloaks itself in deceit
stoking fear, sowing hate
despising unity, culling division
But you must not step aside
Do not be silenced

The orb grew brighter
and from it emerged a being of indescribable beauty and form
neither male nor female, of flesh and spirit, not one but many
bathed in an array of brilliant and dazzling light
I did not want to look away but could not bear its force

I opened my eyes
my messenger angel was gone
but its words burned in my mind
and anchored within my heart

I quickly looked back at Liberty
my liberty, our liberty
the liberty of my immigrant grandparents
and my dad returning from WWII
and my cousin from Vietnam
and friends and neighbors from all continents
a beacon of hope to all

As we pulled away
she began to grow smaller
but there she still stood
silent but speaking
unshackled yet shackled

The mother of exiles
under siege

They would come again
they would not be deterred
nor would I

Terri J. Guttilla