What Mortality Makes Possible

Vaunted and much-quoted mystical poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875, but he remains one of the most popular and most-purchased poets today, his work and his history still generating new translations and new biographies.

Frequent Rilke translator, ecologist, activist, scholar, and author Joanna Macy has co-authored three of those translations of Rilke, the most recent of which she found herself writing after the sudden and unexpected death of her husband of 56 years.

Called A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, the book sweeps through Rilke’s vast body of work to offer daily passages of his insights into the nature of life, love, and death—which he considers deeply and purposefully intertwined. Here, a quote from a letter Rilke wrote:

“I am not saying that we should love death, but rather that we should love life so generously, without picking and choosing, that we automatically include it (life’s other half) in our love. This is what actually happens in the great expansiveness of love, which cannot be stopped or constricted. It is only because we exclude it that death becomes more and more foreign to us and, ultimately, our enemy.”

Writes Macy of Rilke’s thinking on mortality: “Rilke invites us to experience what mortality makes possible. It links us with life and all time.”

More from Joanna Macy—and Rilke—can be found on Brain Pickings, as well as in this wonderful podcast where Macy joins Krista Bennett of “On Being,” sharing stories of the creation of the book as well as reading some of Rilke’s work. And also check out the Joanna Macy/Anita Barrows Rilke translation “On Mortality.” Beautiful, transcendent stuff.