On a Stanza by Rilke

On a Stanza by Rilke Poem By Thomas Swiss

Difficult, isn’t it?, to love these high-topped
foul-mouthed teens, this baggy threesome
in shorts and T-shirts—a torn one screaming,
as though it were informative or funny, Eat Me!
Sure, each was somebody’s baby once—
this Beavis roughhousing with his Butt-head
buddies: chunky look-alikes, wanting
nothing more in the world right now
than to kick some ass in a game of fastbreak Two-on-One. Sometimes energy
has an odor and takes up a lot of space.

Thunk: somebody hits one. And immediately
a single gut-propelled syllable—Yes!—
spins through the gym, then echoes upward,
as if this voice meant to swallow the ceiling
that’s higher than a steeple’s. Next door,
in fact, they’re actually building one—
or trying to. There’s a half-done shell
and, on the grass, a huge bell by a sign
that says: Future Home of Grace Church.
Curiously, the makers are also believers:
I overheard one of them at a garage sale,
telling how he’d brought his family from Texas
to give his “brethren” a hand. They’re not
the only ones, either; when I see them all
out there, during the day, measuring or carrying
or pounding on something, the parking lot’s
crowded with silver trailers and cars
with out-of-state plates. Yes, the man said,
they were happy here thus far. So in that
they’re like these boys: still strangers
to their grown-almost-to-adult-size bodies,
but pleased, why not?, with what
they’ve learned. Like the best way to hang
from a rim without snapping it, to slap the creaking
backboard as they test their newfound strength.

Do they feel like Supermen? Well, good for them—
but something still urges me to invoke the rules,
report them on the sly the way I did sometimes at practice: how else to get back at the one
who bullied me, the one who threatened
to piss in my mouth during showers?
Well, life’s vulgar, I hear my eighth-grade coach say.
And isn’t it? In the training room,
I put on the headphones that sing to me:
relax, and later, pump up!, and then a group
of preschoolers wanders into the gym,
assembled under watchful eyes. Whose?

—Camp-leader’s? Baby-sitter’s? Teacher’s?
The hoops to these kids are higher than heaven,
so they roll a ball on the floor. And the teens
go off hungry to raid the machines,
to bang on the TV stashed under a counter
in the so-called supervisor’s office: it’s hard
not to judge them harshly, though my own son’s
almost their age. There are too many people
in the world. As for the faithful, raising the church—
who’ll struggle soon with that bell it takes,
a two-story crane to lift—is it true what we
like to believe? That for them existence
is still enchanted. Still beginning
in a hundred places. A playing of pure powers
no one can touch and not kneel to and marvel.

On a Stanza by Rilke

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