Aug 152016
 

Rilke
allan cooperAllan Cooper

.

In 1974 I found Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, translated by Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson. I was twenty and had just begun my first real attempts at writing poetry. I was insecure and hesitant about my own work. What if I couldn’t write? What if my idea of becoming a poet was a sham? I was encouraged by these lines in the Fourth Elegy:

….Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.

Or I can always read. So I decided to read as much poetry as I could. I searched out North and South American, European, Chinese, and Japanese poets to see if I could  develop a voice that could carry the kinds of images and insights that I found in Rilke’s work.

During the fall of 1975, the Canadian poet John Thompson and I had several long discussions about Rilke. He encouraged me to write English versions of some of Rilke’s shorter poems to see what they looked like. I tried two or three and took them back to Thompson. He liked some of the lines, made several suggestions, and the exercise slowly helped me with my own poems. But for years Rilke haunted me, especially the Duino Elegies. At times, reading various translations was like looking down into roiled ocean water and seeing something moving beneath, but nothing was clear.

It seems to me that the Elegies were something entirely new in the canon of literature, as Tom Thomson’s paintings of Algonquin Park were new to visual art, or Pablo Casals’ interpretations of the Bach Cello Suites were new and astonishing in the canon of musical performance. One of the great risks of translating Rilke, especially the Elegies, is that it’s tempting to bring in the “ohs” and “ahs” and embellishments of the original, but we don’t speak that way anymore. One question that dogged me was what Rilke would sound like if he were writing now. So I began translating Rilke with a contemporary English voice in mind.

The themes of the Elegies are immense and often personal. There are passages in the Elegies either addressed to or about his mother and father that are as moving as anything I have read. He praises the things of the world, cathedrals, children, heroes, young women, animals, catkins, mountain springs, and that list in the Ninth Elegy:

…perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?

Rilke’s friend, the pianist Magda Von Hattingberg, said she felt there was a certain dislike of simple joys in the Elegies, but I don’t believe this is the case. In the Ninth Elegy he says we’re here to praise, to transform, to be alive in this world:

Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said….
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them…

Or this the passage from the Seventh Elegy:

To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.

I don’t pretend to understand everything that Rilke says in the Duino Elegies, but working on the poems daily for many months has given me new insights. They feel like long letters to us, letters about what it’s like to live and love and die on this planet. I think of them now as letters to the universe.

§

The Fourth Elegy

Living trees, when do you sense the coming of winter?
We’re not in touch; we don’t have that instinct
the birds feel in autumn. Late, at the last minute
we coax ourselves onto the wind
and fall abruptly into a cold, indifferent pond.
We’re conscious of the blossoming and the withering
at the same time. And somewhere lions are roaming,
unaware of any weakness in them.

And we, who try to focus on one thing,
already feel the lure of another. That conflict
is part of who we are. Don’t lovers
always find the limits of each other?–
although they promised
a certain space, to pursue bliss, to find a sense of home?
They prepare a quick sketch of the other side,
a sort of background of pain
to help us see them, to make
themselves clear. And we don’t even understand
the contours of our own feelings,
only what forms them from outside.
Who hasn’t stood at the curtains of their own heart, shaking?
And when they rose, it was the landscape of goodbye.
That’s easy enough to understand. A familiar garden,
moving slightly in wind. And then a dancer stepped forward.
It wasn’t the beloved. No matter how lightly he danced
he was someone else, a carpenter coming home through the kitchen.
No, a puppet is better. At least it’s complete. I can stand
the limp body, the wires, the face
that’s almost expressionless. Look, I’m here, waiting.
And even if the lights are turned down, and someone says
“There’s no more, that’s it”–even if the emptiness
flows toward me like a grey breeze from the stage,
and none of my ancestors
sit beside me anymore, no women,
not even the young boy with the brown squinting eyes–
I’ll stay. I can always watch.

Am I right? Father, didn’t your life
taste bitter after you’d tasted mine,
the first distillation of what I had to do,
and you kept tasting as I kept growing,
and you, troubled by the aftertaste
of such a strange destiny, tested my lofty vision.
And you, my father, who since you died
I’ve held so often inside me, in my wishes and dreams,
you, concerned and afraid for me,
traded some of the tranquility the dead own,
their kingdoms, for my grain of destiny,
am I right? And all of you
who loved me from the beginning
of my love for you, a love I turned away from,
because when I loved you, the distance in your face
turned into something infinite,
and you were gone… When I’m moved by it
I stand in front of the puppet stage,
or stare at it so intensely an angel appears
to counter-balance my seeing
and make those limp bodies come alive.
An angel and a puppet: now we have a play.
Then the separation created simply by our presence
can come together again. And at last, out of the seasons
of our lives the cycle of everything is transformed. Above us
and beyond us an angel is playing. If no one else feels it,
at least the dying must sense how pretentious
our accomplishments are here.
We won’t let anything be what it is. What I wouldn’t give
for those hours of childhood, when everything was more
than a memory, and what opened out in front of us wasn’t the future.
Our bodies were changing–we felt that–and sometimes
we were in a hurry to grow up, just to please those
who had nothing to show for having grown up.
And yet when we played alone, we were delighted
by what never changed, and we stood in that place
between the world and our toys,
a place where a pure event had been waiting to happen
from the very beginning.

Who can show a child exactly as she is?
Who will place her like a star, and put the yardstick
of immense distances in her hand? Who will make a child’s death
from grey bread, which grows hard, or leave it
inside her round mouth like the core
of a shining apple? What moves a man to murder
is easy to understand. But death,
all of it, completely, even before
our lives have really begun, to hold it gently and not be bitter–
we don’t have the words to describe this yet.

.

The Seventh Elegy

This wooing, this courtship won’t be part of your nature anymore,
for your voice has outgrown it. Now your cry is as pure as a warbler’s song
when the abundance of spring lifts him up, and he almost forgets
he’s a small, fretful, anxious thing, not this complete heart
thrown into the clear light of a deep and limitless sky. Like him
you would court the silent one you love,
and she’d begin to feel you, still invisible to her,
and some reply would wake inside her, almost a kind of inner listening.

Even the spring understands this–there’s no place
that wouldn’t carry the sound of your announcement. The first
short questioning notes, and the day, pure, affirms it
and shelters it with more and more silence.
Then the song goes higher and higher, up a stairway of notes
to that dream temple of the future; a trill, a warble, a fountain of notes
that in their rising already know they will fall,
for this is a play of promises… And the summer still to come.

Not only those summer mornings, and the first light breaking,
but the way the light changes and opens up the day;
not only the day, gentle around blossoms,
and the shapes of trees, so solid and strong;
not only the intensity of this unfolding power,
light touching the forest paths, the dusky meadows;
not only the rolling thunder at night, and the air clearing;
then near sleep, and some premonition you finally understood…
But the nights themselves, high summer nights,
and the stars of this earth.
And when you die, to understand that those stars are infinite:
this is something you will never forget.

Look, I’ve called out to the one I love. But she wouldn’t be the only one
who would come. Young women would rise from their insubstantial graves
and stand here. For once you call out, how can you put a limit
on the depth of your cry? The dead are always longing
for the earth again. When children feel something completely
it’s enough to last them for the rest of their lives.
For our destiny is nothing more than the closeness we felt as children.
How often you outdistanced the one you loved
as you ran blissfully, breathing quickly, into the open spaces.

To be here is marvellous. Even you young girls
sensed it, you who had nothing, who seemed to sink down
into the filth of the city streets, the garbage festering,
open, on display. You had an hour, maybe less, that small
space between two moments when you felt
completely here, your veins filled with being alive.
But we forget so quickly what a laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies in us. We want to hold it up
and show it, but even our most visible joy can only reveal itself
when it’s transformed completely inside.

Beloved one, the world only exists inside us.
We spend our lives transforming it, and the world outside us
slowly disappears. And where a house once stood
we create an image of that house inside us, board
by board, as if it were still there, complete, in the imagination.
The spirit of our age has built immense reservoirs of power, shapeless
as the intense emotions it draws from everything.
Temples and all sacred places mean nothing. And where one
remains, where we worshipped, and kneeled and prayed,
it lives on in the invisible world.
We can’t see them yet, we
can’t find them inside us, those pillars and columns
that could be so much greater now.

Each hollow change in the world has its forgotten ones,
who don’t belong to the past and aren’t a part of the future.
For even what is closest to them seems distant.
This shouldn’t confuse us, but make us stronger
in our labour to preserve those forms we still recognize.
Once they stood among us, in the middle of a destiny
that slowly destroys things, in the middle
of what we don’t understand; endured there, and made the stars
bow down from the protective heavens. Angel,
this is what I have to show you: it’s in your gaze,
saved at last, rescued, standing there,
those columns, sacred gateways, the sphinx,
the grey domes of cathedrals thrusting up from a strange city.

Angel, wasn’t it a miracle? Be astonished, great one, for this
is what we are. Tell them what we accomplished here; my breath
is too short to praise it. So in the end we didn’t neglect
our abundant allotment, this world space
which is ours alone. (And how terrifyingly immense
that space must be, which hasn’t overflowed
with our feelings after thousands and thousands of years.)
Wasn’t a tower magnificent,
even compared to you? And Chartres was immense, and the music
reached even higher and transcended us. But even
a young woman in love, alone at night by her window,
didn’t she reach almost to your knee?
Angel, don’t think
I’m wooing you, and even if I were, you wouldn’t appear. For my
call is always filled with leaving, and you couldn’t move against
the strength of that current. My call is like an arm stretched out
to hold you back. And my open hand, as if reaching up
to grasp something, defending and warning
at the same time, is something
you will never understand.

.

The Ninth Elegy

Why, if the rest of our lives could be spent as quietly
as the laurel tree, a darker green than all
the other trees, with small curves on the edges
of every leaf (like a wind’s smile)–why do we
try to escape our human fate,
and yet long for it…
Oh not because of happiness,
that quick profit we take just before the coming loss.
Not out of curiosity, or to give the heart practice,
which the laurel tree already feels as well…

But because being truly alive is difficult: because the fleeting
things of the world need us, and in a strange way
call out to us. And we’re the most fleeting of all.
Each living thing is here once, that’s it. And we
live once. But to have been here
once, completely alive here–
to have been a part of this world–nothing can take that away.

And so we’re driven to achieve it.
We try to hold it in our simple hands,
in our overcrowded seeing, in our heart which is speechless.
We try to become the world. But who would we give it to? We’d
hold onto it forever…But then what could we take with us
to the other side? Not our seeing, that we learned so slowly,
and nothing that happened here. Not one thing.
Perhaps pain then, and the heaviness of life,
and love that lasted a long time;
and what can’t be said. But later, beneath the stars,
what would we say? There are things better left unspoken.
The wanderer doesn’t bring a handful of earth from the mountain
to the valley, or what can’t be said, but the pure word, the intense blue
gentian. Perhaps we’re here to name things, to say house,
bridge, fountain, wooden gate, water pitcher, apple tree, window–
at the most pillar, tower… But understand, to say them
in such a way that the things themselves
would never think of. Isn’t the secret purpose
of this coy earth to urge lovers on,
so that they leap inside with ecstasy?
How much a threshold means
to two lovers, who wear down their own
threshold, like those who came before them,
and those who are yet to come…light as can be.

This is the hour to say things, and this is its home.
Say it now. For now more than ever
the things of this world are falling away from us,
and in their place there are acts without images,
acts like shells that crack open
as soon as what is inside outgrows it and takes on a new form.
Despite the hammering of our heart,
the heart lives on; and though our tongue is clenched
between our teeth, it continues to praise.

Praise this world; don’t try to tell an angel what can’t be said.
You can’t impress him with your grand emotions. In the universe
he feels more and more, and you are just a beginner. Show him
some simple thing which, passed down over generations,
lives on in our hands and our eyes.
Tell him about things. He’ll be astonished, as you were
standing by the rope maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.
Show him how joyful and innocent a thing can be; show him
how much it is ours, how much sorrow and grief become pure
in the end, serve as something, or die into something, and blissfully
escape beyond the sound of the violin. And these things of the world
that live only a short time know that you’re praising them;
transients, they want us to preserve them, and we’re the most transient
of all. They want us to take them inside our invisible hearts
and transform them into ourselves–whatever it is we finally are.

Earth, in the end, isn’t this what you want: to rise inside us
invisibly? Isn’t your dream
to be completely invisible one day? The earth, invisible!
Isn’t your urgent message to be transformed?
Earth, dearest one, I’ll do it. You don’t need to show me
anymore spring times to win me over; just one
is more than my blood can take.
I’ve belonged to you from the beginning, without saying a word.
You’ve always been right, and your inspiration has always been death,
that friend, that companion.

Look, I’m alive, but what feeds me? Neither my childhood
nor the future grows any less… an infinite presence
rises from my heart.

—Rainer Maria Rilke introduced & translated by Allan Cooper

.
Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.

.

.

  2 Responses to “Letters to the Universe: From Rilke’s Duino Elegies — Translated by Allan Cooper”

  1. Wow, what excellent choices he made. Well done.

  2. Very beautiful, nourishing, timely, Thank you.

Leave a Reply