After Rilke

  John Tranter
  After Rilke

The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rilke, photographed in 1900
The Bohemian-Austrian poet Rilke, photographed in 1900

Paragraph 1 follows:

Wikipedia tells us that ‘In the United States, Rilke is one of the more popular, best-selling poets—along with 13th-century Sufi mystic Rumi and 20th-century Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran.’ Hmmm…

1:

After a period of hero-worship in the 1960s, when I owned the Penguin ‘Modern European Poets’ version of Rilke in paperback, I abandoned Rilke for some decades. Lately I have grown to suspect that he was a bullshit artist, so when I turned my attention to Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’ it was not out of kindness. The critic Marjorie Perloff, in an article in Jacket magazine (number 14) on the difficulties of translation, notes the opening of Rilke’s ‘First Duino Elegy’, to wit:

2:

Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus den Engel Ordnungen?

3:

This line has been translated into English literally dozens of times, she writes, but, as William Gass points out in his book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, (Gass 57–58) none of the translations seems satisfactory. Here are a few examples:

4:

J. B. Leishman (1930):
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?

A. J. Poulin (1977):
And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders?

Stephen Cohn (1989):
Who, if I cried out, would hear me — among the ranked Angels?

5:

Gass (says Perloff) is very critical of these, but his own is no better, to her ear, and she is fluent in German:

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Who if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?

7:

As I was typesetting Marjorie Perloff’s article for Jacket, I remembered reading something very similar recently. In Californian poet Rachel Loden’s collection Dick of the Dead the poem ‘My Angels, Their Pink Wings’ opens with these lines:

8:

Who, if I pitched a hissy fit, would even
blink a powdered eyelid

among the angelic orders? The night sky
is indifferent and glittery with facts.

9:

Well, if Rachel can do it, I can do it, I thought. My version of Rilke’s ‘First Duino Elegy’ is titled ‘After Rilke’ and begins thus:

10:

I hate this place. If I were to throw a fit, who
among the seven thousand starlets in Hollywood
would give a flying fuck? Or suppose some tired
studio executive, taken by my boyish beauty — no,
I’d suffocate. Charm is only makeup-deep,
I reckon, and staring in the mirror too long
can give you the horrors: that thing in the glass,
it doesn’t care…

— (Urban Myths p.214)

11:

Once again, I seem to have been attempting to avoid the trap of my own earlier rhetorical stances by borrowing and commenting on the lineaments of other poets’ work. The poems were published as a booklet titled Borrowed Voices by John Lucas’s Shoestring Press in Nottingham, and the publication was well received. Here’s the full poem, set in Santa Monica near where Marjorie Perloff lives, and with a guest appearance by Marjorie Perloff’s Mexican gardener:
John Tranter

After Rilke

— A version of the First Duino Elegy.

12:

I hate this place. If I were to throw a fit, who
among the seven thousand starlets in Hollywood
would give a flying fuck? Or suppose some tired
studio executive, taken by my boyish beauty – no,
I’d suffocate. Charm is only makeup-deep,
I reckon, and staring in the mirror too long
can give you the horrors: that thing in the glass,
it doesn’t care. Every nymphette burns
for some drug or other. I’m not drinking tonight,
do you mind? Messages banking up, unanswered.
On the screen a masked cowboy chases
a masked cowboy: the moonlit glade
is black and white. Even here among the big-wigs
the servants are unreliable, the pool
fills up with foliage and seagull droppings.
Who’ll clean it up? Not the top brass, not
the Mexican gardener raking leaves in the drive,
who sees how uneasy we are reading the headlines
and the newsreels’ various interpretations
of the shit going on in Europe.

                    The trees just grow – that cypress,
a black finger scraping the blue, or the dry palmettos
decorating Sunset’s long slope to the Pacific, fronds
rattling in the breeze – they say rats nest in them,
their pink babies safe from harm – grow like a habit
that takes root in a tangle of frailties and becomes
as regular as rum in the morning coffee. And the stars
glimmering through the smog, and the night wind,
see how it ruffles the hair of a snoring beggar.
Now, standing on the pier at Santa Monica,
looking out over all that black water, I’m appalled
by the way errant birds are caught in the lights
and seem no more than fluttering scraps of paper.

Up the slope from the beach in a lamplit hacienda
in the Spanish Mission style, a violin
is crying its guts out: some good Jewish kid
pleasing his mama; Carnegie Hall his given task.
I need a severe love like that, those demands
that tell me someone wants to suck my blood;
me with my big head, and my dealers always
coming and going through the French windows,
wrecking the flower-bed. I’m not well –
and when I want a doctor I want a good one,
some overgrown whiz-kid who can
knock up an aorta from a length of garden hose,
and immortalize the alchemy of surgery
on the cover of Time magazine. Let me praise
the tired GP with his pad of blank prescriptions:
hero to the working poor, sucker to junkies –
what am I talking about?
                                                            We were cowboys,
hacienda, moonlight – the letter zee
as the alphabet’s last occasion for self-assertion –
but Zorro in his guise of landed gentry
sits up till dawn alone in the library
comparing his first editions of Cervantes,
one mis-bound and paginated incorrectly,
the other almost perfect – exhausted yet fulfilled.
I could be like him, whining in the harness-shed,
snapping at the groom in English – time to get out,
an arrow loosed high over suburbia… I’ll
die, stuck here

                                                Voices and echoes
from the mantel radio, slow jazz at midnight –
mental radio – I remember the recording engineer
bent over his control panel, focussed,
the swooning harmonies lifting him from the ground –
no, his bloodshot eyes are locked on the meters,
watching the headroom – and the saxophone
calling from the past: the voice of a young god.
I know those notes, that particular melodic twist:
he died young and he will be young forever,
his picture on the record covers talking to me,
the black disk revolving – what does he
want from me? What can I say
to undo ruin, what could I have said
to mend that broken story?

There he is, a pattern in the stars, perhaps:
a slight alteration in those haughty diagrams.
Strange, to inhabit the sky at last, discarding
his spare change and his car keys,
his body left behind like a broken toy.

And me, and me – the pier locked for the night,
stars wheeling above, street lights below,
light calling to light, distant harmonies
across the long reaches of grief, moonlight
in monochrome calling me to sleep.

END
 

 

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