Issue 7: Geoff Ward, from Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies

From Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies*

The First Elegy

Even if I went out screaming, who would pick up the signal, at the rank

of Angel? Same story, if one of them pressed me

to his heart: I would fade out, caught in the glare

of stronger Dasein. Because what really gets to you is Nothing

i.e. holding on just this side of panic over what you love, precisely because

it could, but it hasn’t, destroyed you yet. Angels are the pits.

Once more I hold myself down, choking down the sign:-

the bullet, the darkness, separation. Who’s there

when you need them? Angels? No. Humans? No.

Even the animals have noticed

that we’re not exactly at home in this

interpreted world. There remains to us perhaps

that tree over there, living on the edge, new every morning:

there are still the streets of yesterday,

and the immaculate fidelity of some habit

that liked us, and stayed, and now won’t leave.

   O and the Night, the Night, when the wind filled with cosmic

space feeds on our faces-: who wouldn’t she stay for, the yearned-for,

the mild disenchantress of the single heart

in ribbons? Is she any easier on lovers?

Shit: they won’t part with what they’ve made themselves-

to the other, least of all.

   Haven’t you got it yet? Hurl all the emptiness out of your arms

to give us breathing space: maybe the birds

can fly more intensely, through more air.

Just so, the Springtimes needed you. Many a shooting

star needed you, to trigger it. Many waves

would rise towards you in the past or through a window

as you passed, yielding violin. The whole thing spelt commission.

But were you up to it? Weren’t you always

prostrated by your own expectation, some amazing dominatrix

(as if you could ever get her to move in with you, with all these

really weird desires coming and going, sometimes staying all night...)

So don’t play the trashcan Sinatra † , just don’t even think about it: sing out

of women abandoned and desolate (you envy them, after all) –

in love that trumps the gratified. The indelible

stains are the best: and the Lost Ones live totally beyond

any neat version of reciprocation. On your marks, get ready

to play them the tribute forever of that song they’ll never hear.

Think about it: sex runs fast forward in a backwards movie, then dozes

into birth. To love is to come home to worn-out Nature, but

you only get one chance:- You’d better think (think! think!) think about

what you’re tryin’ to do to me :- so what’s wrong with being an adolescent girl,

who, when he’s gone, hasn’t come, doesn’t exist, looks straight through

the poster on the bedroom wall? Shouldn’t these most ancient longings

get to be a little more fruitful, at long last, for us? Isn’t it time that, loving, we

stepped free of the loved one- loving the alien? As the slug loves the chamber,

about, pace Zeno, to become so much more than itself, in endless flight.

Standing still is nowhere.

Voices, voices. Hear, my heart, as only the

holy once hearkened: so that the great, rumbling call

gave them liftoff; they carried on kneeling,

the Impossible Ones, and gave no sign,

such were their powers of hearing. Not that you’re up to catching God’s

voice, not by miles. But listen to the whispering,

the uninterrupted redaction that is building itself out of silence.

It rustles its way from the recently, youthfully dead, towards you.

Whenever you entered a church in Rome or Naples,

wasn’t it their fate that was speaking to you, quietly?

Or a legend, as lately, the tablet, in Santa Maria Formosa,

encrypted itself: insisted on coming home to stay with you.

What do they want of me? It looks as if

I get to peel away the seal,

that hinders, a little, at times,

the pure evocation of pure spirits.

It’s strange, all the same, no longer to inhabit the Earth,

no longer to stick to the text that had barely been learned,

not to interpret roses, and other things that speak

with such promise of a human future; to be no longer

that which you used, in anxiety’s infinite hands,

to outgrow your name, your broken toy.

Strange, no longer wishing to wish wishes. Strange, to see meanings

that once hung together, now flash by, loose metonyms in space.

And being dead is such dreadfully hard work- being full of backward glances,

while looking forward to a bit of eternity. The living

all make the same mistake, the same distinctions.

Angels (apparently) don’t generally know whether they’re moving

among the quick or the dead. The eternal storm

rolls all the years through both zones, for all time, overriding,

over-roaring, all voices in all realms.

They no longer need us, those who left early,

who outgrew the earth. But we, who require such gross

secrecies, we for whom progress so often learns from

sadness-: could we live without them?

Is the legend meaningless that told how, at the wake, through the mourning, the

earliest, tentative music could cut through anaesthesia, and how

in the shocked space a near-Apollo

shrugged off for ever, deep space picked up the signal

that lifts us up, that comforts us and helps?

The Fourth Elegy

Trees of life. When is your winter. Human

beings don’t cohere. Are not prompted in the blood

like migrant birds. Overtaken, late, we take off abruptly

into the wind and crash on some lost lake of ice.

To flower and to fade meet in us.

Altogether elsewhere, lions roam, unaware of weakness.

But we, intent upon one thing,

are already pulled into another. We’re

split. Aren’t lovers, ever more deeply inside each other, actually

doing solitary, confined by those cave-drawings

that promise vastness, hunting and firelight?

Elaborate gradations of background are laid down

to highlight the moment, the actual, living contour of emotion,

known only if at all by what shapes it from outside.

Who has not sat, bang to rights before the curtains of the heart.

They part; the stage is set for a farewell. You’ve been there.

The eternal garden, swaying a bit. Then the Dancer. He has to be

kidding. Music fails to disguise a jowly bourgeois, groping at midnight

in his fridge. You sad Muppet. It’s the incompleteness of deception

I can’t stomach. Give me paint, shell and wires. At least dolls are

whole. Here. I’m waiting.

And if the lights go out, and I’m told that that’s that,

even if gray drafts of emptiness are billowing towards me from the stage,

even if not a single soul among my Dead wants to sit next to me-

not that cobwebbed woman, not that boy with the motionless brown eye-

I’ll sit here anyway. It’s cool. Isn’t that right,

you, to whom life tasted so bitter after you took a sip of mine,

Father – who, as I grew up, kept on sipping, the taste of such a

strange future so disturbing- you, who have trembled so often

for my well-being since your death, relinquishing that calm

that the Dead do tend to bang on about, their loud insistence on a quiet life,

traded for my little chunk of Destiny? Hmm?

Am I right or am I right, and you others, would I be correct

in thinking you loved me

for my small beginnings of love for you from which I always

turned away because the intervals in your features grew and changed

into Cosmic Space, and you were gone? So I’ve got to do

the right thing, stay put in my seat, in front of the curtain, no,

gaze so intensely that some Angel will have to rush in from the wings

to match my offer, and jiggle those puppets into life.

Angel and Puppet. En fin de compte, a real play.

Then what we habitually keep separate, but live inside,

can merge. Then will arise from our seasonal lives the

Transformation. Altogether elsewhere, the Angel plays.

The dying must see how unreal and full of pretence everything we do is,

here where nothing is allowed to become itself.

O childhood hours, when more than the Past lay

behind Figures and streamed from the head of the Future.

Impatient to be grown-up, we felt our bodies growing,

half for the sake of those who didn’t have much left

except grown-upness. Yet were, playing by ourselves,

enchanted with duration, and would stand in blissful space

between World and Toy, at a point established from the outset

for things to happen.

Who shows the child as he is? Installs her in the zodiac

or sets the wand of distance in her hand? Who makes their death

out of grey bread that turns hard or leaves it in their open mouths,

so like the ripe applecore... Murder is easily grasped.

But, that death, death entire, and before life has even begun,

can be so softly held to the heart without turning

away from life, that is wholly inexpressible, is

something else again.

The Tenth Elegy

Someday, crawling from the wreckage of fell insights,

may I ululate alongside nodding Angels! May not one

of the clearly struck keys of the heart fail to vibrate

through a slack, a dubious or broken string. May further

radiance pour from my already streaming face; let

invisible tears bloom. How close you will be to me then,

Nights of Anguish, inconsolable sisters, and why did I

not bow the knee more steeply and rend myself more

loosely in your already loosened hair. O we pain-wastrels.

How we stare down our own sad duration in hopes of

a clear finish. But we’re talking sombre foliage, one season

alone of our interior year, and not merely timewise, but

as place and as settlement, dwelling or actual soil.

How estranging, alas, are the streets of Pain’s City,

where, in the pseudo-silence of continuous white noise,

figures cast our of absence swagger around, a

begilded kerfuffle, an exploding memorial.

How completely an Angel would trash both the market

for solace and the quick-fix church, as clean and

disenchanted as the GPO on Sunday. Only the Fair

makes the city’s edge undulate. Carousel liberation!

Circus of conviction! The shooting-range of happiness,

illusory tin figures flapping under a hail of real bullets

while one-armed bandits roll their eyes and, For Adults Only,

the genitals of Money are available for questions in dark booths,

or made to fuck on stage. Beyond the perimeter hoardings,

where a snuff movie confers immortality but only for those

who buy the popcorn, everything is suddenly real!

There are children and lovers in shadow, sad grass and dogshit.

Some young guy wanders off, beyond the shadows...

perhaps he has fallen in love with a young Lament...

so he follows her into the meadows. She looks fantastic,

despite being dead, with only a slight limp, and funny eyes.

When she turns and says We live over there.. it’s a long walk...

he’s tempted, but turns and waves goodbye. What’s the point?

She’s a Lament. Only the recently dead care to follow,

swaying slightly, in her footsteps. She waits for girls,

and befriends them. Shows them, gently, her clothes.

Pearls of sadness and the fine-spun silks of patience.

But there, where they live, in the Valley, one of the

older Laments tells the youth when he questions her:

long ago, she says, we were once a great tribe, we Laments.

Our forefathers worked the mines along that range of mountains,

and even today you can come across the odd buffed-up nugget

of primal sorrow or a chunk of petrified fury, quarried from

the slag of a volcano. Yes, that was us. We were rolling in it.

And lightly she leads him through the vast landscape of Laments,

shows him the broken columns and the ruined towers from which,

long ago, the Lords of Lament so wisely ruled their land.

Shows him the tall trees of Tears and the fields of flowering Sadness,

(the living know this as an unobtrusive garden shrub), and the

herds of Sorrow grazing; and sometimes, startled, a bird will soar

up through their upward gaze, writing the script of its cry into distance.

Then in the twilight she shows him the graves of the eldren

and sybils who had given their warning to the race of Laments.

But now it is Night, and the moon-like guardian Stone takes shape.

Twin of the Aegyptian Sphynx, lofty and taciturn chamber-face.

And they are mindstruck by the regal cerebellum, that has lifted the human

to the astral scale, forever.

Still reeling from premature death his eyes can’t hack it.

And her gaze scares an owl behind the pschent. Then the bird

brushes, in a slow downward curve, the ripe edge of the jowl,

inscribing faintly on the hearing of the newly dead, as on a

book’s opening pages, the indescribable outline.

Higher, the stars. The new stars of the land of pain.

Slowly the Lament chants their names: ‘Look, there’s the Writer,

and the Gander and the larger constellation called Fruit Hydrant...

then further away, the Polish ones: Vega; Teeth; The Burning Book;

Puppet; and The Window of Opportunity. But to the south,

pure as the lines on a saint’s hand, the livid sparkling M,

which stands for Insubstantiality...’

Even the dead have to be up and doing, and in silence the ancient

Lament leads him on to the gleaming moonlit gorge,

where shimmers the wellspring of Joy. In reverent tones

she names it, saying: ‘by human standards it’s a mobile river’.

They stand at the foot of the mountains

and there she embraces him, weeping.

Alone he must climb, to the mountains of Primal Grief.

And not once will his step be heard, along the soundless path.

And yet, if the endlessly dead were to wake in us a symbol,

perhaps they would point to the catkins hanging from hazel

or the rain as it pours onto the soil in early Spring,

and we who think of happiness in terms of ascending

would feel the emotion

that almost overwhelms

when happiness falls.

A Note on the Translation

I set out, like many before and after me, to translate Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, an ambition first undermined but ultimately assisted by the discovery that I had mislaid my German dictionary in a house move. Having to replace words and phrases in the original that I was now freed into an inability to translate allowed flights of reference alongside, away from and in dreaming parallel to the text as it has come to be venerated – for Rilke, in common with Celan, Blanchot and certain other pivotal figures has become a name to be intoned, an entombment as one of the Terms and Conditions of canonisation, that brings out the midnight vandal in me. I drew some encouragement from the example of Jack Spicer in relation to Lorca, less in imitation of his imitation than a feeling of encouragement which I would hope my own translation gives off, like an unplaceable odd aroma. I was striving above all to write like a callow tourist. The work is therefore in no sense an homage, except in the dedication of one Elegy to the actor John Travolta, whose films I have often enjoyed, and who like me was born on the 18th February 1954 / is a millionaire with a private jet / etc. The parallels that touch are the only ones to endure.

*Published with the kind permission of Rod Mengham. Poems taken from Geoff Ward, Rainer Maria Rilke: Duino Elegies (Cambridge: Equipage, 1998). To order, contact Rod Mengham at menghamr (at), or write to Rod Mengham, Jesus College, Cambridge, CB5 8BL, UK.

Professor Geoff Ward is Vice Principal at Royal Holloway College, University of London, where he has also served as Dean of the Arts Faculty, prior to which he was Deputy Principal at the University of Dundee. His publications include Statutes of Liberty (1993, rev. ed. 2000) the first study of the New York School of Poets as a group. Other books include The Writing of America: Literature and Culture from the Puritans to the Present (2002). A member of the editorial board of The Cambridge Quarterly, he has also written and presented programmes for BBC Radio 3, most recently on David Foster Wallace (2011). He has held a Fellowship from the Leverhulme Foundation, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2002. His published poetry includes Comeuppance: Poems 1976-80, as well as Rilke’s Duino Elegies (barbarously recast). He has recently completed his first novel.