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Diary: Michael Robbins, On Rilke
I was reading a thriller by Lisa Unger the other night when I started thinking about the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Unger’s protagonist falls for a guy on a dating site whose profile reads, “You are not surprised at the force of the storm,” which she recognizes as a line from Rilke’s Book of Hours. I didn’t recognize it, and I’ve read most of his poems. But as I hadn’t opened any of his books in perhaps twenty years, I checked Stephen Mitchell’s and Edward Snow’s translations, the only two I possess any longer. Neither includes the poem that begins with this line.
It sounds like Instagram poetry—a daily affirmation for heart-clicks—and it is, I discovered, quoted there fairly often, alongside Jack Kerouac and Rupi Kaur. You should roll your eyes and swipe left on this dude, but no: “Only a Rilke geek would know that line and what it meant,” Unger writes. “It hooked me in a way the others hadn’t.”
Rilke had already crossed my mind a few times lately, because I’ve been listening obsessively to the Grateful Dead (see my last post). Lyricist Robert Hunter’s Rilkean images and themes—roses, wind, birds, home, rain, summer, space—would be evident even if he hadn’t laid a goose egg of a translation of the Duino Elegies (available as a 110-minute spoken-word cassette). The Dead can sound like bad Rilke: “The heart has its beaches, its homeland and thoughts of its own.” They can also sound like good Rilke: “Believe it if you need it; if you don’t, just leave it there.”
Why anyone would want to date a Rilke geek is beyond me. Is there a more embarrassing major poet? I mean in the way poetry is generally embarrassing, given to effusions like Shelley’s “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!” It’s cringe, as the phones of the young put it. And Rilke, petitioning the empty sky, as “overabundant being / wells up in my heart”—the grandiosity, the vatic yearning—
Ripe apple, blackberry and banana,
nectarine … These all speak
death and life into the mouth … I feel …
[ellipses in original]
I know you do, honey. Legend has it a rose’s thorn killed him. Not true, but all too plausible.
Such, anyway, have been my reservations about Rilke, to the extent I’ve thought of him at all, since crushing on him in college. But I returned to him for a while after failing to trace the fictional Rilke geek’s citation. I was surprised by how flat my favorite poem, “Autumn Day,” sounds in Snow’s Poetry of Rilke. The last stanza goes:
Whoever has no house will never build one now.
Whoever is alone now will long remain so,
will stay awake, read books, write long letters
and wander restless back and forth
along the tree-lined streets, as the leaves drift down.
For years I had, when asked (so, like three times), recommended Snow over Mitchell. But compare the above, as I did, to Mitchell’s elegant rendition:
Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.
Mitchell is free with Rilke’s sentences, rearranging elements to suit his sense of the lines—“through the evening” is not in the German, nor are the leaves “dry.” But it’s a hell of a lot better than Snow, who introduces “books” after “read,” in case we thought the guy was sitting up reading old recipes, needlessly piles up prepositions (“back and forth / along”), and inserts “tree-lined” for those wondering where the leaves were coming from.
I wondered how I’d fallen for this translation. But, in fact, I hadn’t. Here’s how “Autumn Day” appeared in Snow’s Book of Images, where I first read it in 1991, before he revised it for The Poetry of Rilke in 2009:
Who has no house now, will never build one.
Who is alone now, will long remain so,
will stay awake, read, write long letters
and will wander restlessly up and down
the tree-lined streets, when the leaves are drifting.
First thought, best thought, Professor Snow. Except “tree-lined,” the one thing you should’ve axed.
Translating Rilke is hard, as William Gass’s Reading Rilke demonstrates (sometimes inadvertently—Gass’s version of the first Duino Elegy’s famous line: “Every angel is awesome.” Totally, dude). “While the dry leaves are blowing” seems perfect to me; “when the leaves are drifting” is fine. “As [they] drift down” loses the immediacy—the poem ends on a verb form, opening out, in motion, not clanking shut on a preposition. But anything—even Gass’s inept attempt—is better than J. B. Leishman, whose version finds the one with no house “restlessly perambulating / the avenues of parks when leaves downrain.”
Snow has now translated The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke’s only novel—as everyone calls it, though it’s no more a novel than is its close cousin, Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet—neither diary nor novel nor journal nor memoir nor prose poem, though resembling all of these in places. I read it in Mitchell’s translation when I was young, charmed by a disaffection I now find somewhat tedious. The eponymous narrator muses on death, poverty, the “homelessness” Heidegger revered in Rilke: “And you have no one and nothing and you roam the world with a trunk and a crate of books and, to speak truly, without curiosity.” This was no doubt less familiar in 1910, although Rilke probably knew Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, and had certainly read Dostoevsky. But Rilke was also, alas, a great writer, perhaps never more so than when he turns his attention to things. Only Proust and Kafka have so vividly expressed how objects can seem full not only of life but of menace, especially to children. Things in Rilke often have bad intentions, corrupt desires; they take on a metaphysical eeriness:
Almost everyone knows the noise that any round tin object makes—the lid of a can for instance—when it slips out of your hand. Usually it’s not very loud when it hits the floor. There’s a sharp impact, then it rolls on its edge and only really becomes annoying when it loses momentum and starts wobbling around and around, clattering ever closer to the floor, until it finally stops and lies flat. Well, that’s the whole story: some such tin object fell next door, rolled, and lay still, while at certain intervals there was a stamping on the floor.
This sound—and can’t you just hear it?—from his neighbor’s apartment recurs with such frequency that Brigge begins to fear it and think of it as “the thing.” He has the “almost chilling” thought that the noise is actually coming from the sound of his neighbor’s eyelid blinking as he reads. (“There was something almost chilling in the thought” is Snow’s anodyne version of a phrase that Burton Pike translates more sinisterly as “It touched me almost spectrally”; Mitchell, as is his wont, just makes stuff up that’s nowhere in the original: “There was a thought which kept making my hair stand on end, as if I had been tapped on the shoulder by a ghost.”)
This is just weird, in a characteristic way. Rilke often draws connections between objects and eyes, most famously in “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which, though headless, is said to “see you.” Brigge echoes this: “The world of things has been observing [humankind] for centuries,” and sometimes things “join forces” to attack a saint, “winking at one another.”
Rilke’s weirdness is what I come back to, reading him after so long with annoyance and respect. If his poetry seems forever about to collapse into mystical babble, what keeps it together is the odd particularity of his conceptions, his observations. Who else would think to describe the blackened site of a house fire as “avoided by the early autumn morning, / which was mistrustful”? The film critic Manny Farber opposed “termite art” to “white elephant art”—the former “feels its way through walls of particularization” while the latter aspires “to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” On these definitions, Rilke would seem to be a white elephant who somehow, while slugging his readers with the transcendent wet towels of angels, chews the walls down.
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