Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Fourth Elegy

 
O trees of life, where’s winter?
We are not one.  Are not intelligent
as flocking birds. Outstripped and late,
we hurl ourselves into sudden winds
and fall down into apathetic pools.
Bloom and wither meet in us.
And somewhere still roam lions who understand
in their majesty, nothing of impotence.

But for us, when we assert one thing wholly,
it’s at the other’s palpable expense.  Enmity
is what follows.  Don’t lovers tread
always on edges, one into the other,
which promise them width, pursuit and home?
There for the blink of an eye becoming a sketch,
a ground of contrast arduously prepared,
to aid perception; only then can we
distinguish it.  We don’t know the contours
of feeling, only what forms it from outside.
Who hasn’t sat timidly before his own heart’s curtain?
It flings itself up: the scenery is parting.
Easy to understand.  The familiar garden,
slightly swaying: then first of all the dancer.
Not him.  Enough.  And if he acts too lightly
he’s just disguised, he turns into a bourgeois
going home through the kitchen.
I’ll not have these half-filled masks,
rather the puppet.  That’s full.  I’ll endure
the skin and the wire and its sight
that’s all outlooking.   Here.  I’m waiting.
Even if the footlights go out, even if they 
say to me: Nothing more - , even if the stage
breathes out grey draughts of void,
even if none of my silent forebears
will sit with me, no woman, not even
the boy with the brown-eyed squint. 
I’ll stay anyway.  It’s always a spectacle.

Am I not right?  You, to whom life with me
tasted so bitter, sipping mine, father,
that first thickened infusion of my force,
always bigger sips as I grew,
and busy with its aftertaste of such strange
future, tested my covert gaze, -
You, father, often since your death
my inmost hope is your fear for me, 
giving up death’s equanimity, empires
of equanimity, for my bitten destiny,
am I not right? And you, am I not right,
that you loved me for that little beginning
love for you, which I always drove away,
because the space in your countenance overflowed,
there as I loved you, to worldspace,
and you were no longer there. When it moves me
to wait in front of the puppet stage, no,
gazing so intensely that as my gaze 
at last swings up, an angel is forced down 
as an actor, shredding the skins.
Angel and puppet: that’s finally drama.
Then what we’re always dividing while we’re here
comes together.  Then emerges
the circle of all mutability out of our
first seasons.  Then the angel plays
over and under us.  Look, don’t the dying
imagine the whole pretext of everything
is what we achieve here?  Everything
is not itself.  O hours of childhood,
behind those figures was more than just
a past, and before us was not the future.
We grew of course, and sometimes we pushed
ourselves to grow up quickly, half to please
those others who had no more than their bigness.
And yet in our solitude we were
amused with duration, and stood there 
in the interstices between world and toy,
on a place which from the earliest beginning
was founded for a pure process.

Who shows a child what he is?  Who places
him in his constellations and puts in his hand
the measure of distance?  Who makes the childish death
out of grey bread grown hard, or leaves
it in his round mouth, like the core
of a beautiful apple?  . . . Murderers
are easy to understand.  But this: death,
the whole of death, even before life so
soft to hold and so unmalignant,
is indescribable. 
 
Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

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