Four Translations of Rilke
Jardin des Plantes, Paris
In Fragonard-reflections such as these,
one sees no more of true flamingo red
or white than if some messenger had said
about the image of his lover, “She’s
still soft with sleep.” For when they’ve walked green grass,
and stood together, lightly turned on pink
stalks—blooms in flower beds—they seem to think
themselves seductive; that their charms surpass
a Phryne’s . . . till they curl their necks to hide
pale eyes in softness all their own (inside,
there lie concealed both berry-red and black).
Then, through the bird-house: envy’s sudden scream.
But they have stretched the wings that were pinned back,
and stride, alone, into the world of dream.
She sat there like the others at their tea.
At first, it seemed to me she raised her cup
not quite the way the others held theirs up.
She smiled—an almost painful thing to see.
And when at last they rose from tea, and spoke,
and walked off languidly, at random through
the many rooms, still laughing at some joke,
or talking, there she was: she walked a few
steps back, a bit reserved, like someone who’ll
be singing soon before a packed salon.
From out-of-doors, light came to settle on
her joyful eyes as if upon a pool.
She followed slowly, with some hesitation,
as if an obstacle remained to try
her, yet as if—after a transformation—
she knew she would no longer walk, but fly.
As torrents burst their dams and overrun
their estuaries in a flood, he broke
upon the elders of the tribe for one
last time. That was the way that Joshua spoke.
Now they were stunned who’d thought to laugh or mock;
they held their hearts and hands, they were so struck.
His mouth made thirty battles roar, whose shock
was thunder, which that mouth now undertook.
And thousands, once again, were filled with wonder,
the way they were that day at Jericho,
though now the trumpets filled him with their thunder,
until those lives like walls were trembling so
that all were writhing with what fear had done.
Now overwhelmed and helpless, they recalled:
how haughty he had been at Gibeon,
to cry out to the sun, commanding, “Halt!”;
how God had gone out like a slave, to cringe
and hold the sun until his hands were aching and
it burned on killers living for revenge—
because just one had willed the sun to stand.
This was that man, this ancient figure whom
they thought now drained of any force or sense:
one hundred-ten, his years—a prison tomb.
And then he stood and crashed down on their tents.
Like hail on stalks, he hammered them: “Your vow
to God? Well, hundreds wait, so choose a god!
But when you do, the Lord will raise his rod.
Yes, choose—and He will smash you anyhow.”
With matchless arrogance: “Both I and mine
are wed to Him alone.” They cried aloud
at what he’d said. “Help us! Send us a sign
to strengthen us to make this heavy choice.”
As if he’d spoke no word in eons, though,
he climbed his mountain and they watched him go.
It was the last they ever heard his voice.
Béguinage-Sainte Elisabeth, Bruges
These high gates do not seem to guard or hold
(the bridge goes gladly in and out the same),
and yet they’re all secure inside this old
and high-elmed, open close. The only time
they leave their house is when they walk this strip
of grass to church, to get a better grip
on why there’s so much love inside them here.
All veiled in spotless linen, there they kneel,
alike as if one image made them real
a thousand times in chorus. Deep and clear,
the sound comes off the patterned pillars ringing.
The voices go on mounting higher, singing
higher always, casting their last words
high up from where no words could go on, towards
the angels who will not return them. Down
below, when they un-kneel without a sound
(crossing themselves first with the sign of God),
they leave in silence, reaching, with a nod
toward waiting holy water. Fingers dip;
the water chills the brow and pales the lip.
And then they go, subdued and calmly-souled.
They walk back down that strip the way they came
(the young are steady, but behind the fold,
an agèd nun comes straggling up, half-lame),
back to their house where quickly they’re concealed.
and through the elms, from time to time, one may
perceive pure loneliness—the slightest ray.
In one small pane, it flares and is revealed.
The window of this church: what is projected
from it to the courtyard through each pane
(a thousand)? Silence passes through the stain;
quenched sunshine blurs, fantastically reflected,
distended, mixed, and ageing like old wine.
They’re lying there, though on which side, none knows:
the Outer, Inner, and Eternity;
the Endless and all Vastness, great and wide
and leaded; blinded; dark; ready to be.
Beneath the wavering colors, summer keeps
the old, gray winter. It’s as if some kind
of patient man, with his long-suffering mind,
were standing stock-still, waiting there behind;
before, a patient, waiting woman weeps.
Len Krisak is an award-winning translator. His most recent books are translations of Virgil’s Eclogues and the Odes of Horace.