There are currently 12 different translations (that I know of) of the Duino Elegies by Ranier Maria Rilke. None of them uses the same phrasing, many take license in their translation, and I find that the more I read it, the duality of each word presents itself more, as each word needs to be defined further. Throughout my life, I have been collecting hard copies of this poem, and specifically looking through the first 55 lines – ending with the phrase about shooting an arrow. Arrows have become an important symbol in my life, specifically the tension around them. And the tension around these words, the want to spring forward and change, the difference between before and aft, the space between doing and not doing–liminality as described by Victor Turner–these have become the points of origin for this project and inspiration for others. With now 5 copies of the Duino Elegies in my possession, I present the pieced and bastardized version below as according to my definition of use.
I don’t know German, but I know what this poem says.
And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those Angelic
Orders? Even if one of them suddenly took me
to his heart, I couldn’t survive next to his overwhelming
presence. For beauty is only
the terror in beginning what we are merely able to endure,
and we adore it for the serene scorn it disdains
to annihilate us with. Every angel is terrifying!
So I control myself and choke back the lure
of my dark cry. Ah, who can we turn to,
then? Neither angels nor men,
and already the animals know by instinct
we’re not at home in our interpreted world. What remains
for us is some tree on a hillside we can look at
day after day, one of yesterday’s streets,
and the perverse loyalty of a habit
so much at ease it moved in and never let us go.
Oh, and the night! The night, when the wind
full of celestial space gnaws at our lifted faces; that wished for
gentle deceptive one waiting painfully for the lonely
heart- she’d stay lit for anyone. Is she easier on lovers?
But they use each other to hide their own fate.
You STILL don’t understand? Throw the armfuls of emptiness
out into the spaces we breathe; maybe birds
will sense the expansion and fly more passionately into themselves.
Sure, Spring needed you. Many stars
aligned themselves for you to notice. A wave
broken in the past swelled towards you or a violin
you passed in an open window lent itself in offering. All of this was your mission.
But could you fulfill it? Weren’t you always distracted by a lover? (Where would you hide her,
with all those heavy thoughts
flowing in and out and often staying all night?)
When longing overcomes you, sing of great lovers,
for their passions aren’t immortal enough.
You found the most deserted, those you almost envied,
could love you so much more than those you loved.
Begin again your never attainable praising,
Remember the hero who survives; even his descent
is an excuse for another life, a final birth.
But nature, spent and exhausted, draws lovers
back into herself, as if she didn’t possess the strength
to create them twice. Do you remember
Gaspara Stampa well enough? From that great love’s example,
any girl deserted by her lover can believe: “if only I could be like her!”
Shouldn’t our ancient suffering be more
fruitful by now? Isn’t it time we lovingly freed
ourselves from the Beloved, and trembling endured:
as the arrow endures the tension of a string,
so that in its gathering momentum becomes more
than its release. For to remain is to be nowhere.