2018 Forward First Collections Reviewed #5 – Kaveh Akbar

This is the fifth (and last) in the series of reviews I have been posting over the summer of books chosen for the 2018 Forward Prize Felix Dennis award for best First Collection. The £5000 prize will be decided on 18th September 2018. Click on this link to access all 5 of my reviews of the 2017 shortlisted books (eventual winner Ocean Vuong), here for my reviews of the 2016 shortlisted books (eventual winner Tiphanie Yanique), here for my reviews of the 2015 shortlisted books (eventual winner Mona Arshi).

The full 2018 shortlist is:
Kaveh Akbar – Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Penguin UK)
Abigail Parry – Jinx (Bloodaxe Books) – click here for my review of this book.
Phoebe Power – Shrines of Upper Austria (Carcanet) – click here for my review of this book.
Shivanee Ramlochan – Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (Peepal Tree Press) – click here for my review of this book.
Richard Scott – Soho (Faber & Faber) – click here for my review of this book.

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More than most, Kaveh Akbar’s poems read like jointed assemblages of seemingly disparate materials – accumulations, aggregations, medleys, jumbles. Over 91 pages, some work better than others, but on first reading there is such energy, honesty and commitment on show that it’s easy to be swept away. After a while, you begin to think that most of the poems seem cut from a very similar cloth. Amazingly, despite the inventiveness in imagery, the experimentation in form, the mix of cultures (Akbar is Iranian born, now living in the US), a paradoxical same-iness begins to set in and each time I read the book I find myself flagging about half way through.

item_XL_10301052_31669501Akbar doesn’t generally do the more familiar, simply focused poem. There are a few in the book like ‘Learning to Pray’, in scattered unrhymed triplets, in which a young boy (Akbar allows a straight autobiographical reading usually) watches his father pray, “kneeling on a janamaz” or prayer mat. The wish to emulate the admired father is conveyed pin-sharp. A later poem also starts from childhood and (mostly in loose unrhymed couplets) traces the boy’s later maturing in an America “filled with wooden churches / in which I have never been baptized” (‘Personal Inventory: Fearless (Temporis Fila)’). This poem also attracts threads of two of Akbar’s other main themes: his personal addictions and the ubiquitous sense of living in a fallen world.

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Rainer Maria Rilke

The sense of a fall is very powerful and Akbar is often to be found addressing, berating or pleading with a God figure. To this extent there is a religious element to many of Akbar’s poems, but it feels more like Rilke’s address and concern for the angels in the Duino Elegies, for example, where their actual existence is to be doubted though their impact on the way we regard and live out our own lives is profound. Akbar’s opening poem declares God sometimes visits us, “disguised as rust” (‘Soot’). God’s imagined proximity then breeds new perspectives on our own existence, including images of the Heaven from which we must have fallen: “Upon landing, the ground / embraced me sadly, with the gentleness / of someone delivering tragic news to a child”. ‘Recovery’ is also resigned to seeing life as it is really lived as “graceless” and the poem ‘God’ – before it really gets motoring with its examples of economic decline, personal illness, futile work and sense of fear – cries out: “I am ready for you to come back [. . .] / you are needed again”. Once more the mythic paradise is alluded to towards the end of the poem – simply as something that seemed promised yet is signally lacking in this world, so that “I will settle for anything that brings you now”.

three-empty-beer-bottles-pile-16804845One of the main elements of this fallen state (again Akbar allows a simple autobiographical interpretation) is the damage caused by his past addictions, especially to alcohol. This is the main hook Penguin hang the book on (a cover of empty beer bottles, for example). Poems styled ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic …’ recur throughout the book, but the first section is most focused on this. A familiar comment from W.H. Auden is used to firmly yoke spirit to bottle: “All sins tend to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is damnation”. Many of the poems then have this sense of inebriation, muddling, confusion which Akbar’s style of writing is very at home with. ‘Portrait of the Alcoholic with Home Invader and Housefly’ presents the drinker waking up, seemingly attacked by a home invader with a knife. Memories of keeping a housefly on a string intervene, perhaps because in the fly’s death the young boy confronted the idea of death: “I opened myself to death, the way a fallen tree // opens itself to the wild”. The poem returns to the threatening situation, then to more abstract thoughts of scale, a TV programme and the speaker passively returns to sleep. This is a great poem of the self as both endangered and paranoid, distanced from danger, the blurring of perception, thought and memory.

The title poem of the book seems to follow the alcoholic as an in-patient, this time in broken up prose. Thoughts meander again till they find a foothold in the self-recognition that “I answered every cry for help with a pour”. He sees this as a coldness, a turning away and tries to name it and therefore control it better: “if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs”. But rather than effective combat the wolf has become evermore part of the alcoholic, like two coins on a train track crushed together. ‘Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One Before’ likewise takes the reader into the addict’s mind, the thrill-searching (“I don’t / have drunks, sirs, I have adventures”), the sense of life as boredom without the booze (“we live / on an enormous flatness”). These poems are certainly – as a blurb quote suggests – additions to the “canon of addiction literature”.

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Though Akbar’s choices of form in the book are legion and each one works well enough (which is impressive in itself), form and content don’t always seem inevitably linked. What so many of the poems do have is a forward propulsion which is quite breath-taking, assisted by the frequent absence of punctuation. There is a frenetic restlessness, often matched by leaps of imagery close to the surreal (interestingly one of the poets acknowledged by Akbar is Tomaz Salamun). But I worry there is something close to programmatic about all this. Poems often draw together threads of philosophical musing (several from Rumi), then mix in (tangential) aphoristic-sounding or plain informational statements, then throw in what will be read as direct autobiographical elements. These various constituents are sequenced alongside each other and Akbar’s formal and linguistic energy (like the “old battery” delivering jolts in ‘An Apology’) whirls them round before the reader. In the best poems, there is a strong centrifugal force holding the parts together; in others they are simply spun apart and the reader ends wondering about coherence and consequence.

Texas-early-26But when it works, these are marvellous poems – and, for my money, this book would make a worthy winner of the 2018 Felix Dennis Prize. ‘Wild Pear Tree’ – as if in one breath – conveys a wintry scene/mental state, recalls halcyon days (of spring) and ends lamenting the forgetting of an “easy prayer” intended for emergencies: “something something I was not / born here I was not born here I was not”. ‘Exciting the Canvas’ is much more risky in its jig-sawing together of disparate elements – a bit of Rumi, the sea, a child’s drawing, a drunken accident, the Model T Ford, crickets, snakes – but somehow manages to hold it all together to make a snap-shot of a troubled, curious, still-open consciousness. And finally, ‘So Often the Body Becomes a Distraction’, dallies with the Rilkean idea of dying young, alludes to recovery from addiction, then grasshoppers, ice-cubes, personal ambitions and the self-image of “rosejuice and wonderdrunk” (which is merely one side of Akbar’s work). This one ends with the not-infrequent trope of a re-birth from burial in the earth. I like these images, suggesting that, for all the fretting about lost paradise, the absence of God, the self-destructiveness of the individual, whatever redemptive re-birth may be possible is only likely to come from our closeness and attentiveness to things about us, an eschewing of the “self-love” Akbar struggles to free himself from in ‘Prayer’: in a lovely phrase –though I’m still figuring it – he concludes, “it is not God but the flower behind God I treasure”.

How We Created ‘O. at the Edge of the Gorge’ (Guillemot Press)

These two pieces on the writing and illustrating of my new chapbook, O. at the Edge of the Gorge, first appeared on the Guillemot Press website. Thanks to the Press and Phyllida Bluemel for permission to re-post them here.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART ONE by Martyn Crucefix

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The scraps and scribbles that eventually became O. at the Edge of the Gorge are contained in a notebook dating from March 2014. The first words that made it into the finished sequence record my sighting of “6 white doves / on the boundary wall / looking away”. I’m pretty sure I spotted the birds on the drive to one of the airports north of London as, on the same page, sits a note recording a tannoy announcement calling a customer back to one of the shops in the Duty Free zone: “please return /  to Glorious Britain / for a forgotten item”. These are the sorts of strange happenstances that get thrown down in a writer’s notebook; happily, it was the dove image that stayed with me.

The landscape of the poem is the destination of my flight that day, the Marche in central, eastern Italy. I was staying in a house close to the edge of a deep gorge, looking out to distant hillsides, several hilltop villages, their church spires, clumps of dark trees. The roots of the poems – any poem, of course – spread much deeper than is immediately visible. So earlier in the same notebook, I find I had noted a quotation from Schopenhauer (itself quoted by Dannie Abse in the May 2014 issue of the magazine Acumen): “Envy builds the wall between Thee and Me thicker and stronger; sympathy makes it slight and transparent – nay, sometimes it pulls down the wall altogether and then the distinction between self and not-self vanishes”.

A little earlier, there was another note. This was from a piece by Ed Hirsch in the magazine The Dark Horse. Hirsch quoted Simone Weil’s observation that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. He went on to urge our attention ought be paid to the earth, not looking for something atemporal and divine. We need to cherish the fleeting and the transient, even in its disappearance. This is the particular project of poetry, he argued, and these are recognisably Rilkean ideas that were always likely to attract my interest. I have spent many years translating Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus. The Orpheus link took a while to re-surface in my mind in relation to the new poems.

One other notebook entry stands out. I seem to have been reading Bruce Bawer’s book, Prophets and Professors (Storyline Press, 1995), and in a chapter on Wallace Stevens he quotes Mallarme: “To name an object is largely to destroy poetic enjoyment, which comes from gradual divination. The ideal is to suggest the object”. It’s not necessary for a writer to fully grasp such scattered sources; they tend to be ripped out of context and appropriated for use. In retrospect, I seemed to be thinking, over a period of weeks, about the relation between self and other, the paying of attention to the transient world and the difficulty of maintaining such attention through the medium of language. All of this re-appears in the poems that make up O. at the Edge of the Gorge.

Also by this time – probably July 2014 – there were two strong poetic voices chanting in my head. One was from poems I was trying to translate by Peter Huchel, poems written in the highly censored context of the GDR in the mid 20th century. I find I’d scribbled down “his vision is up-rooted, deracinated in the extreme – a world where meaning has withdrawn (the jugglers have long gone) what’s left is iron, winter, suspicion – spies, the Stasi, meaninglessness – but the natural world persists”. The other voice was from the Ancient Chinese texts of the Daodejing which I had also been versioning for quite a few months previously and were eventually to be published in 2016 by Enitharmon Press.

In complete contrast to Huchel, the Daodejing’s vision is one of ultimate unity and wholeness achieved through such an intense attentiveness as to extinguish the self and all barriers. These two extremes seem to form a key part of the sequence of poems that emerged in the next few weeks, my narrative voice moving from a Huchel-like sense of division and isolation to a more Dao-like sense of potential oneness.

Besides all this, I was playing in the notebook with the idea of ‘off’’. The point was, rather than focusing where the ‘frame’ directs us, we gain more from attending to what lies beyond it; the peripheral, I suppose, in a kind of revolt. I was muttering to myself “locus not focus”. I was thinking of the lovely word ‘pleroma’, a word associated with the Gnostics and referring to the aggregation of all Divine powers – though, as with Ed Hirsch, I was not so much interested in the Divine. Pleroma is the totality of all things; something like the Daoist’s intuition of the One. I think such ideas gave rise – quite unconsciously – to the several swarms, and flocks, the “snufflings the squeals and scratchings” that recur in the poems. These represent the fecund variousness of the (natural) world to which we might be paying more attention.

The hilly landscape and the plunging gorge itself also seem to suggest (at first) a divided vision. The carpenter bees act as intermediaries – at first alien, later to be emulated. As the first rapid drafts of individual poems came, there was a plain lyric voice – an ‘I’ – in a sort of reportage, revelling in the landscape, its creatures, colours and sounds till eventually I had 12 sonnet-like pieces. One of the poems seemed already to allude to the Orpheus myth, the moment when he looks back to Eurydice and she is returned forever to the underworld. His mistake, in this version, was that he was seeking an over-determined, “comprehending grip on earth” as opposed to a more passive openness to the phenomena of the world (which Eurydice seemed now to represent).

At some stage, the narrating ‘I’ was switched to a ‘he’ and the ‘he’ began to feel more and more like a version of Orpheus himself (hence O. at the Edge of the Gorge). The change from first to third person also gave me more distance from the materials. It was on a later visit to read my own work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival in the Spring of the following year that I heard Angela France reading a crown of sonnets. I blogged about it at the time and coming home it struck me that my sequence ought to take the same highly interconnected form. The 10th of my sonnets – precisely that moment where the Orpheus/Eurydice separation occurred – was expanded into two poems, absorbing some details about a parked car on a hill and others, also focused on transience, from Dante’s Paradiso Book 16. The final sonnet to appear picked up on some notes I’d made long before about seeing a hunting hawk rise up from the roadside clutching a mouse or rat in its talons. By this stage, the gorge, in its representation of the Other, had also come to be associated with life’s most apparent Other, death. The whim, or wish, or risky flight of my narrator to include or encompass the gorge itself became the poems’ hoped for goal.

The making of O. at the Edge of the Gorge
PART TWO by designer and illustrator Phyllida Bluemel

I have a print-out of O at the Edge of the Gorge covered in pencil scribbles and tiny indecipherable thumbnails of visual ideas. Putting images to poetry can be daunting. I find that, armed with a pencil, a close reading of the text and lots of doodling is a good place to start. I thought a lot about the point of illustrating poetry – what the images can bring. I want the illustrations to be in conversation with the poem, rather than just replicating images already present in the words. Starting with an intuitive visual response is a nice way to get the conversation started.image1

For me the poems read like an unforced train of thought – a notebook in the pocket of a traveller, a sun-drenched jotting of linked observations and associations and memories – the kind of meandering thoughts that are particular to a slow and hot afternoon. They are very evocative of place.

I was taken with the formal playfulness of the poems – the crown of sonnets – where emphasis repeats and changes and each poem flows effortlessly into the next. An enacting of Martyn Crucefix’s line “he snaps them sketches then revises again”. It seemed appropriate to echo that in the imagery. The folded and interrupted illustrations bind each poem to the next. I wanted to give myself some of the constraints that the poet had set himself – and nearly every image contains an element of the one before, re-appropriated and carried forward – a visual game of Chinese whispers.

22071074_225079284691665_7698907406985592832_nThe poems move from one image to the next but there are the same preoccupations – the specks and the flocks and movements alongside monuments and geology – contrasting contexts of time, and the sense (especially given the form) of something trying to be ordered or sorted out, but not quite complying – “dicing segments of counted time…” The diagrammatic, map-like – but not-quite scrutable imagery is a response to this – an attempt to make sense of forms and information, or grasp a particular memory and note it down. Not quite successfully. We are left with a string of related thoughts and a measuring or structuring impulse.

The imagery itself takes its leave from the words – an outlined lavender stem becomes a cross-section, a contoured landscape, which in turn ends up as the outline of a branch, twisting into the form of the river at the bottom of the gorge. I had a lot of fun playing with scale and the way in which lines taken from nature mimic each other. This felt right because of the shifts in perspective in the poetry – from the raptor’s eye view, to the ‘snufflings’ and ‘scratchings’ of detail. The buzzard’s diving and ‘zooming-in’ of the landscape. 22158675_355445834881295_4436376972506955776_n(1)

The use of newsprint for the folded pages is as much an act of ‘illustration’ for me as the lines. Maps and diagrams and lines interrupted by folds and the edge of the pages make it feel as if they are part of something else – ephemera or a dog-eared map folded, or a napkin sketch ­ – tucked between the pages of a notebook. I also think it’s OK to want to make a beautiful object for the sake of a beautiful object – the tactility of different paper stocks, the small and pocketable size of the book – all I hope lend themselves to a thoughtful reading of the poem.

Jan Wagner: the Poet as Tea-Bag and as Chameleon

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Iain Galbraith’s really skillful translations of the German poet Jan Wagner have just won the Popescu European Poetry Prize. Wagner’s poems brew a formal brilliance (Karen Leeder remarks in her Introduction to Arc’s Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees, that “virtuoso” is the compliment most often applied to him) with an intense concentration on really existing things. In the German tradition, of course, such a meticulous and sensual evocation of things (‘die Dinge’) harks back to Rilke’s advice in the ninth of his Duino Elegies (1922):

 

Perhaps we are here to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window –

at most: column, tower . . .

 

Rilke’s cycle of poems arrives at this conclusion (“Praise this world to the angel, not some / inexpressible other”) not at all in the spirit of defeat but in a celebratory mood because it is only through honest interaction with the world that we define and refine our sense of ourselves. Equally and dialectically, through, our emotional and artistic responses to the world of things we are able to translate the inanimate and unconscious world into something more significant, lasting, spiritualized.

 

And these things, which live by passing away,

acknowledge your praise of them, as they vanish,

they look to us to deliver them, we, the most

fleeting of all. They long for us to change them,

utterly, in our invisible hearts – oh, endlessly,

to be within us – whoever, at last, we may be.

 

It is just this ebb and flow between self and other, each re-defining the other, each growing in response to the other, that Wagner seems intent on recording. But it’s not always an easy process as the poem ‘Mushrooms’ suggests. The narrator must listen for the snap of a twisted stem as if cracking a safe, “hoping for the right combination”. But when the right balance (I’m afraid it has to be this dull-seeming word) is achieved between active exploration and passive sensitivity then two worlds are miraculously joined.

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But we need not get too po-faced about the process. Wagner suggests a tea-bag might help us envisage it. In two haikus, he wryly evokes both facets of such communion in a religious visionary and a rope-dangling, Indiana Jones-type adventurer:

 

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draped only in a

sackcloth mantle. the little

hermit in his cave

 

2

a single thread leads

to the upper world. we shall

give him five minutes

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Jan Wagner

Wagner reflects the often rebarbative nature of the process partly through typographical choices, abandoning capital letters throughout (a far more disturbing move in German, of course, which capitalizes all nouns, all things). It’s also reflected in the choice of fruit in ‘Quince Jelly’. Knobbly and ugly, even ripe quinces are inedible when raw, astringent and tough. Wagner acknowledges the “tough and foreign” quality of the fruit and its taste which makes “our palates baulk”. Yet the human work invested in the transformative domestic process yields great rewards:

 

quinces, jellied, lined up in bellied jars on

shelves and set aside for the darkness, stored for

harsher days, a cellar of days, in which they

shone, are still shining.

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Such meticulous observation and sensual details held in the form of verse ensure Wagner’s things are always more than themselves and here the quince jelly is a poem, much like Wordsworth’s daffodils, an accumulation of “wealth” to flash upon “that inward eye” in days and years to come.

Wagner also chooses a ‘Chameleon’ to represent the poet. Describing the creature’s curved tail as a “pastoral staff” raises the spiritual stakes with a wonderfully light touch. The animal’s perceptive acuity is likewise explored with its tongue like a “telescope”, snapping up the “constellation” of a dragonfly. Its eye is a “fortress” yet contains a flickering pupil; an indefinable restlessness is suggested by its shed skin like “an outpost or long-discarded theory”. Most tellingly, the chameleon’s independently moving eyes enable Wagner to suggest the balance of both centrifugal and centripetal thrusts of the true perception: the animal gazes “simultaneously at the sky / and the ground, keeping his distance / from both”.

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The title poem of Arc’s selection (taken from 5 collections between 2001-2014) is another portrait of the poet. ‘Self-Portrait with a Swarm of Bees’ has the narrator wearing an ever-accumulating beard of swarming bees. The risks and dangers are part of the point but the poem focuses on the accumulating “weight and spread”, suggesting the swarm extends and adds to the narrator in some intrinsic way. Indeed, he becomes “the stone-still centre of song”. In the next quatrain, the passive singer is converted into an “ancient knight” arming for battle, yet he does not either advance or retreat:

 

just stands there gleaming, with barely a hint

of wind behind the lustre, lingering breath,

and only vanishing becomes distinct.

 

This teasing last line (“und wirklich sichtbar erst mit dem verschwinden”) is best understood again through Rilke. Auden affectionately ribbed Rilke as a poet whom “die Dinge bless, / The Santa Claus of loneliness” but it is in the challenge to self confronted through honest encounters with the world of things that we re-make and re-define our sense of self. Here is the idea expressed in Rilke’s Sonnet to Orpheus, 2, 13:

 

To the used up – to all Nature’s musty and mute,

its brimming storehouse, its inexpressible sum –

joyously add yourself and the account’s done.

 (All translations from Rilke here taken from my translations of  ‘Duino Elegies’ and ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’)

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Hear Galbraith read ‘December 1914’ below:

 

 

 

On Translating Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Idris Parry writes in the current PN Review (March/April 2015) comparing Rilke’s Duino Elegies with the Sonnets to Orpheus. The poet always spoke of the sonnets as subsidiary to the elegies, but Parry argues that while the elegies “talk about” the poet’s task, the sonnets perform it. I’d agree and, in translating both in the last 20 years or so, I have come to prefer the vivid enactments of the sonnets. Parry explores Rilke’s response to Rodin in Paris in 1902. What struck Rilke was Rodin’s “dark patience which makes him [as creative artist] almost anonymous”. What the young poet learned was to pursue an “unhurried and uncommitted exposure to experience” (Parry’s words). This is opposed to impatience which is (contra-Keats) an irritable reaching after clarity: “making up your mind before the event instead of letting the event shape your mind” (Parry again).

Rilke’s “praise” is just this acceptance and faithful utterance and is predicated on the truth of an underlying unity of existence. The poet is obliged to speak of this unity but can only use the language of division, a language deluded by the conviction of finality. Parry epigrammatically concludes: “We punctuate to retain our sanity, but we should not come to believe the punctuation”. The PN Review piece ends by looking at sonnet II, 18 and asks, if Rilke’s own German is a poor translation (using shabby tools) of an ultimate reality, how can translators hope to do it justice in bringing it over into English?

Reading Parry this week, reminded me of my own thoughts, not long after having translated Duino Elegies (https://martyncrucefix.com/publications/translations/duino-elegies/). They were originally published in Magma Magazine; I hope they are worth making public again:

My own grappling with the issue of what can be lost and gained in translation began over 10 years ago when London’s Blue Nose Poetry group staged an evening to celebrate Rilke’s work. This was partly in response to a Poetry Review survey of the original 1994 New Generation Poets, several of whom declared his work to have been influential. Though a name I was familiar with, I have to confess I hadn’t gotten far through my Penguin Selected. Perhaps on account of my ignorance, I was to contribute only by reading aloud from the Elegies. The Ninth was chosen but as I practised, I found myself stumbling, losing the thread and, frankly, I hardly knew what it was I was reading:

Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home.

Speak and proclaim. More than ever

Things we can live with are falling away, for that

Which is oustingly taking their place is an imageless act.

Act under crusts, that will readily split as soon

As the doing within outgrows them and takes a new outline.

This is Leishman’s translation of the Ninth Elegy and I supposed the obscurity was part of the point – that it must signal hitherto unplumbed depths of profundity. My view on this remains equivocal, but I believe a proportion of the difficulty is obfuscation and the impression of slippery ‘mysticism’ it generates has misleadingly become part of Rilke’s appeal for many readers. For me, the bottom line was I could not read this aloud with the kind of conviction that I demanded. I tried a couple of other easily available translations – Stephen Cohn’s and David Young’s – but still was not happy with the sound these poems made in my mouth.

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Castle Duino

Within a month I had produced a ‘version’ of my own. By version, I meant a close-ish translation, but I had taken considerable liberties with the more difficult passages and inserted what I thought Rilke might have meant or what I wanted him to mean. At the time this seemed to me a risky strategy compelled by necessity, though there is nowadays a good deal more debate about the role and value of versioning. My own position is that I prefer a genuine attempt to translate the original into a contemporary target language. I see the point of versions – but it is hardly ever what I am seeking as a reader. Nobody imagines translation is easy; but only a fool anticipates a perfect rendering. We expect translators to work in good faith and that their work will read sufficiently well in the target language not to distract us with the stale sweat of their strenuous wrestling with the original. Nor should they cover the difficulties of translation by delivering obscurities that defensively resist comprehension.

It was coming across my first attempt a couple of years later that set me systematically picking my way through the million pitfalls of the Elegies. Take for instance Rilke’s opening lines, the great cry at the start of the sequence. Rilke writes “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen?” Not too much of a problem you might think, but William Gass, in his book, Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Basic Books, 1999), considers no fewer than 15 versions of these 11 words. Most – though by no means all – accept Rilke’s opening word – “Who” – and most, though not all, take over Rilke’s relative clause “if I cried”. But is he merely crying or crying out? And beyond this point of relative agreement lie terrible dragons of disagreement, especially over the word “Ordnungen”. How are the angels deployed? Are they in “angelic orders”, “amid the host of the angels”, “among the hierarchy of angels”, “the order of the angels”, “among the angels’ hierarchies”, “among the ranked Angels”, “through the Angel Orders” or even (Gass gives his own version) “among the Dominions of Angels”? In such company, my own version, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks / of the angels?” runs the risk of a watery plainness but it has the advantages of clarity, echoes the rhythm, syntax and line break of the original closely, and (remembering my first concern was for oral performance) the line has a satisfying aural quality. I hear in the first phrases high, thin vowels that contrast the second half’s weightier, assonantal ‘a’ sounds: the cry of alienated humanity contrasts the solid, seemingly impregnable powers that lie beyond our reach.

But the best-equipped translator faces especially difficult problems in Rilke. In the Fifth Elegy, for example, the poem describes some acrobats. This is a combined portrait of a troupe Rilke knew while living in Paris and a painting by Picasso (La Famille des Saltimbanques, 1905) with which Rilke lived in the summer of 1915 in the house of the dedicatee of this Elegy, Frau Hertha Koenig. This is, formally, one of the freer of the Elegies, its lines extending and contracting to reflect the energy of the tumblers.

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Picasso’s ‘La Famille des Saltimbanques’ (1905)

But in the Picasso painting the figures are arranged in an almost imperceptible D-shape and Rilke writes:  “Und kaum dort, / aufrecht, da und gezeigt: des Dastehns / großer Anfangsbuchstab . . .” In my version: “And barely discernible, / yet up-standing and unmistakeably on display, / the capital D of Destiny . . .” The original word “Dastehns” (something like “standing there”) reflects the visual pun and it would be a great loss not to bring this into the English. Stephen Mitchell uses the word “Duration”; Young’s looser version loses the pun with “existence . . . presence”. On this occasion, I found myself following Stephen Cohn and opting for “Destiny” (more usually the translation of “Schicksal”) which I felt conveyed Rilke’s sense of how these individuals are driven to perform by forces external to them, rather than by a more truthful inner compulsion.

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Another critical decision arises in the Tenth Elegy with its tribe of people who enjoy a closer, more authentic relationship with death and grief than Rilke perceived in contemporary Western culture. He uses the word “Klage” and an English equivalent has to be found that works as the name of a young woman, her tribe, her ancestors and her country. Like the sound of the original, the word also has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in such powerful emotions. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is certainly heroic. Most previous translators have opted for the word “Lament” but I felt this suggested a rather affected, almost poetic attitude – precisely the kind of posturing that Rilke asks us to avoid in our confrontation with these difficult aspects of life. I chose the word “Keening” to convey the genuine edginess of feeling (aurally again I liked the harsh initial K and the word’s trailing, wailing fall). This word seemed to me to work perfectly as personal and tribal name and geographical location: “gently she guides him through the vast / Keening landscape, shows him temple columns, / ruins of castles from which the Keening princes / once wisely governed”.

One thing I have learned is that translators take sustenance from their chosen originals. This is not just in the obvious way of extending their range, but also that they feed on a familiar. They find in their subject an answering voice, a confirmation of something already present within themselves. I experienced this in a surprising way. Rilke’s influence on Auden was particularly evident in the late 1930s. The sonnet sequence In Time of War refers directly to him and Mendelson’s Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999) argues that ‘In Memory of W. B. Yeats’ concludes with “an explicit echo” of Rilke’s Ninth Elegy and its famous injunction to “praise this world to the angel”.

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Auden asks Yeats’ spirit to “Teach the free man how to praise”. Interestingly, Auden has never been a strong influence for me, yet the elegy to Yeats is a poem I have always loved. In fact, five or six years before I got to know Rilke, I remember modelling an elegy of my own on Auden’s – from the choice of title, the formal variety of its sections, to a finale in which I too celebrated one who “loved the world, craved its taste”, elevating him to a teacher of praise: “Listen, let me make this master speak: / Laughter, love, the senses are profound. / Drink deep, remember, Jeremy Round” (‘In Memory of Jeremy Round’). Reading Mendelson’s book has convinced me that I had been responding not merely to Auden but also – unknowingly – to Rilke. It turns out I have been finding a sympathetic familiar in him for longer than I had imagined.