Saturday, April 07, 2018

Poems: Rainer Maria Rilke & Francisco Aragón

Francisco Aragón (
Several days ago in my post featuring a poem by Valerie Martínez I mentioned poet Francisco Aragón, who had organized the "PINTURA: POETA, a project in Ekphrasis program" that Martínez, Carmen Giménez Smith, Blas Falconer, and a number of other leading contemporary Latinx poets had participated in back in 2013. I do plan to feature more of those poets and poems, but you J's Theater readers did not think that I would mention Francisco without sharing one of his poems, did you? In fact, a while ago I thought about posting his poem below, and then, in the swirl of...well, you know the drill. A day, a week, a month, years pass. So, how fitting that this month has provided a reminder to do so.

One of the most famous ekphrastic poems ever written is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's (1875-1926) "The Archaic Torso of Apollo," a sonnet that initially appeared in his Neue Gedichte (New Poems) of 1907. These poems, and those in the second volume of 1908, were landmarks in European Modernist literature; while many appear in fixed forms like the sonnet, their combination of objective description, incantatory lyricism, and metaphysical heft appeared to mark a new stage in German and European poetry. At times, Rilke's poetic speaker engages in dialogue with himself--or his selves--and the poem's subject and themes, incorporating the reader in the dialogue, in a way that feels distinct from the dialogic approach one finds at times in Romanticism, or the abstractions of Symbolist poetry.

Rilke's "Archaic Torso" is fairly straightforward compared to some of the other poems in the two volumes, but it is less for the description than for its final line that its fame accrues. Many people who  perhaps have never read the German, let alone the English version of the poem know that famous dictum that concludes the sonnet: "You must change your life." As I have pointed out a number of times over the years, this translation is correct, and yet it loses one key component of the German, which is the verb "ändern," meaning to change or alter. "Ändern," and its cognates "ander/e," meaning "other," are directly related etymologically to English's "other." We lost the "n" and in the consonant shifting that occurred, and we got the "th" where German has a "d." Think "thorn" and "Dorn," or "thistle" and "Distel," or, well, "to think" and "denken." The languages, at least in their root words, are close. 

German does have other words for change too; "wechseln," meaning to "change" as in "exchange" money, sheets, etc.; "umziehen," to change one's clothes; "umtauschen," to exchange (something in a store); "verwandeln," to transform. (In the latter word, of course, "ande[r]" makes an appearance. Those "ändern" literally means "to make another" or "to make other." Or "to other." In this one word then, Rilke, as canny as they come, reminds us of the power of what not just the encounter with the work art does to the speaker, to us and any viewer, but what the artist herself must do--make oneself another, an other, other.

I have not forgotten Francisco, though. So below I am posting the German original of Rilke's poem, and Stephen Mitchell's famous translation. And then, I am posting Francisco's riff, which could be thought of also as a creative translation that manages to transform--verwandeln--the poem into something else, wittily but also with a serious little wallop. I think there are several different ways to interpret Francisco's version, but I'll leave that for J's Theater readers to pursue. I've already said quite a bit, though in case you are interested, Francisco is the author of two books of poetry, Puerta del Sol (2005) and Glow of Our Sweat (2010), and among his many activities (some of which I've mentioned on this blog before), he directs Letras Latinas, the literary program of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.


by Rainer Maria Rilke

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Shultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

From Ahead of All Parting: Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell (New York: Modern Library, 1995). All rights reserved.


by Francisco Aragón

    after Rilke

Despite the absent head (whose eyes

were the green of apples)
the supple flesh hums
with the afterglow

of those eyes
which is why the curve
of chest shimmers which is why

the twist of loin turns
that look into a smile, snaring
your eyes, leading

them slowly to regions
below the waist...That block
of stone more than a figure

disfigured and short; cascade
of shoulder glints
like a sinewy beast

of prey, whose edges blink
like stars—that torso:
gazing on its own. Step closer:

go blind

Copyright © 2014 by Francisco Aragón. From Glow of Our Sweat (Scapegoat Press, 2010). Reprinted from Split This Rock’s The Quarry: A Social Justice Poetry Database.

And, lastly, what might that headless torso of Apollo have looked like to Rilke, or how might it appear today?

Torso of Apollo, Roman copy
after a statue of the school of
Polykleitos, ca. 430–420 BC
Villa Ridolfi in Rome, acquired
in 1812 by Wagner for the
 Glyptothek, Munich
(courtesy of The Rapidian)

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