One has just been sent out as a biblical dove, has found nothing green, and slips back
into the darkness of the ark -- Kafka

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rilke's "Requiem for a Friend"

Surprised I hadn't put this up long ago. Guess it's because there are so few translations on the Net and I didn't want to copy it out? Not sure. Anyway, I was thinking of this this morning and had to post it. It was written for Rilke's friend, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (I have been to her grave and her husband's museum). This translation is by A.S. Kline (2001); I have a copy of Mitchell's Rilke on my shelf (perhaps more "poetic," but not always closer to "authorial intent").

        Requiem for a Friend

I have dead ones, and I have let them go,

and was astonished to see them so peaceful,

so quickly at home in being dead, so just,

so other than their reputation. Only you, you turn

back: you brush against me, and go by, you try

to knock against something, so that it resounds

and betrays you. O don’t take from me what I

am slowly learning. I’m sure you err

when you deign to be homesick at all

for any Thing. We change them round:

they are not present, we reflect them here

out of our being, as soon as we see them.

    I thought you were much further on. It disturbs me

that you especially err and return, who have

changed more than any other woman.

That we were frightened when you died, no, that

your harsh death broke in on us darkly,

tearing the until-then from the since-that:

it concerns us: that it become a unique order

is the task we must always be about.

But that even you were frightened, and now too

are in terror, where terror is no longer valid:

that you lose a little of your eternity, my friend,

and that you appear here, where nothing

yet is: that you, scattered for the first time,

scattered and split in the universe,

that you did not grasp the rise of events,

as here you grasped every Thing:

that from the cycle that has already received you

the silent gravity of some unrest

pulls you down to measured time –

this often wakes me at night like a thief breaking in.

And if only I might say that you deign to come

out of magnanimity, out of over-fullness,

because so certain, so within yourself,

that you wander about like a child, not anxious

in the face of anything one might do –

but no: you are asking. This enters so

into my bones, and cuts like a saw.

A reproach, which you might offer me, as a ghost,

impose on me, when I withdraw at night,

into my lungs, into the innards,

into the last poor chamber of my heart –

such a reproach would not be as cruel

as this asking is. What do you ask?

    Say, shall I travel? Have you left some Thing

behind somewhere, that torments itself

and yearns for you? Shall I enter a land

you never saw, though it was close to you

like the other side of your senses?

    I will travel its rivers: go ashore

and ask about its ancient customs:

speak to women in their doorways

and watch when they call their children.

I’ll note how they wrap the landscape

round them, going about their ancient work

in meadow and field: I’ll demand

to be led before their king, and I’ll

win their priests with bribes to place me

in front of their most powerful statues,

and leave, and close the temple gates.

Only then when I know enough, will I

simply look at creatures, so that something

of their manner will glide over my limbs:

and I will possess a limited being

in their eyes, which hold me and slowly

release me, calmly, without judgment.

I’ll let the gardeners recite many flowers

to me, so that I might bring back

in the fragments of their lovely names

a remnant of their hundred perfumes.

And I’ll buy fruits, fruits in which that land

exists once more, as far as the heavens.

    That is what you understood: the ripe fruits.

You placed them in bowls there in front of you

and weighed out their heaviness with pigments.

And so you saw women as fruits too,

and saw the children likewise, driven

from inside into the forms of their being.

And you saw yourself in the end as a fruit,

removed yourself from your clothes, brought

yourself in front of the mirror, allowed yourself

within, as far as your gaze that stayed huge outside

and did not say: ‘I am that’: no, rather: ‘this is.’

So your gaze was finally free of curiosity

and so un-possessive, of such real poverty,

it no longer desired self: was sacred.

    So I’ll remember you, as you placed yourself

within the mirror, deep within and far

from all. Why do you appear otherwise?

What do you countermand in yourself? Why

do you want me to believe that in the amber beads

at your throat there was still some heaviness

of that heaviness that never exists in the other-side

calm of paintings: why do you show me

an evil presentiment in your stance:

what do the contours of your body mean,

laid out like the lines on a hand,

so that I no longer see them except as fate?

    Come here, to the candlelight. I’m not afraid

to look on the dead. When they come

they too have the right to hold themselves out

to our gaze, like other Things.

    Come here: we’ll be still for a while.

See this rose, close by on my desk:

isn’t the light around it precisely as hesitant

as that over you: it too shouldn’t be here.

Outside in the garden, unmixed with me,

it should have remained or passed –

now it lives, so: what is my consciousness to it?

    Don’t be afraid if I understand now, ah,

it climbs in me: I can do no other,

I must understand, even if I die of it.

Understand, that you are here. I understand.

Just as a blind man understands a Thing,

I feel your fate and do not know its name

Let us grieve together that someone drew you

out of your mirror. Can you still weep?

You cannot. You turned the force and pressure

of your tears into your ripe gaze,

and every juice in you besides

you added into a heavy reality,

that climbed and spun in balance blindly.

Then chance tore at you, a final chance

tore you back from your furthest advance,

back into a world where juices have will.

Not tearing you wholly: tore only a piece at first,

but when around this piece, day after day

reality grew, so that it became heavy,

you needed your whole self: you went

and broke yourself, in pieces, out of its control,

painfully, out, because you needed yourself. Then

you lifted yourself out, and dug the still green seeds

out of the night-warmed earth of your heart,

from which your death would rise: yours,

your own death for your own life.

And ate them, the kernels of your death,

like all the others, ate the kernels,

and found an aftertaste of sweetness

you did not expect, found sweetness on the lips,

you: who were already sweet within your senses.

    O let us grieve. Do you know how your blood

hesitated in its unequalled gyre, and reluctantly

returned, when you called it back?

How confused it was to take up once more

the body’s narrow circulation: how full of mistrust

and amazement, entering into the placenta,

and suddenly tired by the long way back.

You drove it on: you pushed it along,

you dragged it to the fireplace, as one

drags a herd-animal to the sacrifice:

and still wished that it would be happy too.

And you finally forced it: it was happy

and ran over to you and gave itself up. You thought

because you’d grown used to other rules,

it was only for a while: but

now you were within Time, and Time is long.

And Time runs on, and Time takes away, and Time

is like a relapse in a lengthy illness.

    How short your life was, if you compare it

with those hours where you sat and bent

the varied powers of your varied future

silently into the bud of the child,

that was fate once more. O painful task.

O task beyond all strength. You did it

from day to day, you dragged yourself to it,

and drew the lovely weft through the loom,

and used up all the threads in another way.

And finally you still had courage to celebrate.

    When it was done, you wanted to be rewarded,

like a child when it has drunk the bittersweet

tea that might perhaps make it well.

So you rewarded yourself: you were still so far

from other people, even then: no one was able

to think through, what gift would please you.

You knew. You sat up in childbed,

and in front of you stood a mirror, that returned

the whole thing to you. This everything was you,

and wholly before, and within was only illusion,

the sweet illusion of every woman, who gladly

takes up her jewelry, and combs, and alters her hair.

    So you died, as women used to die, you died,

in the old-fashioned way, in the warm house,

the death of women who have given birth, who wish

to shut themselves again and no longer can,

because that darkness, that they have borne,

returns once more, and thrusts, and enters.

    Still, shouldn’t a wailing of women have been raised?

Where women would have lamented, for gold,

and one could pay for them to howl

through the night, when all becomes silent.

A custom once! We have too few customs.

They all vanish and become disowned.

So you had to come, in death, and, here with me,

retrieve the lament. Can you hear that I lament?

I wish that my voice were a cloth thrown down

over the broken fragments of your death

and pulled about until it were torn to pieces,

and all that I say would have to walk around,

ragged, in that voice, and shiver:

what remains belongs to lament. But now I lament,

not the man who pulled you back out of yourself,

(I don’t discover him: he’s like everyone)

but I lament all in him: mankind.

    When, somewhere, from deep within me, a sense

of having been a child rises, which I still don’t understand,

perhaps the pure being-a-child of my childhood:

I don’t wish to understand. I wish to form

an angel from it, without addition,

and wish to hurl him into the front rank

of the screaming angels who remind God.

    Because this suffering’s lasted far too long,

and no one can bear it: it’s too heavy for us,

this confused suffering of false love,

that builds on limitation, like a custom,

calls itself right and makes profit out of wrong.

Where is the man who has the right of possession?

Who can possess what cannot hold its own self,

what only from time to time catches itself happily,

and throws itself down again, as a child does a ball.

No more than the captain of the ship can grasp

the Nike jutting outwards from the prow

when the secret lightness of her divinity

lifts her suddenly into the bright ocean-wind:

no more can one of us call back the woman

who walks on, no longer seeing us,

along a small strip of her being

as if by a miracle, without disaster:

unless his desire and trade is in crime.

    For this is a crime, if anything’s a crime:

not to increase the freedom of a Love

with all the freedom we can summon in ourselves.

We have, indeed, when we love, only this one thing:

to loose one another: because holding on to ourselves

comes easily to us, and does not first have to be learned.


    Are you still there? Are you in some corner? –

You understood all of this so well

and used it so well, as you passed through

open to everything, like the dawn of a day.

Women do suffer: love means being alone,

and artists sometimes suspect in their work

that they must transform where they love.

You began both: both are in that

which now fame disfigures, and takes from you.

Oh you were far beyond any fame. You were

barely apparent: you’d withdrawn your beauty

as a man takes down a flag

on the grey morning of a working day,

and wished for nothing, except the long work –

which is unfinished: and yet is not finished.

    If you are still here, if in this darkness

there is still a place where your sensitive spirit

resonates on the shallow waves

of a voice, isolated in the night,

vibrating in the high room’s current:

then hear me: help me. See, we can slip back so

unknowingly, out of our forward stride,

into something we didn’t intend: find

that we’re trapped there as if in dream

and we die there, without waking.

No one is far from it. Anyone who has fired

their blood through work that endures,

may find that they can no longer sustain it

and that it falls according to its weight, worthless.

For somewhere there is an ancient enmity

between life and the great work.

Help me, so that I might see it and know it.

    Come no more. If you can bear it so, be

dead among the dead. The dead are occupied.

But help me like this, so you are not scattered,

as the furthest things sometimes help me: within.

[Translation by A.S. Kline]

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