Rilke’s Duino Elegy #4


[I’ve been taking some time off 200 this month to re-read and translate Rilke. Here is my attempt at a rendition of Duino Elegy #4. This is work still in progress. Feel free to slag it off as much as you please!]


O trees of life, when do you winter?

We, heedless, all at odds, unlike

the migrant birds, lagging and obsolete,

launch ourselves of a sudden on

the wind and drop into a listless mere.

Blossom & decay alike are known

to us. And somewhere lions still roam

and know no powerlessness, so long

as they are grand and master. We,

though, though single-minded, yet full

feel the cost of other. Hatred is our


Aren’t lovers always

thrown up against the borders of each

other—they who each promised hot

chase, home fires, and the whole wide world?

Sketched for an eye-blink there, a sharp

contrasting ground’s painstakingly prepared

for us to see. Nescient of the contours

of feeling, we know only the force

that shapes it from without.


Who has not sat, anxious before

the curtain of their heart?

It’s raised: a parting scene.

Simple to understand: the garden

is familiar. Slow pan; first comes

the dancer. Not the. Enough!

For, though so light of foot,

he is in character, and turns

into a townsman pottering

about his kitchen once the play

is done. I do not want such half-

stuffed masks; rather a puppet.

She’s not hollow. I’ll take the skin

stretched over a wire mesh, her

face of mere outward appearance.

I’m here! Whether the lights go out,

whether I’m told ‘no more!’, whether

the gray & empty mist wafts from

the stage upon me; whether not

one of my so quiet forebears

will sit down beside me: no

woman, nor the brown-eyed

squinting boy. And yet I stay; there’s

always something to see. I’m right,

am I not, father? Your life was so

embittered by mine, my first murky

infusion of need you tasted

over and over as I grew, and

troubled by the aftertaste of

so far-fetched a future, you tried

my clouded gaze. And, now deceased,

so often in my deepest dreams

there you appear fearful for me

and forgo all the composure

of those imperturbable realms

of after-life the dead enjoy

to claim my sliver of fate,

don’t you? Is it not right, you

who would love me only for

the sweet onset of my loving,

which I always shirked, when, even

in the very throes of love your

empty countenances turned

to an outer space and you

were there no more?…

And, should the mood

take me now, I wait before the puppet-

show, or rather, gaze so absorbed

that in the end a countervailing

angel must take unto the stage

to cancel out my seeing eye

and heavenward sweep the ragged dolls.

Angel and Puppet. There’s a show!

United there is all that we have rent

in twain merely by being around.

Then, from our lifetime’s seasons, comes

the ambit of all change. It’s over,

over and over, the angel plays.

Must not the moribund possess

some inkling of the shallowness

of our performance; how nothing

is itself. O hours of childhood

when, behind the images, the past

was more than passed, and yet no future

lay before us! We grew and sometimes

yearned to grow too soon, half for the sake

of those who had no more than being

grown. And yet, when left alone, we

pleasured in permanence and stood

there in the gap between play and thing,

upon a point from the beginning

ushered in to being as the ground

for sheer occurrences.

Show me

a child as is, set in a cluster

of stars, and put the distance

meter in her hands! Who kneads

the gray bread of a childhood death

and bakes it hard or leaves the doughy

fruit stone of it in her rounded mouth?

Killers are simply fathomed. This,

though, death—the whole damned lot of it—

even ere life begin, so softly

to embody yet do no evil:

that beggars all description indeed.



200 Section 22 Bella

The girl he picked up at the Hefner concert

in 1999 has now grown wrinkled and old

with all the hymns to the alcohol

and the cigarettes and a splash of cheap

overpowering scent from a tempting

crafted glass vial can

still leap out like a genie

and make them seem and feel

hot and dizzy and young,

when the booze and drugs

finally kick in; can still tempt

the two of them together

as they toddle back home from the pub.

Poison—enunciated in a camp French accent—

was always her and his favorite. The exotic

stale tang of risqué sex lasting long into the next day

and beyond, if you do not wash it off.

Bella sprays the Poison she has fished out of the trash

onto her wrist and raises it to his nose. Smell this.

Sweet. They fuck. Good as the real thing. Slump

in sleep. He wakes up to her convulsing body and frothing

mouth and dials 911. Not quite feeling himself.


Discharged from hospital alone, he walks home and runs

his hands over the foxgloves in the summer hedgerows

in remembrance of Bella Donna picked

up at a Hefner concert in 1999,

now gone wrinkled and cold.