YOU MUST CHANGE YOUR POEM

torso.jpg

Rilke’s marvelous poem really stands up well in English, and one gets the idea this poem can wear all sorts of translations and keep on giving.  Here’s the site we raided.

Archäischer Torso Apollos

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 entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

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

Here’s one of many standard versions:

We cannot know his beautiful head,
where the eyes ripened like apples,
yet his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
from which his gaze, however dimmed,

 still persists and gleams. If this were not so,
the bow of his breast could not blind you,
nor could a smile, steered by the gentle curve
of his loins, glide to the centre of procreation.

 And this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
unable to glisten like a predator’s pelt,

or burst out from its confines and radiate
like a star: for there is no angle from which
it cannot see you. You must change your life.

But it’s also wonderful to see the rhyme scheme replicated in English:

We cannot know his outrageous skull
wherein his eyeballs mature,
though his torso’s candlelight allure,
his lost eyes’ light however dull,

endures and burns. Were this not so
his breast’s bow could not blind
nor could a smile, led by the line
of his sex, that engendering flow.

And this stone would be a lump
the shoulder meaningless, the rump,
the sleek wolf’s sheen dismayed;

It could not burst its bounds and send
light from its star: you are displayed
to its stern gaze. You must your life amend.

–translated by Billy Mills

And we like this one, too:

We did not know that celebrated head,
Eyes warming Zeus with their promise.
But his torso glowers and glows like a muted
Greek candle, straight and shining.

Why else would you be dazzled
By the pout of his chest, swivel hips
Askew, a grin hinged on his chi,
Confident carrier of a generation?

Or, yet, this stone would stand chipped
And marred under slacker’s shoulders,
Not sleek and shiny like a hunter’s coat,

Nor erupting, emanating like a star.
Nowhere are you safe from its gaze;
No. You need to get a life.

translated by Henry Lloyd Moon

 

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