DEPTFORD QUATRAINS Rilke: The Eighth Elegy

dedicated to Rudolph Kassner

With all its eyes, Creation looks on the Open.
Only ours seem to have been turned backwards
and they appear to lay traps all round it
as if to prevent its going free.
What is really out there we only know
by looking at the countenance of creatures.
For we take a young child and force it
to turn around, to see shapes and forms,
and not the Open that is so deep in the face
of an animal. Free from death.
Alone, we see it. The freed creature’s doom
stands behind it and ahead lies God
and when it begins to move, its movement
is through an eternity like a well-spring.
Even for a single day, we do not have
that pure space before us into which flowers
endlessly bloom. We face always World
and never Nowhere without the No:
that unsurveyed purity we might breathe
and know without limit and not desire.
In such stillness, a child may lose itself
but then is shaken from it. Or someone
dies and becomes it. So close to death
we do not see death as much, but look out
perhaps with the greater animal gaze.
Lovers – were it not for their loved ones
obstructing their view – they come near it
and are amazed … As if by some mistake,
it opens to them, there, beyond the other …
But neither can slip past the beloved
and World rushes back before them.
Forever turned to the created, we see
in it only reflections of the free realm
we darken with our very presence.
Or it happens, an animal, mutely, quietly,
looks up, stares us through and through.
We call this Fate: to be opposed to the World
forever and nothing else but opposite.

If the animal that moves towards us
with such confidence in another direction,
possessed our kind of consciousness,
it would wrench us around and drag us
under its sway. But it feels its existence
is boundless, unknowable, moves without
regard to its own condition: pure
as its outward gaze. And where we see
the future, it sees all things and itself
among all things and forever whole.

And yet, in the alert warm-blooded beast,
there is the weight and concern of a great
melancholy. For it too always feels
the presence of what often overpowers us –
a recollection, as if what we push for
endlessly, once was closer and more true,
our links to it infinitely more tender.
Here, all is distance; there, it was breath.
After that first home, this second
seems to be windswept and uncertain.
Oh, and the bliss of the little creature
that remains in the womb that bore it:
happiness of the gnat that hops within
even to its marriage! Womb is everything.
And look at the half-certainties
of the bird that knows both states almost
from hatching – as if it were the soul
of an Etruscan, released from the dead
only to be received into another space
that has for its lid a reclining figure.
And how bewildered is any creature
that is womb-born and yet has to fly.
As if frightened of itself, it must hurtle
through the air the way a crack goes
through a tea-cup – so a bat’s track
streaks through the porcelain of evening.

And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
we face all this, never see beyond it!
It spills from us. We arrange it.
It falls to pieces. We arrange again.
We ourselves fall to pieces.

Who has twisted us this way round,
so no matter what we do we are always
in the position of one leaving? Just as,
on the last possible hill from which he can
glimpse his whole valley one final time,
he turns, stops there, he lingers –
so we live on, forever bidding goodbye.

Translated by Martyn Crucefix
(courtesy of the Enitharmon Press –


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