Avatar Review
Issue 13

Poetry: Len Krisak (5 Rilke translations)

Rilke: Roman Sarcophagi

But since we have been set down here as well,
what keeps us from believing it’s a brief
while only that this shock and hatred dwell
inside of us, with our distress and grief?

This carved sarcophagus was once that way.
Among its icons, ribbons, glass, and rings;
robes wrapped up in the rot consumption brings;
in slow exhaustion, something lay . . .

till it was swallowed by those mouths unknown
and silent. (Where is there a brain that thinks
and waits and might employ it for its own?)

Then everlasting water channeled down
from ageless aqueducts; the rock now drinks
it, mirrored, lapping, glowing in the stone.

Rilke: Portrait

So that not one of her tremendous sorrows
might slip down from that visage of denial,
she carries on, through every tragic trial,
her features’ faded, beautiful bouquet,
tied wildly and already half-undone.
Sometimes, almost like a tuberose, one
lost weary smile will drift down from that spray.

And yet she goes on, placid and serene–
weary, with hands both beautiful and blind
knowing a smile is what they’ll never find.

And she says made-up things so unforeseen
Fate wavers in them, forced, and on its own.
Then with her soul she gives them what they mean,
till they burst forth like nothing ever known–
like the screaming of a stone.

And with her chin held high like some proud queen,
she lets these words come tumbling out once more,
but not to last, since none of all that store
accords with what there is: life, full of pain;
The one thing she has to her name;
a cup without a base, which to maintain,
she must hold high above her lustrous fame,
above the evening as it goes its way.

Rilke: The Reader

Who can know him–this one, whose face has dropped
down from its being to some other one
the rapid turning pages can alone–
sometimes–abruptly interrupt?

Even his mother lacks all certainty:
is he the shadowed one who reads, soaked through?
And we who had the time to spare–what do
we know of how he fades away, till he

looks up, fatigued and lifting with his eyes
whatever’s happened in that book down there?
His look, which does not take, instead supplies
a nudge against this world so fully-finished:
like children playing–quiet, solitaire–
who suddenly must meet that world once closed.
And yet his features, which have been composed,
remain the same and undiminished.

Rilke: Samuel Appears to Saul

And then the Witch of Endor cried, “I see!”
Gripping her arm, the King demanded, “Who?”
She stared straight out; her look described what he
had known would be there. Like her, he saw, too:

one by whose tongue he never would be whipped
again: “Why plague me while I slept?
While Heaven’s curse is on you still,
and you are shunned in silence by the Lord,
you look for victory from my mouth? And will
you have me tell each tooth that’s left me? I
have nothing more . . . .” He wisped away. The crone,
hands clasped before her face, stifled her cry
as if all were foreseen: “Lay down your sword.”

And Saul, who for forever had succeeded,
a towering banner to his people? He
fell down before her, and would dare no plea,
so sure he was he’d be defeated.

But she who had so beaten down his will,
still hoped, though he’d not tasted food for days.
As if she’d stored up just so he would graze
no more, she baked bread, found a calf to kill,

and brought him to it to sit down and eat.
Now all came down to this one thing at last.
Like one who had forgotten much, he sat.
Then like a starving serf, Saul broke his fast.

Rilke: Resurrection

Hearing that sound that quakes,
the Count sees light break through: it’s Doom.
He shakes his thirteen sons, and wakes
each from his earthly tomb.

He greets his two wives from afar
with gracious courtesy.
How filled with faith all are
to meet Eternity.

But they await the moment when
young Erich (laid to rest at seven)
and (at thirteen, in 1610,
her mortal body given
its grave in Flanders clay)
will lead today to heaven.