Three Ways of Looking at Rilke: Cadora, Snow, Brodsky

This week in Little Star Weekly a new translation of Rilke’s New Poems by Joe Cadora, with an introduction by Robert Hass, prompts us to revisit one of its most startling and enduring poems, “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”

We offer Cadora’s translation:

That was the fantastical mine of the soul.
Like the reticent ore of silver, like veins
through its darkness they sped. Among those roots
sprang the blood that flowed toward mankind,
appearing hard as porphyry in the darkness.
Else there was nothing red…

And also Edward Snow’s

This was the souls’ strange mine.
Like silent silver ore they wandered
through its dark like veins. Between roots
the blood welled up that makes its way to men,
and it looked hard as porphyry in the dark.
Nothing else was red…

Read more in Little Star Weekly

Snow’s version most recently appeared in a volume called The Poetry of Rilke (2009), with a beautiful introduction by Adam Zagajewski, from which we excerpted here on Little Star. Snow’s version first appeared in a two-volume hardcover edition of New Poems from North Point Press in 1984. 

Rilke’s New Poems famously came at the fertile moment in his career, when, in newly twentieth-century France, he’d just signed on as Rodin’s secretary and, flush with new realizations from the experience of visual art about creating a poetry bound to “thingness” (a Dinggedicht), was writing not only a new kind of poetry but also Letters to a Young PoetThe Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and his formative letters on Cezanne. The transports of the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus lay in the future.

Both North Point and Cadora’s publisher, Copper Canyon were smallish West Coast publishers with big traditions of publishing poetry and translation.  (North Point continues as an imprint of FSG, but its founder Jack Schumacher departed to found Counterpoint.) Both also, hurray, reproduce the German originals on facing pages. Here are a few lines:

Das war der Seelen wunderliches Bergwerk.
Wie stille Silbererze gingen sie
als Adern durch sein dunkel. Zwischen Wurzeln
entsprang das Blut, das fortgeht zu den Menschen…

We took our “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” reflections one step further with some passages from a 1994 essay on the poem by Joseph Brodsky.  The essay appeared in his last book of prose, On Grief and Reason, along with considerations of poems by Frost and Hardy. Brodsky refers to J. B. Leishman’s 1964 translation, which has the distinction of preserving Rilke’s iambic pentameter (“That was the strange unfathomed mine of souls. / And they, like silent veins of silver ore / were winding through its darkness”). Auden praised versions of Rilke Leishman made in collaboration with Stephen Spender in The New Republic in 1939.

The poems Brodsky considers by Rilke, Frost, and Hardy all address a love that reaches across the boundary of death. One remembers Brodsky’s description of poetry itself as the extension of our cognitive reach into the inanimate—or infinite. In “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,” the infinite turns its back on her addresser, and Brodsky catches in the moment the ache of the lover forgotten. As in another landmark poem for him, Milosz’s “Elegy for N. N.,”

No, it was not because it was too far
you failed to visit me that day or night.
From year to year it grow in us until it takes hold,
I understood it as you did: indifference.

For oblivion is “the first cry of infinity.”

—translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lawrence Davis

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One Response to Three Ways of Looking at Rilke: Cadora, Snow, Brodsky

  1. [...] An issue of Little Star Weekly from a few weeks back included a Rilkean trifecta: two translations (Joe Cadora’s and Edward [...]