Steven Cramer, Departures From Rilke, Arrowsmith Press, 2023.
Review by Michael Mercurio
In Departures From Rilke, Steven Cramer’s most recent collection of poems, we encounter a great contemporary poetic mind — a “lab geek,” to borrow from his version of “The Alchemist” — engaged in a feat of alchemical transformation using as prima materia the lyric poems from Rilke’s books titled New Poems and New Poems: The Other Part, published in 1907 and 1908 respectively. Steven, an inveterate teacher if ever there was, has allowed Cambridge Common Writers to publish an excerpt from the afterword he wrote for the book; it provides insight into his process and into the limitations he set for this work. The afterword also locates this book in the American poetic zeitgeist, acknowledging not only the translations and translators (including a machine translator) whose work served as a sort of philosophers’ stone for this project, but also its kin among American letters, from Robert Lowell’s Imitations to Daisy Fried’s The Year The City Emptied, with Donald Justice, to whom the book is dedicated, recognized as the poet whose own “departures” serve as exemplars for Steven in this work.
Steven’s departures are entirely his own, as the selection below will demonstrate. One need not be acquainted with Rilke’s originals, either in German or as translated to English, as a prerequisite for these poems; they are contemporary in tone and diction, rooted as much in the existential aspects of life in the 21st Century as Rilke’s originals were in the 20th. This is not to say the poems are familiar or without surprise; one of the persistent joys for me in reading this collection is the understated sense of the speaker’s otherness — I thrill to the opening of “Before a Summer Rain,” where consciousness seems to activate like an electric current being closed: “Suddenly something’s gone from the green, / but what?” The position of the titular prisoner in the paired poems “The Prisoner, Part One” and “The Prisoner, Part Two” may be seen as leading to a sort of alienation that makes the quotidian into something utterly unfamiliar. The speaker of “Morgue” also stands apart from the world they survey, allowing for observation to become something like comment, but not exactly. And so it goes throughout these poems, where a curious mind encounters defamiliarized aspects of existence, chronicling the departure from that which is expected.
THE ALCHEMIST The lab geek’s grin sags as he shoves his flask aside, boiled off now, smoking. He knew the elements needed to create a new Golden Age in this glass pear— funding; millennia of time; in his brain, starshine; a deep ocean for a mind. But tonight he sees his base metals flee back onto God’s scales, leaving him behind: a muttering, drunken miner, panning for gold in a dry creek bed.
THE PRISONER, PART ONE I still have my middle finger, so: all of you, get lost. Old stone dribbles water on older stone. My heart repeats the pounding sound the drops make, and bits of its tissue rot with every drip. I wish the water would leak faster; I want my rat. Light once shone brighter, but what do I know?
THE PRISONER, PART TWO Imagine it: the air you breathe and the sun in your eyes start turning to stone, reaching your cell, touching your hands and heart. In you, “then” and “later” and “tomorrow” and “next year” and “hereafter” rankle into a reddening sore that stays inflamed. Your past crazes inside you; its benign smile, never quite laughter, curdles in your mouth. And that guard playing God: a sooty eye leers in the peephole, just to see you live.
BEFORE A SUMMER RAIN Suddenly something’s gone from the green, but what? You feel its silence press against the window. From the neighboring woods, the plover’s fierce whistle, and you think of the saint who curates the library’s quiet— such privacy and passion in one voice, which the rainstorm answers. The hall portraits draw back, as if talk’s forbidden; and unsure sunlight returns, shades into the tapestries, which terrified you, hour by hour, as a child.
MORGUE Their bodies wait for some intervention: a ritual—dreamed up too late, of course— to join them, cold flesh warmed by flesh. Their worlds are over, but their names— why couldn’t we find them in their pockets? Sponging boredom off their lips; smoothing the hackles of their hair: this gets them clean (if not quite decent), the coroner explains— so none of you watching needs to feel sick. Under their lids, the eyes look inward now.
Why call this book a selection of “departures”—instead of translations, adaptations, or “versions”—from the lyrics Rainer Maria Rilke published as New Poems (1907) and New Poems: The Other Part (1908), the volumes many consider Rilke’s first great poetry? A particular if not unprecedented tension makes “departures” seem to me the best term for how these poems behave. They each bear some family resemblance to Rilke’s original, or at least to a more faithful English rendering, but the most wayward of them desert Rilke’s premises almost altogether. Put another way, each departure runs some ways away from home, but none escapes entirely.
The translator of New Poems confronts a style of German verse built largely out of intricate prosody and elaborate syntax, which English often flattens into metered prose, sometimes trussed up by slant-rhymes. (Efforts to replicate Rilke’s end-rhyming with true rhymes invariably come to grief.) Moreover, German’s infamous noun mergers—Datenverarbeitungsmaschine was my high school German textbook’s desperate equivalent for the now quaintly outdated data processing machine—often unpack into cliché or near-cliché in English. Who doesn’t see a glimpse of the apple of my eye in Rilke’s Augenäpfel? English translations of New Poems also tend to replicate the many adjectives and adverbs Rilke employs, a fidelity to the original that more often than not misfires. Edward Snow’s the supple pace of powerful soft strides may approach some idea of how Rilke’s world-famous panther walks—Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte—but in a line of English poetry, a trio of adjectives tends to vex the ear.
The greatest barrier to taking pleasure in Englished Rilke involves archaic diction—radiant, splendor, laurel, and gleaming in Snow’s translation of New Poems’ first lyric, “Early Apollo”; glory, radiance, splendor, and blazingly in its last, “Buddha in Glory.” To some extent, this denaturing results from the passage of a century, yet the awkward fact remains that even the most resourceful English versions of the Rilke’s New Poems feel “old-fashioned,” while comparably great poems in early 20th-century English—Yeats’s “The Cold Heaven” (1912) just one example—reflect their period’s style but don’t sound inflated. Was Robert Frost correct, then, that “poetry . . . is that which gets lost out of both prose and verse in translation?” It depends on the poet. Like Yeats, Rilke began as a Romantic and ended as a Modernist. Rilke’s younger but shorter-lived contemporary, George Trakl, was modern first and last, embedding terse, vivid images into starkly simple sentences, his poems carrying over into English with an immediacy that closes the gap between languages and centuries. I don’t mean to belittle Rilke’s best translators. Still, the torque of Rilke’s prosody and syntax, coupled with German’s semantic densities, allows for little more than an English paraphrase of the original’s premises,bereft of what Seamus Heaney calls “the music of what happens.”
Provoked by impossibility, then, I’ve tried in these departures to turn limitation into license, engaging a selection of Rilke’s New Poems in various incarnations—the original plus English versions from Mitchell to Snow to Microsoft Translator—and then revamping, updating, debating, or upending them. Two stylistic restraints took hold from the start: each stanza had to shed a line’s-worth of wordage—I cheat on occasion—and, wherever possible, active verbs had to do the work of those adjectives and adverbs so profuse in Englished Rilke. The license takes a few forms. Most of these departures show some likeness to Rilke’s original, despite a great deal of variance in specific features. Some refract my own personal and domestic history through Rilke’s viewpoint. Finally, some take their cue from Rilke’s alertness to a Europe on the brink of war to name the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine that began as this project evolved.