Two poems by Friedrich Hölderlin
Translated by Maxine Chernoff and Paul Hoover
The Ister (Der Ister)
Now is the time for fire!
Impatient for the daylight,
We’re on our knees,
Exhausted with waiting.
It’s then, in that silence,
We hear the woods’ strange call.
Meanwhile, we sing from the Indus,
Which comes from far away, and
From the Alpheus, since we’ve
Long desired decorum.
It’s not without dramatic flourish
That one grasps
What is closest
To reach the other side.
But here we want to build.
Rivers make the land fertile
And allow the foliage to grow.
And if in the summer
Animals gather at a watering place
People will go there, too.
This river is called the Ister.
It lives in beauty. Columns of leaves burn
And stir. They stand in the forest
Supporting each other; above,
A second dimension juts out
From a dome of stones. So I’m
Not surprised that the distantly gleaming river
Made Hercules its guest,
When in search of shadows
He came down from Olympus
And up from the heat of Isthmus.
They were full of courage there,
Which always comes in handy, like cool water
And a path for the spirit to follow.
That’s why the hero preferred
To come to the water’s source, its fragrant yellow banks
Black with fir trees, in whose depths
The hunter likes to roam
At noon and the resinous trees
Moan as they grow.
Yet the river almost seems
To flow backwards, and I
Think it must come
From the East.
Be said further. But why does
It hang so straight from the mountain? That other river,
The Rhine, has gone away
Sideways. Not for nothing rivers
Flow in dryness. But how? We need a sign,
Nothing more, something plain and simple,
To remind us of sun and moon, so inseparable,
Which go away — day and night also —
And warm each other in heaven.
They give joy to the highest god. For how
Can he descend to them? And like earth’s ancient greenness
They are the children of heaven. But he seems
Too indulgent to me, not freer,
And almost scornful. For when
Day begins in youth,
Where it commences growing,
Another is already there
To further enhance the beauty, and chafes
At the bit like foals. And if he is happy
Distant breezes hear the commotion;
But the rock needs engraving
And the earth needs its furrows;
If not, an endless desolation;
But what a river will do,
The Titans (Die Titanen)
It’s not yet
Time. They are still
Unbound. And the indifferent don’t care
About godly matters.
Let them puzzle it out
With the Oracle. Meanwhile, during the festivities,
I’ll take my ease thinking of the dead.
In the old days, many generals died
and lovely women and poets.
Today, it’s many men.
But I am alone.
and sailing on the ocean
The sweetly scented islands
Ask where they are.
For something of them remains
In writing and in myth.
God reveals so much.
For a long time the clouds
Have influenced what’s below
And the holy forest, fertile as a god,
Has sent down roots.
The world’s riches burn too intensely.
For we don’t have the song
That will shake our spirit free.
It would consume itself,
For the heavenly fire can never
Yet men enjoy
The banquet, and in celebration,
Their eyes are brightened by pearls
On a young woman’s neck.
Also games of war
The garden paths
The memory of battle clatters;
The resonant weapons
Of heroic ancestors lie soothed
And still upon the breasts
Of children. But the bees hum
Around me, and where the plowman
Makes his furrows, birds
Sing against the light. Many give
Help to heaven. The poet
Sees them. It’s good to rely
On others. For no one can bear his life alone.
For when the busy day
And heavenly dew glistens
On the chain
Leading lightning from sunrise
To its source, even mortals
Feel its grandeur.
That’s why they build houses
And the workshop is so busy
And ships sail against the currents
And men exchange greetings
Holding out their hands; it’s sensible
On earth, and not for nothing
Do we fix our eyes on the ground.
Yet you sense
A different way.
For proportion demands
That coarseness exist
For purity to be known.
But when the first cause
Reaches into the earth
To make it come to life,
People think the heavenly
Have come down to the dead
And the all-knowing has dawned
In a boundless emptiness.
It’s not for me to say
That the gods are growing weak
Just as they come into being.
and it goes
As far as the part in father’s hair, so that
and the bird of heaven
Makes it known to him. Wonderful
in anger, that’s what matters.
Maxine Chernoff is the co-editor of New American Writing magazine and chair of Creative Writing at San Francisco State University. She is the author of six books of fiction and six collections of poems. Her seventh poetry collection Among The Names is to be published in the Northern Spring of 2005 by Apogee Press.
Paul Hoover’s most recent poetry books are Winter (Mirror) from Flood Editions and Rehearsal in Black (Salt Publications). His essay collection, Fables of Representation, was recently published by University of Michigan Press. He is editor of the anthology Postmodern American Poetry and, with Maxine Chernoff, the literary magazine New American Writing.
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