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   Jacket 31 — October 2006        link Jacket 31 Contents page        link Jacket Homepage

John Felstiner and David Goldstein[1]

The Lure of the God: Robert Duncan on Translating Rilke


In 1956 I lit on an essay about Hafiz’s “Wild Deer” mathnawi (long poem) by Eric Schroeder, historian, archaeologist, astrologer, poet, painter, composer, and Keeper of Islamic Art at Harvard’s Fogg Museum. “What an artist says,” writes Eric, “about the art of which he is a master generally commands interest, the more respectful as he is the greater master. And perhaps a special value might be attached to what poets say of poetry, since verbal expression is their business. A poet should speak more articulately from the springs of his life, and so perhaps should tell us more not only about art as a preoccupation, but about his own style of art as a vehicle of self-expression or self-knowledge.” The quiet fervor in this thought has never left me. It bears upon two letters Robert Duncan wrote to me in February 1974, letters that move from the nuances of Rainer Maria Rilke’s sonnet Archaïscher Torso Apollos (Archaic Torso of Apollo), through resonances of literary translation, toward root principles of poetics and poetic language. Duncan’s musings on the art of which he is a master command all the more interest because he addresses himself to Rilke’s own ars poetica, his penetrating vision of a stone torso, glowing and blinding, on which there’s no part “that does not see you.”
        Our exchange of letters came about this way. In the autumn of 1973 I designed a verse translation workshop at Stanford, taking over the idea from Donald Davie. Donald’s format had been to choose in advance the languages and works to be translated, then bring in native speakers to provide literal versions, construing and glossing the verse for poet-students the way Princeton’s Clarence Brown fed literal Mandelshtam to W. S. Merwin. But in my seminar I wanted each student to work directly from a language we knew. While our small troop prepared their own projects, I thought, it would make sense first to sample the tradition of literary translation — Lowell’s Baudelaire, Neruda’s Whitman, Williams’s Paz, Paz’s Williams, Celan’s Dickinson, Beckett’s Beckett, and so on. And why not bring in one or two accomplished translators to open their art and practice to us?
        I decided to invite Robert Duncan. In a 1967 issue of Audit/Poetry, he’d taken Robin Blaser to task for making irresponsible versions of Gérard de Nerval by ignoring the “architectonics of meaning” as well as hermetic and kabbalistic nuances. Blaser defended his renderings as “actual,” in the sense that they gave a meaning of Nerval while yet becoming “my poems.” Duncan responded by advancing a spiritual motive for translation: “only through an intense operation of translating would I come to the experience of the world that I knew was concentrated in Nerval.” In contrast to Blaser’s ownership model, in which one makes another’s poems “one’s own,” translation, for Duncan, translation becomes a quest for revelation. Later, in a 1969 “Test of Translation” in Clayton Eshleman’s magazine Caterpillar, Duncan again found Blaser “disdainful of Nerval’s particulars,” and unveiled more of his own demands and findings. This taking of poetry and translation with such bedrock seriousness struck me.
        Later, prompted by Duncan’s 1972 Stanford reading, I asked him down from San Francisco in January 1974 to talk about translating Nerval with my class. Yes, he’d be glad to come. As it happened, though, he was at work with his own French translator, Serge Fauchereau. Might they both come and in our presence work together on Duncan’s poetry? By all means! Never mind Nerval — I jumped at this idea. “But Robert, I’d still have only the $25 honorarium to offer you and Serge,” said I.
        My notes from that day show Duncan skeptical of rhyming in translation. Dante’s rhymes are incidental — don’t replicate them, he urged. In Shakespeare’s milieu, rhyming was conventional — what counts for him is enjambment, the nerve endings can occur anywhere. That Pope rhymed Homer! — when rhyme was barbarian in Homer’s Greece — was mal à propos. Baudelaire’s rhymes have a holding down, a smoothing effect, whereas in Lowell’s “imitations” the rhymes thrust too much. Mallarmé? Yes, in Octavio Paz’s Spanish, perhaps, but not in English. Look at the margins of Yeats’s drafts, how he labored to make the rhymes INVISIBLE. What counts is not end-rhyme but music, a “tone-leading of vowels”: “In translating, you are arriving at MELODY.”
        Rhyme as such certainly didn’t figure in the work that Duncan and Fauchereau shared with us. They brought Serge’s handwritten draft version of Duncan’s “Structure of Rime  5”:

Duncan letter, 1

First we noticed how present participles — ”bleeding… knocking… hanging… everlasting” — charge Duncan’s English here, and yet how orthodox French grammar can’t quite handle this vibrancy. Then something phenomenal occurred. Duncan intoned a sentence from his poem, astir with some archaic mystery or procreation ritual: “Their prayers rise from the ground and hold me to the everlasting promise, to the Adam!” Whereupon Fauchereau spoke his version — Leurs prières s’élèvent du sol et m’élèvent vers la promesse éternelle, vers l’Adam — and Duncan took fire from it. The added spur of vers, “toward,” and those progressional verb forms, s’élèvent breeding m’élèvent, prompted a new possibility. Why not (I recall him exclaiming) make it move this way, through consonance: “Their prayers rise from the ground and rouse me to the everlasting promise, to the Adam!” A French intervention, s’élèvent… m’élèvent, opened the way to new music along with its bonus of an erotic lift: “rise… rouse.” Translators can seldom claim such authority.
        Shortly after this visit, I wrote thanking Duncan, and seized the moment to pass along something I’d worked on years before, which might intrigue him. I no longer have a copy of that venture at Rilke’s Archaïscher Torso Apollos, but it must have been fairly provisional. Duncan rose to the occasion, primed as ever to draw the sweet sap out of poetry’s doings. Evidently I’d also lent him a talismanic book of mine, Muhammad’s People, an anthology of Eric Schroeder’s translations from classical Muslim culture. Robert Duncan’s return of the volume’s dust jacket — ”with some reinforcement added” — initiated a brace of long-treasured letters.
         These letters concern Rilke’s sonnet from early summer 1908, regenerating an ancient torso in the Louvre, a remnant of a sculpture of the god of poetry, music, prophecy, and light. Among countless translations of that poem, my American version of the German vision of the torso of a sculpture of the god of prophecy remains in process, revisable, as if Rilke’s verse itself were telling its translation “You must change… ”

Torso Statue, 1 Torso Statue, 2


Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle
die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.


We never witnessed his unheard-of head
in which the eyeballs apple-ripened. Yet
his torso still glows like a streetlamp’s globe,
and inside, turned down low a while, his gaze

holds fast and shines. Otherwise the bend
of the breast could not blind you, or a smile
wind through the gentle twisting of the loins
into that core that kept the seed alive.

Otherwise this stone would stand distorted
and cut short under the shoulders’ sheer fall
and would not glimmer so, like wild beast fell,

and not be breaking out from all its edges
just like a star: for there’s no place on it
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rilke placed this poem first in a volume dedicated to “mon grand Ami Auguste Rodin,” and wrote (in French) in the copy he gave the sculptor: “My best efforts are shut up within a language that is not yours. I give you this book you will not read… .I acknowledge having been drawn toward intense work by your tremendous example.” And into that lineage, that intensity, Robert Duncan was drawn.

Duncan letter 2


                                                                Feb. 16 / 1974

dear John, I had taken the jacket off of the Schroeder anthology because I didn’t want to have it tear further. And then I forgot when I returnd the book! Well, here it is, with some reinforcement added.

I got stumpt by them Augenäpfel when I attempted that poem myself. But in the case of Rilke’s rhyming here — as I get it he has made a densely progressive progressional evocation in the patterning of wir “kannten … sein un-”er hörtes Haupt
darin … Augen … reiften     Aber

I would even try the Scots (obsolete English) kennen
        we ken not thy unheard-of head
        wherein the apple-round eyes ripen. [But] Yet
        thy torso still glows like a candelabrum
        in which thy gaze, just now lowerd to reflect
        holds fast and shines.

        we cannot know (your) unheard-of head
        wherein the eyes — apples — ripen. Yet
        (your) torso glows still like a candelabrum
        in which (your) gaze, lowerd just now to reflect,
        holds fast and shines.
                -                -                -                -                -                -


The raison d’être of going back of set-rimes to articulate the phonemes involved is to extend the range of sound-coordinations we would listen for, so that a music can be created at the same time allowing us to keep the elements of the poem-message.

        unerhörtes                / seem to me keys (and
        Augenäpfel                / hence in translations
        Kandelaber                / they seem all but
        zurückgeschraubt        / untranslatable.

But in a poem (and in this poetry, as language charged with meaning to the utmost degree, differs from prose) tho unerhörtes might mean “wonderful” I’d want to keep the activity of “unheard of” that reminds us we are hearing all this unheard-of shining and gazing. [Even as the poet mouthes this seeing.]

The tree in candelabrum is as discretely hidden as it is in german Kandelaber.
“eyes — apples — ”
or, as William Carlos W in Paterson might render it “eyes (apples) ripen” is more active an articulation. But I can’t go “eye apples” in a language (ours) where “road apples” are that close and “the apple of my eye” runs interference.
                -                -                -                -                -                -


How just right your “holds fast” comes in there for “sich hält” (“holds its own” which I found in the dictionary held out the invitation of a persisting [Ou] drone.

                                                Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
des [sic] Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
                                                Else the curve of the chest
could not so blind you, and
                                                Else could not the curve
of chest so blind, and in the slight turn
[but leisen ought to convey the sense of a soft sound pianissimo]
                  could not                        
of the loins a smile so go straight thru
to yonder center there where
        that                           that carried the seed.

I’d like to know how close zeugen to bear witness and zeugen to procreate are. And dictionary hopping I came upon n.Trug and v.trug  that kind of thing casts a shadow. At least in Duncan-land where I try to hear every activity of the word as it sounds — that play would have all the treachery of Apollo’s lure in it.

The light is dimming. And your translation has (as all translations must) lured me into that unsettled interregnum between two rules. If I have reflections at this point it would be to suggest that the oracular mode of Rilke’s form — the music of the poem projects a vision in being seen, a lure of
                -                -                -                -                -                -


the god, that is a counterpart of a visionary and oracular dream. Sure enuf — the sign “You must change your life” is deliverd. That means the dream-character of the language, its character of signalling, of beckoning, is heightend.

What a poem of a penetrating look!

Rilke here is such a compelling poet. And the translator must hold fast as best he can.

NOTE: My trouble with your beginning
        “Nothing can tell us”
is that where every word is an entity of the poem “Nothing” is indeed a heavy entity: and brings to bear out of the terror of Parmenides more than the poem can bear. When Odysseus names himself Outis “no”man, he seems for me diabolic. The mouth in which the truth is the lie. The theosophical proto-Hellenistic reading may be that just here it is revealed that Odysseus is no man. There is no way — as the blacks put it “NO WAY!” in the oracular mode for “Nothing can tell us” not to carry the information that it is “Nothing” than [sic] can indeed tell us.

        In a truly realized poem every part is active and there are no mere expressions — indeed, I believe this to be true of all language.
                -                -                -                -                -                -


Letting the false struggle for rimes deepen into the search thruout of coordinations of sound (so that in every part of the translation you are aware of the coordinate sounding of every other part) is enlarging the hearing; and at the same time means sounding the sense of the verse thruout.

We rightly work to keep the hypnagogic repetitions and returns of tones; for the “stillness” is meaningful. The sonnet “form” i.e. the shape of the sonnet conveys as such the classical mode of stillness — we read it as such. If we could arrive at a just sequence of rimes, we would. And it is toward that feel the labor goes.

Needless to say I had a great time at your seminar. Fauchereau’s visit here and working with him toward my poems seen in French was a very special translating experience for me and I’m glad if some of that got across to the study group.

        We always think it’s our feelings or ideas or experiences that we struggle to translate. But it’s words that are translatable and untranslatable. The poem is a language-feel, a language-idea, a language-experience we arrive at in the first place. Only to say we come right to the primary difficulty in coming to the very word of it.

Duncan letter 3


                                                                        Feb. 22, 1974

dear John,
        Your sending that translation of the Apollo Torso poem has drawn me in to a colloquy with the Rilke poem, with my own effort towards translation and a third emerging content. Rilke’s daring in the first place is to go into a fascination, call upon it, call it to him — and then to contain it for a reading. I think I want to get — likewise — a fascination, now not of the torso which I don’t face; but of the poem which in its turn fascinates.

        But this is only a short note to relay to you re. “ungehörtes [sic] Haupt” a passage from a study of Parmenides [MOURELATOS, The Route of Parmenides, California 1970]:
<< This foreshadows in an important way the idea that “perishing has strayed far and wide”, that it is “unheard of”, which is developed in B8>>
And his footnote to “unheard of”:
<<The usual translations of panapenthea (“unerkennbar”, “unerfahrbar”, “unknowable”, “unthinkable”) are, by contrast, quite unsatisfactory. These are, to begin with, too paraphrastic. They also suggest that the issue is over the unconceivability of the routes, when it is rather over the conceivability of something to which the routes lead.>>
ETC. not to copy out the entire footnote.   pp. 23-24

And, as is all but always the case the “all” (pan) in the panapenthea is lost (or “everywhere”?)
unheard of splendor or unheard of accuracy is very familiar in our speech. But an unheard of Head? He is an unheard of “Head”!?

        If you are going to be up here sometime, let’s try for lunch together.


Duncan comes “right to the primary difficulty” of Augenäpfel, those eyeballs, not merely the missing head but its most missing organ, which will lend visionary, oracular power to the torso itself. And “Rilke’s rhyming here” rouses him less than a deeper, inner music, “a densely progressive progressional evocation in the patterning.” Duncan provides topographic proof, with hand-drawn symbols and color and script for that “tone-leading of vowels” he’d spoken of in the workshop, those “hypnagogic repetitions and returns of tones.”
        Opening the field of Rilke’s music, Duncan turns up five events, “sound-coordinations,” in the sonnet’s opening quatrain: the consonance of wir with er and hört with Haupt, the assonance in kannten, darin, Aber and in Augen, Schauen, Haupt (not circled by Duncan), plus hört and Haupt alliterating. Knowing he’ll want some such evocation in English, Duncan summons his archaic Scottish heritage — ”we ken not thy unheard-of head” — although Rilke’s past tense kannten would call for “kenned,” resonating even more with “head.” Then with no pause for breath, Duncan tries the lines again, this time discovering further progressions: can candelabrum, know glows lowerd holds, eyes ripen shines. And here too, in English, the mauve pencil moves to the music.
        Something else has entered sotto voce this “colloquy with the Rilke poem”: “We ken not thy (his) unheard-of head.” While the German sein could revealingly mean either “his” or “its,” Duncan’s treble “thy” sets us instantly face-to-face, speaking to the sculpture rather than about it. This gesture of his risks confusion with the du (thou, you) whom Rilke in a moment will turn to address — each of us viewers, us listeners. Yet it does anticipate the poem’s own intimate colloquy. Could Duncan — could Rilke, for that matter? — have had Keats’s Grecian urn in mind, where long i-sounds resonate fivefold across a line break: “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness, / Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time”? For Keats the work of art, the urn, ultimately speaks to us — ”Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty” — and so does the statue for Rilke.
        All along, Duncan has been playing off against Rilke’s pesky rhyming, “going back of set-rimes” to shape a music for “sounding the sense of the verse.” The same urge drives any translation or other lyric shaping — witness Duncan responding in the workshop to Fauchereau’s s’élèvent… m’élèvent by elevating “rise… and hold me” to “rise… and rouse me.” But in shunning “the false struggle for rimes,” it’s worth recalling that whatever rhyme meant for Dante and Shakespeare, Rilke in 1908 felt swayed by Rodin’s immense formal study, and purposefully set himself the task of rhyme. Years later, dying painfully, he said that Paris had been “the basis for my will to form.”
        In “sounding the sense” of a poem, Duncan always stays within earshot of that sense, that “poem-message.” Words such as unerhörtes embody “language charged with meaning to the utmost degree,” he says, echoing Ezra Pound. Given the double admonition in “charged,” Duncan balks at my beginning an English version with “Nothing can tell us… ” instead of “We did not know” or “ken.” His riffs on Parmenides and on Odysseus’ “no man” display a teeming mind as well as an ear for the day’s lingo — ”NO WAY!” And the insatiable wordsmith asks “how close zeugen to bear witness and zeugen to procreate are.” They’re close indeed, since to “testify” involves solemnly placing one’s hand on the organ of generation. Maybe this sense of zeugen prompts a freer way of opening the poem: “We never witnessed his unheard-of head.” As in the act of translation, language can increase and multiply in Duncan-land.
        Sometimes Duncan’s feel for “language charged” goes awry — ”candelabrum” really hides no “tree,” which is arbor, not abrum — and sometimes not, as when he aptly calls up William Carlos Williams to break open the metaphor in “them Augenäpfel”: “eyes (apples) ripen.” Here again, as with “ken,” Duncan’s “ripen” (inadvertently?) jumps a German past tense into a present, anticipating Rilke’s own shift a moment later: “Yet / his torso still glows… his gaze holds fast.” That lift from past into present, plus Duncan’s “thy” for “his,” livens our encounter with a lost god. So does his rendering of the torso’s gaze — nur zurückgeschraubt (“only turned down low”) — as “just now lowerd to reflect,” making that absence occur just now.
        Something more tangible, namely the English rhythm here, might also give us pause. After all, verse rhythms emerging from a sonnet’s metrical base create no less “progressional evocation” than tonal movement does. For instance, Rilke’s rugged rhyme at the start, Aber (“Yet”) with Kandelaber, yields an even stronger metrical motion. More than four feet into the pentameter of line two, as late as possible, falls a caesura — then Aber reaching, leaning through the line break:

We never witnessed his unheard-of head
in which the eyeballs apple-ripened. Yet
his torso still glows…

And in the second quatrain, so much depends upon syntax drawing us across all three line breaks the way eyes (or light) sweep across musculature, across contoured stone.
        Now Duncan, strangely enough, does not take up Rilke’s wager of formal rhythm. God knows Robert had an uncommonly fine ear. Especially when he recited poetry, his right hand conducting himself along, his own lines evolved rhythmically: “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins,” says his Pindar poem, where “notes of an old music pace the air, / torso-reverberations of a Grecian lyre… . The copper light / falling upon the brown boy’s slight body.” But one or two phrasings, where Duncan opts not to re-enact Rilke’s iambic pentameter, lack that old music. Take line four: “in which thy gaze, just now lowerd to reflect.” The first phrase promises iambic cadence, but the rest seems flat, indeterminate, and not much improved by “lowerd just now to reflect.” Then in the next quatrain, line six starts firmly — ”could not so blind you” or “of chest so blind you” — but then peters out: “and in the slight turn.” Of course these are only Duncan’s tentative ventures in a personal letter. But they don’t respond to Rilke’s rhythmic shaping, the play or struggle of syntax against a metrical norm.
Rilke’s sestet, beginning Sonst stünde, runs well over four lines without pausing, again stretching pentameters into longer sweeps around the torso, actually energizing that “stillness” Duncan calls “the shape of the sonnet”:

Otherwise this stone would stand distorted
and cut short under the shoulders’ sheer fall
and would not glimmer so, like wild beast fell,

and not be breaking out from all its edges
just like a star.

How would Duncan have handled these closing stanzas?[*] But the light was dimming, as he says, so we’re now left with yet another absence, something more that Wir kannten nicht.
         Clearly Robert Duncan took joy in “Rilke’s daring… to go into a fascination… and then to contain it for a reading.” The letters declare as much: “fascination,” “invitation,” “beckoning,” “signalling,” “compelling,” “lure,” “lured me,” “drawn me,” “colloquy,” “search,” “effort,” “labor,” “struggle.” The struggle one senses when Duncan grapples with sound and syntax, in his own writing as well as in translating, feels no less sculptural than musical, recalling Rodin and Michelangelo. “And recently,” he’d said in 1968, “I have come to think of Poetry more and more as a wrestling with Form to liberate Form. The figure of Jacob returns again and again to my thought.”
        Jacob nightlong wrestles the angel and at dawn, crying “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me,” gains the blessing of a new name, Israel, God-wrestler. “Wrestling with Form to liberate Form”: the Hebraic myth contracts into an axiom. Admitting that the Rilke “translation has (as all translations must) lured me into that unsettled interregnum between two rules,” Duncan enters the translator’s and the poet’s cognate struggles for sound and sense, for musical and spiritual truth.
         “In a truly realized poem every part is active and there are no mere expressions.” Here Duncan touches the quick, and pushes further: “in every part of the translation you are aware of the coordinate sounding of every other part.” What does this coordinate music offer us if not the torso’s genius and its demand on us? In Rilke’s words: “for there’s no place on it / that does not see you. You must change your life.” Turn of phrase: bend of breast. Tonal movement: glowing torso. Poem and translation alike aspire to the condition of the sculpture. “I think I want to get — likewise — a fascination,” says Duncan, “now not of the torso which I don’t face; but of the poem which in its turn fascinates.”


At his poetry readings in the Bay Area and New York in 1974, Duncan troubled the boundaries of translation in two new poem cycles: “A Seventeenth Century Suite in Homage to the Metaphysical Genius in English Poetry (1590-1690): Being Imitations, Derivations & Variations upon Certain Conceits and Findings Made among Strong Lines,” and “Dante Études,” completed the following year. Duncan published the poems side by side a decade later in Ground Work: Before the War.
         “A Seventeenth Century Suite,” whose very title engages in the kind of imitation to which it refers, presents poems by Raleigh, Southwell, Herbert, Jonson, and Norris, each followed by long poetic meditations by Duncan that borrow from, rewrite, and comment upon the poems themselves. Here the “Master of the Dance,” as Duncan’s friend Robert Creeley liked to call him, weaves his insights among the “strong lines” of the original poems, resulting in something like a translation from a foreign language — a modern interpretation that loyally embraces its original. “They have fed themselves into their lives,” writes Duncan, referring to the metaphysical poets, or perhaps to a “they” waiting to be identified. “Wholly, it seemd, they fed their burning into mine.” Duncan sank his teeth into these writers as he believed a good translator should, “holding fast as best he can.”
         “Dante Études” also works along the margins of strict translation. Though he refers to Dante’s Latin and Italian, Duncan relies on an English version of the prose works for his quotations. He uses Dante as a kind of mirror in which his and his predecessor’s ideas reflect one another. “[T]he great poet nowhere makes us feel inferior,” he argues, but instead arouses one’s “whole capacity.” The same kind of passionate energy that Duncan senses in Rilke directs him here: He must consume great poets in order to keep his sense of the world raw and immediate, his poetic muscles flexed. As he acknowledges in his preface to the Dante cycle, “Dante again enters my thought here… I feed upon prime.”
         In “The Torso (Passages 18),” Duncan feeds upon Rilke directly, coming into electric contact with the “Archaic Torso of Apollo” itself. Starting with its title, “The Torso” (from Bending the Bow [1968], Duncan’s first influential book) offers both an homage and a challenge to Rilke’s “fascination.” Here Duncan stresses elements that Rilke only gestures toward in his poem: life, movement, limbs, head, voice. Duncan’s “torso” is anything but archaic; it is no inanimate statue, but a palpable, sexual, present-tense being. Although Duncan’s language tends toward the hyperbolic, the torso never assumes the absolute authority with which Rilke’s statue speaks. Instead of the power to cause compliance, the poem hinges upon the human wish to comply: “If he be Truth/ I would dwell in the illusion of him.” Desire implicitly undergirds Rilke’s poem: “We never witnessed [but ache to have witnessed] his unheard-of head.” Yet desire, and specifically homosexual desire, emerges as the explicit argument of Duncan’s poem: “I thought a Being more than vast, His body leading/ into Paradise,       his eyes/ quickening a fire in me[… ]/  For my Other is not a woman but a man.” Duncan goes deep into the obsessions of the elder poet — the power of art to command its viewer, the desire for an absent object — and draws out a counter-reading. Rilke becomes the ground for Duncan’s frank meditation on a desire both sexual and poetic.
        Sound plays a primal role in Duncan’s “Torso.” Rather than an “unheard-of head,” the head in “The Torso” is both heard of and heard from. But like Rilke’s Apollo, this god sees right through the poem’s narrator: “I have been waiting for you, he said:/ I know what you desire.” The torso’s voice rings with long “o,” “a,” and “i” sounds, the same sounds that Duncan so carefully charts in Rilke’s poem and in his translation. The “densely progressional evocation” Duncan finds in Rilke emerges also in Duncan’s own poem. Both torsos inhabit and achieve movement through vowel sounds. These progressions thus prove crucial to Rilke’s poem, even or especially in translation, almost more than one can imagine.
         Considering Duncan’s zeal for hidden etymologies, one may imagine his whole poem as a sly play on the word “torso,” which comes ultimately from the Greek thyrsus, the phallic wand associated with the orgies of Dionysus. The overflowing sexuality of Duncan’s poem, its unabashed exploration of homosexual attraction, touches upon a bacchic sensuousness which marks the greatest difference between “The Torso” and Rilke’s more austere incantation. Since Rilke’s poem concerns Apollo, the Bacchic root of “torso” becomes ironic.
         This etymology, while it may govern Duncan’s revision of Rilke in “The Torso,” tugs Duncan’s translation of the poem in the letters in a different direction. Rather than ratcheting up any latent Dionysiac tendencies, Duncan’s word choices tend to acknowledge the irony of those tendencies’ felt presence by playing them down. The “slight turn/ of the loins” accurately but softly translates leisen Drehen/ der Lenden. Yet those loins become integral to Duncan’s musings about the translation itself. The similarity between “zeugen to bear witness and zeugen to procreate,” Duncan suspects, bears weight in Rilke’s poem. Zeugen in its legal sense means not only to testify but “to give evidence.” Procreation does demarcate a kind of evidence: the evidence of human origin, of the existence of the parent, of the act of generation. All these take shelter in the barren, museum-bound torso upon which Rilke gazes.
         Of course the poem, with its narration of “all this unheard-of shining and gazing,” as Duncan puts it, provides this evidence while helping to generate the torso itself. If Rilke didn’t tell us about it, it wouldn’t exist for us — and it’s no longer on display in the Louvre. But in presenting evidence, the poet also takes on the role of “unacknowledged legislator,” as Shelley famously put it. The god gives evidence of itself in its generative power, a power the poem both uncovers and represents. Here, indeed, is an “unsettled interregnum.” Two powers share this shadowy kingdom: the god from whom the power of poetry emanates, and the poet who takes on the mantle of that power. In this oracular relationship, the poet has the heavy responsibility of communicating the fascination that lures him. Duncan picks his way along this border like a traveler who has spent an age learning the customs of both realms.
         Parmenides, another consummate traveler of borders, shows up in a series of apparently offhand references at the end of the first letter and again in the second. Duncan writes in the first letter that to use the term “Nothing” in the poem’s opening line “brings to bear out of the terror of Parmenides more than the poem can bear.” In the second letter he returns to the philosopher, this time from another angle, in apposition to earlier remarks on the unerhörtes Haupt, the “unheard-of head.” Duncan’s brief references to Parmenides release a range of complex associations into the field of Rilke’s poem. They are worth unpacking, for Duncan’s use of Parmenides helps clarify his relationship with Rilke and with translation. Through the philosopher, Duncan opens a path to considering the true stakes of Rilke’s poem, and of poetry itself.
         Parmenides, the 5th-century BCE Greek philosopher who founded the Eleatic school, is most famous for a dream vision of the unbroken, circular nature of Truth. He exerted a fascination on Duncan dating back to childhood. The poet’s adoptive parents, who were Christian mystics, steeped him in both religious mysticism and the Greek philosophers from an early age. His poetry swarms with references to Parmenides and the other Presocratics. For instance, “A Seventeenth Century Suite” describes the narrator of Ben Jonson’s masque Hymenæi as having the kind of otherworldly voice that “Parmenides’ Vision knew.” Such an observation elegantly rewrites the history of English poetry in order to situate the Eleatics at its fount.
         Bending the Bow includes a hymn to Parmenides entitled “A Shrine to Ameinias.” Ameinias, according to Plato’s account of Parmenides’ life, was a Pythagorean philosopher to whom Parmenides attached himself. Upon Ameinias’ death, Parmenides built a shrine in his companion’s honor. In Duncan’s poem, Ameinias becomes Parmenides’ lover: “Love, certain as a well-rounded ring/ made you sure in him.” Duncan’s language here echoes the intensity of the speaker’s desire in “The Torso,” providing a source for that desire in Parmenides’ writings about the nature of truth. The “shrine” turns out to signify Parmenides’ teachings themselves — a shrine that pays homage to the philosopher much as Rilke pays homage to “the lure of the god” in “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”
         The poem opens with some of Duncan’s characteristic wordplay. Parmenides’ mystical vision begins this way in G.S. Kirk and J.E. Raven’s translation, to which Duncan refers in the notes to the poem: “The mares that carry me as far as my heart ever aspires sped me on… .” Duncan heightens the pitch considerably, drawing out the latencies of desire that he also draws out of Rilke’s poem. Under the subtitle “Parmenides’ Dream,” the poem begins:

Horses, cabalos cabbalas, that
        carry my thought up to those airy
        passages the heart desires and mind
leaps to search…

As in “The Torso,” Duncan seeks neither literal translation nor imitation. He uses parts of the structure of Parmenides’ dream (the only major extant fragment of the philosopher’s writings) to unearth something fundamental about it, to explore it from the inside out, and make it his own in the process. The punning of “Cabalos cabbalas” transforms Parmenides’ horses through Spanish (where the word for “horse” is actually spelled with two “l”s) into the mystical figures of the Kabbalah. The three words bear no linguistic relation: “Horse” comes from an Anglo Saxon root meaning “to run,” “caballos” derives from Gallic slang, and “cabbala” means “received” in Hebrew. Like Duncan’s wish to find “arbor” in “candelabrum,” the imagined pun reveals a truth. For the poet, Parmenides’ vision is inherently mystical. As Parmenides is “carried” by horses, he “receives,” as the Kabbalists would say, a vision of Truth. All this carrying and receiving ultimately finds an echo in the term “translation” itself, which derives from the Latin “to carry across.” If translation carries meaning from one language to another, then Parmenides’ oracular quest carries a message from one world — the world of Truth — to another — the imperfect world of humanity.
         In translating the last word of Rilke’s second stanza, Duncan declines to specify what he hears in the “shadow” cast by Trug over trug, the past tense of tragen, to carry or bear. But another word shadows trug: trügen, “to deceive.” This shadow hangs over Duncan’s evocation of Parmenides in the first letter, and over his return to the philosopher in the second. Parmenides ends his discourse on Truth with the words, “henceforth learn the beliefs of mortal men, listening to the deceitful ordering of my words.” Kirk and Raven suggest that the account will be deceitful “principally because it presents beliefs which are themselves utterly confused as though they were in order” — in other words, it reduces Truth into language, which takes form out of the confused beliefs of humans and which therefore can only gesture at the trappings of ordered thought. The line between bearing and deceiving, Parmenides might say, is the same as the line between Truth and mere belief. Truth is the mark at which the poet-philosopher must aim, though deceit may seem easier.
         The transmission of Parmenides’ message occurs primarily — and problematically — through language. But “Truth” communicates at a level beyond the expressive capabilities of mere human discourse. As Duncan puts it, “Far indeed// is this place from the minds of most men.” Throughout “A Shrine to Ameinias,” Duncan maintains his reader’s awareness of an act of translation by introducing and defining key words from the Greek text. He thus allows the process of linguistic translation not simply to echo, but to provide a model for the problems of translating between the “True” world and the human world. The dilemma remains the same: How can one use language to transmit a divine message without contaminating that message with falsehood?
         Duncan’s sensitivity to the tension between hearing and seeing — the admonition that “we are hearing all this unheard-of shining and gazing” — provides a key not only to his attitude toward translation, but toward poetry in general. It is the mystical poet’s job to interpret the wish of the god, to report back from that “shadowy interregnum.” To do that, the poet must transform vision into language, must put into words what is “unheard-of.” We generally think of gazing or envisioning as a way of gaining information about the object beheld. Yet when we gaze through this poem at the statue, the statue gazes at us: “There’s no place on it/ that does not see you.” We are examining a leftover of the original, and originary, object, but even what remains exceeds the forms we dictate for it, “breaking out from all its edges/ just like a star.” Nor does Rilke’s poem encourage us to imagine the details of the whole body. We receive no minute description of “them Augenäpfel,” no real blazon, no positive picture of the torso’s aspects. Instead the poem couches the experience of vision in conditionals. If the gaze were not sunk into the torso, we would not be blinded. Possibly if the whole body presented itself, like Jupiter descending to Semele, we would be blinded and then some, disintegrated by the sheer force of revelation. Possibly the whole body would disappoint us, in which case the very fact of fragmentation would lend the torso its power, commanding the poet to act as its oracle. It falls to the poet to translate that power into language, to make the beholder enter the god’s “fascination.” In Archaïscher Torso Apollos we do not look in order to see. Instead, our look opens us to the gaze of another.
         Duncan’s poetry pushes as far as it can into Truth. His engagement with the Presocratic philosophers, Kabbalah, and Rilke comes from the same wellspring — the imperative of seeing, the desire to both behold and be fully beheld. This mystical belief, which dictates that a poem must produce “language charged with meaning to the utmost degree,” lures him into a poem that preempts the very possibility of translation, at least in Robin Blaser’s sense: in translating the poem, we do not come to own it, but rather to be owned by it. Yet Duncan reminds us that translation is all we have. The poem — Rilke’s, Duncan’s, Parmenides’ — is not a thing in itself, but rather a field on which language is at play.
         Translation, and poetry in general, struggle to discover what is already on display. Poems do more than allow us to see through language. For Duncan, poetry works through language to see us as we really are, revealing the truths that transform us. In getting to that core, to “them Augenäpfel,” we fulfill our calling, our language heeding the lure of the god. “We always think it’s our feelings or ideas or experiences that we struggle to translate,” Duncan reminds us at the letter’s end. “But it’s words that are translatable and untranslatable. The poem is a language-feel, a language-idea, a language-experience we arrive at in the first place. Only to say we come right to the primary difficulty in coming to the very word of it.”


[1] Although the entire article was written collaboratively, John Felstiner was primarily responsible for Parts I and II, David Goldstein for Part III.

[*] The German behind “sheer,” durchsichtigem, simply means “transparent.” But here, as seldom, the luck of English yields a bonus pun on “sheer” for the shoulders’ precipitous fall.

John Felstiner

John Felstiner

John Felstiner has published The Lies of Art: Max Beerbohm’s Parody and Caricature (1972), Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (1980), which won the Commonwealth Club Gold Medal, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (1995), which won the Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2001), which won MLA, PEN, and American Translators Association prizes, and Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology (2001). He has been at Stanford since 1965, and taught at the University of Chile, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Yale. In 2005 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. John is currently working on a book, So Much Depends: Poetry and Environmental Urgency . Essay-chapters have appeared or are forthcoming in Denver Quarterly , Poetry Today, Parthenon West Review, International Studies in Literature and Environment, Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, and six will run in American Poetry Review during 2007.

David Goldstein, photo by Mindy Stricke

David Goldstein, photo by Mindy Stricke

David B. Goldstein is a poet, critic, translator, and journalist, and is the author of the poetry chapbook Been Raw Diction (Dusi/e, 2006), online at His poems, translations, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals, including Galatea Resurrects, Alice Blue, Zeek, Jubilat, Typo, Epoch, Parnassus, and The Paris Review. He currently teaches Renaissance literature and creative writing at the University of Tulsa, where he is at work on a book about digestion and originality in early modern England.