THE PRESENT

January 1, 2017

One New Year’s Eve when I was seven or eight my parents had a few friends over to to celebrate.  I was the only child there, passing cookies and Ritz crackers with cheese slices.  I was thinking about the strangeness of one year ending and another beginning, when I was suddenly overcome with the sense that time was running out to write the year we were in in the present.  What was true now soon would be in the past.  I put down the plate I was carrying, dashed into my bedroom, and opened my notebook.  I wrote the year over and over: 1951, 1951, 1951, 1951, until the page was covered.  Nothing stays time, but I felt better for having marked it.  That was all I could do–when I woke up it we all would have sailed beyond it, no going back.  I still feel that mix of dread and anticipation.  Here are two poems that speak to that:

 

                                                                                                                                                                 

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
*
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainier Maria Rilke

trans. Stephen Mitchell


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

You Might Also Like

12 Comments

  • Reply Mary Jane White January 1, 2017 at 1:43 pm

    Dear Sharon, Two long favorites for the new, next year. Also, by Merwin, For the Anniversary of My Death (and here’s hoping not in 2017 for anyone we might know). I think Mitchell is by far the best translator of Rilke, and he’s translated quite a big swath of Rilke–before Mitchell’s translations I knew I should admire Rilke, but really wasn’t certain for what–then reading Mitchell’s work, I finally “got” Rilke, and got enough of him for Rilke to really stick. Thank you for posting, Mary Jane White

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet January 1, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Hi Mary Jane. What are the two long favorites? I like Mitchell, but I like Edward Snow maybe more. I don’t know German, so that’s based only on how they read in English. The first translation that made me hear any music in Rilke was David Young’s. The step-down triplets slowed it down enough that I could begin to follow the language and hear it as poetry.

  • Reply Mary Jane White January 1, 2017 at 1:55 pm

    The poems you posts have long been two of my favorites. Not very clear of me. And, oh, I wasn’t here in 1951, but I’d say I recognize the setting, the Ritz and cheese, etc. from about 1956 or so . . . not writing anything until about 1960!

  • Reply Marilyn Nelson January 1, 2017 at 2:47 pm

    The first Rilke translations I read were in a slim volume translated wonderfully by Forgotten American poet Babette Deutsch.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet January 1, 2017 at 2:55 pm

    I haven’t forgotten Babette Deutsch! I have her Poets’ Handbook. But I don’t know her Rilke translations–I’ll take a look. Happy New Year!

    • Reply Joan Seliger Sidney January 1, 2017 at 8:46 pm

      I also have her Poet’s Handbook, but don’t know her translations, either. Every time I reread that Rilke poem, I get chills at “You must change your life.”

      Happy New Year, Sharon et al.

      • Reply sharonbryanpoet January 1, 2017 at 9:49 pm

        I get that same chill, feel that challenge.
        Happy New Year.

  • Reply Pat Collins January 1, 2017 at 4:29 pm

    So appropriate at this time, Sharon. I love the personal connection.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet January 1, 2017 at 9:53 pm

      Thanks, Pat. Happy New Year.

  • Reply David Hurst January 1, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Lately I have returned to reading the translations I adore from ancient China because I let the calm of their poetry wash over me. And in reading those poems and the commentary, I recognize that terrible governments, tremendous sorrow, and social upheaval accompanied their creation (!). David Hinton’s books are amazing, but there are many others. Just this morning, reading your poems here, I remembered Snyder’s Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems and then I remembered I link my online lit students to a beautiful collection of slides illustrating some of Han Shan’s poems, one of which (poem 90 in some translations), I repost here:

    Among a thousand clouds and ten thousand streams,
    here lives an idle man,
    in the daytime wandering over green mountains
    at night coming home to sleep by the cliff.
    Swiftly the springs and autumns pass,
    but my mind is at peace, free from dust or delusion.
    How pleasant to know I need nothing to lean on,
    to be still as the waters of the autumn river!

    Han Shan (c. 8th-9th centuryCE)
    trans. Red Pine (Bill Porter)
    http://www.drbu.org/blog/poem-cold-mountain

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet January 1, 2017 at 9:52 pm

    I followed your lead and let these wash over me. Thank you. Exactly the kind of attentiveness I so need right now. I could feel tensions relaxing as I read. Happy New Year.

  • Reply Frances Donovan January 2, 2017 at 12:20 am

    Thank you for posting these. I feel as though I’m just waking up from a month-long post-semester torpor, and both of these poems — especially the Rilke — remind me of why I’m pursuing this course of study.

  • Leave a Reply