Orpheus by Don Paterson (Faber, £12.99)
Review by Luke Thompson
A tree rose from the earth. O pure transcendence -
Orpheus sings: O tall oak in the ear!'
We’d only read the first page when Al stopped and said, ‘Did Orpheus have such big ears?’ Al’s my landlord.
My girlfriend said, ‘Well you know what they say about big ears.’
‘You know, “Big ears, big…”’
‘Maybe it was a bonsai,’ I interrupted.
‘Still don’t reckon I could get one in mine.’
We read on.
‘Jesus, he’s got a bed in there too!’
‘And a person.’
‘This is absurd.’
‘Maybe he was like that Ethiopian tribe with the plates in their lips – you start small, with a five pence piece or a bottle-top, and work up.’
So we flicked to the back, see what he could get in by the end.
Here, where we expected to find Orpheus jamming a space shuttle and a herd of cattle down his ears, we got Paterson’s ‘Afterword’ on the cycle and some repetitive notes on how tricky writing a ‘version’ is. He tells us he intends for the poems to stand in English on their own, independent of the German, doing ‘as much as I dared in the presentation of this version to distance it from the original.’ But while he was busy distancing himself – altering a rhyme scheme here and there, giving each sonnet its very own title, and refusing the parallel German text – Paterson has sneaked closer than ever to Rilke’s own intention, the games with metaphors, the crispness of language, the complexity of mood, and… well, look:
Breath, you invisible poem –
pure exchange, sister to silence,
being and its counterbalance,
rhythm wherein I become,
ocean I accumulate
by stealth, by the same slow wave;
thriftiest of seas… Thief
of the whole cosmos! What estates,
what vast spaces have already poured
through my lungs? The four winds
are like daughters to me.
So do you know me, air, that once sailed
You, that were once the leaf and rind
of my every word?
Here a breath is an exchange with the world, a link between the earth, the body, and the poem or song praising it all, and the poem itself is posed as something unific, something that recognizes the all-too-human condition of contradiction and self-estrangement, does not shy away from the ever-presence of death, and remains somehow joyful, light affirmative.
Now look at this:
But you… You whom I knew like a flower
whose name I don’t know: I’ll summon once more
to show them, show how you were taken away,
O beautiful friend of the infinite cry.
But dancer first, who – with what sweet hesitance –
paused, as if casting her girlhood in bronze,
in mourning, in listening – until from some great height
music fell into her altered heart.
Sickness now stalked her, her blood overflowing
with shadows – and yet, caught by only a fleeting
suspicion, rushed into her natural Spring.
But again dark and gravity poisoned its source
till it gleamed of the earth; then, wildly beating,
it roared through the steadily widening doors.
Three years earlier (the same length of time between the final death of Eurydice and Orpheus’s own song-cycle in Ovid) the dancer Vera Ouckama Knoop died of leukaemia at the age of nineteen. Vera was Rilke’s own Eurydice for this work, his inspiration, the condition of his great act of praising, he says. Now, it should be possible to read the objective claims of these sonnets without any prior knowledge of Rilke or Orpheus, but it is important to Rilke’s method of coming to praise the world that one has one’s own means of approaching the truth, using one’s experience to approach what is universal.
So, if we are to understand the way Rilke approached the universal, it helps to know a little Ovid and to be familiar with the Duino Elegies, also with Rilke’s life, to quietly note the year it was written (1922) and the conditions. And it helps to reread: the sonnets refer to one another constantly, each a part of a unified whole, adding pressure to a previous metaphor, reemploying a phrase in a new context. It’s impressive that Paterson has kept control of all this and still managed to make Rilke’s complex work of consolation and praise a clean, brilliant read. It would take months to read the thousand translations of these sonnets, and I don’t believe that having done so one would be any closer to the poet’s intentions than if one had only this. We read it all in an evening, the three of us. There was a long silence when we finished. Al said, ‘I got a light bulb stuck in my mouth once.’
© Luke Thompson, 2008