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By Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Peter Oram, Alex Barr

Starborn Books, 208pp Hardback ISBN-10189953038X
Series 3 Number 16 - The Dialect of the Tribe

It was this word that stirred his first impulse to write in the French language.

Review by Delphine Grass

Vergers is arguably the most famous of Rilke’s poetry collections written in French. The title itself holds special importance in Rilke’s poetic venture. It was this word that stirred his first impulse to write in the French language while residing in Veyras, Switzerland. Although they are often referred to as Rilke’s ‘simpler’ poems, one could turn the criticism on its head and argue that the merit of Orchards lies instead in reinstating the simplicity of words within the complicated syntax of language. Put differently, Rilke took full advantage of being able to look at French with a fresh pair of eyes. It is by keeping this in mind that one might realise that the poems are far from unsophisticated, as Peter Oram and Alex Barr’s translation testifies:

Do you see her, happy, slow, continue –
The one who walks, who rouses envy in you?
Surely where the road bends there await her
Fine gentlemen of times gone by to greet her.

But there’s another, tender option: she
Flicks her parasol, neatly, gracefully
And vanishes in sudden luminescence
A moment, till the shade restores her presence.

The merit of this translation lies in rebuilding the image spatially whilst recreating in English certain formal aspects of the poems such as rhyme and rhythm. Although Rilke’s line: ‘s’effaçant un instant à la trop brusque lumière’ differs somewhat in meaning from ‘and vanishes in sudden luminescence’, the linguistic paradox of associating disappearance with light and appearance with shade is maintained thanks to the translators building it differently in the translation. When in the last line of Rilke’s poem, ‘elle ramène l’ombre dont elle s’éclaire’ is translated by ‘till the shade restores her presence’, the English reader, too, is able to experience the strange sensation that this image is complete because, rather than in spite of, its incompleteness.  

Oram’s questioning, at the end of the book, of the poet Hans Egon Holthusen’s description of Rilke’s Vergers as ‘…little depictions of landscapes and moods, pretty bouquets…’ , adding, ‘None of them can quite compete with their German counterparts’, is very welcome. However, the grounds on which Oram attempts to defend the place of these poems in Rilke’s oeuvre as a whole are much less certain. Placed at the end of the book is Oram’s essay on the symmetry and proportions of Rilke’s Vergers based on the Fibonacci and Lucas mathematical sequences. It is accompanied by a series of diagrams describing the formal structure of the book which, the translator believes, is based on these two specific mathematical structures. The author of the essay is not himself unaware of the problems raised by his own theory: ‘Firstly, is there a structure anyway, or is the researcher inventing one to fit his own particular theories?’ Indeed, the second diagram presented in the essay shows that the theory is partly based on the subjective thematic division of the book by the translator, rendering any attempt at imposing mathematical structures onto it rather dubious. This is not to discard Oram’s effort at tracing patterns and semantic repetitions in the book, which signals a careful reading on his part; but the attention given to the mathematical formulas sadly precludes a more meaningful engagement with Rilke’s poetics. Very interesting however are Rilke’s own reflections on the matter of symmetry which, as he puts it in his poem ‘Verger’, ‘abides abundance, doubling everything’ (p.75). In many ways, Rilke’s attention to symmetry in these poems can be read as a commentary on Baudelaire’s theory of correspondences (see his poem ‘Correspondances’). 

In Rilke’s long poem ‘Orchard’ (‘Verger’), nature is also presented as a temple whose forest of symbols calls for a ‘changing game of similarities’ (‘Orchard’, p.85). Yet the German-speaking poet does more than imitate Baudelaire’s poetry here; his orchard is a temple of different proportions from Baudelaire’s, and those symmetries are shifting under the altered craftsmanship of his words. Needless to say that poems such as ‘La passante d’été’ (‘Woman Walking in Summer’, p. 37) could provide fascinating comparisons with Baudelaire’s “A une passante”. There is more to say on such references to Baudelaire in Rilke’s Orchards, which thankfully the precise imagery and elegance of these translations will help the English reader uncover.

Delphine Grass

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