The Panther (trans. Adam Cooper – 3 new translations of Rilke)
Rainer Maria Rilke
From passing over bars, his gaze is tired,
And takes in nothing more.
To him, there are a thousand bars–behind
A thousand bars, no world.
His massive footpads’ silent tread revolves
In ever smaller rounds,
Like power dancing round a midpoint, where
A mighty will stands numbed.
But then, a noiseless eyelid lifts. An image
Enters in, runs down
The tensile stillness of his limbs, and ends
Its being, in the heart.
Go read Adam’s translations – I can safely tell you that what he’s doing isn’t easy. With the Cavafy paraphrases, I’m hit or miss: I’m mainly aiming to narrow the focus of his ideas to make something stick in the reader’s head. Getting the poems to be musical is another challenge altogether and I’m not very good at it yet. Adam’s got something special going and I know you’ll love it.
I wish I had translated this poem. Adam has Rilke’s speaker see the panther in terms of being and image, in terms of lines that confine and define. The first stanza concludes that there’s no world for the panther, as images you can never interact with establish nothing. In a weird way, the fact of seeing implies distance from an object. Even those of us who are more active have to wonder about a world constructed from our perceptions: we may be trapped ourselves.
The second stanza takes the problem of line and gives us an almost classical image. Once, circular motion was held perfect motion, as objects that were accomplishing their end would move in circles (i.e. celestial beings. See Heidegger, “Modern Science, Metaphysics and Mathematics”). This panther has some kind of power that isn’t just perception. He almost dances; he has a kind of grace which allows the massive to move in the miniscule.
What is that power exactly? The panther sees an image and all of a sudden reawakens. The panther only temporarily lapsed from seeing and desiring. The world is shaped by our perceptions and desires, the latter having a certain priority. Even more interesting is what the panther may be seeing – the speaker, an intelligent, perceiving being, who may be a threat, potential food, or a kindred spirit. Those bars do not prevent an end to the “tensile stillness” of the speaker’s heart.