Rainer Maria Rilke's early work is intensely subjective, but beginning in 1902, when he first came to Paris and put himself under the wing of the sculptor Rodin, he started to conceive a poetry that belonged more to the world of things than to the realm of feelings. The 27-year-old focused on the artist's labor, the actual process of making something material, and objectified his practice to match something of what he referred to as Rodin's "art of living surfaces." He called his new work Dinggedichte, or thing-poems.
Rilke schooled himself by wandering around Paris, gazing intently at things. Like Marianne Moore, who called her second book Observations, Rilke often practiced the art of observation by spending whole days at the zoo studying animals. The poems that resulted have their own character -- I find them outwardly impersonal, inwardly nervous. In his excellent new book, Slow Air, the British poet Robin Robertson puts together adaptations of three of these poems under the rubric "From the Jardin des Plantes."
In "The Panther," Rilke seems to combine his description of a real animal with his memory of a small Greek statue of a panther (or a tiger) in Rodin's studio.
The Panther Exhausted, he sees nothing now but the bars
that flicker past him in a blur;
it seems there are a thousand bars
and behind the thousand bars an empty world.
The drill of wheel and return: turning on his heel till
he seems to pass through his own body -- like whisky
swilled to the neck of the bottle then back on itself.
He swings on the pivot of his numb and baffled will.
Sometimes, though, the sprung shutter of his eyes
will slide open and let an image enter -- a face, perhaps --
shooting through the tensed muscles, lightening
the limbs, streaming into his heart to die.
"Yesterday I spent the whole morning in the Jardin des Plantes, looking at the gazelles," Rilke wrote to his wife, Clara, on June 13, 1907. He found himself particularly drawn to a single female gazelle, lying a few feet apart from the others: "And when a horse whinnied, the single one listened, and I saw the radiance from ears and horns around her slender head -- I saw the single one stand up, for a moment; she lay right down again; but while she was stretching and testing herself, I could see the magnificent workmanship of those legs (they are like rifles from which leaps are fired). I just couldn't tear myself away, they were so beautiful."
Rilke's experience resulted in his sonnet "The Gazelle," subtitled "Gazella Dorcas" and dated July 17, 1907. Unlike the male panther, whose world has become a cage, the gazelle doesn't seem weighed down by captivity. The poet works to find a language for his enchantment and has a keen sense of the precarious relationship that operates between the perceiver and the thing perceived. The turning point in the poem comes when the speaker closes his eyes and lets his imagination take over.
The Gazelle Tranced creature: no rhyme or ringing words
can match the pulse that rolls
through you like a charm. Horns spring
from your head, adorning you with leaf and lyre,
and you are your own metaphor,
just as the words of a love-song
are like a drift of rose-petals, closing
the eyes of a tired reader, so as to see you --
there -- hair-triggered,
four legs pointed, ready
to recoil and ricochet away
but waiting, listening: just as
the bathing huntress heard the forest stir,
and turned, the quivering pool reflected in her face.
(Robin Roberston's adaptions of "The Panther" and "The Gazelle" appear in his collection "Slow Air." Harcourt, Inc. Copyright © 2002 by Robin Robertson.)