Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Rilke's "Spanish Dance" - two naked arms uncoil, aroused and rattling.

Spanish Dancer (Spanische Tänzerin)

As in the hand a sulfur match flares white
and sends out flicking tongues on every side
before it bursts into flame –: in that ring
of crowded onlookers, hot, eager, and precise
her round dance begins to dart and spread.

 And all at once it is entirely flame.

 With a glance she sets her hair ablaze
and whirls suddenly with daring art
her slender dress into this fiery rapture,
from which, like snakes awakened,
two naked arms uncoil, aroused and rattling.

 And then: as if she felt the fire grow tight,
she gathers it all up and casts it off
disdainfully, and watches with imperious
command: it lies there raging on the ground
and still flares up and won’t surrender –.
But unwavering, assured, and with a sweet
welcoming smile she lifts her face
and stamps it out with rock-hard little feet.

This Rilke poem from New Poems (1907) is outstanding in Edward Snow’s 2009 version and even better in German, which is one reason I wanted to look at it.  Another is that it deflates my received idea of Rilke.  Where is the oracle delivering messages from the angels?  Where is the aestheticized sage, the spiritual seeker?  Instead, I see a poet attending, or remembering, a flamenco performance and making it strange and exciting, possibly more exciting to read than to see.  I confess I find it hard to distinguish among flamenco dances.

The translator is able to salvage a few rhymes and works in some good slant rhymes, but the original rhymes throughout – the New Poems always rhyme – and in many lines Snow stays close to the meter.  The sense is mostly intact, with reasonable replacements when necessary.  Snow surpasses the Stephen Mitchell version and an older version of his own.

Some losses even I can see – “hot, eager, and precise” is actually “hastig, hell und heiß,” more like “harsh, bright, and hot.”  Do you think Snow was trying to rhyme the English with the German?  How odd.

Some correspondences are lucky enough to survive.  English and German share the word flamenco, so the flame works as well as die Flamme in punning on the name of the dance.  The word “flamenco” is never used, and without the title I wonder if I would be able to solve the puzzle, if “flame” would be a sufficient clue.  But there is also the dress, and the noise of the castanets (“rattling \ klappernd”).  Stephen Mitchell makes the logical leap and turns the dancer’s arms into rattlesnakes.  The titles do a lot of work in the New Poems, many of which would otherwise be riddle poems.

The snakey arms are good, as are the shifting uses of fire, moving from the match to the dance to the dancer’s hair and dress before it takes life as part of the act, a sort of mime, perhaps intended by the dancer, perhaps only present in the imagination of the poet who is interpreting the dance.  The poet is the match that supplies the flame.


  1. I have an Oxford World's Classics bilingual version, where the English-language translation is by Marielle Sutherland - less literal, and the rhyming structure is largely kept. e.g.

    "Like a match struck in the hand, white
    before the flames catch, putting out quick
    twitching tongues - like this, ringed tight
    in onlookers, her hot, hasty bright
    dance begins, twitching and concentric"

    I suppose it depends on whether you prefer the rhyme and rythm, or the meaning to be kept. Neither are a patch on the German though :)

    I did a short review of this book a while back - with a couple of different poems (mainly focusing on the translations):

  2. The imagery in this poem is so strong that it is a fine candidate for translation. Although what poem is not - keep trying translators, keep trying!

    The Snow and Mitchell collections, like the Oxford, both have facing-page German.

  3. This is a good poem. The image of the dancer hurling the flame to the ground and stamping it out is well observed, really very nice. I like that even better than the snakes. Remarking on the expression on the dancer's face is good, too. Who is this Rilke fellow? Why haven't we heard of him before?

  4. I agree, nice nice poem. Tonight I will try to say something about the books-as-such. The two books are themselves good.

  5. I was reading Jerzy Ficowski's biography of Bruno Schulz last week and came across the news (which I either didn't know or had forgotten) that Schulz loved Rilke's poetry. Not the Elegies but the New. And now I'm trying to remember the reason Ficowski gave for that preference and I don't recall but he might have said that it was too finished and fixed. And reading the above I notice that the idea, in Spanish Dance, of dissolving and mythic sensation, snakes for arms and the woman possessing a fire, is closer to Schulz's own writing, than anything in the Elegies, with that "oracle delivering messages from the angels."

  6. Schulz, interesting. Nabokov is another surprising fan - but not so surprising now that I have read New Poems, not surprising at all.