The Panther (a sentimental poetic repost)

A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke translated by my father, Donald Heiney/MacDonald Harris  In 1967, Dad’s  colleague Hazard Adams was working on an anthology of literature in translation. He was after a translation from the German of Rilke’s “Der Panther” but couldn’t find a decent English version. My dad said “Let me take a look”, and took the poem home for the weekend. The next Monday he produced this, which is the one Adams used.

THE PANTHER

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

The bars go by, and watching them his sight
grows tired and fails to grasp what eyes are for.
There are a thousand bars, it seems to him;
behind the thousand bars there’s nothing more.

The supple gait of swift and powerful steps
pacing out its circle on the ground
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which a great bewildered mind is bound.
Yet now and then the curtain of the pupil
silently parts: a picture goes inside,
slips through the tightened limbs, and in the heart
ceases to be, like something that has died.

Hollywood Elegies, by Bertolt Brecht

I first heard these set to Hans Eisler’s music, as sung by Dagmar Krause on her wonderful record Supply and Demand. My favorite is the last one, “The Swamp”. It hits as hard as it did in the forties.

I
The village of Hollywood was planned according to the notion
People in these parts have of heaven. In these parts
They have come to the conclusion that God
Requiring a heaven and a hell, didn’t need to
Plan two establishments but
Just the one: heaven. It
Serves the unprosperous, unsuccessful
As hell.

II

By the sea stand the oil derricks. Up the canyons
The gold prospectors’ bones lie bleaching. Their sons
Built the dream factories of Hollywood.
The four cities
Are filled with the oily smell
Of films.

III
The city is named after the angels
And you meet angels on every hand
They smell of oil and wear golden pessaries
And, with blue rings round their eyes
Feed the writers in their swimming pools every morning.

IV
Beneath the green pepper trees
The musicians play the whore, two by two
With the writers. Bach
Has written a Strumpet Voluntary. Dante wriggles
His shrivelled bottom.

V
The angels of Los Angeles
Are tired out with smiling. Desperately
Behind the fruit stalls of an evening
They buy little bottles
Containing sex odours.

VI
Above the four cities the fighter planes
Of the Defense Department circle at a great height
So that the stink of greed and poverty
Shall not reach them

THE SWAMP

I saw many friends, and among them the friend I loved most
Helplessly sink into the swamp
I pass by daily.

And a drowning was not over
In a single morning. Often it took
Weeks; this made it more terrible.
And the memory of our long talks together
About the swamp, that already
Had claimed so many.

Helpless I watched him, leaning back
Covered with leeches
In the shimmering
Softly moving slime:
Upon the sinking face
The ghastly
Blissful smile.