Rilke’s ‘Roman Fountain’

Here is my new translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Römische Fontäne, one of the poems in his 1907 collection entitled ‘Neue Gedichte’ (‘New Poems’). It is followed by Rilke’s original as it appears in that volume.


Two basins, one ascending from the other
from an old round edge of marble disc,
and from the one above, water softly leaning
down to water standing waiting there below,

greeting its gentle speech in turn with silence,
and secretly, as if in empty hand,
showing it heaven behind the green and darkness
as if it were an object yet unknown

itself peacefully in its lovely shell
spreading without longing, sphere on sphere,
just sometimes dreamily, and drop on drop,

descending solely down the mossy hangings
to the final mirror, which softly, from below,
makes its basin smile as it overflows.


Zwei Becken, eins das andre übersteigend
aus einem alten runden Marmorrand,
und aus dem oberen Wasser leis sich neigend
zum Wasser, welches unten wartend stand,

dem leise redenden entgegenschweigend
und heimlich, gleichsam in der hohlen Hand,
ihm Himmel hinter Grün und Dunkel zeigend
wie einen unbekannten Gegenstand;

sich selber ruhig in der schönen Schale
verbreitend ohne Heimweh, Kreis aus Kreis,
nur manchmal träumerisch und tropfenweis

sich niederlassend an den Moosbehängen
zum letzten Spiegel, der sein Becken leis
von unten lächeln macht mit Ṻbergängen.


The Bee, by Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry

Here is my new translation of Paul Valéry’s sonnet ‘L’Abeille’, which first appeared in the 1919 collection ‘Charmes’. The translation is followed by Valéry’s French original as it appeared in that book.

The Bee

Whatever, so fine and so fatal,

Whatever your sting, blonde bee,

With merely a dream of lace

I’ve covered my tender rise.


Prick the handsome gourd of my chest

On which Love either dies or sleeps,

So a bit of vermilion self

Stains the round and rebellious flesh!


I need a torment both quick and intense:

A pain both sharp and complete

Is worth more than a slumbering scourge.


Let my senses enkindle then

With this tiny alarm of gold,

Lest Love either die or sleep!


Quelle, et si fine, et si mortelle,

Que soit ta pointe, blonde abeille,

Je n’ai, sur ma tendre corbeille,

Jeté qu’un songe de dentelle.


Pique du sein la gourde belle,

Sur qui l’Amour meurt ou sommeille,

Qu’un peu de moi-même vermeille,

Vienne à la chair ronde et rebelle!


J’ai grand besoin d’un prompt tourment:

Un mal vif et bien terminé

Vaut mieux qu’un supplice dormant!


Soit donc mon sens illuminé

Par cette infime alerte d’or

Sans qui l’Amour meurt ou s’endort!





In the Woods

A Bend in the Rio Chama, Northern New Mexico.

My great-grandfather, an employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, brought his family to extreme southern New Mexico in the early years of the 20th century. There they witnessed not only some of the violence of the Mexican Revolution as it flowed over the nearby border into the New Mexico Territory, but some of the saga of the First World War as it played itself out in U.S. troop movements and espionage activities along and across the frontier. My great-grandfather served in the U.S. Army during this period, and was able to remain in New Mexico in his new military role throughout the conflict. All these things left vivid impressions in my grandmother’s memory, which in turn inspired in me a love of the American Southwest and New Mexico in particular. In my case, however, it is the northern part of the state which has always most captured my attention, though whenever I have been there I am always reminded that just a bit farther south, and now a century ago, my grandmother’s early life played itself out in that arid and adventurous land.

Here is a poem I wrote recently, a somewhat nostalgic few lines, set among a grove of trees growing along the banks of the Chama River, in Rio Arriba County. Some of the vocabulary is antiquated and regional, typical of what was for centuries a quite isolated part of the state. I wrote the poem originally in Spanish, but my English translation is fairly literal, so that reference to it should take care of most difficulties a person unfamiliar with the northern linguistic differences might have.

In the Woods

The muddy molasses
Of the stricken acequia
Is the chosen home
Of the yellow brown grasses.

The noisy violet sorrel
In the breezes of the woods
Is the sweetheart of sparrows
In the slow pine-nut season.

Where’s my little river now,
And the chattering of the grasses?
Where are the healing herbs
And warm sunlight of the past?

Here in this prickling,
This tin can pile of recollection,
I look back and rest enshaded,
Moving always at half pace.

En el Bosque

El melaz zoquetoso
De la acéquia desprovecida
Es hogar elegido
Del zacate enchagüistado.

El chocoyle ruidoso
En los vientos del bosque
Es el güiso de gurriones
En la lenta piñonada.

¿Donde ahora está mi rito,
El güirigüiri de las matas?
¿Donde fueron los matariques
Y el solecito de los años?

Aquí en este pelizco,
En la jarrería de mis recuerdos,
Miro hacia atrás tan sombreado
Y siempre a media rienda.

Two Poems by Miguel Hernández

Miguel Hernandez

Miguel Hernández (1910-1942) was a goatherd as a child. He received minimal education, but became an avid reader after discovering his school library, and continued to visit the library even after abandoning classes to return to herding his father’s goats. His early work was greatly influenced by the great poets of the Spanish Golden Age. After his first visit to Madrid, both Neruda and Aleixandre served as his mentors, helping to free him from the tight classical structures which had characterized his beginning efforts as a poet. A member of the Communist party, he was imprisoned toward the end of the Spanish Civil War, and two years later died of tuberculosis in a prison at Alicante, at the age of 32. The two poems which I have translated here refer to the loss of Hernández’s infant son while the poet was in prison.

Each Time I Pass

Each time I pass
beneath your window,
I am lashed by the fragrance
which still moves through your house.

Each time I pass
by the cemetery
I am seized by the force
which still breathes through your bones.

The Cemetery Lies Near

The cemetery lies near
where you and I sleep,
among blue prickly pear,
blue aloes and children
who cry out so brightly
when the dead cloud the road.

From here to the cemetery, all
is blue, golden, clear.
Four steps and the dead.
Four steps and the living.

Clear, blue and golden,
My son there far away.

Cada Vez Que Paso

Cada vez que paso
bajo tu ventana,
me azota el aroma
que aún flota en tu casa.

Cada vez que paso
junto al cementerio
me arrastra la fuerza
que aún sopla en tus huesos.

El Cementerio Está Cerca

El cementerio está cerca
de donde tú y yo dormimos,
entre nopales azules,
pitas azules y niños
que gritan vívidamente
si un muerto nubla el camino.

De aquí al cementerio, todo
es azul, dorado, límpido.
Cuatro pasos y los muertos.
Cuatro pasos y los vivos.

Límpido, azul y dorado,
se hace allí remoto el hijo.

Sunrise on Mt. Davidson


We’re nearing the end of the period of our best sunrises here on Mt. Davidson. Within another two or three weeks, the three months of summer fog will probably have set in, and there will be no sunrise to see. At this time of year, however, the skies are not only very often clear at daybreak, but the sun is far enough north that it’s visible from the back deck of the house, rising somewhere in the vicinity of Mt. Diablo. That’s what you see in the photo above, which was taken on April 30. The Oakland and Berkeley hills lie at the far left of the scene, Alameda to the far right, hidden in shadow, and an assortment of empty cargo ships resting serenely on the surface of San Francisco Bay. The visuals, along with the intense early morning chorus of birdsong which accompany them, are something I look forward to all year long. Our autumn weather is if anything even better, a tremendous relief after living in an impenetrable bank of summer fog, but there’s something about the spring sunrises which makes them special. Perhaps it’s because they follow the dark damp months of winter.

Lately I’ve been reflecting a lot on the demographic changes our block has undergone during the thirteen years we’ve lived here. I added the numbers up the other day, and came up with this: for one reason or other, at least twenty-three people who were living here when we arrived in April 2001 are no longer with us. Nine of them have died, and the others have either ended up in nursing homes or simply moved away. Two weeks ago, for example, we lost Lucia, a 92 year old woman who had grown up in Vienna and watched from the windows of the Vienna City Hall as Hitler rode in triumph through the streets on the day of the Anschluss in 1938. She married an American diplomat and lived in North Africa, among other foreign posts, before setting down to life on our quiet street and staying here for 64 years. There are all kinds of stories, and I think of these people, now gone, whenever I pass their homes. Robert, in his mid-eighties, had a stroke and is now living out his final days in a nursing home. But nine years ago he was disinherited by his partner of more than forty years when the latter died, leaving his share of the two houses they owned together to the San Francisco Opera. Helena, who as a young woman had worked as an assistant to Timothy Leary, married a retired psychiatrist and went with him into a care facility. Sieglinda, a very elderly German woman who remembered digging potatoes in East Prussia as an involuntary cog in the wheel of the Nazi war effort, returned to Germany to finish out her life after crashing her car one day into the side of her garage. One house was the scene of the deaths of two of its owners, in rapid succession, in the course of about a year and a half. And there are many other stories, most of them about good neighbors who simply moved away in the course of following the fortunes and opportunities of life. I miss them all, and I’m sure one of the many joys of being able to travel back in time to the year of our arrival in 2001 would be to see each of them in turn, exchange a cheery good-morning, and be happy to know that all are safe at home where they belong. We’ve had some very good neighbors over the years.


But back to those sunrises! The photo above shows what it looks like when there are low clouds banked just above the mountains or hovering peacefully over the bay. It’s all quite tranquil, and I try to take a few moments to enjoy the scene and remember it to get me through the foggy months of summer which surely lie ahead. Meanwhile, I’m normally quite busy at that hour coping with three young dogs just waking up, excited to begin their day, anxious to visit the backyard, then either go back to sleep or else convince me to hurry through my email so we can have a speedier breakfast and get on with things. But if I could do it, I’d prolong the sunrise hour indefinitely. By far it’s the most wonderful part of my day, and I’m always perturbed with myself if I’m so lazy as to sleep too late and miss the beauty of it completely.


Gustaf Petersen-Munch: ‘Outline’


Gustaf Petersen-Munch (1912-1938) was a Danish surrealist painter and poet who had a short but full and colorful life. The child of Copenhagen academics, he studied psychology and philosophy at Copenhagen University before heading off to Greenland at age 20 to work in the cryolite mines. Six months later he was back in Denmark, officially enrolled at Lund University, but spending much of his time traveling around Europe with the help of his parents’ wealth. His paintings were shown in several exhibitions, but it is his poetry which in retrospect has been seen as ground-breaking, and which influenced the work of many Danish poets in succeeding decades. He moved to the island of Bornholm in 1935 and married the ceramicist Lisbeth Hjorth, but in 1937 joined the International Brigade and was killed in the Spanish Civil War the following year. 

In the poem ‘Outline’ (Danish ‘Rids’), which I have translated into English here, the sensory impressions described seem almost synesthetic: the lapwing’s cry is depicted in terms of geometric figures and sound emerges as colored planes in the air. Space is pictured two-dimensionally, as in an abstract painting, and one is not always certain who or what is the observer, and who or what is the observed. Midway through the first stanza, the point of view shifts to that of the lapwing, as the salt-meadow turns in a concentric circle of color below the white egg which is the hovering bird.

The geometric form continues into the second stanza, where the circle is the sun, which sinks and vanishes into the sea. The salty plane of evening melts into the airy plane of day, whereupon the seagull dissolves into fading sound and the fisherman descends into the sea as the sun had done the night before. I find the whole poem to be an odd but accurate reflection of the 24 hour cycle. Time, plane, space and all four elements are depicted in a single gliding motion, which perhaps suggested the poet’s title for the poem. Petersen-Munch’s Danish original follows my English translation here. 


The lapwing cries
a circle black
cries a curve white
in the air–
The salt-meadow turns
green-grey wet
with a closed egg
in the middle–

The sea glides blushing
into the fire of the sun,
The evening breathes salt
toward the morning wind–
A seagull dissolves in a blurred fast hum,
The fisherman awakens to day–


Viben skriger
en Cirkel sort
skriger en Kurve hvid
i Luften–
Saltengen drejer sig
grøn-graa vaad
med et lukket Æg
i Midten–

Havet glider rødmende
ind i Solens Ild,
Aften aander Salt
mod Morgens Vind–
En Maage forsvinder i sløret Sus,
Fiskeren vaagner til Dag–