Three Versions from Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’

Don Paterson

The Kill

Far-conquering man . . . You’ve written, since you first
turned hunter, many a level new death-rule
of trap or net. Though I know the strip of sail
they hung into the caverns of the Karst,

so softly, like the flag of peace, or ceasefire . . .
Then, from the cave-mouth, a boy gave it a jerk
and tumbling dayward out of the cave-dark
came a handful of pale doves. This too is fair.

No one could take pity on their breath,
Least of all those men who raised their sights
and in that wakeful moment understood:

Our wandering sorrow takes the shape of death.
The spirit fallen into quietude
Knows that what befalls it must be right.

Cycles

Listen: today, you can hear the rough breath
of the early harrows, the human rhythm sing
in the deep ingathered stillness of the earth,
the strong Earth rising in its early-Spring . . .

The word is old, but never seems outdated
and every year arrives like something new;
though it has come so often. Always anticipated,
though not once did you catch it. It caught you.

Even the old leaves of the wintered oak
Seem, in this late light, some future hue.
The winds exchange a word in their own tongue.

The leafless trees are black, and yet the horse-dung
heaped up in the fields, a richer black.
Each hour grows younger as it passes through.

Dancer

You were still half a child. You came and went.
But you mapped the dancer, in that moment’s chance
to the empty constellation of the dance:
that dance in which we fitfully transcend

Nature’s dumb order. Only Orpheus
could stir you to the deepest listening:
you were the one still moved from that first song,
and still surprised if a tree took long to choose

whether or not to go along with you.
You knew the old still centre, that clear space
where the lyre was first raised up and rang out true.

For this you tried to shape the ceremony,
to fit the perfect steps that might one day
turn his own around, might turn his face.