The voluptuous shape and velvety petals of roses are so familiar that we hardly appreciate these living clichés. So it's apt that they give their name to one of the least-read works by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926).
This brief sequence, written in French late in Rilke's life, brims with flowers and kisses, rapture and perfume. It's a far cry from the more philosophical poems for which he's best known; the last notable English translation came out in 1978.
David Need, a visiting professor in religion at Duke, has made this sequence the centerpiece of his new book, Roses: The Late French Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, which includes Need's translations of the 27 rose poems and other related work, an essay, drawings by Clare Johnson and sumptuous design and printing by Durham's Horse & Buggy Press.
Need, a poet, worked on this project for many years, and the 224-page book shows its status as a labor of love. The poems are offset printed, with the French originals in red and the translations in black, while the cover is letterpress printed. Each of the 500 copies is signed by the author.
The poems encourage reverie, and Horse & Buggy's handiwork amplifies it as you run your hands over the thick, creamy pages. Need has an idealistic reason for the expensive project. "I do want to argue that we can have beauty that is not strictly controlled by value," he says. "People try to make ravishingly, ridiculously beautiful things—things at the deep end of mattering."
Rilke is beloved by many non-scholars and non-artists. Need once met a pair of computer engineers who had been trading their own translations of Rilke with each other for 20 years. But his work is less than fashionable now, especially among younger poets who have values other than beauty.
Duke English professor and lyric poet Joseph Donahue, who notes that Rilke was "always a hugely important figure" for him, says of the poet, "It's fair to say that the extreme states of feeling, the hushed delicacies, the lyric exaltation, the obsession with the devastations of love are not going to speak to a generation of poets whodo not see these concerns as essential to what lyric poetry does, or who take issue with them as aesthetically retrograde or dishonest, or who believe with John Ashbery that you can't say it that way anymore. "
But a closer look at Rilke's rose reveals it not to be the saccharine symbol of 1,000 greeting cards. "Surrender surrounded by surrender / Tenderness touching tendernesses": Rilke imagines the rose as a perfect give and take of caress and feeling in which we imperfectly partake. The rose is a being, a self and a feeling; it is a small thing that somehow contains infinite embrace.
Need illuminates this through his simple translations. "I don't try to translate the idea," he says. "The words take you to the ideas." Need is so faithful that you could learn French by comparing his translations with the originals on the facing pages.
To create what Need calls a "stereoscopic effect," he engaged artist Clare Johnson, his ex-wife's cousin. The book is powered by other family ties, too. Need's mother worked on a PhD in German literature before she stopped to have children, so the book, he says, is "a way to honor the work she put aside."
Johnson's drawings aren't what you might expect. Instead of roses, she draws city views, windblown people, figures half hidden in shadow—giving Rilke's dreamy poems somewhat mysterious images. Johnson says the drawings "are their own worlds, their own complete ideas," but also "floating pieces within a larger unseen picture." Take these sad, lovely lines:
It's you who prepare within yourself
what exceeds you, your ultimate essence.
That troubling feeling that departs you?
It's your dance.
Johnson follows them with a design of bare branches or thorns—what's left after the dance. Interesting in themselves, the drawings add a layer of meaning. The images and translations "are related unevenly to each other," Need says, "like a marriage." They send readers back and forth; the balance between them constantly shifts.
With this layered approach of critical scholarship, loving translation and visual art, Roses aims for three audiences: Rilke lovers, academics and artists, for whom Need hopes his book can help "break down that resistance to feeling and femininity" that he believes limits the modern avant-garde.
Need says of the slender poetry at the volume's heart, "I know it can feel ruinous and inadequate, and not strong enough to carry the weight of things." But he hopes that the work can provide emotional shelter. "How do we find our way to spaces where we feel like the world holds us a little bit?"
Need has several readings coming up where you can buy the book, also available at local indie bookstores and online. You can find him at The Regulator on Oct. 21 and at Flyleaf on Nov. 13. He's also putting together a show of Johnson's drawings at Duke's Perkins Library in December.
His dream appearance? A reading in a botanical garden—but that will have to wait for next year's roses.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Petal pusher."
Durham's Lightsey Darst has written for The Huffington Post, Bookslut and others.