Translator's Note: The Beggars
"The Beggars" is from Rilke's volume, New Poems, 1908: The Other Part, the sequel to the 1907 New Poems. A feature of both books—which contain most of Rilke's greatest short poems—is their subtle, insistent, encyclopedic sequencing. Thus, "The Beggars" is flanked by poems about outsiders (lunatics and hermits, the old and the blind) in a sort of bleak Parisian passus—a run of documentary poems constituting a pendant to the subject-matter and atmospheres of the novel he was working on at the same time (in fact for most of the 1900s: it was finally published in 1910), The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, and which he complained was the hardest thing he did in his life. It remains a criminally disregarded book: I wish it had one reader for every ten who read the poems.
Rilke isn't all the twittering of angels, the celebration of fruit, saccharine gallantries to old titled ladies, and perverse animadversions on—mainly against—sex. There is a tough, grim Rilke, a Rilke in blacks and grays, an unaristocratic, urban desperate Rilke, a Rilke to set beside Daumier or Goya. "The Beggars" is to have and to have not. It is a drama on full and empty hands, full and empty mouths. It reads like an unspeakable film of creatures devouring other creatures.
Working for the sculptor Auguste Rodin taught Rilke about material and energy, structure and scale. Flows of power can be—characteristically are—reversed. Tiny things can be disproportionately influential. The corpse being washed "gives orders"; the sculpture of the man with the broken nose is unforgettable, "like a suddenly raised fist." It's the same thing here, the chaotic swarm of beggars absorb, assimilate, and finally chew up and spit out the stranger, the only man with the innocence and the foolishness to see them. It's a hard poem, full of monosyllables, low language, nightmarish and nauseating detail. I tried, in translating it, not to distort or fray its streamlined machinery.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine