Verbing the apocalypse: Alison Croggon’s Rilke

‘This again?’ and ‘why now? Why not years ago?’ are the two questions raised in each new translation of a non-English piece of Western Canon. There’s an understanding—of course a poetic cycle like the Duino Elegies is incomplete in English, there are endless new readings—and a simultaneous sense of wounded pride/suspicion: what was missing the last time around? What were you concealing from me? What are you concealing now?

It feels doubly so for a poet like Rainer Maria Rilke, who seems more alien the more his canonicity is taken for granted. None of the great modernists have been as instrumentalised as Rilke, in spite of—and because of—his deliberate conception of the poet as pariah and vatic, poetry as demi-godlike craftmanship, as something vitally crucial to the spiritual health of Humanity-at-large—it invents Humanity-at-large, if only for speculation’s sake—done by an aristocrat of the spirit. It’s hard to imagine Ezra Pound’s rabid obsession with Poetic Tradition or Paul Valery’s deliberate self-erasure quoted in season two of Euphoria, a show with an almost Rilkean sense of the aesthetic-as-life. In this sense, it’s easy to explain why Rilke has gathered importance, in a late-capitalist hellscape, outside of the relief that can be extracted from him. If, as Giorgio Agamben writes, our experience with language within The Spectacle is

nothing other than the alienated communicativity of human beings

it nonetheless lets speakers

experience their own linguistic being: not this or that content of language, but language itself … the very fact that one speaks … an experimentum linguae that all over the planet unhinges and empties traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities.

It’s this destitutive principle—an emptying of language and its potential to reify—that drives Alison Croggon’s Rilke. In place of the Rilke who—under the gaze of Great Philosophers and wellness gurus—seemed like a collection of proper nouns, an exoticised camp symbology, Croggon creates a Rilke of ceaseless linguistic motion, a poet of modernity who—in a language and style already rendered alien—attempts to sketch the destitution of language as it picks up speed.

Verbalisation is the key poetic engine for Croggon’s Rilke: first, to Verbalise, to turn into verb, to make vocal, as a rearticulation of the Elegies’ key terms. Secondly, a technical emphasis on verbs, verbal construction and compounding, the present tense. Croggon understands that replacing the sanctified/sanctifying Rilke of other translations is not simply a question of replacing one ethical-aesthetic language with another, ‘better’ one. A Duino Elegies for which destitution is the guiding principle is a fundamentally different kind of translation—how and what a given symbol means, how its rendered, what systems are in place to convey it, how it ultimately coheres and how it empties itself—than a constitutive focus would permit.

Rilke was painfully, self-consciously aware—Croggon implies—of this emptying of language: the angels of the first two stanzas, who re-appear, apostrophised throughout the elegies as witnesses/points of comparison/co-ordinates of the poems’ thematics, are ‘early-departed’, a past tense, vacating the space that the poems are haphazard efforts to fill. Instead they transform/are transformed not only into the elegies’ store of imagery and signifying chains (angels into dolls into puppets into acrobats) but the poetic techniques, the functioning of the poems on a grammatical level. When, in the fifth elegy, Rilke apostrophizes the angel to

take, pluck the small-flowered leaves of healing

there is less of a sense that the angel is a presence outside the poem than the angel is the given line itself performing, like a computer program skirting consciousness. Angels are less creatures of language—rhapsodising the divinity with their whole existence—than linguistic constructions themselves. If Nietzsche was right that

we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar

greater and lesser angels would have names like ‘the pluperfect tense’ and ‘the A in apostrophe in the 4th stanza of the 5th elegy’, rather than Gabriel or Michael. If Croggon’s translation is a destitutive translation, it’s a reckoning with the historical moment this faith in language—as a constitutive element in the imperial, fin de siécle upholding of Sense—becomes impossible. If there are angels/programs/signifying chains that transform angel into dolls into acrobats into metaphor, they’re such that, in the words of Deleuze and Guattari,

these signs are not themselves signifying. The code resembles not so much a language as a jargon, an open-ended polyvocal formation. The nature of the signs within it is insignificant, as these signs have little or nothing to do with what supports them.

You get the feeling that angels only exist in the poems as a deliberate tautology, so that the question ‘who, if I cry, hears me among the angelic orders?’ will have meaning and organising potential. The change Croggon makes to the question—verbalised in the present tense, the conditional of other translators ignored—foregrounds the direct linguistic invention that is the Elegies’ true subject. It’s in this way that the angels, despite their formal role in the Elegies, are nonetheless made empty: how the text that addresses them—in Croggon’s hands—emphasises their remoteness, their alienating and excessive positions.

An archangel is the one ‘perilous behind the stars’, like a solar flare that could knock out all satellite communication. It’s how so much of Croggon’s translation evokes this open-ended,  polyvocal jargon, of metaphorical creation with nothing to refer to but the act of making metaphor, of semantic extension. Its these relations at the edge of sense that Croggon’s Rilke—via their jargon—tries to map in the Elegies: there’s almost a Lovecraftian element of description/world-building when she describes

pollen of blossoming goodness, how
you trod back the boiling chaos with your slender form,
and suddenly in this laborious nowhere, suddenly
the unsayable place, where the pure too-little
inexplicably changes ­– leaps
into that empty too-much

Like Lovecraft, it skirts the edge of deliberate effect—of language being pushed to its limits to describe the indescribable, the experimentum linguae that Agamben describes—and its own kind of camp, like Rilke wearing an alien mask. What exactly is a laborious nowhere? The change from the pure too-little to that empty too-much reads more like an excuse, someone holding your eye by gesturing at a curtain, behind which skulks something too horrific for words, believe me.

It’s this divine nothing that philosophers and translators try to stuff with jargon of their own, clarifying what they can’t help treat as a glut of mixed metaphor and romantic sugar-rush, creating a Frankenstein poet: Rilke prophet of the meaningful modern life, next to Rumi the orientalised poet of hallmark cards, whitewashed of his deliberate reference points in Islam and the tradition of Persian prosody. Rilke, as a modern poet—the translation suggests—lacked such reference points, not as by-product or out of abandonment (the text draws a hyper-specific genealogy: from the Italian Renaissance poet Gaspara Stampa, to the Parisian tumblers that Picasso would later depict) but as an marker of his style, and the purpose of the Elegies: to reckon with the destitutive in modernity.

In Croggon’s translation, the question, ‘who, if I cry, hears me among the angelic orders?’ can be rendered as: what subsists after Language—with a capital L—is emptied of itself? Her answer—her specific translation—is: pure linguistic relationality, an experience of linguistic being shorn of itself. Linguistic apocalypse. Rilke’s metaphorical jargon and terms, in her hands, don’t name or refer to philosophical qualities or existential truths—they are a memetic, stenographic record of language reacting to the conditions of modernity on a verbal, molecular level. In this, for Croggon, Rilke was as modern, if not more so, than any of the High Modernists, his particular romantic register letting him reach a point of electrical high tension more visible in poets like Rimbaud or Hart Crane. That Rilke was constitutionally appalled by what he saw in modernity is irrelevant: it’s a mark of his weird, anachronistic/ridiculous poetic genius that—despite himself—a language made from the long eclipse of romantic diction could serve as transponder for the apocalypse.

Though perhaps apocalypse is the wrong word. Apocalypse is defined in retrospect, when the visions pause. This pause is a privileged moment, in terms of the whole unfolding of revelation/who can access it. Rilke—so it’s understood—makes poetry out of the destitution of language, only to recuperate it into new territories of poetry, new aesthetic/ethical programmes.

In eschatology, apocatastasis is the return of each being to its true condition, its perfection. It is a movement—what was once a split subject is soldered together, cracks showing, etc.—and so may possess a history. It may be dialectical. In a similar way, Annie Dillard writes, eternity ‘bears time in its side like a hole.’ Even sinners would have full knowledge of the divine, though not to the same level of communion as the faithful—in this sense they’d be eternally punished.

It’s this fundamental ambiguity—apocatastasis as universal salvation, as the healing of the world wholly on its own terms; at the same time, the final victory of the Just over the Evil, each settling into their final, essentialised forms, as the final coming of Christ’s empire, ‘which would still entail a purgatorial state’, according to the New Westminster Dictionary of Church History—that calls for a breakage in the hurrying of actors into their places, a destitution of the terms employed, of what this language makes possible/demands, in such a pause. In this context, ‘Who—if I cry—hears me among the angelic orders?’ is as good a place to break as any. Even then, Croggon’s Rilke poses, this may, on its own, be insufficient.


Image: a detail of the frescoes in the Church of Saint Augustine, Narni (Italy)

Josie/Jocelyn Suzanne

Josie/Jocelyn Suzanne is a freelance editor/writer/programmer. Their work has appeared in CorditeSoutherly and Rabbit Journal among others. They were shortlisted for the 2022 Val Vallis award, and were the recipient of the 2021 Harri Jones memorial prize, as well as being one of the 2021 Next Chapter fellowship recipients. They are a genderqueer trans femme and live on unceded Wurundjeri land in Naarm.

More by Josie/Jocelyn Suzanne ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *