Len Krisak

"The Island" by Rainer Maria Rilke:

The Island (I)

North Sea


The next tide blots the path across the mud-

flats; everything around looks all alike.

That little island out there, though, has shut

its eyes; in dizzy circlings, the dike


surrounds the people, who were born in baffling,

muted sleep, within which they've confused

a host of worlds. Their speech, but rarely used,

makes every sentence seem an epitaph


for something that has washed ashore unknown—

that inexplicably arrives . . . and stays.

That's how it is with everything their gaze


descries, from childhood on: things useless, grown

too large, uncaring, sent there on their own,

only to emphasize the lonely days.   


Die Insel I



Die nächste Flut verwischt den Weg im Watt,

und alles wird auf allen Seiten gleich;

die kleine Insel draußen aber hat

die Augen zu; verwirrend kreist der Deich


um ihre Wohner, die in einem Schlaf

geboren werden, drin sie viele Welten

verwechseln schweigend, denn sie reden selten,

und jeder Satz ist wie ein Epitaph


für etwas Angeschwemmtes, Unbekanntes,

das unerklärt zu ihnen kommt und bleibt.

Und so ist alles, was ihr Blick beschreibt,


von Kindheit an: nicht auf sie Angewandtes,

zu Großes, Rücksichtloses, Hergesandtes,

das ihre Einsamkeit noch übertreibt.



The Island (II)


As if they lay inside some crater on

the moon, the farms are dammed against the sea.

They are the same—those clothes the gardens don

inside—like orphans groomed identically.


The storm that schools them hard can leave them bare

and frighten them with death for endless days.

That's when the people sit inside and stare

(their crooked mirrors render oddities


atop their dressers). Then, as someone's son

steps to the door at dusk, he plays a tune

on his harmonica—weeping; dirge-like.


He heard it that way in a far-off port.

Out there, and almost menacing, some sort

of sheep appears, huge on the outer dike.


Die Insel II


Als läge er in einem Krater-Kreise

auf einem Mond: ist jeder Hof umdämmt,

und drin die Gärten sind auf gleiche Weise

gekleidet und wie Waisen gleich gekämmt


von jenem Sturm, der sie so rauh erzieht

und tagelang sie bange macht mit Toden.

Dann sitzt man in den Häusern drin und sieht

in schiefen Spiegeln was auf den Kommoden


Seltsames steht. Und einer von den Söhnen

tritt abends vor die Tür und zieht ein Tönen

aus der Harmonika wie Weinen weich;


so hörte ers in einem fremden Hafen–.

Und draußen formt sich eines von den Schafen

ganz groß, fast drohend, auf dem Außendeich.



The Island (III)


Only within is near; all else is far.

Within is tightly packed and every day,

brimful with everything they cannot say.

The island is a much-too-little star


space takes no notice of and silently

and dreadfully destroys as if unknown.

A thing unheard—a thing no one can see;



it thinks all this will end in darkness—done—

and tries to plot its own self-blinded, cryptic

course, outside of any scheme's elliptic

of planets, solar systems, or the sun.


Die Insel III


Nah ist nur Innres; alles andre fern.

Und dieses Innere gedrängt und täglich

mit allem überfüllt und ganz unsäglich.

Die Insel ist wie ein zu kleiner Stern


welchen der Raum nicht merkt und stumm zerstört

in seinem unbewußten Furchtbarsein,

so daß er, unerhellt und überhört,



damit dies alles doch ein Ende nehme

dunkel auf einer selbsterfundnen Bahn

versucht zu gehen, blindlings, nicht im Plan

der Wandelsterne, Sonnen und Systeme.



December Dawn Commute


From Frankensteining down the trolley aisle

In syncope that duels the lurching train,

He tumbles to an empty seat, and splat.

The clenched maxillas slacken to a smile.

He hangs the sawed-off-shepherd's-hook-like cane

Before unsnapping his mad bomber's hat.

(The rabbit-fur flaps fly this way and that,

Like cowlicks wild from too much time out cold.)

Much fussing with a mini-thermos. Then,

He stares into the still-dark window pane

That offers one pale visage to behold,

Before (I lean a bit), the faintest humming.

He stops. Not Jesu, Joy? And then again.

Yes, Bach, for sure. Whoever saw that coming?





As vatic dozens mingle, mill, and schmooze,

Their brief ententes all gliding by on booze,

Her bruinesque-round figure finds its way

Around and past and by the Chardonnay-

Fueled mots, to station its attention where

Fine, knowing little knots stand, unaware

Of her. She isn't there, Elizabeth,

Who never will pronounce their shibboleth.

It would be cruel—and what is more, quite false—

To mock her gait as half a cripple's waltz,

And yet it hints of something slightly spastic

Jerking her legless wine against the plastic

Slopes it barely climbs down. Stem in hand,

Elizabeth will never understand,

But leans, as if against the wind, a mime

Who yearns to overhear some silent rhyme.

Included out, she mumbles straight ahead,

Eyes scanning nothing but the distant dead.

Her "glass" becomes a kind of beggar's cup;

The Muses do not mean to fill it up.

She clutches it with her entire fist,

Its gold an ichor Pegasus has pissed

To mark Elizabeth—not for his own,

But so the world will leave her there unknown.





Hung from two January doors:

A brace of aging Christmas wreaths

Spruced up with ivy, cones, and twigs.

Each day, a pair of sisters dares

The scaly snow. Wearing their wigs,

They shuffle back and forth, slow wraiths,


Between their sister-houses laid

On lots set side by side. For nibbling

Visits? To share a meal or trade         

Complaints? To giggle like two girls  

At tea? A ghostly grey smoke curls

Above the chimney of the sibling-


Hostess du jour (some days, that's Kay's—

The widow's—office; sometimes, Blanche's).

Jointly, they make their separate ways

Between twin 90-year-old ranches,

Promising spring they will remember

To store their wreaths till next December.



Waking State


Why not, he thought; she'd done it once before.

But why no ring-tone, chirp, or beep? (The bell

Had come straight out of 1982.)

Another blast of need? Or fear? Once more,

A call to come, as in the past. But why
Such terror in the claim her name was Gail?

(The plaintive earpiece keened insistently.)             

Clearly, her name had always been Marie,

But this was not that name. Tones wailed with want,

Crazed want. Why did she say "I'd die for you"?

And why pretend she lived in Maine? Why lie?

Marie had made it clear that she and Bill

Were living in a state they called Vermont,

The place she'd always called him from—Vermont.

A four-time champion on Jeopardy, Len Krisak is the author of six books of poems and translations:  Virgil’s Eclogues (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), The Odes of Horace (Carcanet Press, 2006), Even as We Speak (University of Evansville Press, 2000)(winner of the Richard Wilbur Prize for 2000), Ovid’s Ars Amatoria (complete in PN Review, 2004), and If Anything (WordTech Editions, 2004).  Even as We Speak was awarded the Richard Wilbur Prize.  His other awards include the Robert Frost Prize (2000), the Robert Penn Warren Prize (1998), The Pinch Prize (2007), and The New England Poetry Club Motton Book Award.  He has poems in, or forthcoming in, The Antioch Review, The Sewanee Review, The Hudson Review, Agni, PN Review, The London Magazine, The Dark Horse, Agenda, The New Criterion, The Hopkins Review, Commonweal, Standpoint, Pleiades, The Oxonian Review, Literary Imagination, The Formalist, Measure, and The Oxford Book of Poems on Classical Mythology.



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