Touching stone: I stand still in between movements, in a dance I am weaving into the air in a wilderness sanctuary in Austin, Texas, a sacred space out of stone and wood, and I dance to the sounds of my quickening heartbeat, the brook running outside, and to the echo of poems in my mind.

In this essay, I write about ekphrasitc work, about translating one work of art into another. There is movement here, from poem into dance, dance into words, bodily pain into pressure and waiting, pressure poured into poem, words fragmenting in time into sounds and into the acts of shaping that happen on my tongue as I whisper or speak. There is translation between languages, too, in a pain space that can obsess about nuances and memories.

But first, there is this foundation: I touch river stones made into a wall, lean against them as I shift into them and away, let gravity take my aching body in slow arcs, engage in my gentle rocking.

Touching stone: a poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, made a poem about a Greek stone sculpture, a poem that speaks about absence's pain, the density of language, and the stone of untouchability. The Archaic Torso of Apollo begins:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt.

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,
lingers and shines.
(transl. H. Landsman)

This poem has become Rilke's most famous poem in the English-speaking world. So many translated it, interpreted it, so many times. But the first line speaks of 'unerhört': never heard before, not heard (and not really 'fantastic', as this English translation has it): Rilke reaches towards sounds and words that are 'unerhört', and cast into mere repetition, smaller being, those words that are heard, and that are all we have to make meaning with. The sculpture that fuelled the poem has long ago lost its head, arms, legs, penis, remains only as a heavy torso, old and in fragments. But its glowing presence shivers the poet, who cannot help but remember a never-experienced fullness, a life that suffuses the hardness, the eon-spanning duration of stone. The pain is in the non-coincidence of language and self, the never fully present experience of self. The stone ruin is stronger than the vanishing self.

Touching stone: Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the first two of his Duino Elegies left to his own devices in an old Italian castle high above the Adriatic. I can hear the hard walls in the poems, polished sandstone, chapel walls, old masonry ready to plunge into the ocean. In the second Elegy, written in those weeks at Duino, the pressure of stone is upon the words, and drives a search that does not end, as heart and space never coincide:

Fänden auch wir ein reines, verhaltenes, schmales
Menschliches, einen unseren Streifen Fruchtlands
zwischen Strom und Gestein. Denn das eigene Herz übersteigt uns

(If only we too could discover a pure, contained
human place, a strip of fruitful land of our own,
between river and stone! For our own heart exceeds us
transl. Kline)

Touching stone, then, against river, human place, and heart: that is the journey of this meditation on pain, movement, and language, into the touchability of language, its poetic capacity to be both close, deeply familiar and intimate, and yet to have the hardness, the non-human endurance of stone. Words will always survive. The human place is 'Menschliches' and it is 'verhalten': that what is human, held back: on the back-beat, swinging, contained against that which is more strongly, archaically, eternally there: river and stone. Menschliches: what makes language human?

My hand reaches out, in, touches my sternum, feels the heave of my breath, the beating of my heart, moves out again, points towards the walls. I stand upright, do not flow to the ground. My legs are quivering with exhaustion, I feel sharp pains in ankle and knees, and yet I remain rooted to the wooden floor. My arms gesture in this circle that traverses space, palm out and in, touch, reach, return.

Words and sounds move through my mind, the impetuses for the dance I am completing in these silent, measured gestures. This is a different kind of reading of poetry, a different kind of intersection, and it is hard to find performative writing modes that do not just fragment into glimpses of past wholeness: archaic torsi that were once whole, in a time I cannot remember, I never experienced: not as a woman dancing between languages, not as a cripple dancer who lives with pain every day.

I dance with and from sounds, not meanings, rhythms, lines that snagged me and hold my mind when I let it loose. Some of those lines, half-sounded, are these, and Rilke is again heavy on me, the stone of abandonment and disconnect, and the longed-for returned gaze of those angels that move Rilke throughout the Duino Elegies. These lines are from Manifest Destiny, a long poem by disability culture poet Jim Ferris:

Let the better angels of our nature
form a more perfect union,
and let us be orphans no more.

But in that half-aware state of flowing movements, only some of these sounds come to me: 'better angels of our nature', and 'orphans no more'. They come as sounds: I know that my senses are attracted to the deepening of sounds, and the move from e to a to o to ou to a to the closing dark shwa 'ə' in 'na-ture' is pleasing to me, a modulating that feels circular to my limbs, makes me move more than, for instance, another phrase from Ferris's poems, 'but it's pain, pain/something hurts it's me it's me' which gives me more intellectual pleasure as I am parsing its sounds into its word meanings, and feel division and connection crossing from sound into meaning. Of course 'orphans no more' holds positive word meaning but that is not what makes the line memorable to me, and makes it surface, like Rilke's angels, in that space between ear, mouth and moving body: the rhythm steps me, ta pa pa ta, the repetition of those o sounds that so deliciously round my lips.

O's: when I sound this, mouth circle, I see world circles, too: on some ancient maps, the ocean, precarious place of dissolution, circles the known world in a letter O, and likewise, the letter T is often shaped by the continents held within that ring. The repeated 'let', a performative marker that calls wish into being, provides this landmass, and its 't's hold anchor to the 'o's for me as I circle my arms, move in a round.

That is how my imagination flows, as I move, intuiting connections that I trace with thought in action. Dance allows me to articulate the simultaneity of these experiences, and the delight of merging words and movement, sounds and meaning. Simultaneously, my body is echoed by and echoes through poems, emotion, motion. The traditional tools of poetry criticism do not easily allow me to share how deep these movement sounds signify to that other presence in my body, the other gravity that pools and shifts with each gesture, each step: my pain.

Pain as companion, as dance partner, in dialogue through and beyond poetry: that is the truth of my dance. I learn much from my fellow disability culture travellers, like this story, told to me by painter Riva Lehrer, about the Golem, a Jewish mythical figure, and the power of language's written letters. Truth emerges between language's sounds: truth means emet, emerges between Aleph and Thaw, last and first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The word emet animates the Golem, a creature shaped out of clay. Emet moves the shaped creature who knows the power of letters as magic incantations that make movement — words do not just live in their meaning. If you take one letter away from the Golem's forehead, erase it in the head's clay, the act spells out death and immobility to the creature. At times, my aching bodymind feels like a lumbering shaped creature, semi-animated clay always already hardening into immobility: do not take the words away, those anchors between which I may dance.

My pain isn't mine, nor is it me, nor is it alien, outside. It is not outside language, nor inside. Pain is the space between and above words, the ocean that surrounds them and gives them breath. Pain rehearses its presence through words, movement, sound and touch. Stone touch: it is a wall inside me, the wall between me and the poems I am reading and that move me. But the stone wall also supports, assembles my being against a brace.

On Thanksgiving day, I stand on the beach in Stirling State Park in Michigan. Lake Erie stretches out towards an invisible horizon as some vague fog brackets blazing sunlight. Again, after an open dance of response to tree, water, wave and wind, I move with poem fragments in my mind: the opening of Rilke's First Elegy: 'Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel/Ordnungen?'Giving a translation becomes impossible: this passage is one of the hardest ones to translate while keeping the enjambment intact and meaningful: 'Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?' (transl. Leishman) — Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions/of Angels? (transl.W. Gass)

In my dance, those words 'Wenn' and 'denn' stop me abruptly, again and again, as I let the phrase move across my body, swing my cane above my head, move from tree bark to the touch of empty wet shells on the isolated beach. The phrase fragments, not only across the line break, but in its shocking sound of 'schriee': the extremity of a voice's reach, hardly captured in its intense 'sch' and 'i' in the English translations available to me: 'cry out' has none of the aural intensity of the German word, which is closer to 'howl', but whose 'i' sounds lengthen into a different kind of penetrating sound. And 'Ordnungen', parsed onto the next line, bracketed, moves me down, into doubling 'ng's like hands wrung in sand, anchoring the open sounds of 'Engel', whose different 'ng', caught between two open 'e's, lifts rather than twists me.

The sand beneath my feet was once stone, and is waiting to become stone, in the future, when the sand and the lake and my embodied being have passed beyond the 'archaic', and only fossils remain. For now, the sand offers little support to my slipping feet as I dance, uncertain, on the unstable surface. Where the stone and wood of the Texan sanctuary allowed me direction and the satisfaction of clear placement, the sand on this Michigan beach accentuates the hesitation in my movements, as my painful body pulls back, and does not give itself over fully to the swing of gravity, to the draw of the circle. No matter how much I might long to flow in movement poetry, I stand back again and again, hold my aching limbs, and limp off the scene, eventually. Pain allows me both a tenuous connection with poetry of pain: a recognition of the traces of a shared struggle to let singularity and meaning emerge together. Pain also provides the disconnect, the touch of stone: to bodily loose myself in my dance is not given to me, to speak the poems with my own voice as if they are words one could own or build a home in is not given to me, to write this essay with words that are fully mine and unhesitating is not given to me. Stone is given to me, and a space to assemble. Metaphors touch me, metonymies reach out towards language's Angel being. On these limits, communication happens in abeyance, tenuously, darkly, half-swallowed back into silence: a poetry of reading bodily, vocally, physically in pain, and yet beckoning: 'Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf/dunkelen Schluchzens.'

To repeat, in difference: 'And so I hold back and swallow the lure-call of dark sobbing'—(transl. Kinnell).

To repeat, in difference: 'And so I master myself and stifle the beseeching/heart's cry that's my mating song.' (transl. W. Gass). But for me, on the sand, there is no mastery, and no warm openness of sounds like 'heart', oh no, and as I dance, I do not stifle, but incorporate.

To repeat, in difference: 'Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf/dunkelen Schluchzens.' Against words set in stone, in famous poems and in their undecidable translations, I savor my dance, and connect myself to poetic language, against stone, on sand, in space and time, and am my own aching, moving body.

Bibliographical Note:

Here is the material I used to construct this essay, and to find the different Rilke translations. There are many more translations, though: translating these particular poems has long been a favorite exercise for plumbing languages' suppleness and subtleties, and to measure how sentence structures and grammar can twist their way between English and German. Reading a whole lot of Rilke translations against and with one another is a great way to understand how poets work, and what kinds of considerations go into forming lines. For a particular discussion of the 'Dominion of Angels' passage above, see for instance, p. 57/58 in Gass, 1999, a discussion Perloff picks up on and extends in her extended review essay.

Works Cited

  • Gass, William H. 1999. Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation. New York: Basic Books.
  • Perloff, Marjorie. 'Reading Gass Reading Rilke,' Parnassus : 25, no. 1 & 2 (2001): 486-508.

The lines by Jim Ferris can be found in Slouching Toward Guantanamo (Charlotte, North Carolina: Mainstreet Rag Press, 2011). Riva Lehrer gave the talk where she described the Golem, a figure that is also referenced in one of her self-portraits, at the Bodies of Work disability art exhibition, Chicago, 2006.

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