Many wonderful versions of “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen” have appeared since Rainer Maria Rilke was first translated into English, and my interpretation of the poem assumes that the reader knows some of them. I decided there were more coils to map, other “rings” that make up its subtle body. In my own version, I set out to remain as faithful as possible to the literal meaning—for in Rilke the sense is so commanding there could be no other choice—and to honor, at the same time, the formal, rolling, dactylic energy of Rilke’s German, together with the “marvelous song” of the poem’s tight rhymes.
The confident, sure hand of the conductor-poet, ushering his stormy mood-music into the world, contradicts this voice that confesses so much uncertainty about itself. The poem plays out a crucial theme for Rilke, who experienced a kind of bewilderment all his life. As Robert Hass has described it, Rilke rejected the city of Prague where he was born. He spent years in Paris as Rodin’s secretary, and he grew alienated there as well. A lifelong wanderer, he alternated between isolated castles and bustling urban centers. The circles in the poem speak to his biography, which doesn’t progress in a straight line or neat arc.
Even Rilke’s poetry was misplaced, in that it didn’t belong with the work of his contemporaries who turned to face the issues of the troubled twentieth century. He was born in the same year as Antonio Machado, in 1875, but aesthetically he belonged to the Late Romantics and the French Symbolists. His poems, especially the early ones, have a phantasmagoric quality like Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873), while conveying, for the most part, an emotional experience, something similar to Gymnopédie No. 1 by Erik Satie. “I live out my life in the widening coils” ends in a question. Am I a wrecking ball? Am I a great opera? Yes and yes, Rilke seems to suggest, and then he spends his remaining years investigating what that paradox means for him.
This poem comes from Das Stundenbuch (1905), which takes its title from illuminated books made for the observance of the canonical hours—matins and vespers and other prayers that hail the presence of God in the passing moments of the day. Throughout the medieval period these prayers served as a mindfulness bell or spiritual grandfather clock, a way of aligning and re-aligning both the monastic and the lay reader with an ultimate spiritual reality. The poem’s speaker describes life as a series of widening spirals, for which there are many shapes and names: a falcon, a storm, a great song. Though Rilke writes, “I twist around God,” Stephen Mitchell once said that the poet eventually stopped using the word God; he preferred not to name the unreachable source of these orbits. We come across this same circling around a “hub” or a “tower” again and again in Rilke’s verse. Regardless of the term, he is always grasping for the marvelous.
Buddhists call these circles, these coils of existence, “the five aggregates.” A Buddhist myself, and also a poet, I have come to know the aggregates through the roundabout ways of my art. The aggregates describe the folds of our identities, including body, thoughts and feelings, perceptions, the scars and impressions the world has etched in us, and the conscious awareness enclosing being. Reading Rilke’s poem through such a lens, the falcon suggests the circling of thoughts, while this “downpour” (more literally, “storm”) connects to the emotions, and of course consciousness belongs to the “great”—or, as I chose to spin it, “marvelous”—song. So as I peel off the layers of my own onion skin, removing the parts wrapped over me from the outside, I begin to see the self as illusory; nothing of myself can maintain a discrete existence. (This is what Buddhists mean when they speak of emptiness. One is “empty” of an independent self.) In the relative sense, the body is mine and it’s me and it hurts. In absolute terms, I’m not here at all. The “I” is cooked in ingredients of “not I,” originating from my ancestors, my environment, my circumstances, my peers, my past, my century, and so on. Rilke, a wanderer, circling and circling, arrived at this question early in life. What is the “I,” in fact? Am I the fullness of these aggregates that form a distinct whole? Or am I none of these layers at all? Am I the ancient watchtower, the sentinel at the center of movement and change?
I wonder, too, if it’s essential for a writer to have known some experience of exile, one that forces perspective into this space of uncertainty. Rilke’s genius would have been enough to push him to the edge of a loneliness shaped by the light of his mind alone. But he also fell from the orbit of his friends and family, out into the wide world. Some of us are forced to leave, and some take leave by choice. Either way, there comes a sensation of being pushed off to the side, flung away, where our depictions of reality distort along the edges of the lens.
Recently I curated a collaborative exhibit for Ethiopian artist Kebedech Tekleab. After ten years in forced labor in Somalia following her exile from Ethiopia in the late ’70s, Tekleab’s sculptures morphed from socialist realism to the partially abstract and non-objective, and the body of that later work seems to give witness to the aggregates of her influences and experiences, the condition of exile that shapes her life story. Tekleab wrote for the exhibit, “[I found] new possibilities of layered spaces with translucency through folding and unfolding membranes.” That impulse to embody trauma within layers of mesh, within sheets of porous material, reminds me so much of Rilke’s struggle to articulate the feeling of his inner and outer exile.
My walk into the world began in 1995 when I left the United States for Central Europe. For some years I taught English and creative writing at universities and high schools around the city of Ostrava, in the newly democratized Czech Republic, where for the first time I saw American life from a great distance. The sheer disorientation was not only the beginning of my life as a writer, but it also marked the onset of a creeping doubt, a new suspicion about my country’s role in the swath of history. This experience widened the space around who I believed I was. Whatever incites these suspicions about ourselves and the world—doubts about the certainties we’d taken for granted—leads to a kind of brokenness. If we are lucky, and willing, we break open, and there is no returning to the old way of seeing.
At the climax of Oedipus, the eponymous king returns to the stage with his eyes gouged out, weeping, “I am Agony.” I like this Englishing; he is his own agon; and he is synonymous with pain. He is a great storm, the cause and carrier of all the world’s suffering. But thrust into exile, he is also clairvoyant, acutely aware. He was Oedipus, the son of Laius and Jocasta; then he was the son of his adoptive parents in Corinth; then he was Jocasta’s husband and a king; then he was Agony. But there is another, uncategorizable piece. At the center of those rings stands the one who sees beyond the fool’s gold of appearances.
In my graduate course on literary translation, this strange kind of talk relates back to the carrying of literary works into other languages. We look closely at several translations of each text on the reading list. One version is true to the music of the original; another is attuned to the quality of voice; another is faithful to the literal meaning of the text. Each is a unique whole; each is Oedipus, as its title suggests. But no single one is really Oedipus. Oedipus was written in another language, intended for listeners thousands of years ago, to be performed in an amphitheater, in a world without cell phones or airplanes to interrupt the dream. Even if we read the play in ancient Greek, the real Oedipus remains hidden.
Mounting interpretations, however, are not merely academic overlay. They are a way of following the rings around a text that would otherwise be lost to us in English. To use Rilke’s idiom, we may never find an end to this encircling, but we may begin to see an outline of what’s hidden at the center of the text. In my version of “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen,” Rilke’s original intention to bring rhyme and meter to the composition is an essential echo of himself-as-song.
I want to add in closing that the musicality of this poem does not suggest only an aesthetic beauty in the world, but also a feeling of continuity and intention. Our circling and bewilderment, too, offer the echo of a feeling that there are laws and higher forces at work in our lives, even as we work at life. But what could be the point of “I live out my life in the widening coils,” a poem that only leads us to more questions? We could say with Rilke that each of our parts is some—but not the sum—of who we are. And we could say that the point is to simply stay humble. Inevitably, in my belief, all serious writers come to wrestle with a creative ache, an initial point of exile that eludes and bewilders them. And then, every project becomes at best a translation of the great work inside of them, which they may never completely understand or find the words to reveal.
David Keplinger is the author of eight poetry collections, including Ice (Milkweed Editions, August 2023) and Another City (Milkweed, 2018), which won the UNT Rilke Prize. His books of translations include The Art of Topiary by Georg Büchner Prize winner Jan Wagner and Forty-One Objects by Danish poet Carsten René Nielsen, a finalist for the 2020 National Translation Prize. Keplinger directs the MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University, where he teaches courses in poetry writing and literary translation. (updated 7/2023)