Rainer Maria Rilke: The Prisoner

A new translation

Len Krisak


My hand has just one gesture left;
it scares away things as it sweeps.
On old stones, from its cleft,
the prison’s dank rock weeps.

And all I hear are dripping plops.
My heart keeps pace-or tries-
with all these falling drops,
then fades and dies.

If only they’d drop quicker!
If just one rat would come back, so . . .
Somewhere, light doesn’t flicker.
But then, what do we know.


Imagine what is now the sky and winds-
air for your mouth, and for your eyes, bright grace-
has turned to stone, right up to that small place
in which reside your very heart and hands;

that what is called tomorrow in you, then
and later, next year, some day and the next
becomes a festering wound that pus infects,
and never bursts, but only grows till when;

that all that ever was goes wandering, wild
and led astray (that loving mouth that smiled
no more, but foamed because of raging laughter);

that what was God is just your jailer after,
whose foul eye finds the last hole left to fill,
maliciously. You go on living still.

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