August 24th, 2006

Spanish Dancers

Because _luaineach posted another Rilke poem, I can no longer resist the impulse to respond with one of my own. And I'll give you two versions of it to boot.

The first appears, though perhaps not legally, in Kim Nicolini's eye-opening piece "Who Owns Art?" from Bad Subjects: Political Education for Everyday Life, which remains one of my favorite things we ever published and which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the intersection of art, class, and education. Like the poem _luaineach posted, this version was translated by the excellent Stephen Mitchell:
Spanish Dancer
As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.

And all at once it is completely fire.

One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.

And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture, and watches:
it lies raging on the floor, still blazing up,
and the flames refuse to die — .
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.
The second version is one I translated myself, under extremely tight time constraints. You see, right as our first anthology of essays from Bad Subjects was about to go to press, we were informed that the poem included in Kim's piece would have to be removed for copyright reasons. Given how integral it is to her argument, however, she and I agreed that it would be terrible to proceed without it. So I sat down and translated it in, oh, about a half hour:
Spanish Dancer
Just as a match in the hand, white,
before it comes fully into flame, stretches
flickering tongues in every direction: so
does her round dance begin to spread
outward as it flickers within the tight
circle of onlookers, luminous and hot.
And all at once it is nothing but flame.

With one look she lights her hair
and, with daring art, suddenly makes
her whole dress start moving in whorls
of fiery lust, from which, like snakes
recoiling in fear, her naked arms
extend upward, rattling, alert.

And then, as if this gown of fire
fits her too close, she gathers it
together and hurls it to the ground,
regally, with a proud air, and stares:
there it lies, darting madly, and still
flames up, will not surrender -- but she
lifts her head, triumphantly, sure
of herself, and saluting it with a sweet
smile, stamps it out with small, firm feet.
Although it was the Mitchell version that the girl mentioned in Nicolini's essay had been reading, I like to think that my own at least gives some sense of why the poem so captivated her teenage mind.