In the winter of 1902, Rainer Maria Rilke visited the zoo at the Jardins des plantes in Paris and saw a black panther there. The poem he wrote in response, the earliest of his Neue Gedichte, is one of his most famous.
Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.
Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.
Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf — Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille —
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.
In my rapid translation:
His gaze, from the constant passing of the bars,
becomes so tired that it can no longer hold anything.
He feels as though there are a thousand bars
and behind the thousand bars, no world.
The soft strong supple steps
that turn in the smallest circle
are like a ritual dance in the middle of which
stands a great will, stunned.
Only sometimes does the curtain of the pupil
soundlessly lift. Then a picture enters,
goes through the tensed silence of the limbs
and, entering the heart, ceases to be.
Rilke’s poetry, at its best, is a marvel of sympathy. He can ghost himself into the lives of things, adopt the view from their perspective. The panther in his poem is black because of the color of its coat. But it is also a racialized subject.
All black panthers are black in color but cannot now evade cultural meaning: the caged cat, the escaped cat, the never-captured cat, the black people who are seen as animals, the 60s comic book hero, the radical political party, the 21st century film stars. All black panthers and Black Panthers are black, black like night and also black like me.
No translation of Rilke’s “Der Panther” is entirely satisfying, so dependent is the poem on the propulsive rhythms of the German original. Only a version will do, one full of forgettings, misreadings, a stealth leap into the poem, an ambush:
A thousand bars flicker
in front of nothing.
A thousand bars
— his exhausted eyes
can’t take it.
Soft paws, supple tread.
The eyes slide open,
an image enters,
goes through the tense limbs,
and on reaching the heart,