Breasts

by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

translated from the French by James Owens

What fortune to bear two small breasts
toward someone, toward the unknown....
Two small breasts that say: tomorrow perhaps...
and, with that alone,
are happy. Between them rests
the locket with the mother's picture,
as if her protection
separates them, so the girl won't dare
touch both at once,
these two youthful breasts
she will bear to someone, to the unknown,
and which live a bit beyond
where she is aware.
Will they make her happy,
two innocent little breasts that resist
life's winds?… These stubborn little breasts,
seeming veiled in mourning cloth—
against which each poses,
under imperceptible alerts,
the tender demands
of covered roses.


Rainer Maria Rilke was born in 1875 in Prague and lived a largely itinerant life through the countries of Western Europe. He wrote plays, a quasi-autobiographical novel, several volumes of often lyrical correspondence, and is almost universally regarded as one of the most important German-language poets of the past two centuries. His poems in New Poems, Duino Elegies, and Sonnets to Orpheus, among others, are vibrant with a longing for the ineffable during a time of change and doubt. Though most well known for his work in German, Rilke also wrote around 400 poems in French, many of a simpler lyricism and often focused on the Swiss landscape near Muzot, in the Valais, where he spent the last years of his not very long life. He died of leukemia in 1926.

Two books of James's Owens poems have been published: An Hour is the Doorway (Black Lawrence Press) and Frost Lights a Thin Flame (Mayapple Press). His poems, reviews, translations, and photographs appear widely in literary journals, including recent or upcoming publications in Superstition Review, Valparaiso Poetry Review, Poetry Ireland Review, The Cresset, and The Stinging Fly. He lives in central Indiana and northern Ontario.

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