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Pushkin Press

In 2019, Smithsonian magazine published a profile of an American inventor, entrepreneur, and undersea explorer named Stockton Rush. Rush and his company, OceanGate, had recently celebrated the successful descent of their experimental manned submersible Titan to the extraordinary depth of 4,000 metres. Titan’s design was innovative in two important ways: its body was composed centrally of carbon fibre, which made it light and comparatively inexpensive to operate, and it was a cylinder. A spherical sub might have had ‘the best geometry for pressure’, observed Rush, ‘but not for occupation’ – and this represented an unpalatable check on OceanGate’s plans to deliver groups of high-paying tourists to the wreck of the Titanic. ‘I had come across this business anomaly I couldn’t explain,’ Rush reflected: ‘If three-quarters of the planet is water, how come you can’t access it?’

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Since his death in 1926, almost a century ago, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke has remained an anomaly. He was doomed, Lesley Chamberlain says in Rilke: The last inward man, to be a poet ‘in between’: a bridge between modernism and Romanticism, his work an inevitably compromised attempt to reclaim the consolations of metaphysics for a secular age. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Rilke’s poetry has remained enduringly popular. There are dozens of translations of his notoriously complex poetry into English, and a plethora of critical writing, some of it leaning into a sentimentalised hagiography that is too easily parodied. In Reading Rilke: Reflections on the problems of translation (1999), William H. Gass perhaps best catches the ambivalence one feels approaching the man and his work:

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