October 10, 2011

Reviewed by Art BeckThe Drunken Boat

THE DRUNKEN BOAT AND OTHER POEMS FROM THE FRENCH OF ARTHUR RIMBAUD AMERICAN VERSIONS, BILINGUAL ADDITION
tr. by Eric Greinke.

Presa Press
PO Box 792
Rockford, MI 49341
ISBN# 0-9772524-7-7
108 pp., expanded 4th addition, 2007
www.presapress.com

Arthur Rimbaud had, arguably, the most productive adolescence in modern literary history. Born in 1854 and raised by a difficult and single mother on the edges of poverty, he nonetheless began publishing accomplished poems in his early teens. The title poem of this selection–Le Bateau Ivre–was written at the age of 16, and marks the beginning of a brief career that impacted not just French poetics but world poetics generations later. It’s hard, for example, to imagine Howl without the touchstone of Rimbaud. And it’s become a commonplace observation that each new crop of poets finds itself searching for the “new Rimbaud.” In the American imagination, Rimbaud, has become the brilliant bad boy personified. James Dean on poetry steroids. A patron saint of the Beats and rock musicians.

Somewhere in his very early twenties Rimbaud stopped writing. As suddenly as any suicide. Which only adds to the mystique. After a year or two of wandering, he went to work for a colonial merchant firm in North Africa. Part adventurer, part fortune hunter, he peddled arms as well as trading in coffee and tusks.

He might have continued for years, living as far away as he could from the scenes of his turbulent youth. Denying–as he was said to have–that he’d ever written poetry when the subject of poems by a certain Rimbaud circulating in Paris came up. “Preposterous.” But a knee that slowly began to swell with a persistent tumor finally forced him back to France for medical attention.

In 1891, his right leg was amputated in Marseille. In July of that year, he returned home to his family. Would he also have eventually returned to literature? Invalided, with nowhere else to turn? And, if so, to what kind of aesthetic in the fast arriving twentieth century?

We’ll never know. Stifled and sick, he resolved to go back to the colonies. But made it only as far as the hospital in Marseille. The swelling in his knee had been diagnosed as a carcinoma, which had evidently spread. He died in November, 1891, barely 37 years old. As brief as it was, the roughly ten year period of his poetic production seems significantly longer when viewed in the context of his, also, brief life.

Translations

If you browse the internet, you can find a number of individual Rimbaud postings and a few small press volumes, but, surprisingly, for all his popularity, there seem to be only a handful of major press collections. I’m no doubt overlooking some, but primary translators include Louise Varese and Wallace Fowlie in the 1950s, Paul Schmidt and Oliver Bernard in the 1960s, and Wyatt Mason, whose complete Rimbaud appeared in 2002. In any case, this group provides a wide backdrop for Greinke’s versions. Also noteworthy are the twelve adaptations of Rimbaud pieces included in Robert Lowell’s 1958 volume Imitations.

I’m attracted to Greinke’s approach for a several reasons. First, because he’s a poet who’s unapologetically trying to translate poetry into poetry. A tough proposition requiring shameless intuition and not only the courage–but the inner need to risk “poetic flight.” The need to work without a net.

The paradox of scholarly, linguistic translation is that by the time you do your research and test your facts, the poem’s as often as not gotten tired of you and refuses to come out and play. There are notable exceptions, but I’m also of the opinion that the disciplines that make for an accomplished linguist may also work against what John Berryman characterized as “the freedom of the poet.”

The problem, of course, with poetic “intuitive” translation is that when you shoot from the hip, you have to accept that from time to time, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot.

Another reason I’m attracted to Greinke’s approach is that for him Rimbaud is a labor of love, not a “project.” In his introduction he talks about a feeling of déjà vu when first encountering Rimbaud. And describes what seems an almost compulsive sense of appropriated ownership. An annoyance at the existing translations. A need to do his own. To a non-translator, these feelings may sound a little over the top. But to any one who translates poetry they’re instantly recognizable. Greinke’s only saying what most poetry translators think, but usually think twice about saying.

Greinke also recognizes that “a literal translation is never possible…” And that “in many ways, a translation is a new poem, modeled on the original.”

I personally would take this concept even further. I’ve often felt that a translator needs to look beyond the words and beneath the text for the roots of the original poem. But maybe, the best metaphor for this was one given by Robert Pinsky at recent reading of his version of The Divine Comedy. When the question of accuracy came up, Pinsky opined that somewhere–in whatever place these things exist–is the Platonic ideal of The Divine Comedy. Dante tapped it first, and no one will ever do it better. But Dante’s American and Chinese, and German, and etc. translators need to find that place that Dante tapped and try to tap it themselves.

“Common Ground”

In the introduction to his 2002 Rimbaud volume, Wyatt Mason draws a distinction between what he considers Fowlie’s almost prosaically trot-like versions and Schmidt’s highly personalized, poetic–but spun–translations. In his versions, Mason wants “to find common, rather than middle, ground between the two poles.”

It may be informative to see where Greinke fits here. One of his better pieces, I think is “Ma Boheme,” a light and early poem but full of the “adolescent exuberance” that Greinke finds lacking in existing translations. Rimbaud’s first stanza reads:

Je m’en allays, les poings dans me poches crevees;
Mon paletot aussi devenait ideal;
J’allais sous le ciel, Muse! et j’etais ton feal;
Oh! la la! que d’amours splendides j’ai revees!

Schmidt’s version seems, on surface, straightforward, until after comparing it you realize how much of Schmidt has been added (But as Mason points out, this may come down to a matter of taste).

I ran away, hands stuck in pockets that seemed
All holes; my jacket was a holey ghost as well.
I followed you, Muse! Beneath your spell,
Oh la la, what glorious loves I dreamed.

With Mason, we lose what seems an interjected “holey ghost,” but we also seem to lose some of the voice.

And so off I went, fists thrust in the torn pockets
Of a coat held together by no more than its name.
O muse, how I served you beneath the blue;
And oh what dreams of dazzling love I dreamed.

Does Greinke find the “common ground” that Mason is looking for?

So, I’m walking along, hands in torn-out pockets
& my coat is looking really perfect
Under the Romantic sky, & I’m a slave
To my dreams of splendid love!

On first reading, I miss the “Oh! la la!” of the original, but yes, maybe oh la la does Frenchify the poem too much. And “I’m a slave” really replaces it well. What really differentiates Greinke’s version though is that unlike the other two (both of which are undeniably good)–is that it reads like a poem written in English. And I think this was accomplished by tapping the roots as well as the words of the original. By “internalizing” the original and letting the new poem shape itself in the new language. Rather than forcing the French into English.

It’s also interesting to look at another instance of a poet appropriating the original: Robert Lowell’s version from “Imitations”:

I walked on the great road, my two fists lost
in my slashed pockets, and my overcoat
the ghost of a coat. Under the sky I walked,
I was your student, Muses. What affairs

we had together…

Whether you prefer Greinke or Lowell in large part comes down to taste. But both versions seem exemplary of what happens when a poem is internalized by a translator and then re-created in the target language, as opposed to just translating the text.

That being said, you also have to question whether–by migrating “muse” into “romantic sky”–Greinke loses what may be the one serious point of the passage? The young Rimbaud’s dedication to “the Muse,” i.e. Isn’t it poetry he’s a slave to, not love? But I think Greinke may compensate enough for this later in the poem: “…as if I was in some fairy tale, I shouted poems / as I went & I had a room at the Milky Way / & of course the stars were rustling like leaves.”

Greinke’s best passages exhibit that kind of fluidity and unstrained melody.

From “The Clever Maid”:

In the brown dinette, perfumed
with the aroma of varnish & of fruits, at my ease
I scarfed a plate of various foreign
Delicacies, & I sprawled in my big chair.

or the maid “At The Green Inn”:

That one–never one to avoid embraces!–
Giggling, served me buttered bread
With warm ham on a multicolored plate.

Poop

Greinke’s preface states that he wants to bring across the “musical and painterly qualities” of the original. Along with the “adolescent exuberance … and the feeling.” The inference is that much of this rests in the music and metrics. As he puts it: “Restoring the surface qualities has…been one of my goals. The meaning emerges when the tone and persona are restored.” But if Greinke’s strength is musicality, I think there are places the pursuit of sound may work against him.

For me, “Le Couer Vole“–“The Stolen Heart”–seems an almost impossible poem to capture in translation because its outer surface of jaunty, slangy rhyme protects something shattered within. Enid Starkie devotes a chapter to it in her biography of Rimbaud. And Wallace Fowlie discusses the poem and its presumed basis at length in his 1946 treatise The Myth of Childhood.

As the legend goes (and perhaps it’s been revised in more recent biographies?), Rimbaud, while visiting Paris during the Commune uprisings, was sodomized, either willingly or not, in a military barracks. He was sixteen and Starkie considers it his first real sexual experience. He transmuted the experience into a poem with emotions that Starkie characterizes as both violated and fascinated. First entitling it “Couer Supplice” (“Tortured or Martyred Heart”), later changing the title to “Couer de Pitrie” (“Buffoon’s Heart”) before settling on “Stolen Heart.”

The French first stanza is:

Mon triste couer bave a la poupe,
Mon coeur couvert de caporal;
Ils y lancent des jets de soupe
Mon triste couer bave a la poupe:
Sous les quolibets de la troupe
Qui pousse un rire general,
Mon triste coeur bave a la poupe,
Mon Coeur couvert de caporal.

Fowlie’s translation begins as follows:

My sad heart slobbers at the poop
my heart covered with tobacco-spit.
They spew steams of soup at it.
My sad heart drools at the poop.

Or in the 1962 Oliver Bernard version (on the WEB) entitled “The Cheated Heart”:

My poor heart dribbles at the stern
Under the gibes of the whole crew
Which burst out in a single laugh,
My poor heart dribbles at the stern
My heart covered with caporal.

Looking at the French rhyme scheme, if you didn’t know the content and background of the poem, you’d be inclined to presume this was something a lot lighter, a clever vulgar sound poem along the lines, say, of Jandl’s “Otto’s Mopps.” But reading Starkie and Fowlie–and if the story is at all credible–you start to view the protective shell of rhyme and slang as a tough ostrich egg with a small fatal crack from which the yolk is beginning to leak.

When Rimbaud sent the poem off to his young teacher and mentor Izambard, he stressed “This does not mean nothing.” And “I implore you not to score it too much with your pencil or with your mind…”

Izambard, however didn’t realize what the poem was. He later said he thought it “a hoax in the worst of taste.” But wanting to appear broadminded, he answered Rimbaud with what he thought was a clever parody of the poem. Starkie dates the beginning of the end of their friendship from this letter.

It would be hard to criticize anyone for being less than successful in capturing “Le Coeur Vole,” but I think Greinke’s beginning tries too hard.

My sad heart gushes in poop,
My heart drenched in tobacco spit;
They vomit currents of soup
My sad heart drowns in shit.

The sounds work, but the image they bring across is that of a conscious sentimentalist making tough fun of himself. Not a 16 year old boy, losing his anal virginity and “dribbling at the stern.” Substituting “poop” (as in shit) for the French poupe–a nautical term for stern from which we derive “poop deck” is arguably okay, because I think in this case poupe signifies astern as in behind. But “gushing” and later “drowning in shit”–while musical and jaunty, as well as nautical–just seem to kill the essential image. While “dribbles,” or, the even more complex, “drools” retains the damaged heart of the poem.

…de Fleuves Impassibles

Another instance where image may be unduly sacrificed for sound is at the very beginning of the title poem, “The Drunken Boat.”

The original begins:

Comme je descendais des Fleuves impassibles
Je ne me sentis plus guide par le haleurs:
Des Peaux- Rouges criards les avaient pris pour cibles,
Les ayant cloues nus aux poteaux de couleurs.

The voice speaking, is that of the boat itself. Wyatt Mason’s translation is:

While swept downstream on indifferent Rivers,
I felt the boatmen’s tow-ropes slacken:
Yawping Redskins took them as targets
Nailing them naked to totem poles.

My own French is atrocious, but piecing out the stanza from a dictionary and with some help from French speaking friends, my stab at a trot is something along the lines of:

As I descended the impassive Rivers, I sensed
myself no longer guided by the (hauling) bargemen.
Howling redskins had taken them as prey (or targets)
and nailed them naked to painted poles.

Louise Varese translates the stanza as:

As I came down the impassible Rivers,
I felt no more the bargemen’s guiding hands,
Targets for yelling red-skins they were nailed
Naked to painted poles.

Note that Varese changes “impassive Rivers” to “impassible Rivers.” Impassibles (impassive) seems a “false friend” that’s almost impossible to resist in the context of a river. And Schmidt, possibly wanting to have it both ways says “I drifted on a river I could not control.”

Greinke moves this further along:

As I flew down the raving river,
Free at last of the boatman’s hands
That nailed themselves to my mast,
That forced me into Indian waters

Certainly a melodious entry to a poem rich in sound. But what Greinke has done is to switch the images. He’s objectified the impassive river system into a “raving river.” And turned the raiding band of scalpers into an abstract–“Indian waters.” He’s also interjected a–for me–surreal image of a boatman nailing his own hands to the mast. Does a translator have the right–in creating a new poem in English–to bend the original this much? Yes, of course. I have no doubt that if Rimbaud were translating, he’d have no compunctions. But to me there are several questionable consequences.

One of these is to remove an image that marks this as the poem of a, albeit brilliant, sixteen-year-old. And I don’t know what’s worse–losing the “impassive Rivers” which to me impart a sense of expulsion and alienation. Or losing the Redskins with all their adolescent energy. And the sense of ordinary workaday river commerce suddenly invaded by the wild.

One thing that strikes me is that, not only is Fleuves plural in the original–it’s also capitalized–which seems to imply the name of a system of waterways flowing to the ocean in whatever imaginary country we’re in. Do we really want to give that animist presence up?

Another unintended (or maybe intended?) consequence of leaving out the murderous Redskins is that of sanitizing the stanza the way stage productions of Huck Finn refer to Jim as “River Jim.” Are the Indians essential to the poem?–maybe not. But, I think the “expelling” impassive Rivers foreshadow the poem’s penultimate stanza, where the now exhausted boat yearns to return to a childhood scene. A childhood the sixteen-year-old Rimbaud already felt expelled from? In Greinke’s sensitive rendering:

If ever I shall return, it will be to the pond,
Where once, cold and black toward perfumed evening,
A child on his knees set sail
A leaf as frail as a May butterfly.

“The Drunken Boat” is a long poem and a translation doesn’t sink or swim on one stanza. But if Rimbaud is the lifelong companion he seems to be for Greinke, I’d hope that in some future revision, he might revisit that first stanza.

But then again, there’s Robert Lowell’s “imitation” which turns the impassible rivers into the “virgin Amazon.”

I felt my guides no longer carried me–
as we sailed down the virgin Amazon,
the redskins nailed them to their painted stakes
naked, as targets for their archery.

Another example illustrating how different poetic translators will look for the “poem” in different aspects of the original. There’s no “correct,” definitely no final, version. What resonates for one translator, may be static to another’s ear.

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Art Beck is a San Francisco poet and translator who’s published two translation volumes. Simply to See: Poems of Lurorius (Poltroon Press, Berkeley, 1990) and a selection Rilke (Elysian Press, New York, 1983). He’s currently trying to atone for some of his earlier Rilke versions by retranslating the Sonnets to Orpheus.