Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Three poems by Rimbaud, translated by John Ashbery


Since reality was too prickly for my lavish personality, - I found myself nonetheless in my lady's house, got up as a great blue-grey bird soaring toward the ceiling mouldings and dragging my wing through the shadows of the soirée.

At the foot of the baldaquin supporting her beloved jewels and her physical masterpieces, I was a large bear with purple gums and fur turned hoary with grief, my eyes on the crystal and silver of the credenzas.

Everything turned to shadow and a passionate aquarium.

In the morning, - a bellicose dawn in June, - I ran to the fields, a donkey, trumpeting and brandishing my grievance, until the Sabine women of the suburbs came to throw themselves at my neck.

from "Childhood"


In the wood there is a bird, his song stops you and makes you blush.

There is a clock that doesn't strike.
There is a pit with a nest of white creatures.
There is a cathedral that sinks and a lake that rises.
There is a little carriage abandoned in the thicket, or that
hurtles down the path, trimmed with ribbons.
There is a troop of child actors in costume, seen on the
highway through the edge of the forest.

Finally, when you are hungry or thirsty, there is someone who chases you away.


I am the saint, at prayer on the terrace, - as meek animals graze all the way to the sea of Palestine.

I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at the library's casement window.

I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.

I'd gladly be the abandoned child on the pier setting out for the open sea, the young farm boy in the lane, whose forehead grazes the sky.

The paths are harsh. The little hills are cloaked with broom. The air is motionless. How far away the birds and the springs are! It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.

John Ashbery, 2008 (photo by Nathaniel Brooks, New York Times)


'The flag goes to the filthy landscape, and our dialect stifles the drum.

'On to city centres where we'll nourish the most cynical prostitution. We'll massacre logical rebellions.

'On to peppery and waterlogged countries! - at the service of the most monstrous industrial or military exploitation.

'Farewell to here, anywhere. Well-meaning draftees, we'll adopt a ferocious philosophy; ignorant of science, sly for comfort; let the shambling world drop dead. This is the real march. Heads up, forward!'

This selection is from Illuminations, John Ashbery's translations of Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1901). From Ruth Franklin's 2003 piece about Rimbaud in The New Yorker: "(The) complete works—fewer than a hundred short poems, the seven-thousand-word prose text “Une Saison en Enfer,” and the prose poems known as the Illuminations, as well as approximately two hundred and fifty letters and a handful of other texts—barely fill two volumes. The poetry ranges from inspired to truly puerile; many of the letters contain outright lies, while others are fragmented or of dubious authenticity…. In the words of the biographer Graham Robb, he has been resurrected as 'Symbolist, Surrealist, Beat poet, student revolutionary, rock lyricist, gay pioneer, and inspired drug-user,' and invoked by artists from Picasso to Jim Morrison." Patti Smith, as expected, puts things a bit less prosaically: “John Ashbery has gifted us with an exquisite, untainted translation of Rimbaud; a transmission as pure as a winged dove driven by snow.”

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