(Brimstone Press, 2014) brings the work alive in a handy edition complete with extensive notes and commentary.
Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations first published in La Vogue literary journal in Paris in 1886 more than a decade after they were written continue to beguile and surprise. Consisting of forty self-contained prose poems and two poems of free verse the collection was a work of protest designed to shock. It abandoned the storytelling elements of the prose poem found in Baudelaire for a non-linear hallucinatory, dream-like, visionary poetry based more upon sound than meaning and seemingly futuristic mystical journey.
Written between 1873 and 1875 critics have sought to find connections between Rimbaud’s travels and the poems in an effort to situate them more securely. This may be a forlorn hope as first and foremost this is a work of acute imagination, informed by the occult and alchemical symbolism. Illumination here is a mystical term, which refers to a stage in the progress towards union with God. Built into its occult meaning and purpose is the necessity to find a new language on the way to becoming an illuminé, who achieves oneness through self-annihilation. Les Illuminations has an extraordinary flow of shifting connections and disjunctions, with figures appearing and reappearing in transformed states, building narrative structures that work cumulatively to produce a magic theatre. It is a difficult work to translate. Of recent translations, John Ashbery’s (Carcanet 2011) successfully captured some its gothic and sonic nature within the idioms of American English. This new translation into English by Robert Yates certainly has a distinctive quality and captures the hallucinatory nature of the original.
As soon as the idea of the Flood abated,
A hare stopped amid the trembling sainfoin and harebells
and said his prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.
Oh! The precious stones hiding, the flowers already
In the dirty main road stalls were set up, and boats were
drawn to the sea, which rose in stages as in engravings.
Blood flowed, at Bluebeard’s, – in the abattoirs, – in the
circuses, where the seal of God made the windows pale. Blood and
milk ran together.
Beavers built. Smoke from ‘mazagrans’ filled the taverns.
There are plenty of subtle differences between Yates and Ashbery and, for example, Martin Sorrell’s versions in The Collected Poems (Oxford, 2001). Ashbery has slaughterhouses instead of abattoirs, and later Witch rather than Sorceress. I would select Sorceress as it has more magical connotations for me. This is where the added value of this translation is to be found. The editor, Sebastian Hayes, himself an accomplished Rimbaud translator, provides a preface, detailed commentary and notes on Les Illuminations followed by comments on each poem. Hayes also offers an extensive and informative essay ‘A Random Walk through Illuminations’. Additionally there is an Afterword by Keith Walton ‘Rimbaud: A Point of View’. These features considerably enhance the value of this edition. The book has a great tempestuous cover, ‘The Great Day of his Wrath by John Martin (1789-1854) and is great value at £6 from
David Caddy 5th April 2014