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Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

Poems by Georges Rodenbach Selected, translated & introduced by Will Stone (Arc Publications)

When I reviewed Will Stone’s translation of Stefan Zweig’s Messages from a Lost World for The London Magazine (October/November 2016) I stressed the “clarity and insight” of his introduction. The substantial twelve page introduction to this attractively produced bi-lingual edition of Rodenbach’s selected poems is a clear reminder yet again of how the translator and literary critic/historian treads a path to the reader: Stone brings the world of Rodenbach’s eerie white shades to the fore and we can recognise the ways in which Baudelaire, Rilke and even the early Eliot can be seen within an urban landscape.
The introduction opens with the picture of a man, “half-framed by an open window” standing in front of a background which seems to be of Bruges:

“He is a spectral figure drifting across the canal’s greenish-black waters, his dark jacket blending naturally with its opaque surface, suggesting an area of confusion where dream and reality converge.”

Rodenbach’s treatment of Bruges, the Venice of the North, presents us with a supernatural landscape; a world where, as Will Stone puts it, “what is seemingly dead speaks, where the worn-away stone, even the grass and moss growing up through the cobblestones, have a voice detected only by those who are endowed with the sensibility to receive the true soul of the town”:

“It is this treatment of Bruges as a poetic vehicle for a mood, one of supreme melancholy, which forms the backbone of not only these poems but Rodenbach’s entire oeuvre.”

The melancholy atmosphere of the town and the haunted sense of the poet trapped within a chain of noises is vividly there for the reader from the very first poem chosen by the translator, ‘Dimanches/Sundays’. The “Mournful Sunday afternoons in winter” are made more vivid as “some inconsolable weather cock creaks / alone on a roof-top like a bird of iron!”. As if to emphasise the living death of this world where a long-gone Medieval history seeks refuge within the “vieux hôtels” and lanterns seem “to burn for the cortege of some deity”, the sudden clashing of bells intrudes to offer a complement to a funeral:

“And now of a sudden the restless bells
disturb the belfry planted in its pride,
and their sound, heavy with bronze, slowly falls
on the coffin of the town as if in spadefuls.”

As readers we are inevitably reminded of those bells of Baudelaire’s ‘Spleen’ which “tout à coup sautent avec furie” bringing with them not only the “esprits errants et sans patrie” but also the funeral cortege which files its way slowly through the poet’s mind.
There are four poems from the 1896 publication Les Vies Encloses (The Enclosed Lives) included in this selection and two of them, ‘Aquarium Mental / Mental Aquarium’ are particularly striking to my mind.

“Aquarium water, drear night, half-light,
where thought passes in brief appearances
like shadows of a great tree over a wall.”

Or again:

“Yet in the water, from time to time, something strays,
circles, opens out or obliquely shifts;
luminous shivers tense this water that drifts
– like spasms of light from a diamond! –
a murky fish undulates, a weed in mourning stirs,
the soft sand scree of the bed collapses as if
sand in time’s hourglass upended;
and sometimes too, on the transfixed crystal,
a flaccid monster, blurred image, shows on the surface,
while the water suffers, seeming to drowse,
and senses, in her morose lethargy, a thousand shadows
giving her ceaseless shivers as they pass
making her surface one great spreading wound.”

Without suggesting for one moment that there is a direct influence here I am drawn from this poetry to the ‘afterword’ that Jeremy Prynne wrote for his edition of Parataxis Number 7, Spring 1995, in which he introduced the reader to the Chinese Language-Poetry Group that had been based at Suzhou University in the summer of 1991:

“Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts variously and can bounce by inclinations nor previously observed. Some of the codes will unfold with merely adept connivance, others will swim vigorously into and by circulation inside their own medium.”

These thoughts may well have developed from a letter Prynne wrote in April 1992 to one of the Chinese poets represented in the Parataxis anthology, Zhou Ya-Ping:

“Language is an instrument of symbolic performance and representation that also has no independently direct connection to ‘a real world’: it belongs to men and to their sense of the possible just as much as of the actual…If the level and method of representation are shifted strongly into the language-world it may seem like fantasy; but it is a way of thinking about potential experience, liberating the mind from clumsy and doctrinaire ‘realism’ while keeping a complex connection with its components.”

In Rodenbach’s aquarium world “underwater dreams are ceaselessly voyaging” leading to an unending “buried life”.
Yet again Arc Publications, in this guest-edited volume by Olivia Hanks, has revealed itself to be one of the most important poetry presses working in this country. Long may it continue!

Ian Brinton, 8th May 2017

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

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