To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
.......................................again
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Friday, June 26, 2009

Reconfiguring Romanticism (30): Victor Hugo Translated by Charles Bernstein

Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations (1856)

XIV.

Demain, dès l'aube, à l'heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m'attends.
J'irai par la forêt, j'irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l'or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j'arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur

3 septembre 1847.

Tomorrow, dawn, when the countryside’s almost white
I’ll depart. You see, I know you’re waiting for me.
I will go by the mountains, I’ll go by the woods.
I can’t be faraway from you any more.

I will be walking with my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without looking around, without hearing a sound,
Alone and unknown, with back bent, with my hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.

Then I won’t look at the golden evening, so grave
Nor at the faraway sails veering toward Harfleur
And when I do get there, I will put on your grave
A green holly bouquet and flowering heather.

EDITOR’S NOTE. Bernstein’s translation of Hugo comes in the aftermath of a group reading at the Bowery Poets’ Theater in New York (March 29, 2009), to celebrate the publication of Poems for the Millennium, volume three, as a revisionary mapping of romantic & postromantic poetry. For this Bernstein had selected a striking range of nineteenth-century poems that he dedicated to the memory of his daugher Emma Bee Bernstein: Edward Lear’s limerick “The Old man of Whitehaven”; Baudelaire’s “Be Drunken” (in his own translation); excerpts from Whitman’s ferocious & stunning “Respondez!”; & three poems specifically marked “in memory”: Heine’s “Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht” (again in his own translation), the last two stanzas & envoi of Swinburne’s “The Ballad of Burdens,” & William Blake’s “The Sick Rose.”

What struck me then -- & I may even have blurted out something about it -- was the power of poetry as a language of crisis, the way it can sometimes function to channel what Wordsworth called "thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears." I was anyway swept away by Charles’s reading & the choice of poems for the occasion. My own version of language poetry (a term that thrilled me when he & others first introduced it) has always tried to keep things like that in mind, whatever else we do when we live in what I used to call "a state of poetry."

Charles’s reading that evening followed an earlier one by Pierre Joris, in a part of which Pierre, before reading from Hugo’s “The Art of Being a Grandfather,” prefaced it by an accounting of his own ongoing struggle with schoolboy memories of Hugo in the classroom. In the wake of that, the following account from Bernstein of the event that led him to Hugo’s elegiac poem, not only “grim,” as Charles later described it, but incredibly gorgeous:

“After my reading at Cambridge University last month, a French student, who was in the audience, but whom I hadn't met, sent me a very touching email with the Hugo poem -- as if it was an extension of what I had read. As you say, poetry comes into its own in the darkest times (‘In darkness lost, the darkness of the grave’), at times of crisis in the sense of psychic breaks or shock, but not as light but as depth (and perhaps better to say depthlessness), which is one sense of the final line of ‘Intimations of Immortality’ that you quote (‘Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears’).”

And further:

”I have been talking a lot to Norman Fischer about things related, but specifically how poems become sites for mourning -- not in fixed ritual repetitions (prescribed liturgy) but as mobile and specific areas for reflection and projection (‘A place of thought where we in waiting lie’), holding areas (to use a psychoanalytic term), ‘havens’ (asylum or sanctuary). Not words received for comfort but works actively discovered in the course of searching.

”Not to ‘get over’ (as a disease) but as a way of ‘living with’ (as a condition)

”At the BPC, I recited (with faulty memory) Lear's majestic limerick about the man from ‘Whitehaven,’ which I [inadvertently] called "Whitechapel" -- & I wondered why, as if in that poem was another:

There once was an Old Man of Whitechapel
Who forgot that Eve ate an apple
He went looking for heaven but found only a haven
So they tarred that Old Man of Whitechapel


A part of the March reading – by Bernstein & others – can be found on PennSound:
http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Millennium.html.