To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
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

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Two Mallarmé Poems, Newly Translated by Peter Manson, with a Note on Translation


Above the dumbfounded human herd
the brilliant, savage manes of blue-
starved beggars leapt, their feet already in our way.

A black wind deployed as banner over their march
whipped it with cold so far into the flesh
that it hollowed irritable furrows.

Always in hope of arriving at the sea,
they voyaged without bread, or sticks, or urns,
biting the golden lemon of the bitter ideal.

Most grieved their last gasp in the night parades,
drunk on the joy of seeing their own blood flow,
O Death the only kiss for speechless mouths!

Their unmaking is in the hands of a potent angel,
his naked sword erect on the horizon:
a purple clot occludes the grateful breast.

They suck on pain as once they milked the dream:
when they give rhythmic form to carnal tears,
the people kneel down and their mother rises.

These ones are comforted, secure, majestic;
but a hundred jeered-at brothers dog their steps,
ignoble martyrs to contorted chance.

The same salt tears erode their cheeks,
they eat of ashes with the same devotion,
but the fate that guys them is vulgar or comic.

They too had power to excite, like drums,
the servile pity of a dull-voiced race,
peers of Prometheus without the vulture!

No, base and confined to deserts without cisterns,
they run beneath the scourge of a fractious monarch,
The Jinx, whose unheard-of laughter knocks them flat.

He leaps at lover’s backs, to share the ride!
The torrent crossed, he dumps you in a pond,
leaving the two white swimmers blocked in mud.

Thanks to him, if someone blows a trumpet,
children will crack us up in wilful laughter
when, fist to arse, they ape its fanfare.

Thanks to him, if another, none too soon, should deck
a withered breast with a nubile rose, reviving it,
some spit will shine upon its damned bouquet.

And this dwarf skeleton, topped with a feathered hat,
in boots, whose armpit has real worms for hair,
is for them the infinity of vast bitterness.

Provoked, will they not prick at the pervert:
their creaking rapier follows the rays of moonlight
that snow into its corpse and pass on through.

Lacking the pride that glorifies bad fortune
and sad to avenge the pecking at their bones,
they covet hate, instead of nursing grudges.

They are the laughing stock of fiddle-scrapers,
of urchins, whores and of the eternal brood
of ragamuffins dancing when the bottle’s dry.

The poets, always up for alms or vengeance,
not knowing these erased gods are sick,
say they are boring and without intelligence.

“They can run away, having had enough excitement,
as a virgin horse refuses foam and tempest
rather than galloping forth in armour.

We’ll get the festal champion drunk on incense:
but they, why don’t we make these minstrels take
to scarlet rags, howling for us to stop!”

When everyone has spat scorn in their faces,
these heroes, overtired by playful sickness,
annulled men, praying for thunder in swallowed words

go hang themselves from the street lamp, laughably.


Sick of the hospice, sick of fetid incense
rising from vapid whiteness in the curtains
towards the tall crucifix, bored of the empty wall,
the dying and sly man sets an old back upright

and drags it, less to warm his rottenness
than to see sunlight on the stones, to press
white hairs and the bones of his thin face
to the windows a beautiful bright ray would suntan.

And the mouth, feverish, as avid of azure blue
as when, in youth, it went to breathe its treasure,
a virgin skin, long gone! befouls
the lukewarm golden panes with a long bitter kiss.

He lives a drunk, forgetting the horror of holy oils,
tisanes, the clock and the inflicted bed,
the cough; and when evening bleeds among the tiles,
his eye, on the horizon gorged with light,

sees golden galleys, beautiful as swans,
asleep on a fragrant, purple river,
rocking the wildcat lightning of their lines
in a grand indifference charged with memory!

So, seized by disgust for the man of obdurate soul
sprawled in happiness, where his appetites only
are fed, who persists in searching this filth
to offer it to the woman nursing his little ones,

I flee, and I cling to all cross-panes
where a man can show life the cold shoulder, and, blessed
in their glass, washed by eternal dews,
gilded by the chaste morning of the Infinite

in their mirror I see myself an angel! and I die, I love
— if the windowpane be art, or the mystical —
to be reborn, wearing my dream for a diadem,
in a prior sky where Beauty flourishes!

But here-below is master: its obsessive fear
comes even in this safe house to make me sick,
and the impure vomit of Stupidity
compels me to hold my nose before the blue.

Is there a means, o Self well-versed in bitterness,
to smash the crystal insulted by the monster
and to fly, with my two wings featherless
— at the risk of falling till the end of eternity?


I retain a distinct and powerful physical impression, a muscle-memory, of repeatedly trying and failing to actually find the Poésies in the old Pléiade edition of Mallarmé’s works: they occupy forty-eight pages of bible paper, out of the book’s total of seventeen hundred, and I have fat fingers. I first tried to translate a Mallarmé poem in 1992, and hope to publish a complete version of the Poésies in 2012: not twenty years’ work by any means (almost all of the translations have been made since 2004), but a project that has carried me through endless insomniac nights and remained, for all its obvious impossibility, possible, even when little else has seemed so.
     Others have found the “critical poetry” of Divagations or the open-field (open fold) eschatology of ‘Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard’ a more inviting way-in to Mallarmé’s work, but I’ve kept faith with the Poésies. Staring at and sounding out all those French alexandrine lines, the twelve-syllable line which looks so much like an English pentameter but isn’t, has completely changed – and massively expanded – my sense of how a line of English poetry might be shaped. There’s something magical about French verse, the way in which a sequence of words like these from Mallarmé’s ‘Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire’:
      Contre le marbre vainement de Baudelaire
might be counted as eight syllables of prose, or twelve of verse (where the ‘e muet’, the silent or elided e, is artificially given full syllabic force). This feeling for verse as something which has been breathed into, inflated or made effervescent by the sighing of the mute e, lies behind the famous opening line of the Poésies,
      Rien, cette écume, vierge vers
      (Nothing, this foam, a virgin verse),
and, remembering that the only thing which makes a poet a poet (in Plato’s Ion) is that she has been breathed into by the gods, the line of French verse comes to seem remarkably poet-like, more human than material. In ‘Don du poème’, Mallarmé emerges from one of his own insomniac nights with a helpless newborn poem which he invites his wife to breast-feed. In any event, it means that a line of French verse is a remarkably chimerical thing, with a semantic yield more variable than any fixed English line could hope to match. I’ve played it mostly by ear, hoping to make my English lines as short as they can be and as long as they need to be, while trying as far as possible to keep the integrity of the line as a sub-unit of the whole. I didn’t even consider using rhyme: I know that rhyme is an essential feature of Mallarmé’s verse, but that is only true of his rhymes. Mine would not be essential, and I didn’t want to distract.
      Though the Poésies were written over a period of thirty-five years, there’s a remarkable density of echoes sounding from poem to poem and back across the decades. Late Mallarmé doesn’t sound much like early Mallarmé, but similar turns of phrase and repeated gestures of piercing, hollowing, digging, drowning, languor, flight, sterility, balancing, burgeoning, fanning, unrolling, contempt, exaltation, fragmenting, hairdressing, mirroring, struggling, frolicking, consecrating, silencing, sailing, enlacing, gestating, extending, stifling, foaming and negation lend the book the almost (but not quite) consistent structure of a flawed crystal. And this structure extends out as far as you care to explore in Mallarmé’s other work (‘Un coup de dés’ sometimes reads to me like a cento constructed from the exploded remains of the Poésies; it also works the other way round).
      Mallarmé had a remarkably twentieth-century intuition of language as a system in which significance was a property of the relations among the elements of which it was constructed, rather than a property of the elements themselves. At the age of twenty-four, he wrote in a letter to François Coppée, “What we must aim for above all is that, in a poem, the words – which are already sufficiently themselves not to receive any imprint from outside – should each reflect upon the others, to the point of appearing no longer to have their own colour, but to be only the transitions of a scale”. Thirty years later, the work has become Indra’s net: “The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as speaker, who cedes the initiative to words, through the clash of their mobilised inequalities; they light one another up by reciprocal reflections like a virtual trail of fire upon precious stones, replacing the respiration perceptible in the old lyric breath or the impassioned personal steering of the sentence”. I still think it breathes.

[Note. Peter Manson is a contemporary Scottish poet, whose books include Between Cup and Lip (Miami University Press, 2008), For the Good of Liars (Barque Press 2006), Adjunct: an Undigest (Edinburgh Review 2005), and most notably for present purposes, Before and After Mallarmé (Survivors' Press 2005). Between 1994 and 1997, he co-edited (with Robin Purves) eight issues of the experimental/modernist poetry journal Object Permanence, which led in turn to a later series of innovative poetry pamphlets under that logo. In his current Mallarmé project, he restores a sense of poetic power and dis-ease often missing in other works of translation -- a reminder too of Mallarmé’s central place among the poètes maudits of the later nineteenth century. (J.R.)]

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