PAUL SCHMIDT ON A WORD RIMBAUD USED OFTEN: SEASON — SAISON
All periods of time have ends to them, and these fatal endings we anticipate. A period of time–a day, an hour, a year–and this will end, we say; all this will end, the season will turn, and all will be over. We look in vain for some eternal moment, for happiness, felicity, that state of bliss that will go on for ever and ever. Is not happiness defined only when no term to its extent is imagined? So Rimbaud thought, it seems to me. His seasons are those stretches of time that open unawares and close painfully in our lives. That summer, those two years in the city, this love affair, that month in the country–these are the true, the organic epochs of our lives; the dates that mark their endings are our true anniversaries. Are not these the seasons Rimbaud wrote of: the implacable turning of season, and the denial of happiness implicit in their movement?
Aptly, spring has begun. The sun is hurting. And I have just turned in my thesis.
LIST ONE: BOOKS PURCHASED IN MARCH
First set: Works by Beverly Dahlen, my latest, and certainly an, enduring obsession
These would be (in order): A Reading 1 — 7 (1985, Momo’s Press); A Reading 11 — 17 (Potes & Poets Press, 1989); A Reading 8 — 10 (Chax Press, 1992); and A Reading: Birds (2011, little red leaves textile series).
Some notes: A Reading 1 — 7 cost me quite a bit, as it’s a rare first edition that is also signed (as I said, I’m obsessed). A Reading: Birds is a lovely chapbook that is available here. Dawn Penderghast curates and makes these lovely cloth-sewn chapbooks; I highly recommend them (and Dahlen).
Second set: Poetry books I’ve read before and love and therefore wanted to, and now do, possess
These are: Selected Poems by Anna Akhmatova, translated from the Russian by DM Thomas (Penguin Classics, 2006); As for Dream by Saskia Hamilton (Graywolf Press, 2001); Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara (City Lights Books, 1964); and Prose Poems by Pierre Reverdy, translated from the French by Ron Padgett (Black Square Editions & The Brooklyn Rail, 2007).
Notes: I haven’t actually read the Akhmatova book in its entirety, although (a) I have read a larger selection of her translated works by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, so I have read these poems in a different version and (b) I once went on a massive hunt for translations of one of Akhmatova’s most famous poems (‘Lot’s Wife’), found eight or nine, and discovered at the end of it that my favourite version was the one I had encountered in college — the version by DM Thomas. So I’m certain to treasure this book.
All four of these books are wonderful, but my favourite is by Reverdy/Padgett.
Third set: Fiction
Fairly obvious: The Waves by Virginia Woolf (Hogarth Press, 1931) and The Happy Failure: Stories by Herman Melville (Harper Perennial, 2009).
Note: I don’t actually possess a first-edition Woolf; mine’s a reprint by Penguin from the . . . ah . . . aughties.
GOING BACK TO RIMBAUD AND SCHMIDT FOR A SECOND
Paul Schmidt is one of Arthur Rimbaud‘s many translators. John Ashbery is another. I recently completed reading his (Ashbery’s) translations of the Illuminations, published last year by WW Norton. It’s gotten rave reviews, mostly for being extremely ‘faithful,’ by which, I suppose, the reviewers mean a high lexicographical equivalence between the source text and the translation.
I have a difficult relationship with Rimbaud translations — not because I can read the original language, but because Rimbaud was one of the first poets I ever read with any kind of seriousness and because I keep looking for an English text that’s suitable to keep the French company.
But Rimbaud is particularly hard to translate. Yes, all translation is/should be hard, or it isn’t worth doing, but with Rimbaud comes the problem that what he wrote was so unimaginably groundbreaking that any translation aiming to offer a similar effect in, say, English, must fail.
Unlike Ashbery, Schmidt translates the French prose poems of the Illuminations into lineated free-verse English. To account for this, he writes in his introduction:
The prose poem seems possible in French partly because the canons of French prose style are so strictly defined. A piece of writing that seriously distorts the norms of French sentence and paragraph structure is no longer prose, though it may well be poetry. But English prose structure is not so rigidly codified; so poetic a style as James Joyce’s we easily define as prose. A prose poem in French is poem first and prose secondarily; a prose poem in English is in the opposite case. Do we falsify this French poetry by presenting it as English prose?
It’s an interesting question. Forgetting for an instant what Schmidt says about prose poems in English (which seems too simple), the problem restated seems to be: if in translating Rimbaud’s prose poetry into English one does not attempt to create a radical shift from the standards of English prose which is parallel to (though obviously different in nature from) the shifts made by Rimbaud from the standards of French prose, is one not failing at the translation in some significant way?
Schmidt’s way of solving the problem was to ‘make an equation between sentence and line the major formal device of [his] translations.’ This to me is an admirable attempt. I’m not sure lineation is the thing necessarily to do with Rimbaud, but for what it’s worth, I think Schmidt comes a lot farther than Ashbery, whose translation seems rather puritanical.
It seems to me that someone trying to translate Rimbaud should attempt to exceed Rimbaud, fall short, and in so doing, create a good translation. Instead what seems to happen often is a kind of terrible obsequiousness in the face of someone greatly admired. Sometimes I think one has to hate the author one translates a little . . . hate and demean, the violent effects of which bolster the right sort of recklessness necessary to produce the translation.
LIST THREE: BOOKS READ IN MARCH
- Beverly Dahlen: A Reading: Birds (2011)
- Ayane Kawata: Time of Sky (1969/2010, tr. from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu)
- Arthur Rimbaud: Illuminations (1875/2011, French & tr. from the French by John Ashbery)
- Jorge Luis Borges: On Writing (2010, tr. from the Spanish by various)
- Frances Mayes: The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems (2001)*
- Maggie Nelson: Bluets (2009)
*This book looks silly in the list, but I actually quite like it: it’s a good teaching book for beginner poetry classes.
MAGGIE NELSON’S BLUETS
This lyric essay begins:
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession . . .
And so it is: the confession of an obsession as well as an attempt to understand the object of the obsession, the colour blue.
Maggie Nelson‘s methodology includes consulting texts like Goethe’s Theory of Colours and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, receiving ‘reports’ from correspondents (various artists and friends of the author) on the appearance of blue in texts and the world, as well as mining her own life in the deepest ways for what this fascination with blue can yield.
The form of the essay is masterfully used. I can never forget that to essay is to make an attempt. Nelson is attempting to understand something: blue, and also her obsession with blue. I often believe that the best essays fail, and this one fails beautifully. The more obsessive Nelson’s research becomes, the less she understands blue. But while this particular attempt at understanding fails, what overrides the essay is the nature of the obsession itself.
The numbered structure of the essay delineates the various attempts, but also allows the author to leap across time and texts. It is a kind of intelligent wandering. The numbering also enacts obsession: this is a list; things must be kept track of. It also suggests pillow book (Nelson herself mentions Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book: a moment concerning blue, no doubt, but also a moment of reflection of the form of the writing). The structure is not unlike religious meditations to me (St Augustine, Hildegard von Bingen), and so there is a blessedness to the enterprise.
Why would a reader uninterested in blue in the way Nelson is read this book? Because in the end it is not about blue, it is about obsession, and that the reader does have.
LIST THREE: MOVES WATCHED IN MARCH
- Aleksey Balabanov: Brother (1997, Russia)
- Aleksey Balabanov: Cargo 200 (2007, Russia)
- David Cronenberg: Eastern Promises (2007, UK)
- Werner Herzog: Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, West Germany)
- Luis Mandoki: White Palace (1990, USA)
- Sergei Paradjanov: The Color of Pomegranates (1968, Soviet Union)
1. Cargo 200 and Eastern Promises were rewatches. They are two of my favourite films ever.
2. I can’t believe I’d never seen Balabanov’s Brother before! This was the movie that catapulted him to fame (in Russia, anyway). It’s about a 20-something Russian kid, come home from the army and sent to his older brother in Leningrad to ‘learn how to be successful’. Turns out his older brother is a hit man and the kid gets caught up in all this dangerous mob stuff. This could be the plot of an average Hollywood blockbuster, but . . . it’s not.
It’s weird to have to say this, but the kid brother in this movie reminds me of my own brother: looks, awkward charm and all. Sadly, I am not a hit woman.
3. I had actually seen half of Herzog‘s Aguirre before. And no, I did not give up out of lack of patience. It was a screening for class when I was in college. For some reason, we had to stop the film and were given the promise that we could watch the rest later. But when it came time to watch the rest, the class got lazy and didn’t want to watch it. Bitches. Anyway, this is dangerous and amazing.
4. White Palace — what to say? Firstly, this is not in the league of the other films in this list. But . . . it has (cougar hot) Susan Sarandon and (young hot) James Spader in it. That’s the first reason to watch it. The second is that it’s a pretty well-scripted standard-issue romantic drama about the unlikely and passionate love that grows between a 40-year-old burger-joint waitress and a 27-year-old ad executive. It is also set in St Louis! I never thought I’d be so excited to see a movie set (and shot) in St Louis. Tons of movies are set in New York and I’ve walked by a million iconic film locations. I even ate in that deli in which Meg Ryan fake orgasms for When Harry Met Sally. It slid off me like a duck (what?). But watching White Palace, I was all OMG! That’s the Arch. OMG! That’s the Fox Theatre. And OMG! That’s Dog Town. I even discovered that Sarandon’s scenes in the burger joint (called White Palace) was shot in a local restaurant that changed its name to White Knight after the movie came out to capitalise on the movie’s success. I am determined to eat at this restaurant, disgusting as the food may be.
Oh, and did I mention there are spectacular sex scenes int his movie?
5. Color of Pomegranates is Georgian filmmaker Sergei Paradjanov‘s masterpiece. It was made in the Soviet Union and banned for several reasons, but now you can watch it on Netflix. It is the story of the life of Armenian poet Sayat-Nova, but the story is told like a poem. In fact, if you read poetry, you are likely to yield to this film very easily. If you’re unwilling to let go of the expected norms of cinema, you will have difficulty watching it. This is a stunning, stunning film.