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Baudelaire Visited Anew by Helen Palma

Selected Poems from Baudelaire's

Les Fleurs du Mal

Translated by Helen Palma

Pivot Press
Brooklyn NY 11231
2014
88 pp., $15.00

Though the writer has enduring philosophical differences with Charles Baudelaire, I found in Helen Palma’s translations many caverns of jewels: an urbane sensibility; an interest in vice; numerous sensual and aesthetic pleasures; symbols of sex and death; corruption; the macabre; sound and sense and beautiful color.  I also found the difference between myself and the 19th century French poet: where I discover a hole in my jeans, I smile free and easy, at one with Huck Finn; when this Frenchman contemplates his thread-bare pantalon he damns all the world.  So be it.  What is under consideration are Helen Palma’s superb translations, not my discomfort with the author of the originals!

A major difference touching translation is how the original language sounds.  English is different in nature compared to French, not so much as consonant French to vowel-rich Italian, yet bold, practical English is not well-suited to the soft, subtle alliteration of the sweetly soothing, and effeminate, French dropping of vowels.  With fewer bellowing vowels there is the opportunity for musical mellifluousness -- lush and Debussy-like.   Palma evidently heard, for this lushness is well translated in “The Sun”:

                        And sometimes find the rhymes that died in dreams.
                        This life-giving father, and pallor’s foe…

I should mention that “The Sun” is almost unique in this collection for the sincerity of its Romanticism.  There is little of the picturesque decadence of the Symbolists; it betrays the poet’s youthful optimism.  I am reminded that Baudelaire’s school chums recollected his writing-in and thinking-in verse.  I can almost hear Blake. 

Something else of  French that Americans find unnatural is the cultural obscenity of the gigantism of Rabelais’ Gargantua, Lachaise’s Standing Woman, and Beaudelaire’s “La Géante”:

                        I’d probe at leisure her enormous limbs,
                        Climb up the slope of her tremendous knees;
                        And when the humid sunlight spread disease…

…et cetera, although I cannot agree with the poet’s point-of-view because I was never so young, never diseased, and never so French, yet, through Ms. Palma’s translation, I can see what he saw in the manner that he sees.  This is how translation is supposed to work.

And then, the rhyme: Here I found delight, word to word, line to line, stanza to stanza, and verse to verse.  I found the rhymes fitting in almost every instance; accurate in translation, appropriate to the purpose, and telling in meaning.  Most any verse would serve as an example.  I choose “Autumn Song” almost at random.  The rhymes alone can tell the action of the drama:

                        dismal gloom / dreary boom
                        my soul / infernal pole
                        sacrifice / blood-red ice
                        log’s descent / shall be rent
                        fearful throes / repeated blows
                        monstrous thud / fall’s mud
                        for whom / with doom  

Nowhere did I find that stretching after rhymes which is the sometime bane of translation.  I found an ease, a rich variety of rhyme’s application: in “To a Passing Woman” couplets that dragged deep in lament to rise in the concluding couplet above the pallid skies; in “My Beatrice” couplet after couplet of promise and fulfillment; and I expect that you will find meaning in many rhymes that I have overlooked.

Then, Ms. Palma is fastidious in her fealty to Baudelaire’s peculiar adaptations of standard sonnet forms.  Sometimes the rhyme scheme seems higgledy-piggledy, at other times to the purpose.  A random reading of the 24 sonnets in this collection will surprise and delight.  I choose the “The Blind Man” for example of strophic structure, a division of what would be the final sestet divided with a turn between tercets (eef/ggf):

                        And thus they navigate unending Night,
                        Eternal Quiet’s twin. While at your height,
                        O City, how you laugh and sing and roar!
                        Your lust for pleasure carries you astray,
                        And yes, me too; far more blunted than they,
                        I ask: What are those blind men looking for?    

And then, there is an exemplary excellence in many of these sonnets which can be found in the final word of the final line: That fulfillment of the expectations of the preceding 139 syllables is found in “The Cracked Bell” meaningfully and musically when the sound of the nail of the caesura “dies.”  Yet, for me, the most rewarding of exits was found in “The Setting of the Romantic Sun”.  Here is an ending, ending the ending: The end of the Romantic; the end of the sun; the end of the verse and of the song, a true sound sounding the fading echo of the clarion, ringing “How splendid…” and ending “cold snails.” not so much a note as spittle on the reed.

In “The Cask of Hate” I found the meter of feet, hearing the poet’s heavy steps beating a bear-like rhythm.  This heavy foot-fall makes substitutions all the more poignant, all the more telling: As is heard in the heavy step and squeezing of,

                        “Buckets of blood and tears squeezed from the dead”

followed later by the stumbling dactylic,

                        “Hate is the drunk in the depths of a dive”;

concluding with the slow spondaic substitution of,

                        “To ever fall asleep beneath the table.”

Lovely.  Another verse rich in knowing prosody is the first stanza of the first verse in this collection of translations, “Spleen (IV)” where the slowing spondaic substitution and the descending drag of alliterations well meets the sound to the sense:

                        When the low, leaden sky weighs like a lid
                        Upon the mind that old vexations bite;
                        When the horizon in black bile lies hid,
                        And pours a dark day down, sadder than night… 

This spleen is just that, not in good humor, yet it is skilled versification, demonstrating invention both in French creation and in English recreation.  Another instance of rich prosody is found in “From the Depths”, a personalized Psalm 130.   Do yourself a favor.  Read this verse translation aloud, allow the sweet melodies to caress the tongue, the vibrations to message the throat, the invocations to seduce the ear.  Here, the final quatrain of “Hazy Sky” will deliver a taste of Ms. Palma’s recreation of the French-like luxury in language:

                        Dangerous woman, with your changeling clime,
                        Shall I adore as well your frost and rime,
                        And learn to draw from that pitiless winter
                        Joys keener than its ice-and-steel-tipped splinter?

I found in this collection many invitations to participate in ethical corruption, much in the way that Shakespeare requests our participation in the corruptions of Richard III.  In “The Lid”, Baudelaire would make us complicit in his stroking pleasures, the little sins against the cradle of his culture, which for myself I cannot do, yet I can and do find sympathy in the sound and in structure of the verse: 

                        Go where we will, be it on land or sea,
                        Beneath a sun that’s searing or cold-white,
                        As votaries of Christ or venery,
                        Possessed of millions or a widow’s mite…

Why accept the pleasure but deny the seduction?  Because, in the actual virtue of structured verse, Baudelaire rejects the corruption of transitory phantasmagoria, as do I.  I wonder if he knew?  Perhaps I have dilated over much on the grotesqueries and the psycho-personal excesses.  Even so, knowing something of biography, you may also be reminded that the poet during composition was enjoying syphilitic euphoria while suffering syphilitic agonies; that he and his mistress were soon to die of syphilis; and of that body of Symbolist art inspired by The Flowers of Evil (think the etchings of Baudelaire’s friend, Félicien Rops). 

            But then, here the question concerns the skilled translations of Helen Palma, which surpass goodness, and deserve a reading.  Buy and read this highly recommended book.

http://www.expansivepoetryonline.com/ Michael Curtis
Expansive Poetry and Music Online
March 14, 2014

Michael Curtis, of Arlington, is a well-known sculptor, architect and poet.

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To purchase this book, click here now.

New Release From Pivot Press

Selected Poems from Baudelaire's

Les Fleurs du Mal

Translated by Helen Palma

From Pivot Press, just out, a fine translation of thirty-six poems from Baudelaire's 1857 Les Fleurs du Mal. Palma, who holds advanced degrees in Classics and Comparative Literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, has been published in numerous journals, including The Formalist, Iambs & Trochees, Trinacria, The Raintown Review, and Pivot.   Her e-book, Selected Translations from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which contains some of the translations in this new book, appeared in 2007 at The New Formalist. 

"Helen Palma has accepted the challenge that others have sometimes declined:  to turn poems by Baudelaire into rhymed, metered lines that approximate the French forms.  These translations retain what Baudelaire termed the 'evocative magic' of poetry...."
      --
Catharine Savage Brosman, Professor Emerita of French, Tulane University

"Palma has collaborated with Baudelaire's muse to create English poems that masterfully blend those hallmarks of post-romantic symbolist poetry:  the seemingly inevitable flow of the original discourse and the armature of metrical and rhyming strictures whose faithful retention is always a challenge to the poet's translator....Baudelaire is well-served here by Helen Palma's versions, in which she once again bears witness to the axiom that to translate poetry successfully one must not only be a good translator but also a good poet." 
              --
Eric Sellin, poet and translator.

"Superbly surpassing such illustrious predecessors as Roy Campbell, Robert Lowell, Arthur Symons, and Richard Wilbur, in her faithful metrical translations Helen Palma seldom various Charles Baudelaire's rhyme schemes and always reenacts the eloquent splendor of his splenetic élan."
             
 -- J.B. Sisson, poet and translator

Arthur Mortensen
Expansive Poetry & Music Online
February 3, 2014

Frederick Turner Review:

The Gardens of Flora Baum

A Poem by Julia Budenz

 

     (To read Turner's review at World Literature Today,
       click on the photo or on the headline)

Kudos to Frederick Turner (Genesis; The New World) and World Literature Today for this review of one of the major literary events of the still-new century, the late Julia Budenz's Gardens of Flora Baum, published posthumously by Carpathia Press, under the able direction of Emily Lyle and Roger Sinnott.  This writer had the privilege of publishing a very small piece of this work in 2007 under the Pivot Press imprint.  Five volumes long, a single, unified work, it is the poet's life's work, begun in the mid-60s, and left partially unfinished at her death in 2010.  Read Turner's review, and then, to get your own copy, go to Carpathia Press, which offers the book in a gorgeous sewn edition (shown in Turner's own photograph), and in a more affordable paper version, which is also quite beautiful, its covers decorated with photos, including several of the poet. 

Arthur Mortensen

Expansive Poetry & Music Online
January 22, 2014

For other goodies, see below:

Some favorite authors:  For Frederick Turner and Dick Allen, search Alibris.com, Amazon.com, and other online bookstores. Check also on Frederick Turner's Facebook and his web site.  For Dick Allen, check his website. For those who wish copies of prior books published by Pivot Press, or by Somers Rocks Press, please contact the Webmaster.  For Frederick Feirstein, the 3rd Musketeer of Expansive Poetry, check his website.   For Carolyn Raphael, whose short narratives continue a great chain that includes Robert Browning, try her Web site.   A writer from the South who's made a strong mark over the past decade or so, Jennifer Reeser, has a Web site to look at.   For the very engaging Suzanne Noguere, she maintains a Web site here.  For Wade Newman, who has a new book out, you can order a copy  of 2013's Final Terms / East and West here.

Those of you fond of Dr. Salemi's essays and poems might want to look at Pennsylvania Review

Or you can purchase one of Dr. Salemi's books, Skirmishes from 2010.

A very rich site for art, essay and poetry:  Newington-Cropsey Cultural Education Studies Center

For the painter Liz Holly's Web site, look at lizholly.com

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