The Abyss of Happiness
by Richard Silberg
Songs without Words, by Paul Verlaine, translated by Donald Revell, Omnidawn Publishing, Richmond, California, 2013, 96 pages, $17.95 paperback, www.omnidawn.com.
TRANSLATORS CAN BE ROUGHLY DIVIDED between those who strive to be ‘faithful’, to recreate in the target language as exact and literal a version of the original as they can, and those who attend to the ‘spirit’ of what’s written, allowing themselves rich interpretive latitude in carrying that spirit across. We should start by backing up to recognize the depth and ubiquity of the process, of course, that we translate when we move from thought into words, the slippage and chasms we negotiate just to understand what’s said in our own mother tongues. So much of what we do is translation. There can be no question, though, that Donald Revell is a spirit guy, a rover, and a freebooter, and that Songs without Words, as well as translation, can be thought of almost as a conversation or a musical jamming between him and Verlaine.
Let’s begin with one of the most startling moments of freedom in the book. It opens with the nine-poem sequence Ariettes oubliées, which Revell translates, wittily and in a more American key, as “Forgotten Showtunes” (arriette / little aria). The sixth of these—none are titled—a poem in eight quatrains in eight-syllable lines, begins:
C’est le chien de Jean de Nivelle
Qui mord sous l’oeil même du guet
Le chat de la mère Michel;
François-les-bas-bleus s’en égaie.
The meaning is roughly: Here’s Jean de Nivelle’s dog who under the very eye of the watch bites Mother Michel’s cat; Frankie-blue-stockings is cheered by that. Revell translates:
Johnny Nivell’s shameless mutt
Is mauling Mother Mischa’s cat.
The worthless watchman watches while
Frankie Blue-Shoes laughs at that.
Revell has taken a few liberties, “shameless mutt,” “is mauling,” “worthless watchman,” “shoes,” “laughs.” But he’s captured the rollicking rhythms in lines of seven and eight syllables, tuned in to Verlaine’s gossipy mischievousness, even caught some of the rhyming quality of the original. He’s delivering the spirit and the basic sense.
But now, moving to the last two quatrains:
Arrière, robin crotté! place,
Petit courtaud, petit abbé,
Petit poète jamais las
De la rime non attrapée!
Voici que la nuit vraie arrive…
Cependant jamais fatigué
D’être inattentif et näif
François-les-bas-bleus s’en égaie.
Rough meaning: Step back, dirty lawyer! Make space little dumpy one, little priest, little poet never tired of failed rhymes! (I’m guessing here about the meaning of la rime non attrapée, which literally means ‘uncaught rhyme’.) Here comes the true night…However, never tired of being inattentive and naïve Frankie-blue-stockings is cheered by that. Now here’s Revell’s translation:
Step aside there, dumpy dickhead.
Little good-for-nothing friar,
Half-baked bumptious versifier.
Haven’t you heard? Poetry is dead.
This is the dark night of the soul.
This is the dog that killed the cat.
This is the story Rimbaud told,
And Frankie Blue-Shoes laughs at that.
Certainly any translator in the faithful camp would be outraged. Going right to the storm center, Rimbaud’s name isn’t uttered in this poem or in any of the poems in the book; it appears once in Songs without Words, as the author of the epigraph to the next poem we’re going to look at. So what’s up here, and how can it be justified?
Rimbaud is the eminence grise of Songs without Words. Verlaine wrote these poems in the aftermath of his legendary affair-yearlong trip through Brussels-saturnalia with that teenage meteor. Rimbaud admired Verlaine’s work and had written to him, had turned up upon invitation at the doorstep of the Parisian home where he was living with his new young bride and newborn son. Rimbaud was either the cause or the symptom, the trigger for the explosion of Verlaine’s marriage. Verlaine pulled an actual trigger a stormy, headlong year later, grazed Rimbaud in the wrist with a pistol shot in their final lover’s quarrel and spent time in prison. All of that glows, radioactive, beneath the charm and rhyme, the consummate poetic musics of Songs without Words.
I’d also surmise that Rimbaud is what brings Revell to Verlaine, lights up this particular group of Verlaine’s poems. Revell has done two translations of Rimbaud, A Season in Hell and Illuminations, both available in bilingual editions from this same press. And in his translator’s preface, “A Prior Enchantment,” he says, “Honestly I would like to propose that Rimbaud and Verlaine together constitute a single poet, perhaps even the poet. But as Meister Eckhart would say of matters better broached in Heaven…‘I will not speak of that for now.’ Better now to read them, both of them, and also together as they traveled in Songs without Words.” (pages 15-16) I’ll be referencing this preface and his “Translator’s Afterword” again because I think their exquisite, insightful writing forms part of the creative whole of this book.
But to return to the quoted poem and Revell’s version—I’d have to grant our faithful straw translator that there’s irresponsibility in calling Revell’s English here, and perhaps in a few other places, a ‘translation’. Truly this is more like an antiphonal voice in response to Verlaine’s text, a voice that sings back to him from within that “Heaven” that is both poetry and literary history. And the notes that it sings are true to the dual Rimbaud/Verlaine conception broached just above. The fun that Verlaine is having at the expense of the “Petit poète” already smacks of the more Rimbaudian “Poetry is dead.” That is the story that “Rimbaud told.” “Dark night of the soul” is true, in spirit, both to what Verlaine actually writes in his more straightforward, nonallusive French—I haven’t quoted from the body of the poem with its sexual high jinks, its courtesan passing in opulent display, etc.—and to what Verlaine doesn’t say, destroyed marriage, vicious break with Rimbaud, prison, and so forth. So Revell is responding to Verlaine’s poem with wit and skill and a deep empathy; rather than ‘translation’ he sings back an informed, heavenly descant.
Let’s look now at what’s probably Verlaine’s most famous poem, at least for English readers. The epigraph is from Rimbaud: “Il pleut doucement sur la ville.” “Soft rain falls on the town,” in Revell’s nice rendering. The poem is number three of “Forgotten Showtunes,” untitled like the rest. It’s in four quatrains; here’s the first:
Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui pénètre mon coeur?
I heard Revell read from the book—his readings are channelings, showstoppers—and leading off with this poem he referred to its famous ‘untranslatability’. We can go to those first two lines, both the poem’s hook and its engine, and see immediately what a headache they present to the translator. Literally they mean: It cries in my heart as it rains on the village. But in French ‘it cries’, il pleure, rhymes with ‘heart’, coeur; and ‘cries’, pleure, makes both an alliterative and an assonantal wordplay with ‘rains’, pleut. The song of those lines is locked into the French. What’s the poor translator to do? In addition there’s the problem that Revell deals with variously and skillfully throughout the book of Verlaine’s tight, lovely, natural rhyming. In this poem the rhyme scheme is particularly demanding: each quatrain, as in the first, above, has an a,b,a, a scheme in lines of five or six syllables.
Revell’s response is to cut the Gordian knot, to create an English poem in spiritual sisterhood with Verlaine’s. Here’s his version:
Warm tears in my heart
Today, like the rain
On the town. It goes
Soft sound of rain
On rooftops, on the ground!
In a cold heart,
The song of rain!
Today like rain.
The worst of it,
Not loving, not hating,
Not understanding it,
The exclamation points, by the way, are in the original. With a few minor swerves, Verlaine’s meaning and mood are brought across. Obviously Revell has made no attempt to recreate the rhyme scheme, but he’s made some interesting sonic choices using soundplay between English words. In the first line there’s the near rhyme between “tears” and “heart.” Again in that first quatrain “rain” and “town,” “goes” and “somehow” create their soft ring of sound. Extending between the first and second quatrains, we’ve got “town,” “sound,” “ground,” and in the third “still” and “betrayals.” But maybe the most interesting rhymings here come at the quatrains’ endings. Second through fourth, we’ve got “rain,” “rain,” and “pain”—Verlaine doesn’t do this; his corresponding end words are pluie, ‘rain’, raison, ‘reason’, and peine, ‘pain’; moreover, pluie and peine don’t rhyme as they do in English. But Revell has beautifully used that English rhyme in his English translation to make up for the French rhyme and wordplay not available to him. He begins with three five-syllable lines and then gets shorter—with the exception of the second lines in the second and forth quatrains which are both six syllables—so that the end lines of the quatrains, respectively three, four, four, and two syllables, act almost like the fifth, ‘drone’ string on a banjo. And these drone lines ingeniously tell the ‘story’ of the poem—let’s, too, not forget the already mentioned near rhyme of ‘tears’ and ‘heart’— “rain,” “rain,” and, shortest line in the poem, “Such pain!”.
Revell’s supple creative translation of this poem also gives me an opportunity to illustrate the idea of a musical jamming between Verlaine and Revell that I broached early on. In the Frankie Blue-Shoes poem Revell takes some extreme liberties, and his English version of the poem functions, as I’ve tried to show, as a kind of answering, almost a commentary on Verlaine. Here, in the rain, though, Revell is working entirely as a translator; he takes few liberties, and he devotes himself to recreating in English Verlaine’s meaning and his mournful, gray half tones. But he doesn’t, as a faithful translator would, try to ‘impersonate’ Verlaine in English. Verlaine’s pace, his rhythms in the poem, are even, gentlemanly, thoughtful. But Revell shortens up on many of his lines, “Useless tears, / Heartsick still,” right down to his final, two-syllable outburst. His voice is jumpier, more nervy. Verlaine uses all simple words, as does Revell, until we get to the end of that third quatrain. There Verlaine says “Quoi! Nulle trahison? / Ce deuil est sans raison,” meaning roughly: What! no betrayal? This mourning is without reason. But Revell says “Fantastic betrayals,” and that one word, ‘fantastic’, jumps into another key, starry, pyrotechnic, as if gesturing sidewise at the Rimbaudian. And so in his translation Revell blows poet to poet, like one jazz musician answering the solo of another. In varying degrees, that seems to me what happens throughout Songs Without Words.
This poem and the next and last poem we’ll look at also give me a chance to comment on the charmed—to jump anachronistic here—sound-boothed quality of Verlaine’s work. These two poems, including the epigraph to this rain poem, come as close as the book does to addressing Rimbaud; there’s a poem later in the book that Verlaine, himself, titled in English “Child Wife” that directly addresses Mathilde, his bride and the mother of his son. Snoops and sensation-seekers, as which of us isn’t, we’re naturally looking for answers to questions like: How do you feel now that you’ve lost everything? How angry, vengeful, devastated, disillusioned do you feel about Rimbaud? Etc. But we get no real satisfaction. The rain poem, as we’ve seen, gestures toward Rimbaud, but the speaker then says, essentially, that he can’t imagine why he’s feeling so sad. Limited nitty gritty in any of these poems. The book’s title is of course ironic in that we’re reading only words, but songs they are, rhymed and hermetic, and they spin in their own perfections. To some extent these qualities are precisely Symbolist. Verlaine, along with Rimbaud and Mallarmé, was a chief proponent of that complex movement that arose in reaction to the cold impersonality of the realist novel and worked, just as the rain poem does, to express subtle states of emotion, yearning, revery in themselves, apart from worldly specifics. But Revell in his preface, “A Prior Enchantment,” makes Verlaine’s hermeticism personally understandable:
Save for a few fantastic intervals, Verlaine walked alone, his faith
indistinguishable from catastrophe. And yet, somehow, catastrophe only
softened his heart. Both the angels and the demons of his nature were
eternal ingenues. In life, his futility was as absolute as the Vision that
drove it. He was the perfect alcoholic, addicted to the story of himself and
to the substances—absinthe, God, and poetry—that made
his story true. In the poems themselves, however, futility is simply
unimaginable. Certainly, some of the books are better than others; some
passages are crystalline, while others are paste and bathetic. Yet not even
the most embarrassing passages betray an instant of doubt. In the poetry,
perfection outspeeds disgrace, sometimes by force of enchantment,
sometimes by faith alone.
One of the powerful virtues of Songs without Words is Revell’s gorgeous empathy, the way he champions Verlaine and gives him to us newly understood.
The last poem we’ll have space to look at in this rich collection is the one mentioned just above, fourth in “Forgotten Showtunes,” immediately following the rain poem. If the rain poem addresses Rimbaud indirectly through its epigraph, this one—whose opening line, “Il faut, voyez-vous, nous pardonner les choses,” meaning: We must, you see, be forgiven these things—is the only poem in the book that seems to address Rimbaud directly. It’s interesting in that regard, although the scene it imagines is probably an extremely wishful interpretation of the relationship, if any, that still obtained between Verlaine and Rimbaud. The scene is charming, nonetheless, tells us, certainly, something of what Verlaine was thinking or wishing, and the poem is one of the loveliest in the book. But my main reason for highlighting it is Revell’s poetry. It’s a beautiful example of the kind of work he’s done here.
This is very much a spirit translation, very much Revell jamming with Verlaine in the sense that I’ve gestured at just above. Revell freely strikes out on his own, saying things in English that Verlaine does not literally say in French. But the English poem that he writes nestles against, parallels, and substantially translates Verlaine’s poem. Poet soloing with poet. Here it is:
Don’t you see, and you must see it, we must
Be forgiven: from the sunshine of forgiveness
Comes our joy; out of the murk of the bad days,
Well, on bad days we bitch and moan.
Infant souls, voluptuary sisters
Gone far away into soft confusion,
Unknown to men, unknown to women,
We are a new oblivion.
Let’s be children, let’s be little girls,
Ignorant as air and astonished by everything,
Transparent as the air on apple boughs,
Ignorant even of forgiveness shining down.
As I’ve said, Revell’s translator’s preface, “A Prior Enchantment,” and particularly his delicious, swooning “Translator’s Afterword,” are integral to the creation of Songs without Words. This is how he ends the afterword:
Where is Verlaine now? The question answers itself in its final word. And
Verlaine was happy to say so, knowing that poems are made from poems that
Maintenant, au gouffre de Bonheur!
The “abyss of Happiness” images dimensionless refuge, its genius
keeping time. Verlaine gave his heart away to happiness. The abyss will never fail
Revell’s translations here are among the “poems that come after.
Richard Silberg is associate editor of Poetry Flash. His most recent books are The Horses: New & Selected Poems and Deconstruction of the Blues. He received the Northern California Book Award in Translation for his co-translation of Korean poet Ko Un's The Three Way Tavern. His most recent co-translations with Clare You are Ko Un's This Side of Time and I Must Be the Wind, poems by Moon Chung-Hee, from White Pine Press.