After The Flood: Ashbery’s Illuminations
That one of America’s leading poets has taken on the task of translating Rimbaud’s llluminations, a series of radical prose poems with a history as elusive as their author’s own, is something to be excited about. The rock star pairing alone is enough to get you going; that the two have interacted in the form of John Ashbery re-seeing the Illuminations is deeply satisfying.
Ashbery, who has translated many modernist French writers in addition to producing volumes of his own poetry, prose and art criticism, has mostly chosen to engage with esoteric works and poets. The best example of this might be his pioneering work on the late 19th century poet and general madman Raymond Roussel. Before Ashbery’s diligent investigations and translations, Roussel was largely unheard of in America and his work elicited little more than bafflement from the better part of his French audience. It is only recently that the French have begun to embrace Roussel and regard him as a serious contributor to their literary tradition. (An exhibit on Roussel, curated by Paris-based art critic François Piron, will open this fall at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid and will include several pieces from Ashbery’s collection.) There is an undeniable thrill in being the first to recognize greatness—something akin to possessing a secret of serious value. Perhaps Ashbery, who knows much of the adventure is over once the secret is revealed, has for this reason tended toward the enigmatic, unseen artist.
It is difficult to imagine a poet farther from the literary sidelines than Rimbaud. Aspects of his life and work, which, as with most towering figures, have assumed a certain aura and mythology, are familiar to many. In her insightful NY Times review of Ashbery’s translation, Lydia Davis mentions a handful of common associations with the poet-rebel: The “highly romantic photograph” of the authentically unkempt artist at 17, his indelible eyes a pellucid blue; his freeing and grammatically-torqued assertion “Je est un autre”; the dramatic and inspiring romance with Verlaine; that he gave us stunningly original and substantial collections of poetry before his 21st birthday, abandoning writing thereafter; and that he lived out the latter part of his brief life traversing far-off lands and taking up such strange jobs as gun-running in Choa. These fragments constitute a basic sketch of the man who set off a series of literary avalanches in the minds of his heirs: poets who, like Ashbery, populate the most interesting places in modern and contemporary verse.
But in popular depictions, the romantic facts of Rimbaud’s life often eclipse its bleaker realities. Born in 1854 in the northeastern town of Charleville, Rimbaud was raised (quite literally) under the hand of his deeply devout and callous mother, Vitalie Cuif. In 1860 when Rimbaud was almost six, his father, an infantry captain, left to serve in Cambrai and never returned. In his biography of the poet, Graham Robb writes of the inordinately severe punishments to which Vitalie subjected Rimbaud and his brother Frédéric: “temporary starvation, isolation and sudden physical pain.” Rimbaud seems to have survived his mother’s austerity and the tedium of Charleville, of which he complains at length in his correspondence with his mentor Georges Izambard, through intense reading and study. He greatly surpassed his peers at the Institut Rossat, and did so again at the Collège de Charleville, where he won prizes for his work. (Vitalie sent Rimbaud to Charleville only when Rossat seemed to be heading in the direction of more liberal politics and practices.) Rimbaud’s anti-religious views, expressed in early poems like “Les premières communions,” may have something to do with his exposure to the darker realms of religious ardor, and to the moral and intellectual rigidity found therein. Religious references emerge throughout his writing and appear in unusual ways in the Illuminations, which begin with a re-imagined Eden: a hare pauses to say its prayer not to God but to a rainbow after the flood. Life begins once everything is washed away, and suddenly all is possible.
Rimbaud breathed life into French language and poetry with the publication of Illuminations in 1886 and, a little over a decade earlier, with his darker suite of equally oneiric “proems” Une saison en enfer. The neologisms, juxtapositions, torrents of images, and novel play with rhythm and rhyme in these prose poems, exploded the language with great force. Illuminations is full of captivating images and themes: real and imagined pulsating cities, glimpses of bizarre characters on the streets and in dreams, the theater of humanity and the role of the performer—all of this intertwined with Rimbaud’s reflections and contemplations. There were predecessors of the prose poem form: Aloysius Bertrand introduced it with his collection Gaspard de la Nuit, first published in 1842, and Baudelaire developed it in his own ways in Le Spleen de Paris. But neither anticipated and affected 20th century language and literature as significantly as Rimbaud. In new ways his poetry inhabited that mystifying brink between active, visible reality and imaginative expanse. Ashbery, too, stands at this non-space or “threshold,” as Rimbaud scholar Roger Little calls it, in much of his own poetry. And there are other similarities: sinuous lists of rushing images; keen attention to a poem’s visual aspects; and undercutting of “significant” moments with sudden and seemingly unrelated lines. These are characteristics of the Illuminations that have attracted editors and translators to the work again and again.
Indeed Rimbaud’s masterpiece has been the darling of many translators, notably Louise Varèse—whose English translation was the first to be published in America (by New Directions)—Wallace Fowlie, Nick Osmond, and Donald Revell. The fact that the text has had so many English incarnations makes the work of translating it all the more daunting. Eugene Richie, a close friend of Ashbery’s as well as the editor of his Selected Prose and (with co-editor Rosanne Wasserman) an upcoming collection of his translations, has noted that “taking on Illuminations, which has been translated so many times, was a major challenge that [Ashbery] was able to meet by keeping close to the original French and by only consulting a few other versions so as to be able to solve translation problems on his own.” Ashbery is remarkably faithful to the original, staying close to its grammar and punctuation throughout and only straying from the French where absolutely necessary.
What seems most compelling about Ashbery’s translation is the balance between his own poetic voice and that of Rimbaud. Translators inevitably present their own sense and style in their renderings, but Ashbery does not so much infuse with his particular sound as use it to intensify and propel the original. He has not just translated the book into English, he has translated it into a freed-up American English, of which he is a master. It is clear from the first line of the first poem, “Après le deluge,” that Ashbery is our man: “no sooner had the notion of the flood regained its composure….” Revell’s and Fowlie’s translations begin with the phrase “as soon as,” and then part ways. Ashbery’s “no sooner,” rather than the slow off-the-tongue and well-oriented “as soon as,” catapults you into the flashing dreamscape and unrelenting rhythms that await. He does not attempt to locate you in time and space, but rightly submits to this world suspended between the external and the mind. Similar instances are found throughout. In “Being Beauteous,” Ashbery handles the first line, “Devant une neige un Etre de Beauté de haute taille,” with necessary force: “against snow, a tall Beautiful Being.” Other versions read “tall against the snow there stands the Incarnation of Beauty” or “standing tall before snow, a Being of Beauty”. The immediacy of “against snow,” and that the entire line stands without the direction of a verb, allows for a perfect freedom. There is simply the image itself, pure and free as a flake of snow, and suddenly everything is possible.
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