French Leave 1: Baudelaire
Thursday, 22 August 2019 at 12:09
I've just come back from a trip to France: a couple of days in Paris and a week in a little village in Burgundy near Chablis, with the obligatory trips to vineyards for tastings.
I've been thinking again about French Leave: versions and perversions. This project of loose translations and variations on French poems started a few years back on a residency at CAMAC at Marnay-sur-Seine, and over the years I've added the odd piece. At the moment it moves from Théophile Gautier (1811 - 1872) to variations on themes in recent work by Michel Houellebecq, and includes work by Gerard de Nérval, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Tristan Corbière, Jules Laforgue, Apollinaire and Raymond Queneau.
A couple of variations on poems by Baudelaire and Rimbaud originally appeared online in the Literateur. Unfortunately that publication has now disappeared, so I'll post them here and add them to the porfolio pages.
It seems apropriate to start with Baudelaire, in a version considerably more wine-stained than the original.
two variations on Baudelaire’s “Sed Non Satiata”
1. Vendange d’outre-mer
Odd goddess, whose skin’s a smoky musk
still redolent of opium and Havana.
You may be some obi-man’s opus, some savannah
saviour’s ju-ju, or child of the Bayou dusk.
Forget your Grands, your Premiers Crus, your Nuits;
for tenue, what lasts long on my tongue’s your mouth.
You are my full-bodied beaker of the South;
you slake, yet provoke thirst better than any Burgundy.
I note the rich robe, as you hold me with your eyes:
the worm goes through the cork, I’m mesmerised
to breathe the botánica’s bouquet and, as I taste
your voodoo vin gris-gris, too late, I’m lost;
my palate echoes with santería; head
with your blanc de noirs, those lives I never led.
No wine is fine enough; no drug can do
the tricks you (turn and) do, my wine-dark sea,
my nest of mermaids, my girl in every port,
the witchy Circe of this odyssey
who dulls all thoughts of fine Penelope.
My mind’s your glass. You take my stem and twirl.
I’m half a world away: moly, oily swirls
of sea-serpents, sargassos. Shipwrecked, all at sea,
washed up on some calypygian Aphrodite’s
shore, whose wily Calypso I discover to be you.
Have we lived and loved in other lives?
You always my stormy siren. Me, saoul
…drunk, rudderless, compass-less, (compassionless
for that good – still faithful? – wife.) Lost. Déjà-bu.
French Leave 2: Rimbaud
Thursday, 22 August 2019 at 12:00
Here's the second selection from French Leave.
Again, I've taken considerable liberties with the text; this is also much shorter than the original.
For more of my versions from Rimbaud and other European poets, see the Translation portfolio.
A Mixed Bunch of Poet’s Flowers
after Rimbaud’s “Ce qu’on dit au poète à propos de fleurs”
On the poet’s list one bloom is top,
For trembling by the topaz seas:
O Lily, long the poet’s prop,
O enema of ecstasies!
But in this age of sago pud
And heavy labour on the farm,
Your lilies grow from soul, not mud,
Exuding an oddly pious charm.
Your lines are gilded with lilies, lilies,
Which, day-to-day, are rarely seen.
Farm-folk will find such verses silly:
Why do they tremble? So what’s that mean?
When the Poet takes a shower,
His shirt’s on the line with his meagre kit:
A fluttering common or garden flower,
With yellow deodorant-stained armpits.
And if the Poet decides on roses?
He pens them red, inflated, blown.
O laurel stem! The question posed is:
Where on earth are such roses grown?
The poet snows his roses down:
In bloody great red drifts they lie.
– Imagine the snow-red rosy ground!
Red snow? Red mists this reader’s eye.
French veg is ugly, gnarly, crabby
– Pissed on by weasels, rats and hounds.
French verse abhors the low-down shabby
Tubers prised from stony ground.
O Great White Hunter in the wild,
Tracking prey through the Fields of Pan,
You paint yourself as Nature’s Child
– But botanic ignorance reveals the man.
Sometimes even exotic species
Can’t outweird your mythical blooms:
Stuff that feeds on unicorn faeces,
Or craves the shade of Pharoahs’ tombs.
Your verse turns over good French earth,
And weeds out all its native plants.
The poet’s now a floral flirt
Wearing orchidaceous fancy pants.
3. Green Shoots of Recovery
I know you’re taken by the tropics,
But try to be more down-to-earth.
Add economics to your topics:
Think what those foreign fields are worth!
Time now to praise the great plantations
– Sugar, cotton, coffee, tea.
No need for slavish imitations
Of do-gooder eco pieties
– Screw them and their sanctimony;
Freedom means the Market’s free.
What’s truly holy is the money.
The freshest growth is GNP.
The future’s here and tapping rubber
For Mackintosh’s waterproofs.
The whale at least gives up its blubber;
You blub liberally but stay aloof.
Your antique mythic scenery’s
(Asphodels gathered by Venus and Cupid)
Just creaky stage machinery.
It’s all about the economy, stupid!
Lose the amaranths, such plants
Obscure just what is really plain.
Your mystic visions are worn-out, pants.
The drowsy poppy’s for killing pain.
Tradesman! Colonist or Medium!
Your rhymes now gutter pink and white.
Forget your midnight oily tedium:
Turn on the bud of electric light!
Sing of useful growing profits,
Laud workers set to tasks like ants.
Forget the floral; be the prophet;
Hymn the blooming industrial plant!
Our seasons now have all grown hellish.
This is what the future’s for.
Just describe it, don’t embellish,
The flowery rhetoric’s a bore.
The future’s bright, now listen to it:
Electric wires begin to hum,
Those old-style poets were deaf and blew it;
Think four-stroke metre and banged oil drum.
From your dark poems, new lights must rise:
Illuminate those reds, blues, greens;
Pin swarms of acetylene butterflies;
Write of things as yet unseen.
La Ville Lumière has banished night:
– No Baudelairean Flowers of Evil,
It’s time to rhyme potato blight
With noble rot and the flour weevil.
Lose the muse of bucolic lies,
The dawn’s new chorus trills alarms
As other horrible workers rise
To man the aisles at factory farms.
Progress means increasing yields.
Irrigation! Drain what’s sodden!
Bogs and deserts turned to fields!
One must be absolutely modern!
The Tournament of Shadows or the Great Game: Return to Issyk Kul 1
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 at 21:21
I've been thinking about those ex-Soviet republics... here's something I started working on last year following my visit to Issyk-Kul in Kyrgizstan. The sequence got massively out of hand as it veered madly towards an appreciation of geo-politics in Central Asia from the time of the Persian Empire and Alexander the Great, through Stalin to Putin. I might revisit it, but meanwhile here's a sort of prologue. The lake - Issyk Kul - was where the Soviets tested nuclear subs and torpedoes. Guess what? They're back.
1. A Lake in Kyrgizstan Summer, 2018
That Central Asian Shangri-La –You sure?
Issyk-Kul: the lake that never freezes.
Usefully secret throughout the Colder War;
we shiver again when Vlad or the Donald sneezes.
So hugely landlocked, a lake left high and stranded
in the rocky shifts of the Tien Shan;
then warlords watering horses, as each demanded
tributes for themselves, or for some distant Khan. 天山
An epic land? –The Celestial Mountains float:
bright snow skied high above the pumped-up cloud;
their peaks rear up beyond each village street,
oversee this tarmacked stretch of old Silk Road.
War, migration, trade and geo-politics:
parked up at the crossroads, the lorry drivers kip.
China peeks over shoulders, surveilles their sleep:
sun scales the watchful dragon to the east.
The northern range prickles with Kazakhstan;
more ‘Stans – Uzbek, Tajik – to south and west,
ex-Soviet republics which cut but never (quite) ran.
And just off stage… (you guessed it) Afghanistan.
Oblasts which stood and stand, still blasted, caught
between empires – that old Great Game for the ancient routes
where Mongol hordes and Cossack irregulars fought
to wash their feet in a lake lined with their boots.
Russians still bathe and drink on the northern shore.
Forget the deaths, the stings, the ageless hurts:
the country’s cheap: hospitable though poor
– they welcome backpackers to their nomads’ yurts.
We take the back tracks south; for us it’s time
to head towards our artists’ lakeside camp;
find yurts from which to paint, or maybe rhyme,
retreat inside when outside’s cold and damp.
issyk kul 2
Wednesday, 24 July 2019 at 21:17
This is what I saw from my yurt.....some rhymed notes, rather than an achieved poem here, but maybe a theme to return to.
View from a Yurt
The lake – I hear it lapping from my yurt,
and, on top from where they briefly perch,
coded communiqués from the look-out birds
before they twitter off to base and chicks.
At this altitude things quickly shift;
the mountains are moody, storms can brew up fast.
Birdsong turns to radio silence; rain thrums
its threnody on the mandala of the yurt’s tight drum.
Through the wooden doorway I can see
mountains, sky; and blue shines through the shell
where broken windows frame the scenery
beyond a dilapidated Soviet factory.
They say that here they made their heavy water
– no need to worry, you could drink that stuff –
though the background buzz of Radon Daughters
means what’s naturally occurring’s more than enough.
(I hear, to avoid perceived misogyny,
the new-coined term for these products of decay
‘s the now non-gendered Radon Progeny.
– Time now to think about the way I say…
well… just what it is that I want to say?)
The Soviets also mined uranium,
now that’s a trade requires some care;
the official line’s to play it dumb,
but the Geiger blabs, birds sense the air.
So the Russkies dumped their nuclear waste
All over bloody Kyrgizstan,
– Rarely troubled to check each place
Was free from grazing flocks or Man.
The Kyrgiz called in western outfits
To help mop up this decaying shore
Of all those dumps that Boris left us
still shooting rays out from their core.
In Soviet times, this lake was out of bounds,
a zone they hid between the folds of maps,
where submarine sonar tracked the sounds
of warheads fizzing from the silos’ traps.
Back then, they used this place to test torpedos.
Now, the northern shore’s the touristy bit:
wearing suntans and smiles, tattoos and Speedos,
the Russian’s are back, but in skimpier kit.
Islam’s very liberal here, let’s see:
no veils, some mosques, and vodka still hits the spot;
lakeside is crop-tops, micro-skirts, bikinis.
(Now there’s a word that takes us back,
to another world in fuzzy greys and black,
and then that sudden shock of flesh and flash,
– Todd AO, Technicolor, South Pacific.
O sea awash with irony!– those Tests.
And many hundreds more, both East and West.)
You think it’s over but it’s never quite:
Peace is just the Charm Offensive’s smile,
the one with gleaming teeth which also bite.
Some say it’s all kicking off again
– but the World Cup’s looking good in Russia.
And Novichok, Polonium, Ukraine?
That’s History. What’s the real fuss here?
It’s Two Eighteen and Lies are News.
It’s Two Eighteen and…
Death is back, he holds his breath
and glides right through the deep and dark,
then grins up swiftly De Profundis,
your Requiem’s a cobalt shark.
Tuesday, 9 July 2019 at 15:26
In the blog post last December, I posted a photo of me taken many years ago in front of Mayakovsky's grave in Moscow. My recent trip to Georgia, where he was born, has had me thinking about him, and his literary reputation again.
Mayakovsky was born, of a Russian Cossack father and Ukrainian mother, in Georgia in 1893 and he attended school in Kutaisi until he was thirteen, when his father died and the family moved to Moscow. In 1909 he was sentenced to 11 months in prison for Bolshevik activity. He enrolled at Moscow Art School in 1912 and began publishing his first poems in the Futurist manifesto A Slap in the Face of Public Taste, calling for Puskin and the old idols of Russian poetry to be thrown from "the steamship of modernity".
As well as experimental futurist and lyrical poems, Mayakovsky turned his hand to what he thought of as being ideologically useful art for the masses in the service of the Revolution. He illustrated about 3,000 posters and placards and wrote the words for twice that number. The contradictions did not escape him and he was conscious of standing "on the throat of my own song." He was an enormously popular performer of his poems - a sort of Soviet rap star - though the tensions between his experimentalism, satirical impulses, and ideology led to him being both revered and reviled, often by the same people - both politicians and artists. Lenin and Trotsky criticised him. Stalin claimed he had betrayed Communism.
In 1930, he commited suicide, shooting himself through the heart with a revolver he had used in a film some years earlier. Tens of thousands of people attended his funeral. After his death, his works were banned, then Stalin suddenly revised his opinion of his fellow Georgian, stating "Mayakovsky was a remains the best and most talented poet of our time. Indifference to his poetry is a crime." There is some speculation that he did not commit suicide, but was mudered by the state.
Canonization by Stalin effectively ruined his reputation: "Mayakovsky's second death", according to Paternak. Marina Tsvetayeva wrote in 1932: "For twelve years Mayakovsky the man has been destroying Mayakovsky the poet. On the thirteenth year the Poet rose up and killed the man… His suicide lasted twelve years, not for the moment he pulled the trigger."
For many years Soviet children had to learn officially approved and highly edited Mayakovsky pieces by heart. Pasternak said these poems were "introduced forcibly like potatoes under Catherine the Great." This was enough to turn generations away from him. In Bagdadi, Mayakovsky's birthplace in Georgia, there is a museum dedicated to him, and the village was renamed Mayakovsky in 193; the museum has few visitors now and the village has reverted to its former name. Various statues of Mayakovsky have disappeared since independence. The largest is rumoured to have bee sold for scrap in Turkey.
Outside the Soviet bloc, the lyrical, radical, experimental Mayakovsky has always has his few though fervent admirers and translators. (Edwin Morgan's versions in Scots Wi the Haill Voice are fun and catch the often Burns-like satirical energy.) In Russia, the sanitised and bowdlerised official editions of his "second death" have largely gone and he is once more being recognised as for his invention and wit.
For a good introduction to him, try Ian Sansom's documentary on Radio 4's Archive Hour "Resurrecting Mayakovsky":
A Cloud in Borrowed Trousers
Tuesday, 9 July 2019 at 12:38
Back in the mid or later 90s, at a Poetry Society workshop, David Morley challenged the group to respond to Mayakovsky's "A Cloud in Trousers" and I came up with this abbreviated version. The idea was to produce a piece that had something of the spontaeity and energy of the original.
Edwin Morgan translated some of Mayakovsky into Scots in Wi the Haill Voice (1972) and noted "There is in Scottish poetry (eg in Dunbar, Burns, and even MacDiarmid) a vein of fantastic satire that seems to accommodate Mayakovsky more readily than anything in English verse." This may be true of the mainstream, though I think that the out-of-the-way spikiness of, say, John Marston's satires and the English tradition of nonsense verse may show another way forward.
My version could be pushed at least a little further. I'm now wondering, especially as I've been learning Russian over the last year or so, if it might be worth going back to this, or other Mayakovsky poems
A Cloud in Borrowed Trousers
A fragment after the Russian of Vladimir Mayakovsky's
"The Cloud in Trousers." Or, more precisely,
Cliff's Cirrocumulus in Mayakovsky's Kecks:
taken in here, let out there, patched everywhere.
Original inside leg measurement
for a much longer pair of Russian strides.
Think of these threads as cut-offs, shorts.
I'll mock your soft-boiled thoughts, Egg-Head!
Egg-Belly sprouting Humpty-Dumpty
arms - ya big numpty,
numbskull bum dumped on a Laura Ashley sofa.
The joke's on you, Yolk-Face,
as I rip open my chest, like Superman,
to reveal my sacred bleeding heart
twisted into a serpentine S of kryptonite.
My soul's sleek black:
flat-top, No 2 razored at the back,
no worms of curly gray.
And it roars, tall, dark, cool,
invincible and forever twenty-two.
Your saccharine strings' muzak,
mail-order lovers' rock
compilation makes me puke.
My balls are my drums, my cock's
a screaming Fender.
Your head's up your arse.
I turn inside out, swallow myself through my own mouth
until I am all lips to place a big wet smacker on the world.
Get out of the Graves of Academe.
I'll teach you a thing or two.
I can be so much more than I seem.
I'll climb your ladder Little Miss Bluestocking,
to your lips tight purse. Natch.
I'll spill out the treasures of your snatch.
Or, if you really want to be amazed
I'll charm you with my tongue,
whiten my heart to a boiled shirt,
a ruffle of cumulus peeking politely out of a D.J.
Not a man but a cloud in trousers.
Don't give me all that Dingly Dell guff, don't make me hoot!
I'm here to praise guys whose balls are bruised by vice,
peroxide bimbos with features like eroded
statues, blonde bombshells who,
to judge by their blackened roots,
have long since exploded.
You think this is some druggy dream?
It happened, believe me, in a place as real as East Cheam.
"I'll be there at four" she said.
Already the evening was embers,
draining from windows, decembering
into horrorshow night.
Bar-lights, switched on switch-blades,
flicked knives judder in my back,
You wouldn't know me from a mountain
grumbling with lava in its belly.
What can a hulking lummock like that possibly want?
Ahh, but there's a lot it wants.
Don't matter that my heart's hard and blue as gunmetal.
Come Saturday night, this Saturday Night Special
likes to be holstered in some soft pouch.
hunched into the window pane,
pain glows molten where glass melts around my brow.
Will love show?
Yes or no?
And what kind?
The big firework fiesta of passion, meeting of true minds?
Or some itchy bitch soon forgotten with a scratch.
But what chance
does a chunk of flesh like this
have of a great romance?
Probably just some tired affair
that gets scared when the Jumbo rumbles up into the air,
some sad timid little chick
who gets air-sick
and who'll prefer
the sedate horse-drawn carriage round the park
before it gets too dark.
It's getting late.
I still wait,
face pocked with rain,
trousers growing heavy with the traffic's surf.
Midnight, sharp as a shiv, shouted,
grabbed me, turfed
The day was utterly dead.
Midnight rolled into the gutter
like a decapitated head.
horrible faces gurned in the glass,
like bad acid imps.
How much more of this do I have to take?
I can't stand it! Let custards quake,
it's more than a man can bear in silence.
Then I hear...
It's very quiet, like a patient slipping out of bed,
a nerve sprung free,
then another, another, the whole ward hums,
dances, stamps its feet.
Kaboom! An avalanche of plaster from the ceiling below.
All the nerves gone crazy,
jerking like frogs legs galvanized on electric wires.
Night fogs up the room, mires
the wheels of my eyes right up to the axle.
as if the hotel's teeth were icy scared.
Suddenly you came in,
sharp, straight, shiny as a blade.
You twisted the gold serpent on your wrist
and said "You know,
I'm going to get married."
Congratulations! Big fucking deal.
I'm cool, unfazed, my eyes give nothing away.
I might as well be wearing refrigerated Raybans.
Do you remember?
You used to swear by old Stax vinyl,
big time passion, that whole live-now-get-someone-else-to-pay-later deal.
You were the Mona Lisa somebody just had to steal
and now you're stolen.
In love again. Game on.
My eyes stoked with all the fires of Hell.
But the homeless sometimes find their only shelter in a burned-out shell.
You taking the piss?
"You're like some Cairo rubbish dump scavenger,
- a millionaire of worms - rattling bones in a tin cup."
remember what happened to Pompeii
when Vesuvius was teased too much?
I, too, can get my wild up.
Connoisseurs of Crime,
Poker-faced Professionals of Piss-artistry,
Bachelors of Bad Behaviour, Summa Cum Laude,
Masters of Arsing Around,
Doctors of Debauchery (Cantab, Oxon, With Knobs On),
have you ever seen
anything more obscene
than my face when it's perfectly serene?
I is, of course, another.
My insides are ripped. The long-lost brother,
the hypocrite semblance, the evil twin. He shouts
and screams: a larger lager lout,
a fucking bad ventriloquising mother-
fighting his way out.
Mother Who? - No don't tell me. Keep mum.
Your son's real sick,
his heart's on fire,
his brain's addled with Tourette's,
his mouth's a farting bum,
he's machine-gunning obscenities like a nervous tic.
Tell my sisters. Quick!
Look his hands twist like claws.
His mind's a burning brothel.
From the windows, words leap like naked whores.
the smell of burning flesh, charred stiffs.
Someone's already on the phone.
The Brigade comes all red and jangling
with engines shiny and extensible as trombones.
Ladders angle like they're angling
for fish with lines of water.
Be careful now, Mr. Firefighter,
go gentle on this burning heart.
I like a touch that's lighter.
I can put out my own fire.
Pump tears onto my heart's pyre
of dangerously combustible desire.
Watch me, baby, douse my fire.
But I can't jump out of my heart.
Something's trying to escape, a little kiss.
But it's either burned or drowned
by the Brigade's big hoses as they piss
higher and higher.
Alarm bells, scary yells, then the ping!
of wires. Everywhere smoke.
How can you sing
as you choke?
Charred words, burnt phrases jump from my skull's inferno.
lies broken on the kerb.
The centuries echo
with these fears.
Resounding down the coming years.
you'll hear (lick me, lick me)
"I'M ON FIRE!"
I'm not lit up by books. Burn learning.
I used to think that poets just opened their gobs
and the inspired stuff poured out in a frenzy.
But, actually, it's more like one long hard never-ending job.
And then there's all the bloody paperwork.
You crawl around in your underwear like some mad jerk
trying to find a rhyme for "orange",
you rant or whinge,
while the rest of the world
hurls about its business or at least gets its lines to reach the far edge of the paper.
Our feeble cities.
We build and build our towers of Babel.
God knocks them down.
They're history, forgotten or rumoured in fables
distorted by the rabble's babble.
I've decided that a poet is a man
who is all mouth in God's borrowed trousers.
Today is a good day to die.
There's enough cloud up there
in that huge sky
to make a pair
And God is always on the verge of coming back
into fashion. Forget black
denim, there's enough faded Levi blue
for 501's for me, you
A jet zips up the fly,
fastens Orion's belt
tight round me.
I'm right at the top.
Time to button it.
Too many mutts have wagged their tails
and tried to hump my boot-fit leg.
But now, the universe is fast asleep,
a huge ear quick with starry ticks
flopped on its paws.
Monday, 1 July 2019 at 19:33
I've not posted anything for a couple of weeks as I've been away. I was in Georgia, just leaving before the riots in Tbilisi, following Russian pressure on Georgia, and a Russian politician addressing the Georgian parliament in Russian. There is, of course, a ltragic history of Georgia's relations with Russia, but also a more optimistic tradition of Russian writers who were inspired by the country: Pushkin, Lermontov, Tostoy... and one or two, like Mayakovsky, who had more fractious dealings.
The country has a long and complicated history, almost off-stage from Europe, but, in an odd way central to its myths, culture and politics. It's probably the world's oldest wine-producing area, its mountains are where Prometheus was bound, and modern day Kutaisi is the Colchis where Jason and the Argonauts sought the Golden Fleece. It's where Persia, and Ottoman Turkey come up against Orthodox Christianity. It's also worth remembering that Stalin was a Georgian.
For more on this, I recommend Peter Nasmyth's Georgia, in the Mountains of Poetry. The photo was taken in the Caucasus, not far from Kazbegi, just off the Georgian Military Highway, built by the Soviets to keep Georgia under control. This is a few kilometers from the border with the "break-away" region of South Ossetia, which though technically a part of Georgia is now effectively under Russian control, as is the other "break-away" region of Abkazia.