Last Verses
Last Verses
Jules Laforgue, trans. Donald Revell
Omnidawn Publishing, 2011
Even the Trees Have Rusted
Eric Rawson

In 1963 Malcolm Cowley, in an essay that appeared in Sewanee Review, declared that the poetry of Jules Laforgue “helped to change the course of American poetry” as it was read, translated, transmitted, and, finally, incorporated into the early writing of modernist masters.  Indeed, the influence of Laforgue, whose career was cut short by his death in 1887, on his American admirers after the turn of the century cannot be overestimated.  Can we imagine “Prufrock” without Laforgue’s “Her eyes’ telegraphy:  ‘Do you understand? / Why don’t you understand?’ / But neither of us could move” or Harmonium without “Just as the frou-frou of your frou-frou is the ultimate skirt”?  On the other hand, can we imagine Laforgue without “Prufrock” and Harmonium, The Bridge and Mauberley, to condition our responses?  Any new translation of Laforgue must necessarily be informed by both the translator’s and the reader’s internalization of Eliot, Stevens, Crane, and Pound, who by 1920 had internalized much of Laforgue (as well as Corbière, Verlaine, and Mallarmé) in the original French or via Arthur Symond’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature.  Just as Laforgue’s cadences and figures of speech shaped the subject and style of the American Modernists, the cadences and figures of their colossal poems enter into our reading of Laforgue.  In Donald Revell’s new rendering of “VI:  Simple Agony,” one can hear the language, within a single passage, of the unborn Americans:

            And the music rises into the night sky, swells
            To say a thing that is, is. . . . (Stevens)

            And then it dies away.  And then it begins again. . . .
            My crucified music
            Nailed to a photograph
            Of a woman staring at the moon. . . . (Eliot)

            Musical souls,
            Pedophile minds. . .
            Despair. . . . (Pound)

            Alleluia, Pariah Earth.
            From dawn until dusk,
            Nothing but despair.  (Crane)


Revell, who has already given us contemporary versions of Rimbaud and Apollinaire as chatty companions whose occasionally asinine comments we accept with a gentle knowingness, takes much the same approach to Laforgue, painting him as a post-modern pre-Modern, a precocious youngster who somehow captured the language of the future—which turns out to be a mishmash of archaism, slang, private chatter, learned diction, kitsch, foreign words, and urban babble.  More specifically, Revell gives us the Laforgue of Dernier Vers, the neglected sequence of poems—or, as some would have it, the single long poem—written as the poet and his new bride, Leah Lee, were dying of tuberculosis.  Although echoes of the jangling irony and clownish personae that attracted Eliot to the better-known Les Complaintes can be heard in these later lines, the tone is, as one might expect, more despairing, even sentimental, though rarely bitter.  Set in suburbs so dismal that “even the trees have rusted,” the twelve poems of the sequence comprise a meditation on love and death and the emotional attenuation of life in a rapidly urbanizing era. 

Laforgue retains from his earlier work the wild similes, the exclamatory mode, the slippery mixing of idiom, and the free-verse lines (a reasonable claim can be made that Last Verses is the first French poetry to use such a radical prosody) that prefigures not only The Wasteland and The Cantos but also John Ashbery, James Tate, and Barbara Guest.  Consider the wrenching shifts in diction and sentiment within a few lines of “I:  The Winter Ahead”:

            Tally-ho!  Tally-ho!  View halloo!
            Oh sad refrain, you’re finished!
            And in a fool’s game. . .
            He just lies there, like a gland torn out of somebody’s throat,
            Shivering, utterly alone.

As well as anyone is probably able, Revell meets the challenge of rendering Laforgue in language true to the original French, the English of the Modernists, and the willfully demotic diction that marks much contemporary American verse.  This palimpsestic English ranges from “It’s too late now!  Baby-doll’s dead! / Only the lonely, big deal!” to “I was molded out of Cybele’s purest clay!”  If at times the tone wavers (“spider webs / Bend under plops of raindrops”) or the translator takes excessive liberties (“Snack time in the drafty classrooms” for “C’est la tisane sans le foyer”), so much the better.  Recognizing the inventiveness and calculated silliness of Laforgue’s verse, Revell wisely grants himself permission as a translator to sacrifice literalness in favor of personality. 

Most admirably, Revell locates the despair of a man who knows that his days—and the days of his beloved—are numbered.  It is no easy task to translate the emotional pressure that death exerts on the poetic imagination.  Laforgue faces his demise not so much with fear or sorrow as with epiphanic anguish of one who realizes that “[n]othing is quite so beautiful as the trains I’ve missed!”  He mourns mostly, one senses, not for the loss of life to come but for the loss of life that has passed without full examination—an examination which is incomplete without deeply shared experience.  “I could stand anything, if only one time someone knew my heart,” Laforgue writes in the last of the Last Verses.  Literally fulfilling Laforgue’s dying wish, Revell makes it his work to know the poet’s heart and to reveal it, too. 

Eric Rawson

Eric Rawson lives in Los Angeles and teaches at USC.  His most recent book is The Hummingbird Hour.