Brandon Brown translating Arthur Rimbaud


There’s something really perverse about a miserable summer.  I don’t live in one of those places where by virtue of polar vortices—of the temperature and of the soul—the sign “summer” is transformed into a durable signifier of cruelly delayed optimism.   Nor do I have one of those jobs with the vaunted holy grail of summers off. 

Still, I have always believed in the summer as a partly overdetermined twelve week kairos for better living through expropriated heliotropic energy.  Its expressions are familiar and numerous.  Padron peppers with salt.   Squash blossoms stuffed with fromage blanc.  Sunglasses.  The harmonized voices of the Beach Boys singing “Don’t Worry Baby” only without the dark personalities and the scary cars.  I hope yours was better than mine!  In any event, when Sara announced her birthday party at the beach would be on Labor Day, I hoped the celebration would mark a hinge between desperation and new hope, like treading the space between sidereal archipelagos.

When Anna Rosenwong wrote to invite me to contribute one of a “flotilla” of translations of three stanzas of the poem “Le Bateau Ivre” by Arthur Rimbaud, I felt enthusiastic about the concept and excited to have the opportunity to reread “Bateau.”  After all, it was over a decade ago that I first read Norma Cole’s “Nines and Tens: A Talk On Translation,” in which it figures prominently—have you read the transcript of this talk?  Oh, you should!  Norma brilliantly works through problems of translation, both familiar and new.  It was a critical text for me as a young poet, obsessed with problems of translation but lacking a vocabulary to describe them. 

One of the talk’s key illustrations is found in Samuel Beckett’s translation of “Le Bateau Ivre.”  Beckett translates dix nuits as “nine nights.”  Norma demonstrates the “impossible” slippage from 10 to 9 as a way to reunderstand what poetry is at all.   In other words, in any conceivable communicative utterance, ten can simply never be nine.  But in the poem, that paronomastic vessel of excess, “nine nights” expresses something of dix nuits that “ten nights” doesn’t quite.  But before I get carried away let me return to Anna’s invitation.  My delight turned to awe when I saw a partial list of some of the other contributors.  I knew almost all of their names—they were the names of friends, but also heroes, poets and translators whose works have been electric lunules gibbous in my mind for years.

I remember seeing Erín Moure read at the Poetry Center as an undergrad.  She read her trans-e-lations from the Portuguese, opening wild vistas of possibility for my conception of what it means to embody the transformation of literary texts.  I paced for days after that reading, elliptically staggering on the backs of sketchy equine sea creatures, Erín and her work an interiorized Vergil.  But truth be told, I’ve been given so much from the people on this list.  And not just about translation per se.  Scanning their names my skin became like the salamander’s, permeable to water, lined with cells that bettered breathing.  Temporarily I forgot about this summer, and even the July that beat me with a trick hammer became an ultramarine canopy of sky, ardent funnels through which saccharine memories entered and metastasized.

I thought of the way Paul hugged me the first time we met, rubbing his palm on my back, with anybody else it would have been too intimate but Paul makes you feel like you’ve known him forever the moment you meet him.  I thought hi Judith!  There are not enough lines in “Le Bateau Ivre” to say how much better my life has been because of our friendship.  I love you.  I thought about an afternoon that Sandra and I sat in my backyard in the Mission, nursing beers and getting to know each other while her kid strayed around the yard dodging dog turds.  I thought about how much I love being around John, who’s so generous and cool.  I thought about Marie, whose work I adored from afar for years, and how when we finally got to meet in Detroit last winter it was so easy and fun, hanging out with her and Aaron, a bunch of cats and a little bag of prescription cheeba.  But to index all I felt would immobilize this translation, quite against the swerved torpor of Rimbaud’s boat.

I have the momentary fantasy that all of these people and I are not gathered only in a special feature of Drunken Boat, offering our translations of these three stanzas of “Bateau”, which is a way of telling our life stories to each other, but are actually at some sort of party together?  Maybe in between Marie’s new place in Brooklyn and John’s in Portland, which I guess might be Kansas City or thereabouts.  I know some terrific places, and if the weather permits, we could all sit around a big table, like one of those parties I’ve vaguely read about, where Rimbaud and Verlaine and their poet friends sit around long tables in Paris, their lips light lime green from gumming high octane wormwood absinthe off a spoon.  At the end of the night Rimbaud dumps over the table, everybody’s manuscripts fly into disarray, he and Verlaine go home and fuck and say the coolest, most menacing and intense shit to each other.

Making the translation was a familiar process.  When I want to translate something, I read it and re-read it.  I try to read it very slowly, like a salamander who accidentally ends up outside on the street in Montreal in February, dull and sullenly burning newspapers to stay warm.   Just as a mesh net drags through a body of water, accumulating particles and microorganism, I’m turned off and on and around as the drunken boat sails into me and I become it. My insides start to curdle.  Like putting a wild fig in a glass of milk, it gets fucking weird.  I start thinking about Behemoths and Maelstroms.  I start thinking about times I’ve been on boats, times I’ve been in the water, times that I’ve been drunk.   But then my translation starts to make me a little seasick.  Where is the Dramamine in this prose? It comes later, when we’re lounging on the deck of the boat, drunk as shit, relaxed and happy.

But as I read and re-read Bateau and especially these three stanzas, I’m less sure of myself.  Where my skin ends and the cornified outer layers of the other contributors to this feature in Drunken Boat begins.  I don’t know Charlotte Mandel—is she, like me, tripping about the bottomless nights of exile and the innumerable birds heralding some future power?  Has Laura Mullen had a shitty summer too, does the representation of those million golden birds stir something, some dream of flight to abdicate from a pitiful conjuncture?  I hope not, you know? 

I guess if I feel torn between wanting to have a common experience of reading and access to some uniquely fabricated oracle from the poem, that’s an ordinary experience for the translator, always supposedly split between two electromagnetic currents pulling apart the arms so there’s nothing left but the heart, abracadabresque, tumbling off the deck into a heaving heap of floating trash.  Fuck Europe, you know?  Fuck its ancient parapets.  But I think about these other translators and a song plays, “there’s a place for us!  / somewhere / a place for us” in the hissing sibilants of the version by Tom Waits.  I’m always stuck between the desire to paddle in the thick scaly moving air of a floating school and wandering off to that place, wherever it is. 

I’ve also been thinking about this paradigm of dreamt self-exile because, well, Rimbaud, and also because I got a haircut that’s too good for my workplace.  Alli cut my hair after Sara’s birthday party at the beach.  I scrubbed the sand and micro parasites my scalp accumulated swimming in the water, lowered the blinds, stripped, and smelled the salt on Alli’s skin as she leaned around my head in a sharp dance, shaping and shearing the long mess on top.  The haircut is frankly wonderful, a style I’ve coveted for years.  A long lineage of stylists failed to hearken to my vision, the sides and back shaved close to the skin with cute bangs swept over my brow like the delirious skies the sea-wanderer treads.  Their past efforts were preserved in the various lengths and layers of individual hairs, but only with Alli’s sympathy and determination did the haircut come to pass.  I thought it looked great, but realized something was a little off when I went to work the next day.

Lingering looks from coworkers lingered too long.  The sides were too short, I guess, the overall effect too punk.  One said well that’s an extremely trendy haircut.  Another asked if it had a name.  By now I was trying to hide in my tiny office like a Platyhelminthes lurking underneath cloudy sand.  Stuck barnacle to the bottom of the boat of contemporary wage earning, envoy from a misaligned sartorial future or, perhaps, past. I already spend much of my time at work trying to code as ordinary, invisible and therefore “professional,” admittedly a burlesque, but one I’ve become quite good at over the years.  Now my haircut became a hirsute antagonist I had unwittingly appropriated and draped atop my face and brain.  Rutting Behemoths messing up a placid daily tragedy.  The discordantly excellent haircut made every shift an occasion for dreamily displacing my body to a remote parapet of utter unemployment. 

I thought about Rimbaud, a poet famous for his day job.  I don’t know what kind of haircut would have been inappropriate for such a shitty job, colonial accomplice running arms between death stations.  I don’t know if Rimbaud even cared about his haircut.  He probably did.  My disaster was minor, I admit.  I had simply made myself too visible, my defenses weakened against the co-linearizing affects of the wage-labor obsequie.   I kept staring up in the sky, flicking my tail back and forth across my back in penance, ready to autotome if necessary.  I’d like huff Calgon if it meant peace. 

Sometimes during this shitty summer I thought that what I’d really like to do is phoenix, but another idea was to burrow.  Lie lusty and forlorn in the netherdust.  Let my hair grow.  Drink a lot, float among the trash boats.  At the party my keel swelled.  As soon as we said our hellos and distributed hugs I stripped and hurried down the bank of hot sand into the bay.  The water was warm and shallow.  Diving in with a shout, I shut my eyelids tight against the onslaught of salt.  Floating on my back, the sun high in the air, I began to wander at the waves’ will like the pattern of thought which surprises one when reading something very slow.  When my friends finally joined I said do you guys know that thing where Bataille says “the animal is in the world like water in water.”   They did, we do, we are. 

I brought goggles.  The water was so shallow that there was almost nothing to see when you dove to the bay’s floor.  A couple of feet of cloud, suffused with minor hurtling pebbles, and then smooth sand.  The goggles constituted a technology of mediation which permitted me to see what I wasn’t supposed to.  That is, my bio-eyes yearned to stay closed in the water but, by technological augmentation, by adding a third element to the conjuncture of my body and the water of the bay, a new experience was produced.  Translation.  The special set of goggles eyeing the space between “bateau” and “boat,” dix nuits and nine nights, the invisible communist world hidden inside this one.

There really was almost nothing down there.  It’s weird in hindsight how pleasurable it was to dive and sink, over and over.  Once, though, I did notice something.  There was an impression in the sand, a few inches long and vaguely ovular.   As the momentum of my diving body caused the vulnerable sand to stir and move I made out the shape of some kind of worm, its stability among so much velocity made it seem calm and peaceful.  Prehistoric.  Untranslatable.  A salamander in its misty  niche.  I think that worm and I felt something for each other.  A million birds appreciating their communities, in bottomless night, scheming future vigor.  I mean zombie birds on fire, flying right into the sun and staying there forever.  Here for a few hours there was a place for us.  Jen, come here, borrow my goggles, let’s look for this worm.  Flips, handstands, individual medleys, giggles.  Paul, let’s go back in, the water’s cold only for a moment.  Here’s a place for us.  We’ll find a new way of living.  We’ll find a new way of forgiving. It's what translators are always saying. Hold my hand and we’re halfway there.  Hold my hand and I’ll take you there.

Brandon Brown

Translator Bio:
Brandon Brown is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Top 40 (Roof) and the forthcoming Shadow Lanka (Big Lucks).  His poetry and prose have appeared recently or will appear soon in Open Space, the blog and magazine of SFMOMA, Art Practical, Maggy, Elderly, Berkeley Poetry Review, and Where Eagles Dare.  He is an editor at Krupskaya, occasionally publishes small press materials under the imprint OMG!, and helps curate the Heart’s Desire reading series at the Bay Area Public School.