Descending the impassive Rivers, I no longer
felt the haulers—fierce-skinned men had
taken them for targets and nailed their
naked bodies onto many-colored stakes.
Without thought of crew and cargo—
Flemish wheat or English cotton—
the haulers’ screams had faded into quiet—
the Rivers freed me to descend as I desired.
Into tidal frenzies, I, the other winter—
more reckless than the brains of infants—
rushed. Broken from their moorings, peninsulas
would not endure a more triumphant clamor.
Tempests blessed my sea-awakenings—
lighter than a cork, I danced among the breakers,
waves some call the endless roll of victims—for
ten nights—I did not miss the foolish eye of any
Sweeter than the flesh of sour apples for a child,
green sea-water, spilling through my pine hull,
washed away the stains from blue wine and
the vomit, took with them my grappling hook
I swam from that moment, bathing in
the Poem of the Sea—milky, star-infused—
devouring green azures where the livid,
ravaged drowned are sometimes thoughtful
as they sink—and staining the blue suddenly,
deliriums, slow rhythms under the day’s
ravishments—vast beyond alcohol
or lyre, love’s bitter reds fermented.
I know lightning-fissured heavens, water-spouts,
the undertow and currents; I know evening—
dawn elated like a flock of doves—and I have
sometimes seen what men imagine that they see.
I have seen sun setting, clotting luminous
with violet, dyed with mystic terrors—
and, like actors in an antique play, waves
distant, rolling—flickering shutters.
I have dreamed the green nights into dazzling
snow-fields. Kissing, slowly rising to the sea’s
eyes, I have dreamed the unimagined sap in
circulation, the awakening blue and yellow of
a phosphorous chant.
And I have tracked for pregnant months the tide-swells
as they warred with coral reefs—the waves, crazed
cattle—but I never dreamed that the three Marys’
luminous feet could muzzle a panting Ocean.
Hull rocking against unimagined Floridas,
I blended human hides with panther eyes and
flowers! Tensed rainbows bridled the green
herds that live behind the sea’s horizon!
I looked and saw how marshes ferment—in
the rushes, nets—a Leviathan is rotting!—
distance cataracting into an abyss while
waters avalanche into an ocean calm!
Glaciers, suns like silver coins, pearl waves and
ember skies! Atrocious beaches in the depths of the dark
inlets where monstrous snakes the insects are devouring
fall from twisting branches, black-perfumed foliage.
At times I wished to show to children dolphins
in the waves, how the sunfish sing—foam-
flowers lulled me as I drifted—winds that
I cannot describe gave me their wings.
At times the sea, a martyr, sickened by the poles
and zones, brought me her somber flowers with their
yellow suckers, her tears softening the ocean’s
pitch—I was like a woman on her knees . . .
an island almost—quarrels and squalor of
the blonde-eyed birds like oceans breaking on
my beaches—I sailed on—with drowned men,
drifting through my frail lines, sleeping in my wake.
I, the lost boat in an inlet’s hair—tossed
by storms into an ether without birds—I,
a carcass drunk on water—neither monitors
nor sailing ships would fish me from the ocean—
free, smoke-ridden in the violet mists—
and piercing heaven, sky was like a red
wall smeared with azure mucus, the sun’s
lichens—rich jams for good poets—as
I raced, stained by the moon’s electric
fragments, timbers crazed, black sea-
horses as my escort, Julys battering me—
and turquoise skies with ardent funnels—
while I shivered, sensing from a distance
Behemoth’s rutting moans, crude Maelstroms,
the eternal spiders spinning azure immobilities—
I longed for Europe and her ancient parapets!
I saw the archipelagos of stars! islands with
frenzied skies—open to the traveler—gold
birds in the millions were my future impulse.
In night-fathoms will you sleep in exile?
The truth is that my weeping is extravagant!
Dawns break sadly, every moon appalls; the sun
embitters. Acrid love will swell my drunken
indolence. So let my keel burst! Let me go to sea!
If I must sail in European waters, let them be
night-black, a frigid pool on fragrant evenings
where a grieving child beside the water kneels
and frees a frail boat like a late-May butterfly.
And waves, dear waves—bathed in your languors,
I no longer overtake the wake of freighters,
or sail before the fleets of flames and pennants,
or swim beneath the eyes of prison vessels.
In translating Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre, I found it helpful to listen to Bud Powell’s jazz. In the past I have also found Powell helpful when I tried to translate poems from Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks. Perhaps that is because, as Harold Bloom has suggested, in Powell as in Hart Crane “the bells break down their tower; / And swing I know not where” (Bloom was thinking in particular of Un Poco Loco). This has seemed true to me for Mandelshtam, and it also seems true for Rimbaud. When the tower is broken, the bells continue to swing, but where? Powell is helpful to me as a translator because I am looking for an American idiom (John Coltrane’s Ascension has also been helpful. Valéry, by contrast, seems to require a different American idiom, one I associate more with Powell’s friend Thelonious Monk). While a translation needs to be true to words of the original—I try to translate as literally as possible—it is more important, perhaps, to translate the original’s impulse (a kind of energetic wave that moves through the words), to discover, for example, how the impulse in Rimbaud’s poems can shape words in an American English. For me the impulse emerges as a rhythm or rhythms—not those of the original—but those to be discovered as the English poem that emerges, in Rimbaud’s Drunken Boat as it “swing[s] I know not where.” I don’t try to understand the original. I do try to discover the translation—or a translation—it offers, perhaps as another of its blessings.