Tony Brinkley translating Arthur Rimbaud

The Drunken Boat

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 
             and rudder.

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.

Translator's Note:
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.


Tony Brinkley

Translator Bio:
Tony Brinkley teaches English at the University of Maine, where he is also the Senior Faculty Associate at the
 University’s Franco-American Centre. His poetry and translations have appeared in in Another Chicago Magazine,
 Beloit Poetry Journal, Cerise Press, Drunken Boat, Four Centuries, Hinchas de Poesie, Hungarian Review, MayDay,
 New Review of Literature, Puckerbrush Press, Poetry Salzburg Review, Otoliths, Shofar, and World Literature Today.
 Recent translations include poetry by Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris
 Pasternak, and Anna Akhmatova.

Author Bio:
Arthur Rimbaud died in 1891, at the age of 37. He composed Le Bateau Ivre in 1871, when he was 16, near the beginning of his brief life as a poet. He included it in the letter in which he introduced himself to Verlaine. His life as a poet ended in 1874 when he was 20. Of his poetry, he wrote that “it is really not my fault.”