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The Alexandrine Plan

Ciaran Carson

This is a collection which is the result of a task that to some may seem distinctly outre in its cosmopolitanism, Ciaran Carson’s new versions in English (rather than direct translations) of sonnets by Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Mallarme. As Eilis Ni Dhuibhne quipped, with characteristic insight, in her review of these self-same books in The Sunday Tribune, ‘None of these would have felt happy in Sligo, or on a farm.’ Why not quote her more fully, since I would only be using different words to express the same idea myself: ‘Baudelaire liked cats. Otherwise, nature for these poets takes the form of sex, food, wine and perfume. A more startling transition, from the gentle nature lyrics of modern Ireland, to these rambunctious, sophisticated, decadent poems, could hardly be imagined (one understands, instantly, why Joyce would have had to move out of here).’ Quite. One also thinks of Beckett, returned briefly to Dublin from Paris in 1937 to appear on the plaintiff’s side in a libel action, where his suitability as a witness was shown to be dubious and he was subjected to ridicule, because he corrected his cross-examiner’s deliberate mispronunciation ‘Prowst’ to ‘Proust’, and so betrayed his interest in these dirty French writers, which did not find favour with either the judge or the plain people of Dublin on the jury.

My secondary school French is not adequate enough to judge the quality of these free translations in comparison with the originals upon which they are based, but they do include some up-to-the-minute topical references. Thus, Rimbaud’s ‘La Maline’ (which according to my dictionary translates as ‘mischievous’, ‘shrewd’, ‘shy’) becomes ‘Miss Malinger’, and a serving girl is transformed into a page-three Stunner. His ‘Ma Boheme’ becomes ‘On the Road’, and:

I strummed the black elastic of my tattered boot

Held to my heart like youthful violin or lute,

A veritable pop-star of the awful rhyme.

embellishes the flavour, even if it deviates from the sense of:

Ou, rimant au milien des ombres fantastiques,

Commes des lyres, je tirais les elastiques

De mes souliers blesses, un pied pres de mon coeur!

Similarly playful liberties are taken throughout, with references to ‘tacky ‘50s decor’ in the same poet’s ‘The Green Bar’, and to ‘Fingal’s Cave’ in Baudelaire’s ‘I Had a Life’. Carson has tried as much as possible to stick to the rhyme scheme of the originals, and has used Alexandrines instead of iambic pentameters, and so allows himself a lot of imaginative latitude when it comes to the arrangement of words in, and at the end of, lines. Mallarme is the most difficult of the three to get a handle on, in either French or English, but it’s a difficulty that pleases, in that Wallace Stevens/John Ashbery not-quite-sure-what-he’s-on-about-but-like-it-anyway kind of way.

It is worth noting that linguistic experimentation and playfulness seem to go hand in hand with the more louche outlook on life which runs through these poems, whereas clarity, conservatism and convention would be the keynotes for the back-to-nature boys. What am I talking about? These poems are sonnets. But they speak of a warped romanticism, struggling to retain some semblance of purity, whose closest contemporary parallels could perhaps be found in the American Gothic of movies like those of David Lynch, or the sounds of new country music, like that of The Handsome Family.

First published in Books Ireland


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