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New Poetry, Fiction, Essays

A return to the attack on writer’s block! Shirley Bell looks at translation to add a creative push to your poetry.

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Patrick Williamson has very kindly written a thoughtful article on the process of translation and I have published a really fine selection of his work from the original Italian.

However I would like to suggest the idea of translation as a creative tool to prompt your creative writing.

I wrote lots of poetry in the past and was widely published, so I became  involved in the kind of activities that go along with that. I gave readings all over the country, including the Arvon Centres and the Southbank in London. I was a Literature Consultant for Lincolnshire and Humberside Arts and edited their magazine, and worked as a writer in residence at schools, residential centres, higher education institutions and so on and on.

But, after the illness of one of my sons, I had a long period where poetry deserted me – I wrote garden books for GMC publications and travelled all over Europe taking photographs and visiting beautiful gardens to showcase in the books. I was also active in art journalling where words are integrated into pages, which can be as simple as a painted background or a complex multi-layered collage. So I think the artistic urge had become sidetracked.

In  2012  I decided to do an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln to kick start my writing. In the summer before I started the course I was anxious in case I just wasn’t able to write again. Then inspiration struck in the form of the somewhat rakish Baudelaire and his Fleurs du mal (Flowers of Evil).

My French is not very good; my daughter says I know just enough to get into trouble, hence I thought  the poster we saw in a French town advertising a cirque de singes  (circus of monkeys) was, to my horror, a circus of blood (du sang) instead.

So, I got a book of Baudelaire’s poems with parallel translation and  then looked at loads of other translations of his poems and jumped straight in.

Patrick Williamson says in his article ” Each time, like answers to crossword clues, I suddenly know that one particular word has to be used.”  This really interested me, as I felt that I was doing a kind of very, very difficult crossword puzzle.  So these poems of mine are apprentice pieces, not meant to be sent out on the lonely rounds of submissions, but they were a wonderful vehicle for getting me back into the world of poetry with its compression, its wordplay, its attention to detail.

I spent ages on the poems but I still remember the pleasures and pains of wrangling with the words, and the inspiration I was given to jump headlong into my MA.  So, however rusty your language skills, I would suggest just having a go, as a wonderful way to look at construction, vocabulary, form and  as a new avenue for your creativity to follow.

So here is SPLEEN  by Charles Baudelaire from Fleurs du mal  and 4 poems in my translation very much  trailing an extremely long way after Baudelaire

Spleen 1

Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière,
De son urne à grands flots verse un froid ténébreux
Aux pâles habitants du voisin cimetière
Et la mortalité sur les faubourgs brumeux.

Mon chat sur le carreau cherchant une litière
Agite sans repos son corps maigre et galeux;
L’âme d’un vieux poète erre dans la gouttière
Avec la triste voix d’un fantôme frileux.

Le bourdon se lamente, et la bûche enfumée
Accompagne en fausset la pendule enrhumée
Cependant qu’en un jeu plein de sales parfums,

Héritage fatal d’une vieille hydropique,
Le beau valet de coeur et la dame de pique
Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts.

 

 

JADED 1

Itching with rage at everything in the town,
Pluvius upends his jug and spills chill waves
of death across the suburbs and drowns
once more the pallid corpses in their graves.

My scraggy cat is longing for a bed
and weaves its mangy way across the stones,
while in the gutter a poet, long time dead,
sings mournfully  amongst his saturated bones.

The plaintive bell, the wheezing clock
and the shrill singing of the smoking log,
accompany the sodden crone. Reeking. Stuttering

her legacy, as the pack of cards cascades.
And the Knave of Hearts and the Queen of Spades,
both handsome still, reveal their loveless muttering.

 

 

Spleen 2

J’ai plus de souvenirs que si j’avais mille ans.

Un gros meuble à tiroirs encombré de bilans,
De vers, de billets doux, de procès, de romances,
Avec de lourds cheveux roulés dans des quittances,
Cache moins de secrets que mon triste cerveau.
C’est une pyramide, un immense caveau,
Qui contient plus de morts que la fosse commune.
— Je suis un cimetière abhorré de la lune,
Où comme des remords se traînent de longs vers
Qui s’acharnent toujours sur mes morts les plus chers.
Je suis un vieux boudoir plein de roses fanées,
Où gît tout un fouillis de modes surannées,
Où les pastels plaintifs et les pâles Boucher
Seuls, respirent l’odeur d’un flacon débouché.

Rien n’égale en longueur les boiteuses journées,
Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
L’ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prend les proportions de l’immortalité.
— Désormais tu n’es plus, ô matière vivante!
Qu’un granit entouré d’une vague épouvante,
Assoupi dans le fond d’un Sahara brumeux;
Un vieux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
Oublié sur la carte, et dont l’humeur farouche
Ne chante qu’aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

 

 

JADED 2

My memories could fill over a thousand years.

A chest of drawers crammed with souvenirs,
with poems, letters, songs, legal affairs
and old receipts wrapped round hanks of hair,
holds fewer secrets than my sad brain.
It is a pyramid, a vault, a memorial cairn
covering the nameless graveyard of my dead.
I am a cemetery and now the moon has fled.
Sorrow trails pale worms which gorge and feed
upon my precious corpses with insatiable greed.
An old bedroom with its desiccated flowers
and unfashionable clothes, heavy with past hours,
where time-foxed prints and fading watercolours
exhale some ancient perfume’s dying odours.
Under such boredom the minutes spread and grow;
the years have covered me like heavy snows.
My boredom, brooded in the womb of my ennui
Has grown into a monstrous immortality.
And now this living matter is all gone!
Leaving vague memories like petrified stone,
wrapped in dreams of barren lands.
An old sphinx, blanketed in sand,
dropped off the map. Its impotent rages blaze
unseen beneath the sun’s dying rays.

 

 

Spleen 3

Je suis comme le roi d’un pays pluvieux,
Riche, mais impuissant, jeune et pourtant très vieux,
Qui, de ses précepteurs méprisant les courbettes,
S’ennuie avec ses chiens comme avec d’autres bêtes.
Rien ne peut l’égayer, ni gibier, ni faucon,
Ni son peuple mourant en face du balcon.
Du bouffon favori la grotesque ballade
Ne distrait plus le front de ce cruel malade;
Son lit fleurdelisé se transforme en tombeau,
Et les dames d’atour, pour qui tout prince est beau,
Ne savent plus trouver d’impudique toilette
Pour tirer un souris de ce jeune squelette.
Le savant qui lui fait de l’or n’a jamais pu
De son être extirper l’élément corrompu,
Et dans ces bains de sang qui des Romains nous viennent,
Et dont sur leurs vieux jours les puissants se souviennent,
II n’a su réchauffer ce cadavre hébété
Où coule au lieu de sang l’eau verte du Léthé

 

JADED 3

Mine is a sodden country and I’m its king,
old in my youth, rich yet lacking.
Tired of the croaks of my pedagogues,
sick of my animals, I hate my dogs.
I no longer soar in my love of falconry,
I ignore my dead beneath this balcony,
I am deaf to the song of my capering jester,
my frowning sickness makes me fester.
My garlanded bed is gravestone dust
and those dancing whores have killed my lust.
Nothing they wear now makes me smile
baring the rictus of my skull. Vile
as my base nature, no gold from lead
transforms my nature, all corrupted.
The alchemists and baths of roman blood
cannot make me young or good.
My blood runs cold and waters of death,
green as Lethe, steal away my breath.

 

 

Spleen 4

Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle
Sur l’esprit gémissant en proie aux longs ennuis,
Et que de l’horizon embrassant tout le cercle
II nous verse un jour noir plus triste que les nuits;

Quand la terre est changée en un cachot humide,
Où l’Espérance, comme une chauve-souris,
S’en va battant les murs de son aile timide
Et se cognant la tête à des plafonds pourris;

Quand la pluie étalant ses immenses traînées
D’une vaste prison imite les barreaux,
Et qu’un peuple muet d’infâmes araignées
Vient tendre ses filets au fond de nos cerveaux,

Des cloches tout à coup sautent avec furie
Et lancent vers le ciel un affreux hurlement,
Ainsi que des esprits errants et sans patrie
Qui se mettent à geindre opiniâtrement.

— Et de longs corbillards, sans tambours ni musique,
Défilent lentement dans mon âme; l’Espoir,
Vaincu, pleure, et l’Angoisse atroce, despotique,
Sur mon crâne incliné plante son drapeau noir.

 

JADED 4

When the lid of the sky, heavy and low,
squashes the spirit’s long boredom,
and a day blacker than night starts to grow
into the horizon’s encircling cordon.

When the land is a suffocating cell
and futile hope, like a bat,
beats her timid wings in its long hell
and the rotten ceiling pins her flat.

When the endless rain stretches out
into the bars of a boundless prison
and spiders spin and weave, massed but quiet,
monstrous webs that steal the brain’s freedoms.

Then the bells peal with a rage
that batters the very ends of heaven,
wandering spirits at large
whimpering and crying for attention.

Without bells or drums, silently,
as my soul is vanquished and my dreams are dead
those long slow hearses are sliding by
and Hope’s black flag is placed on my bowed head.

 



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