Shapeshifter's brilliance returns the genie to his echo
POETRY SPECIAL: In the Light of (after Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations). By Ciaran Carson. Gallery Press, €11.95 paperback, €18.50 hardback
John Ashbery calls Arthur Rimbaud’s Génie one of the greatest poems ever written. It heralds the coming of a new, secular saviour and has been translated dozens of times. Each translator may have seen him- or herself as its English-language messiah.
Ciaran Carson’s new version of Génie does justice to Ashbery’s statement even as it acknowledges the difficulty of retranslation, of “returning [the genie] to his echo”. His new version of Rimbaud’s Illuminations enters a congested field.
Rimbaud remains so attractive to us partly because his genius is aphoristic and acts as a kind of invitation and prompt to translators: “Je est un autre,” he declares; or he asks that the poet “make oneself a seer through a long, prodigious, systematic disordering of all the senses”.
And it is not, of course, just the poems that exercise their fascination. Rimbaud’s life is like a fable: fatherless child in Charleville, runaway who shocked the Paris literary salons, witness to the Paris Commune, escaping Paris to King’s Cross with his lover Paul Verlaine, victim in the violent quarrel with Verlaine that ended with a gunshot and Verlaine in a Belgian jail. A man whose last act as a poet was to entrust, carelessly, the manuscript of Illuminations to his ex-lover after a brief meeting in Stuttgart, a manuscript that Verlaine would publish in the belief that it was a posthumous memorial, thinking that Rimbaud had already died in Africa, where in fact he would spend the rest of his life making and losing a fortune as a trader.
It is easy to see why Rimbaud remains so perpetually fresh and intriguing, but why should Carson be the right translator? At this point in Rimbaud’s, or any major foreign poet’s, trajectory into English, faithfulness is only one aspect of the translator’s contribution: it is vital that the translator bring something of his or her own to bear upon the original.
And Carson does seem well equipped. First, he has form for translating Rimbaud, having previously brought across his sonnets – along with those of Baudelaire and Mallarmé – in The Alexandrine Plan (1998). More importantly, Carson is the protean shapeshifter of Irish poetry. Rather than retreat into mannerism or self-imitation, he has always tried on new ideas for size. His enormous and wonderfully varied Collected Poems of 2008 has been followed by the bleak, gapped, short-lined Until Before After, by two novels, including this year’s Borgesian mystery novel Exchange Place, and now by this version of one of modernism’s inaugurating texts.
Carson’s introduction announces that his work took its bearings from Walter Benjamin’s essay The Task of the Translator and its injunction that the translator “must expand and deepen his language by means of the foreign language”. Carson cannot resist pointing out that Benjamin’s essay is collected in a book itself called, in English, Illuminations, a title that he duly avoids: in fact, by titling his version In the Light of he sets out its particular relation to the original and the previous translations.