This one uses the rhyme words from David Malouf ‘s ‘La Belle Hélène’, which I wrote about yesterday. It’s not the Onegin stanza rhyme scheme – sorry!
November verse 12: It's been a while since we've seen midnight or, naked-eyed, pushed thread through needle, decades since you've been a girl or I a boy. No half-sane poet would write of us as bête and belle, yet here we are, alive, awake, no cancer, heart attack or stroke to force the point we're not immortal. Though, always seeming as innocuous as phoenix embers in the hearth, these fleeting memories of youth – when I had painless knees, and you no back complaining when you rose – hint darkly at what looms tomorrow.
Speaking a couple of years ago at a seminar on Poetry and the Sacred at the Catholic University, David Malouf offered a definition of prayer as paying close attention. If one accepts that definition, then An Open Book is full of prayer: attention to the environment, to relationships, to small children playing, to tiny moments, to his own fleeting thoughts and feelings. There’s also close attention to language, in particular the kind of attention that translation demands.
This means that for the reader the book offers many things that make you go hmmm, or ah, and sometimes oof!
The title, An Open Book, could look like a publisher’s little joke: that is, it’s a kind of label – ‘This is a book.’ But there’s more to it: it makes you think the sentence, ‘My life is an open book,’ and the book does follow the trajectory of a life’. It pretty much begins with a series entitled ‘Kinderszenen’, German for ‘Scenes from childhood’, and ends with a number of poems about old age and the anticipation of death. It follows in the poet’s footsteps from the Brisbane of his childhood, to London, the village of Campagnatico in Tuscany, Myrtle Street in Chippendale, and back to Brisbane.
One of the childhood poems, ‘The Open Book’, suggests pretty strongly that while the book may be in some way autobiographical, it’s not offering us a writer stripped bare:
My mother could read me, or so she claimed, like a book. Fair warning! But I too was a reader and knew that books
like houses have their secrets. Under the words even of plain speakers, echo and pre-echo.
There’s plenty of echo and pre-echo under the mostly plain words of these poems.
I mostly want to talk about translation, but first, just because I love them, I have to quote these lines from one of the ‘death’ poems, ‘Before or After’:
At something more than fourscore, till the big
surprise kicks in and leaves me breathless, most surprises, though not unwelcome,
are small. It is the small, the muted inconsequential, at this point that comes closest to real.
About translation. Malouf’s first collection, Bicycle and other poems (UQP 1970) included a number of translations. I can’t quote from memory, but I remember the pleasure I found in the freshness of his versions of Horace: one of them mentions the early light glinting off milk churns put out beside a country road, and to me it felt that rural Queensland was being linked to classical Rome; and his translation of ‘carpe diem’ is a small miracle:
Today's a rose. Let it blaze in your lapel.
There’s a Horace translation in this book, and a Dante, and the one I want to talk about, ‘La Belle Hélène’, after ‘Sonnet pour Hélène’ by the 16th century French poet Pierre de Ronsard. This is not exactly an obscure poem: I found a website that gives the original French and at least ten translations (here, if you’re interested).
A basic question about any translation is: why? Why this poem? Why include it in a collection of your own poems? Is it a technical exercise? is the translated poem one you love and simply want your readers to know about? Or does it provide a medium for you to express something of your own?
The first thing to say is that ‘La Belle Hélène’ is actually a translation – in contrast to W B Yeats’s also-lovely ‘When You Are Old‘, which takes the original poem as a starting point for a slightly different argument addressed to his own love.
Look at the first lines.
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle, Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant, Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant : Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle.
Very close literal translation):
When you will be well old, in the evening, by the candle, Sitting near the fire, dividing and spinning You will say, singing my verses, being filled with wonder: Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful
Long years from now, in the fireside hush of midnight, as you muse by candlelight, you'll pause at your needle -work and say, 'Years back, when I was a girl, an impossible sweet sixteen, Ronsard, the poet
you know, once sang my praises, called me 'belle'.
Malouf doesn’t stay close to the words of the original, or use full rhymes, but nor does he hijack the poem for his own purposes. There is evidence everywhere that he has paid close, loving, deeply respectful attention to the original. All the elements are there: the projection well into the future, the fire, the candle, the work, the rhyme scheme (though modernised away from full rhymes). Instead of singing the poet’s verses, the future person drops his name, a rough equivalent in these days when no one sits around a fire singing poetry. Malouf moves the hour of the imagined future scene from the evening to midnight, and introduces the idea of a hush, but the effect is to intensify what’s in the original rather than change it. Interestingly, he does specify the girl’s age, ‘sweet sixteen’, which has a decidedly 20th century feel, and can be seen as part of the project of rescuing the poem from a museum existence.
But she’s not just ‘sweet sixteen’, she’s ‘an impossible sweet sixteen’. And that sounds a note not in the original: one feels that Ronsard is about the same age as the woman he addresses, but this ‘impossible’ comes from a much older person. It seems to be asking how anyone could ever be that young?
And it turns out that the poet as an older person has been subtly woven into the texture of the poem. Where Ronsard’s speaker refers to his future self abstractly as a boneless ghost (fantôme sans os), Malouf’s is more specifically imagined – ‘innocuous’ and ‘esteemed’. It’s slight, but enough to be the difference between a young person and an old one imagining themselves as no longer alive. So the ground has been prepared for when he calls her ‘child’ in the second last line. And that word does a lot of work.
Ronsard’s original is unambiguously a poem of seduction. Malouf’s is something else. Ronsard says the older woman will be ‘regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain‘ (‘regretting my love and your proud disdain’). There is no reference to Malouf’s speaker’s love:
You'll regret at last what youth and youthful pride disdained.
Ronsard’s final injunction – ‘n’attendez à demain; /Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie‘ (‘don’t wait until tomorrow; / Gather today the roses of life’) – is a lover pressing his case. In Malouf’s version, having diverged incrementally from the original, it becomes something else, a warning from age to youth:
child, relent, choose life! Today is a rose that withers. Pluck it now, and boldly. Beware tomorrow.
Only the single word, ‘relent’, carries a hint that seduction might be on the agenda. Which would be just a bit creepy. But having now read the poem a number of times, I find that element recedes into the shadows, and the poem becomes an impassioned, generous, considered cry to the young not to waste their youth.
As a teenager I loved Charles Addams' cartoons in The New Yorker, and also what I saw of the original TV series. This series, about Wednesday's time at a boarding school that's like a dark parody of Hogwarts, gives the same pleasure. Tim Burton's direction is just right, and Jenna Ortega as Wednesday is perfect.