Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The Sad Songs of Hell — Brent Cunningham . (Ugly Duckling Presse)

Today's book of poetry:
 The Sad Songs of Hell.  Brent Cunningham.  Ugly Duckling Presse.  Brooklyn, New York.  2017.

Absolutely astonishing.  Brent Cunningham "translates" Arthur Rimbaud like you have never imagined.  To start, Brent Cunningham admittedly doesn't speak or read French.  Just off the top of our Today's book of poetry heads we've never been quite so taken by imagined translations.

If Today's book of poetry properly understands Cunningham's technique The Sad Songs of Hell come to us through a process of "translation by excessive confidence."  The resulting poems are fanciful to say the least, we loved them.  But it did take Today's book of poetry a few minutes to figure out what was actually going on in Cunningham's The Sad Songs of Hell.  When you open this lovely chapbook Brent Cunningham's translations appear in full sized text at the top of the page.  In the lower right hand corner of each page is the original Arthur Rimbaud poem, in a microscopic font. 
Fortunately for us all, at the back of each copy of the gorgeous The Sad Songs of Hell is a
magnification lens made of plastic and with a small portrait of the young Rimbaud. Beautiful.


mostly I use these bruised digits to make you feel
they dress dolls in peacoats, befoul menus with herb-stains
but they never forget: they're not raspberry-capped-feet—
only your bare chest opens their imperceptible vents

if you want an excuse for me here it is: I think the body's a rind
love only feels infinite & only if you're on the mounting end
it's obvious you and I have legs, good legs, like all Bohemians
but when Nature created those, she wasn't even a Woman

Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue:
Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.
Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien:
Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’àme,
Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
Par la Nature, — heureux comme avec une femme.

The poems. Rimbaud is only a diving board for the pyrotechnic Cunningham. Once he bouncing on the end of the board, Cunningham, there is really no telling where is going to alight and let down, even less chance of knowing; is it a somersault, a cannonball, and so on.

Brent Cunningham's odd gift for translation could be used on any text from any language and to that Today's book of poetry says "have at it." Today's book of poetry will gladly eat up whatever Cunningham is serving.

Today's book of poetry should have mentioned this earlier, Brent Cunningham is convinced he has somehow found a darker narrative than the original Rimbaud. And perhaps he has, but these poems, these delightful translation brim with light. They brighten the surroundings.

The Truth About Dormitories
like a river with pot-breath, lip synching
in green pants, another so-called "Agent
of the Sun" stands at Education's pinnacle
making, today, chocolate from melted crayons

if he's an insurrectionist I'm Ke$ha
part cream cheese, part blueberry bagel
night after night smoking that moss
staring at an internal Everglade

glaciers were crossed, on foot, to forge us
sick infants left to sleep forever
& Nature, our former workhorse, burned & spoiled

so if a marine breeze occasionally blows perfume
through the mold-specked window above his toilet
it'll only deepen the shame of this darkening coast

C’est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.
Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.
Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.
Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.


The sun is shining in the nation's capital this morning and Today's book of poetry is feeling optimistic, we think we caught it from Brent Cunningham's The Sad Songs of Hell.  These poems are whippersnappers.

Our morning read was led by the reclusive Max, our Senior Editor.  Of course he didn't leave his office, he simply opened his never to be darkened door and bellowed.  He bellowed from his office, and between laughs and Cunningham's opus, and then insisted on reading the Rimbaud poem in the original French.  Max demanding we follow suite, so of course we did.

Androgynous Love

her pinkie, a curlicue wrapped in rabbit fur
dips into the cheese; she pulls back her hair
& then, the unexpected: vegetarians
steal the butcher's financial statements

whether your soul is gray, green or buffet-colored
makes a difference to the two kinds of people at this resort
there's the Cowboys, pissing on the poor
& the Gracious Sons, who consume them like parfait

tonight society's antenna glows red, transmitting gout
& alien horrors into the mind's buried cables
weaving a fate so singular & brutal it's unspeakable

& on a dozen rainy graves this phrase: LOVE SAVES
yet the wheel does wheel sending another corpse
through the terrible, angelic, ulcerous Asshole of the World

Comme d'un cercueil vert en fer blanc, une tête
De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pommadés
D'une vieille baignoire émerge, lente et bête,
Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés ;

Puis le col gras et gris, les larges omoplates
Qui saillent ; le dos court qui rentre et qui ressort ;
Puis les rondeurs des reins semblent prendre l'essor ;
La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates ;

L'échine est un peu rouge, et le tout sent un goût
Horrible étrangement ; on remarque surtout
Des singularités qu'il faut voir à la loupe...

Les reins portent deux mots gravés : Clara Venus ;
- Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe
Belle hideusement d'un ulcère à l'anus.


Cunningham's poems/translations are surreal but true, impossible but delightful.  It's hard to ask for more.

Brent Cunningham


Brent Cunningham is a writer and publisher. He is the author of the poetry books Bird & Forest (UDP), Journey to the Sun (Atelos Press), and the chapbook, The Sad Songs of Hell (UDP). He helped found the SPT Poets Theatre Festival, helped coordinate the Artifact Reading Series, and is on the board of Small Press Traffic. He is the Managing Director for Small Press Distribution and founded Hooke Press with Neil Alger, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing, and ephemera.

Why do I laugh hysterically merely at the title of this jubilant suite of translations and their originals plucked from Rimbaud’s Hell? Wait, what are originals, what are translations? They are all originals. Real, authentic poems. But then what is the relationship between the poetry of Rimbaud and that of Cunningham? Now we get to the cunning of Cunningham’s work. Using key cognates (true or false), a lot of freedom (free association, cf. Freud), magical thinking, and sounds, or the idea of sound, or the sound of an idea, Cunningham exquisitely and skillfully constructs, with logic and anti-logic, hilarious and/or solemn bursts of dramatically charged poems. As Norah Jones says, “It’s music, man!”
     —Norma Cole


Poems cited here are assumed to be under copyright by the poet and/or publisher.  They are shown here for publicity and review purposes.  For any other kind of re-use of these poems, please contact the listed publishers for permission.

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