The Gardens of This Star: Three new Mallarmé messengers


Laura Steele on three from the school of inquiétude


E. H. and A. M. Blackmore, Stéphane Mallarmé: Collected Poems and Other Verse
2006, 282pp, ISBN 019280362X, £9.99 / $15.95,
Oxford University Press

Peter Manson, Before and After Mallarmé
2005, 17pp, ISSN: 1368-3055 25, £2.00,
Survivors' Press

Christine North, Mallarmé
2006, 27pp, ISBN: 1-905649-02-9 / 978-1-905649-02-0, £5.00 incl. p & p
Perdika Press


To translate the indistinct poems of Mallarmé is to double the circuit of mirrorings and rhythmic spacings of relations. The new Oxford book presents the complete poems with facing translations by E. H. and A. M. Blackmore, along with "other verses" - the most complete collection in English so far. Manson and North both present short pamphlets of their translations. The three books complement each other, though Manson's collection alone would also be of interest to those familiar with the originals.

Clearly the review must begin with nothing, that is, a Toast ('Salut'), the first poem of Mallarmé's collected arrangement:

Rien, cette écume, vierge vers
A ne désigner que la coupe;
Telle loin se noie une troupe
De sirènes mainte à l'envers.
The Blackmores translate this as:

Nothing, this foam, this virgin verse
designating the cup, no more;
so plunges far away a corps
of sirens, many in reverse.
Rhyme scheme and pun preserved, the former achieved with the fanciful "corps" (though I like "corps of sirens" as a phrase) and a switching around in the second sentence (rather in the manner of the naive rhyme user) to get "no more" at the end, designating the cup and no more than the cup. Christine North tackles the same problem, opening her pamphlet:

Nothing, this froth, virgin verse
Denoting nothing but the cup;
So in the distance drowns a troop
Of sirens, many a one inverse.
The goblet/cut returns to the end of the sentence where it half-rhymes well with troop. The sirens now drown where the Blackmores had partly revived them with only "plunges", leaving only the echo to their deaths. Froth or foam? I'd prefer scum! Manson translates this twice, putting the poem at the end of his pamphlet and calling it 'Between Cup and Lip'. This is one of his freer versions, re-worked on the left hand page, spaced out on the right:

Nothing, meniscus, virgin                                      verse
                   refers to nothing but the cup
so slowly                                                upside down                  a troop
of sirens on the ceiling                                  drowns
Meniscus of course takes us close up to imagine the surface of the water and it also presents edges - to create the meniscus - the edges of the page, concave or convex. How far away are the sirens, and where is the splash? What is this about the sirens going backwards? North writes a dislocated pun with "many a one inverse" - in-verse, perhaps on the white of the page where reference isn't? Manson hints at the white rooms of French prose poetry to come by putting in a ceiling where the sirens drown, upside-down. The Blackmores' sirens "in reverse" have the virtue of being vague and the confusion over "reverse" is translated from the original, verse/reverse a preservation, though it is not as confusing as North's "inverse". This is one of the points at which Manson goes after, where the reflexive gaps of Mallarmé admit new nothings. From a rival book to the Oxford, a Collected Poems translated by Henry Weinfield for University of California Press in 1996, comes yet more virgin verse, Weinfield's title being 'Salutation' (personally I'd go for 'Hi there!'):

Nothing, this foam, virgin verse
Only to designate the cup:
Thus, far off, drowns a Siren troop;
Many, upended, are immersed,
Weinfield's sirens drown quite ordinarily. Cup / troop again, but "Thus, far off" is more spirited than North's "So in the distance". The sirens: envers - either inside out, back to front or upside down, and in each English version one option is chosen. They could also be on the wrong side or the other side.

The sirens are, if one were to attempt a reading of this palm, the old Romantic lyric poets drowning in retreat, though they are also that idea as ornament, and they're also simply foam of the sea: ultimately shadowed, far off, on the page or sail:

Nous naviguons, ô mes divers
Amis, moi déjà sur la poupe
Vous l'avant fastueux qui coupe
Le flot de foudres et d'hivers;

Une ivresse belle m'engage
Sans craindre même son tangage
De porter debout ce salut

Solitude, récif, étoile
A n'importe ce qui valut
Le blanc souci de notre toile.
The Blackmores end this toast

to things of any kind deserving
of our white sail's preoccupation.
North, often clipping her English short, toasts

Whatever being worthy coaxed
The white attention of our sail.
A sail that is coaxed? A poeticism which dissipates my attention. Weinfield sticks the neck of his sonnet out by ending it with a rhyming couplet -

To whatsoever may be worth
Our sheet's white care in setting forth.
- which suggests a rather English progression. Manson:

                 to any trick that validates
our canvas,                            seamlessly opaque.
Canvas is a release from over-determined sails and sheets, and it is not further from toile. Manson's choice of "validates" is much more interesting than worthy, worth and deserving - a trick of the language, a validation of poetry (remember Mallarmé's loss of faith, years of depression, and then conception of and furious work on a great Book), it complicates the insouciant voyage out with shores of linguistic duress and dilemmas of poetics.

Christine North's Mallarmé is eleven poems with facing originals. After the 'Toast' we get 'Apparition', rendered in lovely half-rhymes.

Et j'ai cru voir la fée au chapeau de clarté
Qui jadis sur mes beaux sommeils d'enfant gâté
Passait, laissant toujours de ses mains mal fermées
Neiger de blancs bouquets d'étoiles parfumées.

- I thought I saw the fairy capped with light
Who through my pampered childhood's sleep-filled nights
Once passed, and always from each half-closed palm
White showers of stars snowed softly, scented, down.
Compared to this, the Blackmores are clunkily inept:

I thought I saw the fairy capped with light
who through my spoiled-child's sleep in former days
used to pass, while her half-closed hands always
dropped snows of scented stars in white bouquets.
North doesn't always sustain this. A couple of versions here are tepid - 'Springtime' ('Renouveau') and 'The Bellringer'. Manson's

De froids Péchés s'ébat un plumage féal

the faithful feathers of cold sins are stirring
compared to North's

My cold Sins frolic feathered, ever loyal,
for example. The second half of the pamphlet picks up slightly, starting with 'Sepulchre for Edgar Poe':

Eux, comme un vil sursant d'hydre oyant jadis l'ange
Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu
Proclamèrent très haut le sortilège bu
Dans le flot sans honneur de quelque noir mélange.

Vile hydra flinching at the angel who
Once purified the language of the tribe,
They very loud proclaimed the spell imbibed
Deep from some dark dishonourable brew.
This is a line often quoted as an emblem, North's "purified the language of the tribe" compares to the Blackmores'

The spell was drunk, so they proclaimed aloud
(as vile freaks writhe when seraphim bestow
purer sense on the phrases of the crowd),
in some black brew's dishonourable flow.
Purification of language sounds like a dubious water-filter, a hygienist poetics; "purer sense on the phrases" a distillation to create an intoxicating spirit of the "crowd". A synthesis, "Purer sense on the phrases of the tribe", would be my preference. In a couple of the poems North tends to pull alexandrines up short - unlike Ciaran Carson who resisted any pentameter for his Mallarmé sonnets collected in The Alexandrine Plan and for his own sonnet configurations in The Twelfth of Never - and the result can be a poem which gathers speed as pauses disappear or end up heavily re-arranged.

Peter Manson's pamphlet Before and After Mallarmé contains 15 poems. 'Funeral Toast' ('Toast funèbre') is now "to Bob Cobbing, two years late, from Mallarmé". Bob Cobbing as emblem of happiness? The original was published in the memorial volume Le Tombeau de Théophile Gautier, so Manson's new dedication simply fits the poem perfectly into a double context, with "him and Gautier" both the subject of death's silence. Manson drops the rhymes but often echoes the prosody; his versions are brilliantly phrased.

I was initially surprised at the low level of the Blackmores' translations in the Oxford volume. Since then I have looked at similar volumes in the Oxford and Penguin lists and realise that the Blackmores' work is no worse than the general dreary standard of translated poetry to be found there.

Tristesse d'été

Le soleil, sur le sable, ô lutteuse endormie,
En l'or de tes cheveux chauffe un bain langoureux
Et, consumant l'encens sur ta joue ennemie,
Il mêle avec les pleurs un brevage amoureux.

Summer Sadness

The sunlight warms a languid bath on the sand
in your gold hair, wrestler asleep; it sears
the incense from your hostile visage, and
mingles an amorous potion with your tears.
This is not the only time when 'and' is placed for a rhyme! Similarly numbingly interesting language can be found throughout. Their notes, however, are quite thorough and helpful, and Elizabeth McCombie, who has written a book on Mallarmé and Debussy, provides an introduction which sets out a sketch of Mallarmé's poetry briskly but in a manner largely free from platitudes. Pleasingly her list of further reading includes philosopher-commentators, though Badiou could be added to Sartre, Kristeva, Derrida, and Blanchot. The choice of Turner's 'Sunset, Rouen' also fits nicely with the crystalline and coloured sea to be found within; seeing the melting sun squiggled across the powdered red of water is, one feels, an appropriately gaudy sight. The Blackmores' technique proves much better at translating short pieces of prose, but the highlight of the book is Poème: Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard ('Poem: A Dice Throw At Any Time Never Will Abolish Chance'), constrained by typography to go almost word for word the Blackmores' version is clearly and effectively translated, set out across two-page spreads with italics and different type sizes preserved.

                                                                           brillant et méditant

keeping watch
                                                  rolling on
                                                                           shining and pondering


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