My first encounters with Rimbaud were through Louise Varèse’s translations, still the ones I prefer today. Une Saison en Enfer, especially, seems an ideal book, built as it is of failure, memory and a tragic awareness of writing’s autobiographical dimension. The weight of the real (or at least, a branch) when it finally arrives in the poem. (“Yes, the new hour is at least very severe.”) When he writes, in the section called “Morning,” of his seemingly distant youth, Rimbaud is melodramatic but also coldly realistic:
“Had I not once a lovely youth, heroic, fabulous, to be written on sheets of gold, good luck and to spare! Through what crime, through what fault have I deserved my weakness now?”
As I continue to translate Juan Sánchez Peláez into English, I keep Varèse’s Rimbaud in mind. I also think of Rimbaud through the filter of the Venezuelan poet, how his reading of Une Saison en Enfer and Les Illuminations in Caracas and Santiago in the 1940s might relate to or diverge from my own in Tampa in the early 1990s. I translate poems even more slowly than I write my own, sometimes because of a need to inhabit aspects (readings, travels, situations) of the poet whose work I’m facing. This isn’t always so, but with Sánchez Peláez I stop at certain poems for long stretches, silence acquiring a type of gravitational pull. Reading Rimbaud lately, I try to decipher what parts of his writing saturate Sánchez Peláez. The page as a space where poet and translator ondulate, unfixed. Rimbaud’s devotion to the book as an autobiography undone by a fading mythology. A carefully measured undoing.
[Photo: Jesús Castillo, El Nacional]