On Azure and Translating Mallarmé
Blake Bronson-Bartlett and I decided to embark on a translation of Stéphane Mallarmé after a lunch in Iowa City during which we had been discussing how Mallarmé seems so inert in English, so academic, whereas Baudelaire and Rimbaud maintain a perennial freshness and urgency. Why does Mallarmé in English so often fall flat, we wondered? Why do Mallarmé’s poems, in English, fail to live up to his event-oriented, ontological radicalism? Why don’t these poems break like the holy disasters he was committed to realizing? Why do they instead seem so clotted?
I don’t think I could have successfully undertaken this translation if I had considered Mallarmé a sacred forbearer. I resonate with Mallarmé’s theories of language, contingency, the event, and spirit, but I wasn’t nourished on Mallarmé, I wasn’t ever in Mallarmé’s thrall. I actually don’t know anyone born around when I was born (1980) who considers Mallarmé a primary touchstone. I was aware of Mallarmé’s towering significance, but I had never felt his allure or demand.
The earliest poems we translated were some of the most difficult: “Fan, of Madame Mallarmé,” “Funeral Toast,” “Prose (for des Esseintes).” Unsurprisingly, I at first found Mallarmé to be too vague and archaic—too gem-like, rigid. Sometimes Mallarmé demanded blockages: “With, as for language—… The same, behind which through”; sometimes dense stackings: “Of speech, purple ivory and great clear calyx, / That, rain and diamond, the diaphanous look…” These can be seen as efforts to foreground language as such or to use the differential play of language to arrive at seeing and sensation. Still, they buck against our prevailing Imagist values of concreteness and economy.
Just as our English was making demands on the poems, the poems began to make demands on our English. As I was working on these poems, I began to feel the poems exerting their own strange pressure—I began to find in Mallarmé’s rhythms and atmospheres an at once thoughtful and dreadful insistence, something both alien and bourgeois, cosmically violent and every day. Mallarmé’s domain struck me as icy, uncanny, and, for all its seeming hermeticism, resolutely exposed. This exposure was a point of contact, a shared recognition of the poem and the human as a groundless negotiation of facticity and possibility. I furthermore began to entertain the thought that the poems themselves had an investment in entering the language. What was needed was to bring Mallarmé into vivid focus and immediacy through a collaboration, a shared sovereignty, a mutually agreed upon space in which freely to advance and retreat:
Soul to forehead where night-cinema, o calm sister,
An autumn surging sting-ray red edges,
And to your eye of tents and deserts, angels,
Climbs, in a chilly purple garden,
Faithfully, a sighing leaping waterjet, straight to Azure!
—To mellowed Azure of October,
Which mirrors in huge pools its infinite whatever
And drags, on still water whose windy
Grey heaped leaves drag agony into a furrow,
A long ray of sun behind it
Our translation was not done out of survival or responsibility (who needs another Mallarmé?), but excitement and fascination and a sense of adventure. I believe that because we had nothing to lose, we were able to uncover veins of seeing and music that may otherwise have lain dormant.
We translated the Poésies (edition Deman, 1899), A Cast of Dice, and also, for the first time in English, the “Livre,” Mallarmé’s notes toward the “Book,” his grand synthesis of poetry and the event, text and life. As we note in our introduction:
The “Livre” manuscript appears to conceive of a world-making book in all of the impossibility of its true realization, evoking the necessity of its state as a work-in-process, to be explored and experimentally treated. The notes carefully approach the point of conjunction between Idea and Act without subjecting that conjunction to reductive understanding, without presenting the assumption that it has been obtained, possessed, completed, or violated. Our transcription is only a beginning in the process of thinking through the richness of the manuscript notes, especially as they regard a rethinking of the supposed obscurity of the verse poems and the Coup. And any textual edition of the “Livre,” as Mallarmé knew, could only be a flight from its intended material context of performance and participation, or a theft of that context.
We hope to revive an interest in Mallarmé the poet that rivals the interest in Mallarmé the thinker of poetry.
Sad flesh. And I’ve read all the books.
Adieu. Go down below. I feel like birds are drunk
On hanging around the unicorn’s froth and sky.
Nothing, not old gardens in the eyebanks,
Will box up, tidy, a heart sloshed at sea.
O nights! Nor the lamp’s Sahara
On empty paper,
And not the sixteen-year-old nursing.
Fuck this. Steamship tipping your mast,
Lift anchor for nature’s exotics!
I’ll slough off Ennui by being cruel
And I’ll believe again in the supreme farewell of
Maybe the masts, which want storms,
Storms where the wind bends its knee over shipwrecks
Lost, mastless, mastless, nor fertile isles…
Dear heart! Hear the song of these watchers of the sea
Poet and editor Robert Fernandez was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up in Miami. He earned an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is the author of the collections We Are Pharaoh (2011), Pink Reef (2013), and Scarecrow (Wesleyan University Press, 2016). He is also the co-translator, with Blake Bronson-Bartlett,...