"Last Verses" by Jules Laforgue [5 Days of Poetry]
With the Best Translated Book Award announcements taking place Friday, May 4th at 6pm at McNally Jackson Books it’s time to highlight all six poetry finalists. Over the course of the week we’ll run short pieces by all of the poetry judges on their list of finalists.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Last Verses by Jules Laforgue, translated by Donald Revell
Language: French (on facing pages)
Publisher: Omnidawn Press
Why This Book Should Win: Because American readers need more Jules Laforgue, for all the reasons enumerated below.
Today’s post is from Kevin Prufer.
Jules Laforgue (1860-1887) was a truly international poet, in sensibility and situation. Born in Montevideo, Uruguay, he soon moved France (his parents’ homeland) before taking up residence in Berlin, immersing himself in the work of, among others, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, and Whitman. (He was, at the time, also working as a sort of French cultural instructor to the Empress Augusta.) Among the earliest French practitioners of free verse (and an avid enthusiast of Impressionist painting), he died of tuberculosis in Paris just after marrying an Englishwoman. In his short life, he published three books of poems. Last Verses, his fourth, was brought out by his friends after his death.
Donald Revell’s translation of Last Verses sizzles with energy, the book’s fourteen poems pitching back and forth from one quick, often harrowing, observation to another. Occasionally, they hold mostly to a clear center—as in “Dead Woman” and “Honeymoon Solo”—but, just as often they veer off-course dizzyingly, as if the world were almost too full of meaning and observation for the poems’ speakers. But if this is stream-of-consciousness, it’s of a very strange variety. Although the reader mostly makes discoveries about the world at exactly the same time the poems’ speakers do, there is little that feels strictly interior here. While at times I sense that I am inhabiting the mind of an off-kilter, hyper-observant, highly intelligent observer of the world, more often the poems feel not like overheard thoughts but like the wild, unpredictably rhyming declamations of a lost man:
She doesn’t love me!
She’d never once consider the possibility
Of us falling to our knees together,
If only she’d met
A, B, C, or D instead of Me,
She’d have loved them Passionately.
I see them, I see them…
Elsewhere, the poems are dark and witty, the speaker presenting himself to us despairingly or humiliatingly (though often at one remove from himself, able to comment on himself as a particularly harsh outsider):
I was an idiot.
Crazy for happiness,
What now? Me with my soul,
Her with her defunct virginity?
We’re fucked, my dear.
The question is, how long
Do we loathe me?
Laforgue’s early influence, Walt Whitman, lives in these poems uncomfortably. Gone is Whitman’s sense of wild promise, his love of crowds, his effort to become one with nature and the world and, so, contain it. When Laforgue is expansive, it is not to celebrate the self’s union with the cosmos (or even to find in that cosmos Whitman’s existentially troubling “flashes and specks”), but to live uncomfortably in cacophony, unease, the void, or (often) the promise of death:
Leaves, little leaves, may a kind wind carry you
In droves to the pods,
Into the gamekeeper’s fire,
Into ambulance mattresses
Meant for soldiers far from home.
If all this sounds less Whitmanesque than Eliotic, there’s a reason. Laforgue was an important influence on Eliot, whose own hallucinatory poems went on to chart a course for much of the English language Modernist poetry of the 20th century. (Laforgue was, according to Eliot, “the first to teach me how to speak, to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech.”) And in this way, we might see one dominant (Romantic) American poetic idiom—Whitman’s—processed through the strange lens of Laforgue into the next dominant (Modernist) idiom, Eliot’s.
And this seems to me to be a wonderful reason for Americans to spend more time reading Jules Laforgue—that is, he offers us not just terrific, wild, unpredictable poems, but also might give us a sense of the truly international spirit of some of our poetic forefathers, a sense of the way poetic sensibility can move easily from one language to another, one culture to another. His work deepens our appreciation for French poetry and complicates our (often rather isolationist) view of the development of our own. And that’s one of the many good things translated books of poetry might do for us. They help us know how we live in the world.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the fact that Revell’s translations are also astonishingly good—energetic, often cacophonous, ecstatic, harrowing, and electric. They are a joy to read. They are still another very good reason to pick up this book.