3 May 12 | N. J. Furl

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)

Country: France
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.


Comments are disabled for this article.
....
Bye Bye Blondie
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .

Read More >

La Superba
La Superba by Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer
Reviewed by Anna Alden

Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .

Read More >

Intervenir/Intervene
Intervenir/Intervene by Dolores Dorantes; Rodrigo Flores Sánchez
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .

Read More >

All Days Are Night
All Days Are Night by Peter Stamm
Reviewed by Lori Feathers

As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .

Read More >

The Seven Good Years
The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .

Read More >

Human Acts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Reviewed by J.C. Sutcliffe

Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .

Read More >

Nowhere to Be Found
Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah
Reviewed by Pierce Alquist

It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .

Read More >

La paz de los vencidos
La paz de los vencidos by Jorge Eduardo Benavides
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .

Read More >

Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology
Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology by Various
Reviewed by Emma Ramadan

Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .

Read More >

Berlin
Berlin by Aleš Šteger
Reviewed by Vincent Francone

Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .

Read More >

The next few events from our Translation Events Calendar: See More Events >