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Wry-Blue Loves: Les Amours Jaunes and Other Poems

Wry-Blue Loves: Les Amours Jaunes and Other Poems

By Tristan Corbière

Translated by Peter Dale

Anvil Press Poetry Ltd, London 2005, ISBN 0-85646-377-9, £14.95
Series 3 No. 5 - Transgressions

The more repressive the authority, the more powerful and meaningful – and for a non-conformist, enjoyable – the act of breaking a law becomes. Corbière lines up rules like toy soldiers, then cannons them.

Review by Olivia McCannon

A detail in Peter Dale’s introduction stands out: in 1869, Tristan Corbière returned from Italy to his native Morlaix, where ‘he outraged the locals by appearing on the balcony in a bishop’s vestments which he had brought from Rome’. The Catholic church was a powerful authority in Second Empire France, and therefore an ideal target for this poet. His ‘Serenade of Serenades’, for example, is a string of resolutely carnal and blasphemous intercessions addressed to a ‘Virgin’ more diabolical dominatrix than mild saviouress. 

The over-arching title of the work gives us the ‘colour’ of the poetry. Peter Dale has translated ‘Les Amours Jaunes’ as ‘Wry-blue loves’. ‘Blue’ contributes – anachronistically but effectively – smutty, kinky, melancholy, uneasy, boozy, while suggesting the outsider status and orality of the Blues. In the French, yellow is the colour of the cuckold, the traitor, the pariah, and the outcast Jew. It suggests staining, pollution, illness, death and the ‘rire jaune’ of one for whom life is a tragic joke. 

The title also embodies the spirit of contradiction that runs through the work: ‘Amours’ attracts, ‘Jaunes’ repels, negatives correct or cancel positives. These shifting loyalties give his verse its feeling of instability, like the rolling and pitching of a ship. But the ‘loves’, although signified with an off-hand plural, do exist: love of women, Brittany, life, the sea. Loves that lead to exuberance, recklessness, rule-breaking.

The more repressive the authority, the more powerful and meaningful – and for a non-conformist, enjoyable – the act of breaking a law becomes. Corbière lines up rules like toy soldiers, then cannons them. ‘I Sonnet’ is an attack on the Parnassian School (the self-appointed ‘poetry police’ of the time). Corbière subverts the strict sonnet in alexandrines, denouncing it, in their hands, as little more than a set of instructions for use, a blueprint, or ‘sacred telegram’ – a barrier (although clearly ineffectual here) to upsurges of dangerous, fire-brand creativity. 

The poet’s ironic use of pastiche, cliché and quotation (Musset, Lamartine, Baudelaire, Ronsard, Villon), his disjunctive punctuation, his recognisable subversion of fixed or traditional forms (sonnet, rondeau, ballad, laisse), all show how attached he is to his heritage, even as he rejects it. Contemporary France was marked by a similar tug-of-war, and it is tempting to see the reflection of this in his work. After all, the thirty years of Corbière’s life (1845-1875) included the June Days, Louis-Napoléon’s coup-d’état, the Siege of Paris, and the Commune. 

Peter Dale, in translating Corbière, faced some of the more robust barriers that may stand between languages: deciphering puns, allusions and obsolete slang, or rendering the idiosyncrasy of Corbière’s versification in a different poetic tradition. His aim is ‘to find equivalents to the form of Corbière’s poems’ and the result is to be judged as ‘the work of a poet rather than a scholar’. Here is an example of what he achieves within the conditions he sets himself:

Renegade, this one. Defaulter, wandering:
Does anything not to do a thing.
Drifts nowhere and beyond; swashbuckler, yob,
Privateer, two-faced, on shipboard or shore job;
Lackey, freebooter, black, white, soldier – hired –
Hit-man, does anything and all required, […]

(‘Renegade’, Seafarers)

He is good at striking a particular tone of voice, as this shifts between sections, and from poem to poem:

Sands of old bones – And the tide coughs
Up death-knells, kicking buckets of noisy spray…
– Pallid salt marsh where the moon scoffs
Fat worms to while the night away.

(‘Ill-Boding Landscape’, Armorica)

His decision to give form the upper hand is justifiable in so far as Corbière often initiates meaning through word-play. However, because rhymes are easier to find in French than in English, and are therefore often less significant, this decision constantly pulls him towards a denser texture. Although he finds ways to compensate – such as increasing enjambment to lighten end-rhyme – in many passages, sense is pushed into second place by the need for ingenuity, while imagery and word order are warped by appendages:

- Je la trouvai – bien des printemps,
Bien des vingt ans, bien des vingt francs,
Bien des trous et bien de la lune
Après – Toujours vierge et vingt ans,
Et… colonelle à la Commune!

– I found her – many springs, post me,
Many score years, score francs in fee,
Many holes burnt, much moonings blank
After – Still virgin and twenty… rank:
Colonel to the Commune – to be frank!

‘À la mémoire de Zulma VIERGE-FOLLE HORS BARRIÈRE et d’un louis’, (Les Amours Jaunes)

However, the present discussion highlights the challenges of the task in hand; it does not diminish the courage, generosity and verve of Peter Dale’s undertaking. This bilingual, comprehensive edition, complete with introduction and endnotes, achieves what it sets out to do: provide English readers with ‘a fair impression of Corbière’s method and essence’.

Olivia McCannon

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