Three Poems from The Illuminations

by Keith Miller

Translator’s Note:

At the time I first read The Illuminations, I was making ink drawings of Cairo. I’d lay down water and drop ink into it, letting the colors swim into each other, then go back in with a fine nib and clarify shapes. The Illuminations seemed to possess a similar texture: a marriage of a child’s dream imagery with more careful craft. They were written at the end of Rimbuad’s poetic career, when he was 19, after his sojourn in England, after he’d been shot by his lover Verlaine, and just prior to setting out on travels that would take him to Java, Cyprus, Egypt, Yemen, and Abyssinia. They distill and incorporate the new cities and languages and literatures he was encountering, and contain a strangeness and energy I have not found in any other work. They retain their freshness today: it is extraordinary to think that while Rimbaud was writing these - the world’s first prose poems and free verse - Tennyson and Swinburne were at the peak of their careers in England. They may perhaps be best compared to the work of the early Impressionist painters, and in particular Monet. I wanted to translate them to understand them more fully, and to make them my own. In translating them, I have kept in mind W. S. Merwin’s advice, which he received from Ezra Pound, to keep “the greatest possible fidelity to the original, including its sounds.”

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