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Three Poems from The Illuminations


by Arthur Rimbaud translated 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.”

After the Flood

As soon as the idea of the Flood subsided,

A hare stopped in the clover and swinging flowerbells and said his prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.

Oh! the precious stones that were hiding, – the flowers already looking about.

In the dirty main street stalls were set up, and boats hauled down to the sea, high-tiered as in engravings.

Blood flowed at Bluebeard’s, – through slaughterhouses, – in circuses, where the seal of God whitened the windows. Blood and milk flowed.

Beavers built. Coffee-cups smoked in bars.

In the big house, its windows still dripping, children in mourning looked at the marvelous pictures.

A door slammed, and in the village square, under the bursting shower, the child whirled his arms, understood by weathervanes and cocks on steeples everywhere.

Madame *** installed a piano in the Alps. Mass and first communions were celebrated at the hundred thousand altars of the cathedral.

Caravans departed. And the Hotel Splendide was built in the chaos of ice and polar night.

Ever after, the Moon heard jackals howling across deserts of thyme – and eclogues in sabots grumbling in the orchard. Then, in the violet budding grove, Eucharis told me it was spring.

– Surge, pond, – Foam, roll over the bridge and the woods; – organs and black shrouds, – lightning and thunder, – rise and roll; – Waters and sorrows, rise and release once more the Floods.

Because since they rolled away, – oh the precious stones buried, and the opened flowers! – it’s unbearable! and the Queen, the Witch who lights her fire in the earthen pot, will never tell us what she knows, and what we will never know.


Childhood

I

This idol, black eyes and yellow mane, without parents or palace, nobler than fable, Mexican and Flemish; his domain, insolent blue and green, extends over beaches the shipless waves call by names fiercely Greek, Slav, Celtic.

At forest edge – dream flowers tinkle, flash, flare, – the girl with orange lips, knees crossed in the clear flood surging from the fields, nakedness shadowed, caressed, and clothed by rainbows, leaves, the sea.

Ladies strolling on terraces by the sea; girls and giantesses, superb negresses in the brass-green moss, jewels standing on the rich soil of groves and little thawed gardens – young mothers and elder sisters with eyes full of pilgrimages, Sultanas, princesses haughty of costume and bearing, little foreign girls and gently unhappy damsels.

What a bore, the hour of the “dear body” and “dear heart”!

II

It’s her, the little dead girl, behind the rosebushes. – The young mama, dead, comes down the steps. – The cousin’s carriage creaks on the sand. – The little brother – (he’s in the Indies!) there, against the sunset, in the meadow of carnations. – The old men buried upright in the rampart with the gillyflowers.

The swarm of golden leaves surrounds the general’s house. They’re in the south. – You follow the red road and arrive at the empty inn. The chateau is for sale; the shutters hang loose. – The priest has taken away the key of the church. – Around the park, the keepers’ cottages lie empty. The fences are so high you see nothing but rustling treetops. Anyway, there’s nothing to see in there.

The fields roll up to villages without cockerels or anvils. The floodgate is raised. O the calvaries and windmills of the wilderness, the islands and the haystacks.

Magic flowers murmured. Slopes cradled him. Fabulously elegant beasts roamed. Clouds gathered over the open sea formed of an eternity of hot tears.

III

In the woods there is a bird whose song makes you stop and blush.

There is a clock that does not strike.

There is a hollow with a nest of white beasts.

There is a cathedral that goes down and a lake that goes up.

There is a little carriage abandoned in the trees, or running down the lane, beribboned.

There is a company of child actors in costume, glimpsed on the road through the edge of the woods.

There is finally, when you are hungry and thirsty, someone who drives you away.

IV

I am the saint praying on the terrace, – like the peaceful beasts grazing near the sea of Palestine.

I am the scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and rain fling themselves at the library windows.

I am the traveler on the highway through the stunted trees; the roar of the sluices drowns my steps. For a long time I watch the sad golden wash of the sunset.

I might be the child left on the jetty drawn out to sea, the little farm boy on the lane whose top touches the sky.

The paths are rough. The hills are covered with gorse. The air is still. How far away the birds and springs are! It can only be the end of the world ahead.

V

Let them rent me this tomb at the last, whitewashed, the lines of cement in relief – deep in the earth.

I lean my elbows on the table, the lamp shines brightly on these newspapers I’m a fool to reread, on these dry books.

An enormous distance above my underground parlor, houses take root, fogs gather. The mud is red or black. Vast city, endless night!

Less high are the sewers. On each side, nothing but the breadth of the globe. Perhaps chasms of blue, wells of fire. Perhaps on these levels moons and comets, seas and fables meet.

In hours of bitterness I imagine spheres of sapphire, of metal. I am the master of silence. But why does something like a skylight pale at the corner of the vault?

Dawn

I embraced the summer dawn.

Nothing stirred yet on the facades of the palaces. The water lay lifeless. Shadows still camped in the woodland road. I walked, waking warm, living breaths, and gems looked about, and wings rose silently.

The first adventure, in the path already filled with cool flickers, was a flower that told me her name.

I laughed at the blond wasserfall disheveled between the pines: in the silver peak I recognized the goddess.

Then, one by one, I lifted her veils. In the avenue, swinging my arms. On the plain, where I told the cockerel of her coming. In the city, she fled among bell towers and domes, and, running like a beggar across the marble quays, I chased her.

At the top of the road, near a laurel grove, I surrounded her with her gathered veils and sensed, a little, her immeasurable body. Dawn and the child plunged to the bottom of the wood.

When I woke it was noon.

About the Author

Keith Miller

Keith Miller graduated from Goshen College in 1991. He has spent most of his life in East and North Africa, and now lives in Camarillo, California. His first novel, The Book of Flying, was published in 2004 by Riverhead Books. The Book on Fire was published by Immanion Press in 2009. He is married to author Sofia Samatar. His website is www.millerworlds.com.