Baudelaire: If it wasn’t for bad luck …

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N.B. The original text for each poem can be accessed by clicking on its French title. [Ed.]

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Charles Baudelaire:  Three Poems Translated by Stuart Henson

ADDICTION

Le Jeu

Stretched on their tired chaises-longues, the ancient whores:
too much foundation, too much rouge, they ooze
a feral scent of sweat and musk; their eyes
hollow, compelling; rattling cheap rhinestones in thin ears.

Around the baize their lipless faces glimmer,
cratered like moons, and their arthritic claws
stretch eagerly to grasp the dice, the wheel’s shimmer,
and stuff slim pickings down their dingy bras.

Lamps swing pale saucers from the sooted beams,
too weak to cast more than a yellow stain
across the brows of geniuses who prostitute their poems
of love and truth for something more mundane.

It’s here like Dante in his reverie
you’ll find me, guideless and silent, seated alone
in a corner, leaning and shivering
on my elbows, needing to be at one

with all this demi-monde that passion grips;
envious, yes envious, of the old tarts
and their beaux who long ago gave up
their self-respect and sold the secrets of their hearts.

I choke and drown here in the lives of men
who stumble on towards a precipice.
The fever in their blood’s their only sin,
who’ll take this fleshly hell before the black abyss.

IF IT WASN’T FOR BAD LUCK, I WOULDN’T HAVE NO LUCK AT ALL

Le Guignon

Who says you make your own luck?
You need the strength of Sisyphus
to keep on rolling that old rock uphill.
Ars longa, vita brevis. True enough!

A crib in Poet’s Corner’s what you get
for being famous, looming large.
Well, that or nothing for your hours of sweat,
your heart-blood pounding like a funeral march.

Console yourself: your verses shine
like diamonds in abandoned mines,
gold nuggets in a hidden seam.

Meadows blow soft, unheeded
on the cheek of night. Sweet weeds!
The woods write sonnets. Deserts dream.

LA PIPE

 La Pipe

Dark-grained as a statue from Africa,
I am the author’s best pipe.
Look and it’s obvious: my life’s
shared with a professional smoker.

I am his chimney and his hearth,
his one-man domesticity.
When he’s downcast by the vicissitudes
of living, I’m rest at last.

His daydreams rise in skeins of blue:
the floating islands of his soul.
Banked in the embers of my bowl

they glow, the bright hopes of his youth.
I am his solace, his relief from pain.
I set his heart on fire again.

Stuart Henson‘s most recent books are: The Way You Know It, New & Selected Poems (Shoestring, 2018) and a Post Card to – with John Greening – (Red Squirrel Press, 2021). A new collection, Beautiful Monsters, is due in 2022.

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Charles Baudelaire: Three Poems Translated by John Mee

THE SOUL OF WINE

L’Âme du Vin

Evening, and the soul of wine is singing in the bottles:
“Charlie, old son, you never get what you deserve.
From my prison of glass and rose-red wax,
I send you a song full of brotherhood and light.

I know what it took on the burning hill –
pain and sweat in baking heat –
to bring me to life and give me a soul;
but I won’t be ungrateful, will never cheat you

because I get such joy from finding my way
down the throat of a man worn out by his work,
and his warm belly is a cheery grave
I like so much more than my cold vaults.

Do you hear the Sunday chorus ringing out
and the promise that chirrups in my pit-a-pat chest?
Your elbows on the table, rolling up your sleeves –
worship me and you’ll be happy.

I’ll rekindle the eyes of your delighted wife,
give your son back his strength and his colour
and for him, too frail for life’s race,
I’ll be the oil that glistens on the muscles of fighters.

Into you I’ll fall, ambrosia from the soil,
precious grain flung by the Eternal Sower,
and our love’s child will be poetry
lifting its face to God like a shy flower.”

THE PERFUME BOTTLE

Le Flacon

Some strong perfumes make all matter porous;
it’s said they can penetrate glass.
Opening a trunk shipped from the East
whose lock resists, creaking in protest,

or, in an empty house, looking into some wardrobe,
dusty and black, exhaling the acrid smell of time,
sometimes you find an old bottle that remembers,
and out leaps a revenant, full of life.

A thousand thoughts that were sleeping, chrysalids
in mourning, pulsing faintly in the deep shadows,
unfold their wings and take flight,
tinged with azure, flashing pink, overlaid with gold.

And here’s an intoxicating memory, tumbling
in the hazy air; your eyes close; vertigo snatches
your broken spirit and pushes it with both hands
towards a chasm lost in a carnal miasma,

and lets it fall at the edge of an ancient ravine
where, like stinking Lazarus worrying his winding sheet,
the spectral corpse of a rancid old love
begins to stir, enchanting and sepulchral.

So when I fade from the memory of the world,
in a corner of the grim wardrobe
where I’ve been discarded, a forlorn old bottle,
battered, clouded, filthy, abject, sticky, cracked,

I will coffin you, charming pestilence,
bear witness to your strength and your virulence,
darling poison prepared by the angels, nectar
that eats me away, oh the life and death of my heart!

THE LONELY MAN’S WINE

Le Vin du solitaire

The mysterious glance of a call girl
gliding towards us like the white rays
the wavering moon sends to the trembling lake
when it wants to bathe its casual beauty there;

the last roll of notes in a gambler’s fingers;
a come-to-bed kiss from skinny Adeline;
a grating tune stuck in the brain,
like the distant sound of human pain,

I trade all this for your depths, my bottle,
the penetrating balm your fertile belly holds
for the heart of a poet who’s thirsty to believe;

you fill his glass with hope, youth and joie de vivre
– and pride, the gold of all beggars, grants us victory
and we elbow the Gods aside!

John Mee won the Patrick Kavanagh Award in 2015 and the Fool for Poetry International Chapbook Competition in 2016. His poems have appeared in journals such as The Rialto, Magma, The North, The London Magazine, Prelude (New York), The SHOp, Poetry on the Buses (London), Southword, and in various anthologies. His pamphlet, From the Extinct, was published by Southword Editions in February 2017. He has published fiction in Ambit. He lectures in the Law School at University College Cork.

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Charles Baudelaire: Three Poems Translated by David Cooke

A SONG FOR AUTUMN

Chant d’automne

We’ll soon be plunged into shivering gloom.
Farewell to light and life, summer’s brief reign!
The woodpile they’re stacking is like a tomb
as load by load the logs crash on flagstones.

Wintry moods have taken over: their rage,
dread and loathing, their mind-numbing labour
and like the sun locked in its polar cage
my heart is frozen. My blood does not stir.

I hear with a shudder each log that falls
and thuds like a gallows slowly hammered.
My spirit’s like a tower that topples
when, under siege, it’s steadily battered.

Absorbing each relentless blow, I seem
to sense a coffin they’re nailing somewhere.
The summer has died and now it’s autumn
it’s syllables suggesting departure.

THE ENEMY

L’Ennemi

My youth was little more than a dark storm
lit up now and then by brilliant sunshine.
Thunder and rain have left my plot forlorn:
a few windfalls rotting, a tangled vine.

And now I have reached the autumnal phase
I will have to set to with rake and spade,
if I’m to reclaim this watery maze
through which, death-haunted, I am forced to wade.

But who’s to say the flowers I yearn for
will find in soil swamped by every downpour
the mysterious blend of nutrients

growth requires, when Time is the enemy?
Feasting on the heart’s blood, it drains all sense
of purpose, as signs of life slip away.

MY FORMER LIFE

La Vie antérieure

For years I dwelled in a lofty palace
that sun and sea suffused with blazing light;
whose pillars towering above their site
seemed each evening a cavern of basalt.

The ocean refracted shimmering skies
and reattuned their perfect harmony,
rich and solemn, to the visionary
tints of twilight reflected in my eyes.

And there I wallowed in self-indulgence,
lapped by soothing water, each day a blur,
as I gazed on barely clad retainers.

Fanning my brow with palms, their unguents
exquisite, they were tasked to embellish
ennui, my unaccountable anguish.

David Cooke is the editor of The High Window. He has published eight collections of his poetry, the latest of which is Sicilian Elephants published in 2021 by Two Rivers Press.

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2 thoughts on “Baudelaire: If it wasn’t for bad luck …

  1. I know enough French to read Baudelaire and am struck by his absolute command of his language; deliberately shocking material contained in beautiful orthodox forms. Congratulations to all of you, and have a look at ‘White Heliotrope’ by Arthur Symons, an 1890s poet and critic, probably much influenced by the Decadents.

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