‘In the Light Of: after Illuminations’ by Ciaran Carson

  • PUBLISHED BY: Gallery Books, 2012
  • REVIEW BY: Matthew Ryan Shelton


“From castles built of bone”

In recent years, poetic translation has largely been dominated by “the version,” subject to the will or particular preoccupations of the translator, who is more often than not an accomplished poet in his or her own right.  In the British Isles, we may number such notable versions as Alice Oswald’s Memorial, a refashioning of Homer’s Iliad from the viewpoint of its lesser heroes; Don Paterson’s Orpheus, a versioning of Rilke’s famous sonnets discussed at a glance by Peter Howarth in his recent review of Selected Poems in London Review of Books; and on this side of the Atlantic, Anne Carson’s Antigonick, which reshapes Sophocles into a multimedia romp of intellectual and artistic nuance only Anne Carson could realize. In this context, Ciaran Carson’s new book becomes a progressive revolution, taking “the version” to its next stage by reintegrating what Walter Benjamin once termed “the original’s mode of signification.”

The ingenuity of Carson’s approach is his audacious use of form. Opening In the Light Of, the reader expecting Rimbaud is not expecting to see verse at all, but verse is exactly what the reader finds—verse poems, culled from the source text’s tempestuous prose.  Regarding his previous volume of translations, The Alexandrine Plan, Carson writes:

My concern in that book was not so much to give a “literal” meaning of what the poems might be saying, as to reproduce the original metre in English, and see what interpretations might emerge from those constraints, both of rhyme and the twelve syllables of the classical French alexandrine.

To apply a similar method to Illuminations might, on the face of it, seem erroneous.  After all, unlike verse, which ensures a poem’s formal unity through pre-established conventions like rhyme and meter, prose necessitates its unity be generated by the text itself. Rimbaud’s organic, image-drunk poems are in prose, not verse, prose that sought to crack open the entrenched formalism of its time.  Any question of reproducing its original metre is moot.  But Carson speaks to his process:

At first, it seemed perverse to translate prose poems into verse: but the more I worked the more it became apparent that many passages in Rimbaud’s musical prose could be read as verse, with a prosody of their own, scanned, rhymed, alliterated.  One could see incipient sonnets embedded therein; and it happened that several of my versions came out as fourteen lines.

One is reminded of Benjamin’s imperative: “a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original’s mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.” Carson’s book forms around a central metaphor, from which it branches outward, crystalline, again and again returning and rebranching—a hybridized image embodied in and embodying Carson’s own methodology, naturally rhizomatic in the Deleuzian sense.

In “Vigil (from Veillées),” we encounter light that has direction: “Once more the lighting returns to the central beam, the roof-tree.” It is the light of “nondescript stage sets”—another recurrent image throughout the volume—projected in an “intense and rapid dream” across a vessel wall, reminiscent perhaps of Un Chien Andalou, or “brightly-coloured magic lantern slides.” Along with “Tale (Conte)” and “Genius (Génie)” – the only other prose pieces in the collection – “Vigil” reestablishes light and the casting of that light at the heart of Rimbaud’s Illuminations.  It is at once an illumination and a remembrance (cf. Benjamin: “a translation issues from the original–not so much from its life as from its afterlife”).

In the poem “Snow (Fleurs),” Carson completes the full significance of his “verse form grafted on to Rimbaud’s prose.” Given the original phenomenon of light, it becomes in Carson the task of the translator, and indeed the poet, to direct that light by means of form – a concept in line with the work of the German artist Günther Uecker, who spoke of “shaping light” via white-painted nails driven into the blank canvas.  In an interesting subtext, Carson also situates his refigured poem in the Northern Irish poetic tradition, taking a turn from his eminent predecessor Louis MacNeice.  Here, instead of flowers, it is the latticework of snow (qua snowflakes) that provides the necessary structural features by which light’s reflection and refraction create new colors and images.

But Carson is not Wilson Bentley. Acknowledging the force exacted on the rigid alexandrine form by Rimbaud’s temperamental prose, the grafted form becomes deranged as its model is deranged–the text is rife with shifted, sometimes omitted caesuras, slant rhymes, and tercets at times finishing out an otherwise neatly paired-off poem. Snow – each snowflake reminiscent of an ideal, yet each as slightly flawed by injury and nuance – becomes the lattice for his source text’s light, and this process becomes a pointed metaphor for his own form-based method of translation. Light and lattice form the collection’s central metaphor, running through all 25 pieces, ever-present, and ever mindful of the moment of translation.

Carson’s choice of rhyming couplets, moreover, compounds the effects of this metaphorical framework.  For example, in the poem “Cities (Villes),” rhyme brings together the disparate elements of Rimbaud’s vision –“surround” paired with “resound,” “gorges” with “gorgeous.” Perhaps the most interesting coupling is “abyss” and “borealis,” combining depth with distance, embodying the all-encompassing vastness of the cities. By juxtaposing Rimbaud’s tell-tale oppositions, Carson enacts a visceral tension, harking back to the task at hand:

Bacchantes of the suburbs sob their Bacchic song,
the moon responds with lightning shocks and howls along.

The moon is made wolf, intoning unto itself in self-reflective reverence – a pointed match to the translation’s dialectic embodiment of Rimbaud’s original. Carson’s interlingual translation mimics Rimbaud’s own intersemiotic translation of the cities in all their visionary glory and terror. Moreover, by placing “Cities” between “Snow” and “Seer (Mystique),” he reinforces his recurrent theme, and where “Snow” spoke of glancing light becoming flower-like brilliance, “Cities” introduces a parallel, synesthetic shift

From castles built of bone
come undreamed-of melodies hitherto unknown

Snowflake becomes castle; light becomes sound – reenacting Rimbaud’s famous dereglement by means of a shrewd, organic verse. Carson’s reorganization of his source text’s original ordering reinforces the central image of the lattice.  The three prose pieces establish major themes and images, framing in even distribution the two groupings of eleven poems each.

Ciaran Carson has created a monster in the frame of 62 pages, a cohesive extension of Rimbaud’s original that is itself an independent whole.  In his premise, he has taken an enormous risk.  But in doing so, he has also shaped a book that stands alone in his predecessor’s lengthy afterlife.  What it means for poetic translation in the twenty-first century can, at present, only be guessed at, but certainly Carson has created a thoroughly resonant, readable, allegorical work.  He has given us something new: a dialectical “renovation” of Rimbaud’s notorious light.