Sonnets to Baudelaire

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For Norman Holmes Pearson

I

These thoughts which I return you are your due
Not so much that in origin most were yours,
As that of all those spirits who know what laws
Forge Irony to Beauty, it was you
Drank deepest of that pure sardonic draught;
You, naked, the first gardener under God,
Who tilled our rotting paradise, from its sod
Raised monstrous blooms and taught my tongue the craft.

For we are fellow travellers in a land
Where few around us know they walk in hell,
Where what they take for the creating Word
Is a blind wind sowing the sand with sand.
Brother, it is our task of love to tell
Men they are damned, and damned in being absurd.

II

Well, to begin, here’s a nice tit for tat:
I like your note to old Pharaoh, Monselet,
How, from unspeakable Brussels, on your way
To Uccle—unpronounceable at that!—
You found yourself, on Belgium’s dreary flat,
In a pub with a signboard, so you say:
A la Vue du Cimitière, Estaminet!
You’ve had your innings: It’s my turn to bat!

In Lisbon, two years since, I took a tram
Cimiterio dos Prazeres” read its sign!
I thought of possible meanings all day, all
By-blows of Nature, who does not give a damn.
But, also in Lisbon she gave me her divine
Banco Espirito Santo e Commercial!

III

A Man of Letters, Hippolyte Babou,
—God help us, but there’s something in a name!—
A Man of Taste, a Critic of some fame,
Misread your Fleurs du Mal but praised them too.
And J.-J. Weiss—alas, he never knew
B from a bull’s foot—called them trite and tame,
Insipid and obscene. It seems a shame
Time should leave both to welter in the pooh!

But ah, to see great ruining Time set back
These self-appointed police of taste and style,
The pompous claims, the hollow judgments crack,
Ridicule shrivel that smug olympian calm,
Brings poets when we meet, once in a while,
What belly-laughs, what recompense, what balm!

IV

He warms my heart, your Monsieur Monselet;
—Such culture addicts, such genteel amateurs
As scold us for “abominable verse”,
While, savage with joy, we let them have their say—

Poor fellow, I see him scan your lines, his eyes
Moist with fine feeling, till they meet the words
About the hanged man’s belly ripped by birds:
“His dangling bowels dribbled down his thighs!”

“Ah, monstrous line!” You smile and shake your head:
“Monstrous, and perfect! What else could I do?
A poem is not a game; the image I chose
Was what my theme required. But what would you
—Put yourself in my place—have wished instead?”
And Monsieur Monselet replies: “A Rose!”

V

Here’s News from Muscovy to delight us both:
Aseev, Khlebnikov, Mayakovsky and Co,
Those Futurists half a century ago
Cutting new coats regardless of their cloth.
“Throw Pushkin overboard,” I quote them straight,
“From the great steamship of Modernity!
Cast Tolstoy, Dostoevsky to the sea!”
In nineteen twelve that sounded up-to-date.

They were poets, and not such bad ones. We may laugh
And say the Future was not theirs to read
And yet their image was exquisitely just,
Such emblems as become an epitaph:
That steamship, obsolete as the Futurist creed,
This heap of scrap; their sea, that bowl of dust.

VI

Having left Pushkin bleeding on the snow
George D’Anthès, dapper instrument of doom,
Sleek as a seal, purring like any tom,
Went back to France. Blood was his passport to
A railway fortune, a bank, a mission or so;
Three emperors rewarded his aplomb;
He had, to crown it all at last, become
President of the Paris Gaslight Co.

Did you rejoice to know, since now and then
Nature achieves what Art would hardly dare,
At nightfall, as you watched crepuscular
Demons swarm to work like business men,
Your wicked city, your Paris, la ville lumière,
Lit by the man who quenched the morning star?

VII

Why women should outlive men, the wits aver,
Is that the hazards that confront the human
Give men one more to face than women: Woman!
She is the earth: he digs his grave in her,
The insatiate sea that drowns the tallest mast,
The gorgon sky that stares his dreams to stone,
The mould that quietly eats him to the bone,
The long, long night in which he sleeps at last.

Was it your luck or genius to discover
That living is this voyage among the dead,
That poets have one task: to tell the brave
How all his victories must be lost in bed
And in the womb say to each unborn lover:
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the grave.

VIII

That was one view of Woman I cannot share.
The wound was self-inflicted, I recall,
You suffered, but was there any need at all
For all that martyrdom, horror and despair?
I think you did not fool yourself. You knew
Woman was your laboratory; your delight,
Stretched by that frightful female in the night,
Was a pure scientist’s pleasure in the New.

Much worse of course, than your grand tour of Hell,
Are the ideals, the sisters of your choice,
Statues in sugar on their pedestals,
Your hymns à l’ange, à l’idole immortelle!
Thank God at times you heard the deep that calls
To the great deep, Love’s unmistakable voice.

IX

The voyage we do not take to the unknown
Becomes the poem that visits us instead;
Its metaphor: two lovers in a bed
Lost to the flesh, exploring towards the bone.
Though one is underneath and one above,
They are one body, one motion and one breath,
Where each caress becomes an act of faith
And every simile an act of love.

Here you struck truth; here you divined a need
In every man, in every woman too
To bare the bone of their necessity,
Give all, hold nothing back, to break, to bleed.
Isolde does the thing she has to do
And drinks and casts the cup into the sea.

X

You saw it rise, I see it set, that sun,
The bright aubade, the serenade’s dying fall,
Between us, brother, we have seen it all.
What was it worth, now all is said and done,
The great Romantic theme: My heart laid bare?
One thing, like Ozymandias, they forgot:
To make it worth the trouble, someone must care

To watch Narcissus give himself a hug
Or Onan practise on his magic flute.
Now as the stars light up, for better or worse
Time throws away the key that locked those smug
Museums of self-regard, the universe
Expands, but something’s slimy underfoot.

XI

Your ancient, unknown author asks: What can
Match that man’s joy who drinks the man-made wine,
Except a deeper ecstasy, the divine
Joy of the wine to feel itself made man?
Thus poets see Nature’s temple, less a place
Of living pillars where all things correspond,
Than one where each world knows a world beyond
And all things yearn for that supreme embrace.

All things solicit the poet for his art
To change dumb being into sentient wine;
Flowers turn their faces, stones implore his feet.
Drunk with those lives, he reels towards the sign
Where, in his turn, the secular paraclete
Cries: Drink, engulf me, let me feel my heart.

XII

Crénom! your last word, as it could be mine,
(It shocked those pious sisters in the ward)
Speech, Poetry, the Holy Name, the Word,
Became a grunt, last human act and sign.
What of it? The butt-end of a harmless oath
Showed, like the glint of your still living eyes,
Not Life, not Death had taken you by surprise:
With love and irony you met them both.

Women you had loved stood smiling by your bed;
Crénom! you sighed: it was the last caress.
They played you Wagner and again a blurred
Crénom! came like an echo from the Dead.
Crénom! Name, number, the creating word
Utters the heart’s unhesitating: Yes!

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