the yellow loves

Mira Schendel, 1960, untitled, technique on jute, 30.00 cm x 30.00 cm. Photographic reproduction Romulo Fialdini


Commentary on the book of poems by Tristan Corbière

the yellow loves (1873) is the book of poems by the Breton Tristan Corbière (1845-1875) who, in a self-caricature, figured with “araignées within the ceiling”, or “little monkeys in the attic”. Unfortunately, he is perhaps better known for the eccentricity of a cursed poet than for his magnificent poetry, little read around here, although already commented on by Mário Faustino (experience poetry, Perspectiva, 1977) and pioneered in translation by Augusto de Campos (Controversial Reverse Verse, Perspectiva,1978) and Paulo Leminsky (in the magazine Strange body, No. 3). Now, 31 of his poems have been added from “Introduction”, “Notes to Poems”, “Chronology” and “Bibliography”, very enlightening and made by the translator, Marcos Antônio Siscar.

As in “smiling yellow”, the title alludes to the dullness of left self-reflective. The translator explains: in French, “yellow” is also “love betrayed”. It is this vapidity, this cosmic pain in the ass that is the stuff of the poems. His themes are banal, but poetry is made with words – “You who snore next to your sleeping wife,/RUMINANT! Do you know INSOMNIA, that moaning?” (p. 91) – Corbière also demonstrates this. Like the frog that secretes the corrosive poison of the mushroom it inhabits, his poetry distils dissonances. In its time, swallowing up Villon and Baudelaire, it corroded the diamonds of Victor Hugo and Lamartine; today, probably not anymore. Frogs are endangered.

Like so many others, Corbière's poetry went ignored during the author's lifetime, having been "discovered" by the publication Les Poetes Maudits (1884), by Verlaine, who declared him "a Great". At the beginning of this century, Ezra Pound and TS Eliot constituted it as a necessary reference for modern poetry, alongside Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Laforgue. Symbolist, decadent, parnassian, romantic, modern, surrealist, dadaist? Its negativity that denies negation makes it contemporary. See “Pariah” (p. 107), masterpiece.

Like Lautréamont and Laforgue, Corbière radicalizes the self-reflexive distancing of romantic irony, but turns it against the indefinite and bad infinity of romanticism. It is poetry of accuracy and dissolves the very poetic medium of verse and rhyme in which it operates dissolutions. It affects a superior cynicism, which takes revenge on the beast life, criticizing resentment. Irony or humour? A philosopher said that irony nihilates the world because it presupposes the truth, with which it inverts experience as pretense and falsehood. It is didactic: Socratic, it defends a cause, it wants to convert.

Humor, on the other hand, dissolving units, sacrifices itself, potentiating itself in nothing, zen, without pretension, when it deceptively includes in its intransitive movement the difference of what it threatens. If irony is disjunctive and admits prescription, humor integrates and is imprescriptible. Singular, Corbière has obtuse, acid humor, timely even in times of forgery.

What nuclearly characterizes him is the hard or dry way of composing bitterness, says Pound, when he deals with Laforgue and other wise men of modern poetry. Extremely skilled in the art of conventional verse, he operates through the intersection of several semantic planes, incongruous or very distant, producing discontinuities and stylistic mixtures. O "adynaton“, a combination of things that exclude each other, is a recurrent procedure to carry out disidentifications: “victorious failed” (p. 57). As in the music of Thelonius Monk or Cage, his silences also mean randomness. (Do not miss the very interesting analysis of the issue of the identity of the poetic subject made by the translator on page 27.)

Due to the discontinuity, what an American critic once said about Laforgue's poetry will apply to this poetry: "reading it without attention will certainly mean hating it, because it contains more novelties than the mind can accept without effort".

Your translator's job is not an easy one. Even more so because, lucid, he does not understand it as a mere transfer of meanings from language to language. He practices it as the co-production that makes the reader also the author of a revelation of Corbière's poetics (p. 32). Obviously, for this reason, the anthology could not claim to be “representative”: Siscar reinvents poems maintaining the homologies of the originals, not necessarily the analogies. This difference – as a departure from the original – is precisely its greater proximity. And if the greatest interference is the one that most respects the uniqueness of the other, as you say, this basically stems from the finesse of perception, knowledge of poetry and the nature of languages ​​by the translator. For example, he knows that the poet abuses metric infractions.

More: like a Picasso, who deformed because he knew how to draw, Corbière does not commit “infractions” or apply “licenses”, because he does not presuppose the normativity of tradition, even though he continually dramatizes it in parody. How to “pass it” to Portuguese? Initially, by perverse obedience to the metric laws, as a way of defunctionalizing them, recovering them at another higher level of functionality, homologous to the humor of “infractions”. A basic thing in the poet, he demonstrates, are the “lateral” associations of a linguistic unconscious that thinks of the poetic subject independently of the supposed subjectivity, producing parallel discursive events. The translator reinvents them by maintaining the linguistic principle of metaphorical equivalence.

In “Gritos de Cego” (“Chris d'Aveugle"), for example, the final verse is: "J'entends Le glas du cor” (“I hear the call of the horn”). The poem figures the North wind as a horn, which hums the cry of the dead. Siscar proposes: “I already feel the pain zombie”, decomposing the term “buzzer”, in an association that condenses “wind”, “cold”, “buzzing”, “scream” and “death”. Assumption: not to translate the “worldview” expressed “through the” discourse, language-blind instrumentalism, but to reinvent it, by productive homology, “poiein".

The idea, finally, of a translator as a messenger of the structure of poetry, not of the “contents” figured in the poems. Siscar, a translator, is also a fine anthropologist – in a mirror, his singularity is that of respecting the interference of the other.

*John Adolfo Hansen is a retired senior professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Sixteenth-century sharpnesses – Collected work, vol 1 (Edusp).


Tristan Corbiere. The Yellow Loves. Translation: Marcos Antônio Siscar. São Paulo, Illuminations, 182 pages.

Originally published on Journal of Reviews, on the 13th of September 1996.

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