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Sean Bonney’s Baudelaire

- Adrian Clarke


It was Alain Bosquet’s contention in 1961 that  " … la poésie, comme toute notion capable de nous transformer, est plus intensité que sentiment, et plus désir que conscience de notre désir. … Elle tient mal dans le poème". The diagnosis was echoed pessimistically in Jean-François Lyotard’s observation at the end of that decade that poetry had failed for lack of a site for intensities; it is now belatedly interrogated by these texts (due for publication by Veer Books, of which a selection can be found online in onedit 8) hurled and howled at the reader in blocks, splinters and smeared shafts at and over the edge into visual poetry, a spontaneous punk prosody hammered out on A4 sheets angled onto a typewriter platen in clashing spondaic chords.

Most pages begin with the title of a Baudelaire poem in the original in caps. What follows is initially reasonably legible despite linear overlaps and convulsive bursts of brackets, colons, hyphens, ampersands and forward slashes, but extreme fragmentation occurs in CREPESCU which responds literally to the "aurore grelottante" of  "Le Crépuscule du Matin". As the sequence continues, the characters – which appear not to have encountered a cleaning brush – become progressively inkier and the superimpositions grow in density, producing undecipherable areas, some of which have then been enlarged on a copier to produce enigmatically beautiful visual text; in a further stage, such areas cohere in grainy blocks of obdurate refusal.

Verbally Bonney’s texts offer a very selective response to the originals, Englishing words and phrases which prompt homophonic and "false friend" substitutions (that don’t come much falser than "solvent" for "souvant"), abrupt, often angry interruptions, and rapid recontextualisings into a contemporary London whose mix of capital's control towers of tinted glass and jet mist granite, increasingly yuppified suburbs and semi-industrial slums offers more discontinuities with than descriptive equivalents for the Paris of Napoleon III.

These strategies suggest the questions: why translation? and, if translation, why Baudelaire? Derrida locates " … the scene of translation within a scene of inheritance and in a space which is precisely that of the genealogy of proper names, of the family, of the law, indebtedness". He goes on to identify it as a scene of imitability in the form of patricide. The passage adumbrates the field of contention in Bonney’s work. And while Derrida would not have recognized these poems as strictly speaking translations, his understanding of the inevitability of a not necessarily intentional patricidal  aspect to such activity is worth considering – even though Bonney might wish to evaginate the Freudian analysis and locate the super-ego in the White House or on Wall Street.

The father-figure who proposes himself most readily to me, prosodically at least, is the Antonin Artaud of the frantically stuttered and screaming progress of Artaud le Mômo. But the line of filiation also offers to reach  through Artaud from the works of Poe, Baudelaire and Rimbaud that he read intensively during his mental crises in the 1910s. Passages in L'Ombilic des limbes (1925) already suggest the sketchy basis for a shared poetic: "Je voudrais faire un Livre qui dérange les hommes, qui soit comme une porte ouverte et qui les mène où ils n'auraient jamais consenti à aller. Une porte simplement abouchée avec la realité." And Artaud's subsequent struggles to reclaim a body usurped by God are at least partially translated by Bonney's resistance to the menaces of an abstractive profane.

While Susan Howe's "PRINCIPLE OF THE HINGE" may have been suggestive in terms of visual presentation, patricide (or matricide) is surely not in question: Bob Cobbing is the venerated Elder, behind whose “misuse” of the photocopier to produce areas of merger, distortion and blurring an engineer would have registered as nightmare malfunctions Bonney has stepped in a typically Derridaian reversal, emulating such freedoms on a manual typewriter of the kind Cobbing abandoned to explore the undesigned creative potential of more recent technologies. (Unlike Howe's rather constructivist layouts, Bonney's enact levels of interruption through overlap on their way to transformation. Baudelaire's poem is cut off at the title by the response which is in its turn subjected to proprioceptive and ambient interferences, along with the intrusion of wider social contexts; whilst Howe's "scumbling", in Michael Davidson's account, is "self-conscious" and "calls attention to itself", the knockings together in these texts rather serve to redouble the urgency of their impeded rhythms - as the author's emphatic performance of them demonstrates.)

In REVE PARISIEN:::: questions of translating the urban landscape, filiation, technology and oppression find a compelling if unstable focus. The landscape of "Rêve Parisien I" may be read equally well as an apolitical Platonic aspiration or an ironic nightmare version of Baron Haussmann’s continuing transformation of central Paris. And the effectiveness of the poem – which has not generally been critically esteemed – depends on that ambivalence that the second part responds to, but leaves unresolved.

By 1860, though Baudelaire may have had sentimental and aesthetic objections to Haussmann’s sweeping redevelopment, he appears to have capitulated to its political agenda of dispersing the revolutionary Crowd - perhaps out of disillusionment – a hangover from "My intoxication in 1848"; perhaps, as Michel Butor suggested in Histoire Extraordinaire, out of a complex and partly eroticized relationship to the Crowd which becomes infected with his disease (be that syphilis or a Romantic hatred of the bourgeoisie).

Glass replaces iron in Bonney's metropolis as he turns Baudelaire’s ideal or nightmare into a recognizable contemporary scene with its "escalators // shopping malls / infinite coagulation / of strobe", while acknowledging an ambivalence towards "that weird landscape / that ONCE AGAIN / torments && loves Me", before negating it with the sarcasm - turning on "insolvent" as an etymological pun - that issues from the abrupting compression of  "the universe is limited … / insolvent / like a river or a sky ---- / fresh violence " " " / suss tunnel rich / piss ocean dump -- / (((everything is Clear & / DAZZLES”. The conclusion of Bonney’s first part, from "stars, ban them" to "&&& silence for / EVER" then takes on a chilling irony, and his second part "I live in shit. / My needle life a / bruteist clock---", etc - clearly registers an alienation more absolute than Baudelaire's and one that extends unambiguously beyond its pronominal focus.

In "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" Walter Benjamin quotes Valéry: "The inhabitant of the great urban centres reverts to a state of savagery - that is, isolation. The feeling of being dependent on others, which used to be kept alive by need, is gradually blunted in the smooth functioning of the social mechanism. Any improvement of this mechanism eliminates certain modes of behavior and emotions." This passage can be referred back to Benjamin's treatment of "À une passante": "The delight of the urban poet is love, not at first sight, but at last sight. It is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with the moment of enchantment. Thus the sonnet supplies the figure of shock, indeed of catastrophe. But the nature of the poet's emotions has been affected as well. What makes his body contract in a tremor … is not the rapture of a man whose every fibre is suffused with eros; it is, rather, like the kind of sexual shock that can beset a lonely man. The fact that 'these verses could only have been written in a big city', as Thibaudet put it, is not very meaningful. They reveal the stigmata which life in a metropolis inflicts upon love." 

These themes are still evident in Bonney's second treatment of the poem - A UNE PASSANT::::: - "the street HURLS / it all inside My Face … will we ever meet again// / shattered, unknowing, FUSED". What are  most obviously missing are the sonorous measures of the original. - And it is that inheritance that Bonney's social and political vision makes it impossible for him to accept; its urgency has led him to an aesthetic shared with Barry MacSweeney who formulated it with apt concision in an interview with Eric Mottram: "What you've got is not the background to the poem. In fact most poems are the background to what really should be said - what you've got is the high force energy, the compressed centre".

So, belatedly returning to my second question, the resort to Baudelaire may have its rationale in offering a reasonably familiar source as the starting point for the practice of a poetic that remains alien to much of the readership for contemporary poetry in this country, but one that in its substitution, in Benjamin's terms, of shock for aura may be seen as in at least one crucial respect compatible with that poetic.

If with Benjamin "we designate as an aura the associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception", then in HARMONIE DU SOIR: : : shock has taken over for the writer - and for any reader familiar with the Baudelaire poem equally; it ends: "hate this / looming half-life … my memories, this fetish:". Associations and memories become "this fetish", an object of irrational reverence; what replaces them registers as "Dizzy and furtive" against a background that "is soothing & boils".

The poem's "object" has lost its materiality and reappeared as a negotiable unit in the "weightless economy". Rimbaud's "la vérité … dans un corps" does not feature in reality as it surfaces on the trading screen. There frisson replaces shock in a faltering, but determined progress towards the hyper-real. Thus the resort to  the typewriter - not with regard to its now historical place in the development of  writing machines, but for its continuing weight, resistance and potential for responsiveness to the body in spontaneous, unprogrammed essays in mark-making and text design.

In Bonney's "Notes on Baudelaire" (Veer Away, Veer 008, 2007) the mémoire involontaire reappears transformed: "money is memory and absolutely involuntary". If inconsolable isolation finally made Baudelaire "a Timon with the genius of Archilochus" for Barbey D'Aurevilly, Bonney's rage is not similarly undiscriminating; "there is a lyric I in these poems" - though clearly not the voice of the paranoid ego whose proliferation sustains the prototypical western society - "and it is annoyed by the perpetual efforts to destroy it. The I is now an interferer, an inconvenience, a potential parasite within the clean capitalist body". It is an unwelcome interruption in the smooth electronic transfer of financial information.

And yet is this a self-conscious "I", one that is such, in Gertrude Stein's words, "because my little dog knows me" - a recognition that makes it "what destroys creation"? The evidence on the page suggests it is a pronoun identifying the corporeal locus of physical and emotional activity in which self-consciousness becomes absorbed. Not then the individual talent that gives expression to "the present moment of the past", in Eliot's words; rather a talent whose dividedness is contingent and often complex, while here and now reworking the word from the streets in some respects brutally simple. For Bonney "the lyric voice is a tense flicker", a physical registering of psychical shock that is potentially subversive - sufficiently so to be best ignored. It must therefore be "inVisiBLE" like his BOHEMIENS EN VOYAGE: "their future sounds / in ShADOW --- / ABANDONED FACTORY ARCHITECTURE". Or, returning to the Notes: "the incinerated city lurks in the centre of the vicious heart's splinter (((3))) --- but there are still parts of town the papers are afraid of, even those printed deep within the territory, newspapers are day cells, and cracked, but our language is lower & is necessarily debased".

And in the "Notes", while his address modulates into an undaunted plural, Bonney comes as near a last word on translating Baudelaire as he is likely to get: "Interference is the superimposition of two waves, usually correlated to the same frequency: different interpretations regarding the origin of the red pulp of the spleen (could be an enormous jail, or steeples and chimney pots stamping their complicated architecture against a vast sky of hair clamped into London's traps). Nature is a crack through which words watch us in colour, & the interrupting noise however momentarily freezes this, it is the only carrier of truth right now, in scraps and litter and scratches, in weird odours of rose and musk, all of life's music entering us with an amourous murmur. Like getting a telephone call from the barricades, the Paris Commune."

Perhaps Lyotard’s erasure of a site for poetic intensities was premature. Was it geographically the one from which “Street urchins, wayward girls, the children of the zone come to the center on Sundays to sing their disjointed ditties”?  … “They recite prose poems. They upset the ars poetica.  Their names are Baudelaire, Verlaine, Rimbaud.” Their song was a lament.

If the Parisian “zone” was finally obliterated by the Périférique, some of its characteristics may linger in Bonney’s Hackney as it awaits development into oblivion in preparation for the 2012 Olympics. Neither dematerialized in a digital collage, nor under the shaming patronage  of Arts Council London, or in the obnubilating robes of Academe, these “translations” present traces of possibly its last poet: heir to victimhood and the frailties of the flesh; acute, bitter, despairing, resilient, wild; in defiance of everything, disjunctively alive.


Adrian Clarke

[Sean Bonney's Baudelaire in English is due to be published by Veer Books later this Summer]                            

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