Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

Beverly Bie Brahic is not only a talented poet, but she is also a gifted translator.  Her latest work, a series of Baudelaire’s poems selected and translated for this edition entitled Invitation to the Voyage, was chosen from the wide array of the French poet’s oeuvre.  Brahic describes her experience choosing, organizing and translating  of Baudelaire’s work in the introduction to this volume: “When I began to translate Baudelaire, it was as an exercise in reading, visceral, as translation always is. The sensuous poems—dreams of escape to an impossible, often tropical, elsewhere, visions of voluptuousness—drew me first for their descriptive and perceptual richness. But the sensual Baudelaire needs the bitter, compassionate, desolate Baudelaire…”

“I adore you like the starry night sky…” is a favorite from the collection and best illustrates Baudelaire’s tension between the passionate and the bitter:

I adore you like the starry night sky,
O vase of sorrows, taciturn beauty,
And love you all the more as you flee me,
As you appear, oh how ironically,
Rich jewel of my dreams, to increase the waste
Between my arms and the immense blue space.

I rise to the attack, mount the assault,
Like a choir of maggots after a vault,
And cherish, beast cruel and implacable,
Even the coldness that makes you more beautiful.

The beautiful coldness, the taciturn beauty—Baudelaire’s jarring descriptions are still perfect in Brahic’s translation.

My favorite in the collection is a poem entitled “The Cat” not only because of the juxtaposition of the sensual and the bitter but because of the unexpected twist in the poem. The title is almost deceptive:

Come, my fine cat, to my amorous heart;
Keep your claws sheathed,
And let me sink into your eyes that dart
Sparks of metal and agate mixed.

When my fingers can stroke at their leisure
Your head and your elastic
Back, and my hand gets drunk on the pleasure
Of your body electric,

It is my wife I conjure up. Her gaze,
Amiable beast, like yours,
Deep and cold as a spear, penetrates me,

And from her toes to her ebony hair,
A dangerous perfume, a subtle air,
Swims around her brown body.

And the most wonderful thing about the collection is that the prose poems and short essays are paired with the appropriate poems thematically. In “Invitation to the Voyage” he writes,

You now the fevers that assail us in our cold wretchedness, our nostalgia for the country we don’t know, the anguish of curiosity? There’s a land that resembles you, where everything is beautiful, rich, tranquil and honest, where the imagination has constructed and decorated a western China, where life is soft and sweet to breathe, where happiness is wedded to silence. We must go there to live, we must go there to die!

Yes this is where we must go to breathe, dream and while away the hours in an infinity of sensations. A musician has composed an Invitation to the Waltz; who will compose an Invitation to the Voyage, that we may offer it to the woman we love, the sister-elect?

Whether one is familiar with Baudelaire or not this is a lovely volume to have sitting on one’s shelves.  The poems also come with the original French facing the translation and since this published by Seagull Books the cover is a work of art.

14 Comments

Filed under French Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

14 responses to “Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire

  1. Sounds lovely, Melissa! I have a *lot* of Baudelaire, and oddly it’s often the prose translations I like best. But I may well have to seek this one out… 😀

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  2. Putting prose excerpts next to the poems is a great idea for Baudelaire.

    The J. G. Nichols translation of Leopardi does this, too. Great idea in that case, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been looking forward to your writing on this. I just realised that in 2020 Baudelaire has been part of my life for fifty years. High school selected readings for French Literature leading to Les Fleurs du Mal. I’ve just compared your quoted translation of ‘I adore you like…’ with the translation that I have. The Brahic translation is so much more visceral. It’s such a chilling poem marrying sex, desire and fleshly corruption. I’ll have to get this Seagull edition.

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    • Thanks, Des. I was afraid that people who are already familiar with Baudelaire would pass on this book. But Brahic’s translations are refreshing. I also like her selection of prose and poetry.

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  4. Baudelaire is a great poet obvisouly.

    I picked up the original to see how it was translated. Fascinating as always.
    It’s amazing to see how some words are not the in same order in “I adore you like the starry night sky…” and “Je t’adore à l’égal de la voûte nocturne”, I imagine it’s to accomodate the English language that doesn’t have the same syntax as the French.

    I can’t assess the translation because my English isn’t good enough to understand the whole beauty of the English version. (and especially its sound and rythm since I speak with a French accent)

    About The Cat, though and its last stanza,

    “And from her toes to her ebony hair,
    A dangerous perfume, a subtle air,
    Swims around her brown body.”

    In the original, “ebony hair” is not mentioned even if it makes sense because he refers to Jeanne Duval. Baudelaire just writes “head”, like in the “head to toe” expression.
    The verb “swim” is conjugated in plural. So both dangerous perfume and subtle air swim around her brown body. I wonder why the translator changed that.

    PS : Do you like Paul Eluard?

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  5. Bianca

    Apropos of nothing, I purchased Nay Rather (in an Anne Carson sort of mood during these strange times) in the wee hours as well as Hotel Splendid (Marie Redonnet) and Concrete (Thomas Bernhard). How are you fairing?

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    • Oh wonderful! Nay Rather is excellent. I’m doing okay. I’ve had to transition all my classes to online learning. So the last week has been crazy. I’m finally getting back to reading. I hope you are doing well!

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  6. Bianca

    I’ve read wonderful things about Nay Rather! Looking forward to receiving my copy. I’m glad you’re faring well. I am trying. It’s hard to concentrate on reading during this crisis. I’m coping with the help of The Criterion Channel. Will soon watch Valerie’s Week of Wonders.

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  7. Sounds like a wonderful collection and I love that you can read the English and French together.

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  8. Pingback: Invitation to the Voyage: Selected Poetry of Charles Baudelaire – madisonstan.wordpress.com

  9. Dear Melissa,
    What a pleasure to discover and read your generous review of my translation today. Thank you!
    Beverley

    Liked by 1 person

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