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PN Review 276
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This review is taken from PN Review 205, Volume 38 Number 5, May - June 2012.

Curiously Faithful ARTHUR RIMAUD, Illuminations: translated with a preface by John Ashbery (Carcanet) £12.95

Poets attempting translation sometimes achieve a perverse fidelity to their sources through the liberties they take. (Ezra Pound's 'The Seafarer' is notorious on this score.) John Ashbery's translations of Rimbaud's Illuminations, however, reveal that the opposite can be true too: where Ashbery follows the French most closely, an awkwardness arises that is strangely faithful to the intricate difficulties of his original.

Illuminations is puzzlingly dense in evocation. Its title suggests a medieval manuscript or a collection of epiphanic revelations, but Rimbaud proceeds through bewildering leaps of association ('O palms! Diamond! - Love, strength!'). Such characteristic combinations of unlikely objects and qualities ('meadows of flames', 'banners of ecstasy') leave it unclear whether he is delicately adumbrating some mystical experience or simply revelling in language.

Where Rimbaud's verse balks formal conventions, there is further sense of liberation here in his turn to the prose poem. Critics disagree about when they were composed, but it may be no coincidence that many of his prose poems were probably written in the years following the Paris Commune. His verbal exuberance seems repeatedly connected to a sense of euphoric revolutionary potential, as in 'Cities [II]', where 'Rolands' jostle with 'guilds of giant singers' and 'seraphic centauresses gambol among avalanches':

What cities they are! This is a people for whom these Alleghenies and Lebanons of dreams arose. Chalets of crystal and wood that move along invisible rails and pulleys. Ancient craters ringed by colossi and copper palm trees roar ...

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