Thursday, November 23, 2017



The Sad Songs of Hell by Brent Cunningham
(Ugly Duckling Presse, Brooklyn, 2017)

(click on all images to enlarge)

These poems offer English “translations” of some of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems. On each page, the French version is printed in extremely small print. Are you kidding me? my aging eyes thought before noticing that the chapbook comes with a bookmark that incorporates a plastic enlarging lens (see pictures). But when I placed the bookmark over the small print, the text remained illegible—I could only make it out by using my Iphone camera to take a photo of the text through the enlarger, then doing that two-finger swipe on the photo to enlarge the text. Are you kidding me? I thought again. Yet the failure of visibility speaks as well to the nature of translation—including its impossibilities, and as such the design ends up not just being clever and witty but on point.

Fortunately, as the design—like with so many of Ugly Duckling Press’s publications—is wonderful, the poems befit the chap's stylish presentation. The first poem “Sensation” delivers a cut-to-the-chase manifestation (man—pun intended) of in-depth sensation with such starkly honest lines as

if you want an excuse for me here it is: I think the body’s a rind
love only feels infinite & only if you’re on the mounting end

The second poem, “Party Prizes” is a punch to waken the reader’s eyes. Here are its first two stanzas:

And here’s the poem’s 2nd-to-last stanza:

You see, these poems speak well on their own behalf. And such says something about the success of this project: Cunningham writes these poems “after Rimbaud” and yet is not fluent in French. Such a constraint, for a good poet, is a gift if—through improvisation—the poet ends up writing in the poet’s own voice, BUT specifically a voice not otherwise elicited except through an arbitrary constraint (in this case "after Rimbaud").

Well, one thing did need to be well-translated. That would be Rimbaud’s electrical intensity, what the Ugly Duckling Presse press release (that comes with the chap so, sure, I’ll quote it) notes as “Rimbaudian energy” in

“What are these poems ‘after Rimbaud’? What, of his language, sticks around? Perhaps some of his attitude, or political disgust. Maybe we can still hear his famous dialectic between the beautiful and the transgressive. Is it possible that these poems have as much Rimbaudian energy as an accurate translation, or even more? And if they have something to say in their own right, should their relation to the original matter?”

Look above at the poem-excerpts by Cunningham. I’d certainly say they have “Rimbaudian energy” and so succeed. Here’s another example—a page from the chap opened randomly for this purpose as a random choice presents a true test:

That, from a title like “Sunlight on a Chair”? Dude’s got a huge sense of humor. I don’t know French either but is it possible that what was disgust in Rimbaud comes off as humor in Cunningham? Note to Self: compare Cunningham’s “translations” to accepted translations by bilingual translators. I haven’t done that (yet) but I’m betting Cunningham does “have something to say in their own right” so that, perhaps, “their relation to the original [may not] matter.”

The last time I saw Cunningham in person (and I usually don’t), I said he “should publish more.” Not hanging out with a poet means one can have a more non-mediated relationship to the poems themselves, and I much appreciate Cunningham’s poems, including those in his first book, Bird & Forest. Here’s one more by Cunningham—I did say his marvelous poems speak best on their own behalf

Whether or not you follow Rimbaud, definitely-of-our-time Cunningham's is RECOMMENDED!

[P.S.  This “review” was written before I read Cunningham’s useful Afterword which discusses his thoughts on how he “translated” Rimbaud.]


Eileen Tabios is the editor of Galatea ResurrectsHer 2017 poetry releases include four books, two booklets and six poetry chaps. Most recently, she released MANHATTAN: An Archaeology (Paloma Press, U.S.A.), Love in a Time of Belligerence (Editions du Cygne/SWAN World, France), and THE OPPOSITE OF CLAUSTROPHOBIA: Prime's Anti-Autobiography (The Knives Forks Spoons Press, U.K.). Her books have been released in nine countries and cyberspace. Her writing and editing works have received recognition through awards, grants and residencies. More info about her work at

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