A short review by Merryn Williams enters fully into the spirit of Jan Owen’s Baudelaire-based jeu d’esprit
The Wicked Flowers of Charles Baudelaire: A Selection Limericked Jan Owen Shoestring Press ISBN: 978-1-910323-60-1 74pp £8
Jan Owen is a serious writer who has already translated Baudelaire’s Selected Poems (Arc Publications, 2015). It is important to say this, because she says herself that her little book is a ‘descent from the sublime to the ridiculous’. It comprises eighty-seven limericks, loosely related to poems from Les Fleurs du Mal, and we all know that it’s almost impossible for a limerick to sound serious. This Baudelaire is not the tormented soul that his biographer Enid Starkie insists he was but a total hedonist, forever drunk or falling in and out of bed. Which means that a great part – perhaps the most important part – of his poetry is lost in translation.
For instance, the famous poem ‘L’Albatros’ says that a poet, like the bird, is a monarch in his own realm but in ordinary life inept and helpless:
He’s like a poet. The majestic bird who rides the storm, defies the men that stalk him with their arrows – crashes to the ground, is mocked! His giant wings won’t let him walk. (my translation).
This is how Jan Owen renders it:
We poets seem gauche half the time Like an albatross trapped in its prime But caught in full flight Down the pub Friday night, Full of beer, we are bloody sublime.
No place here for the tragedy and the vulnerability. Likewise, ‘ Un Voyage a Cythere’ is a deeply disturbing picture of the ‘island of love’, a beautiful place where a corpse is swinging from a gallows and being savaged by birds. This version turns the horror into humour:
It’s pitched to the honeymoon set But the gallows make newly-weds fret And the corpse with no nuts Disgorging its guts Is not picturesque. Try Tibet.
So, read this book for laughs. I did laugh quite a lot and Jan Owen has sent me back to reading Baudelaire. I can’t find a French original for her ‘To the Chief Censor’, but it is still highly relevant and a perfect limerick in English:
Monsieur, you have made me your debtor: By ignoring both spirit and letter, You cretinous tort, You disgrace to the court, You have spurred me to write even better.