London Grip Poetry Review – a new translation of Baudelaire prose-poems by James Roderick Burns

Poetry review – PARIS BILE: Nell Prince finds that Baudelaire’s grimly vivid prose poems are well-served by new translations from James Roderick Burns

Paris Bile: Prose Poems 
Charles Baudelaire  trans. James Roderick Burns
Palamedes Publishing
e-book 139pp   $3.98

Paris Bile is a book you should read if you don’t know Baudelaire well. It is a translation of the original Le Spleen de Paris, a collection of posthumously published prose poems which capture the dark side of Parisian life. Less famous than Les Fleurs Du Mal, but just as sumptuous in imagery and interesting in human detail, Paris Bile will leave you haunted by the vivid portrayals of characters from life in the city.

It is a surprising book. Although Baudelaire is known as the archetypal decadent, I found that Paris Bile defied this stereotype as many of the poems are concerned with acerbic social criticism through observations of gut-wrenching poverty. The poet wanders through Paris encountering some of the saddest, most abject characters.

Early on in the collection we meet a fool ‘decked out in a ridiculous bright costume’ seated at the foot of a statue of Venus. He is crying. The poet interprets this as a wish for ‘love and friendship’ because he ‘starved’ of it – a theme that runs through this collection. In another early poem, Baudelaire follows a widow ‘clearly condemned by absolute solitude’. She vanishes into a ‘miserable café’ and then emerges to listen to a concert in the park. The poet comments:

This was evidently the small pleasure of this innocent, or shrived, old lady, the well-earned
reward for one of those lumpen, friendless days, days without talking, joy or confidant, 
which God dumped on her three hundred and sixty five days a year.

Baudelaire, as you can see, piles on the misery. As he puts it himself:

I can never stop myself looking – if not sympathetically, at least with curiosity – at the crowd
of outcasts milling around the vestibule of a concert hall.

The outcasts he spies during his wanderings are often unforgettable. These are not just moral sermons on social injustice, but micro stories replete with lush detail. ‘The Old Entertainer’ is one of these poems, where the poet can’t even approach a man so ‘decrepit’ for fear of embarrassing him. The old man’s condition is highlighted through the contrasting gaiety of the festival surrounding him where there ‘was only light, dust, voices, joy and fervour’. Baudelaire delights, I think, in showing us just how hypocritical society is: ‘everywhere was joy […] but here was absolute misery’.

The old entertainer lives ‘at the very end of the row of stalls’. He is described as

a ruin of a man, stooped, decrepit, defunct, leaning against one of the posts of his shack.
It was a more miserable shack than that even of the most abased savage, and bore two
spattered,  smoking candle ends that only threw more light over its squalor.

What are we to make of this old Entertainer? The poet does not tell us, but leaves us hanging. If anything, savouring the descriptions are part of the reading pleasure, but also – it is easy to forget – we are looking at Paris through the eyes of a poet who notices the strange and overlooked. Through his poetry, we see a side of the city, and broadly society, which is more than a little disconcerting.

The poverty Baudelaire describes isn’t confined to Paris. One of the most disturbing poems, ‘The Cake’, takes place on a train. A ‘ragged being’ fights violently with his brother for a simple morsel of bread belonging to the poet. Because of the boy’s hunger and the way he fights, Baudelaire can no longer enjoy the ‘landscape’ of the journey:

the joyous calm in which my soul had revelled before seeing these two little men had 
completely disappeared I remained sad about it for some time, saying to myself over and
again, ‘There is, then, a marvellous land where bread is called cake, and is such a rare 
treat it’s sufficient to set off fratricidal war!

There is, then, this curious mixture of what I would call the accidentally moral in this work by Baudelaire as well as the sumptuousness of certain descriptions. The reader is left in no doubt that the poet is a consummate dramatist: every micro story is told with the eye of someone who understands the value of theatre. Arguably it is this theatrical aspect which brings a graveyard type of humour to certain poems. But the humour is understated; this is not laugh out loud stuff. The poet, I think, is laughing at society.

In one of the most arresting pieces, the poet wakes one morning and, ‘sick of idleness’, opens the window. He sees a glazier ‘whose cry rose up to me through the dense, filthy Parisian atmosphere’. Baudelaire takes an instant dislike to the man, examines his stock of glass and finds it wanting, saying ‘you’ve no pieces of coloured glass’. He sends the man away, grabs ‘a little flowerpot’ and throws it at the man’s stock which is smashed to pieces. The poet merely shouts at the man ‘A bit of colour–a bit of colour!’ – one can’t help but be amused by this grotesque and childish action. It is both hideous and theatrically very satisfying.

It is difficult to ascertain a precise view of the poet himself (or persona – how much is fictive?) in Paris Bile. This is of course deliberate. At times, the poet is saddened by the poverty and cruelty he sees, at other times, he is merely objective. He can also be cruel, even abusive.

In one of the last poems in the book, ‘Let’s Beat Up the Poor!’, the poet physically attacks a tramp:

I took hold of a thick tree branch lying on the ground and battered him with the remorseless
fury of a chef tenderising a steak.

Baudelaire is testing out a theory to see if the man will react with strength or weakness. Happily, the tramp beats up the poet in return. Baudelaire then tells him he is his equal, shares his purse, and gets him to ‘apply this theory […] to all your brothers, should they ask for alms.’

Baudelaire’s treatment of this mistress is also sometimes on the cruel side of things. In ‘The Wild Wife and the Mistress’ he is offended by the way his mistress sighs:

one would think, to hear you sigh, that you suffered more than the little old women
gleaning  the fields, or the ancient beggars who scrabble round after crusts of bread in
tavern doorways.

The poet’s reaction is to get angry. He wishes to ‘teach’ her ‘what true misery is.’ It is a little disturbing, but also interestingly personal for a collection published as early as 1869. Baudelaire is not afraid to write frankly (and theatrically) of his relations. There are also many friends mentioned in this collection, including a poem dedicated to the painter Édouard Manet and one to the composer Franz Liszt.

I would hate to give the impression that this book is just about miserable life in Paris. The book is full of different types of poems, from the fantastical to the more concrete. Each one is told with Baudelaire’s exquisite eye of detail and with a storyteller’s panache. There is also a fascinating introduction to the poems which puts them into context. I found it illuminating and a helpful prelude to the whole collection. My only gripe with Paris Bile is that it is only available as an e-book. It would be wonderful to read it in paperback.