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Poet by Default
by Tristan Corbière

Reviewed by Justin Sider


Published:

Published by Wave Books, 2011   |   22 pages

In 1884, Paul Verlaine published his ground-breaking essay and anthology, “Les Poètes maudits.” The three original “damned” poets were Tristan Corbière, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century French poet after Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire, Rimbaud has been translated frequently and well (most recently in an edition of Illuminations by John Ashbery) and attracted the notice not only of poets but of pop singers, too (Jim Morrison and Patti Smith have numbered among his admirers). Mallarmé, more hermetic, rarified, and often difficult to translate, remains a recognizable figure—an exemplar of both “pure poetry” and typographical experimentation. In spite of his acclaim by various American modernists, Corbière has never achieved the same appeal. T.S. Eliot listed him among those poets without whom he could not have written, and in 1920, Ezra Pound called him “the greatest poet of the period.” Nonetheless, he has remained primarily, like Jules Laforgue, a reference point for American modernism, a peculiar taste from a peculiar age rather than required reading.

As it happens Corbière possessed a long list of peculiarities that the contemporary reader will think of as decidedly French and of the nineteenth-century, from his irony and self-loathing to his diseases. As a schoolboy, he presented his aunt with a sheep’s heart, crying to her, “Here is my heart!” He played the hurdy-gurdy. The children in his village called him “Ankou,” a local Breton spirit of death. He fed his dog meatballs with small gold coins inside so that beggars would follow, waiting to retrieve them. He was chronically ill and suffered from arthritis as a child. Later, tuberculosis, which would eventually kill him. He called himself Tristan after the Arthurian hero, Tristan of Lyonesse, a sailor like himself, and then he named his spaniel Tristan as well. He wrote that he wanted to be the dog of a prostitute, “licking a little love that didn’t need to be paid for.” He referred to his mother as his wife.

Tristan Corbière was born Édouard-Joachim Corbière in 1845 in Ploujean (now Morlaix) on the coast of Brittany. His father was Antonin-Édouard Corbière, a sailor, merchant, newspaper editor, and author of many adventure novels, including Le Négrier (1832), his most famous work. In France, he is considered the father of the maritime novel and was called the French Fenimore Cooper, which may once have been a compliment. Corbière was deeply devoted to his parents, particularly his father, whom he strived to emulate, even naming his boat Le Négrier. When he was thirteen, he was sent to the Imperial Lycée of Saint-Brieuc. Ugly and ill, Corbière was treated cruelly by the teachers and other students, developing a sharp, sardonic style in response.

Several years into his studies, he suffered his first serious bout of illness and was taken home. The arthritis disfigured his body still further. At eighteen, the doctors advised him to stay at the family’s summer home at Roscoff, where he began to write seriously. The great love of his life was “Marcelle,” the actress Armida Cuchiani, mistress of Count Rodolphe de Battine, whom he met in 1871. Corbière insisted he would make her love him. He sold the boat named for his father’s novel and purchased a small yacht, Le Tristan, in which he took her sailing.

Corbière traveled to Paris with Marcelle and Battine, writing and associating with artists. Battine dressed him as a dandy. In the privacy of his own rooms, he dressed as a Breton sailor. He crafted perfect miniature boats only to crush them. In the winter of 1875, his illness overtook him. Marcelle tended him on his sickbed, and then his mother arrived and took him back to Brittany, where he died. His father followed several months later.

Corbière’s first book, Les Amours jaune, was published in 1873. Divided, like himself, between Paris and Brittany, The Yellow Loves suggests sickness and death but also pornography and the yellow covers used to bind what Robert Browning called “scrofulous French novels.” But if Les Amours jaune is pornographic, it is primarily in the sense that Baudelaire used when he wrote in his journals, “Love is the desire to prostitute oneself,” and meant the complete subjection of the self to another, with no desire for ownership. Les Amours jaune is Corbière’s heart laid bare, an exercise in intense self-scrutiny even as it refuses simple self-expression. The poems are bitter and conversational, often dramatic, split between tales of Parisian squalor and images of the Breton coast and people. With more drawing-room ennui some of the poems might sound like T.S. Eliot’s savage early quatrains. As it is, they sound like nothing but themselves.

Noelle Kocot’s translations of Corbière come bound in an appropriately yellow, letter-press cover. The slender hand-sewn volume is an exquisite artifact, with a care for presentation that reflects the labor of the poems themselves. The translations are given in free verse, though little touches of rhyme skitter down the margins of the page. The relative freedom allows Kocot to follow the poet’s often fractured syntax more closely, and at their best, these poems feel both natural and perfectly contorted.

The volume opens with two late poems that Corbière inscribed in his own copy of Les Amours jaune, “Paris Nocturne” and “Diurnal Paris.” Both are full of the signature humor of the poet, tensed against a visionary quality that seems almost to escape the poet’s self-lacerating style. The former makes the city the site of disturbing transformations; Paris is variously the sea, the Styx, a rural killing field, death and life. It concludes with this startlingly expansive stanza:

It’s life: listen, the living spring sings
The eternal song over the sticky earth
Of a sea god stretching his limbs nude and green
On the bed of the Morgue … and his big eyes are open.

An apparently drowned body has become a pagan god reborn in the bowels of the city. The final ellipsis is an almost filmic touch, and Kocot’s rendering of that last phrase gives it the full force of a sudden realization, an intake of breath. Corbière’s dark humor is more muted here than elsewhere, as it grapples with the enormity of the vision.

The center-piece of Kocot’s selection is the title poem, “Poet by Default,” usually translated “The Contumacious Poet” (“Le Poete Contumace”). Kocot’s choice reflects the word’s usage within the poem itself, “living by default” (“vivre par contumace”), where it suggests a sentence delivered (or perhaps commuted, in this case) in the absence of a defendant. The two translations together give a perfect picture of Corbière himself, rebellious and yet somehow resigned—though it is a shame that in Kocot’s version we miss the belligerence and insubordination in Corbière’s construction. The poem tells the story of the most recent inhabitant of a ruined convent in Brittany, a poet who lives “in concubinage with the Muses.” The bulk of the poem consists of a letter the poet writes to his long lost love, a chronicle of bleak prospects, and at dawn he tears up his work and scatters it out the window: “The little white pieces / Fell in the mist like a flock of gulls.” The moment recalls Corbière’s miniature ships, crafted only to be destroyed, and Kocot’s lines are quite lovely in their simplicity.

I would be remiss, however, if I failed to note the odd choices and outright mistakes in translation that crop up throughout the volume. At one crucial moment in “Poet by Default,” Kocot has written, “I’ve taken for you to call me, my old man and my lyre.” The French is “J’ai pris, pour t’appeler, ma vielle et ma lyre.” “Vielle,” however, means not “old man” (“vieux”) but “hurdy-gurdy” or “hand-organ,” Corbière’s instrument of choice. C.F. MacIntyre renders the line, “I have taken my hurdy-gurdy and my lyre, to try / to call you back” (Selections from Les Amours Jaune, 1954). I am not entirely sure what the line would even mean in Kocot’s version, and as MacIntyre’s translation makes clear, it is properly an expression of desire for the poet’s lost love, rendered by both divine and “profane” instruments. A less overtly problematic but still not ideal decision occurs in the poem “Epitaph,” where the original line is, roughly, “Blasé, unsatisfied soul” (“Ame blasée inassouvie”). Kocot gives it merely as “Soul satisfied,” apparently collapsing the two oxymoronic adjectives (the soul is both over-satisfied and insatiable) and, with them, the carefully balanced contrasts she has otherwise rendered so well throughout the poem.

There are other such moments scattered across the volume. It is a shame that they appear to be as frequent as they are, given the great felicity of so much in Kocot’s translations. Nonetheless, the poet has given us many beautiful lines in a fresh, contemporary English that does both her and Corbière credit. Perhaps we will be lucky and she will return to his work with greater care, bringing us still more of the too infrequently read French master.


Justin Sider is a PhD candidate in English at Yale University. His poetry has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Boston Review, Bat City Review, and Indiana Review, and his reviews have appeared inColorado Review and Meridian. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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