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Absorbing the Original

From: American Book Review
Volume 34, Number 2, January/February 2013
pp. 23-24 | 10.1353/abr.2013.0016

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Brandon Brown is the author of, among other things, The Poems of Gaius Valerius Catullus (2011), a volume in which an ostensible translator of Catullus chooses to do something else, namely talk his way around and about the poems of Catullus to form a kind of serial poem of his own, if “poem” is the word for what often amounts to a miscellany of fragments: verse, to-do lists, journal entries, and random critical remarks—

I find it interesting that Catullus, who remains associated with the anachronistic but persistent mode of the lyric, constructs a practice almost always including appropriation. Translation, and certainly as Catullus himself practices it, is an artwork of appropriation. And yet much of contemporary translation as much as contemporary works of appropriation purport to cancel the somatic vehicle for lyric material.

Imagine translation as a kind of absorption of the original, its reincarnation in new “somatic vehicle,” one constructed of materials that happen to be circulating in the various spheres of the translator’s culture.

Following roughly this concept Brown’s Flowering Mall is a punning “translation” of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), where what gets translated (with a kind of mad fidelity) is Baudelaire’s poetics rather than his poetry. Recall that Baudelaire is sometimes called the first modernist because, for him, the mundane and often sordid details of everyday Parisian life have come to replace the True, the Good, and the Beautiful as the proper subject of art and poetry:

Tu marches sur des morts, Beauté, dont tu te moques;
De tes bijoux l’Horreur n’est pas le moins charmant.
Et le Meurte, parmi tes plus chères breloques
Sur ton ventre orgueilleux danse amoureusement.
Beauty, you walk on corpses, mocking them;
Horror is charming as your other gems,
And Murder is a trinket dancing there
Lovingly on your naked belly’s skin.

Picture the history of art as a cab ride from the museum to the brothel. Baudelaire’s is a satirical poetics of travesty, and the same may be said of Brown’s “renditions” of Baudelaire’s poems, as when his version of “To the Reader” begins with the line, “I’m so fucking bored,” and then rambles with a kind of deliberate incoherence through a maze of whatever comes to mind, parodying Baudelaire all along the way (turning his Satan, for example, into Satan, the British heavy metal band that has been flourishing for some thirty years)—

    I’d worship Satan
if only I weren’t so allergic to the
gloomy sartorial orthodoxy
and Nordic vibrato of its brutal
soundtrack. I’m not talking to a cat, I’m
talking to my reader. My reader,
you suspect that the stanzas of
the poem preserve a secret
anagram. You’re getting
Indiana Jones on this shit….

Meanwhile, in the poem’s concluding lines we find the poet

a revolution in Egypt and I’m watching
  it on Facebook.
I’m there with my whole community.
  I’m sitting
alone in an ergonomic chair especially
  suited to all-day
sitting. Bored to eructatation. Oh my god.
Dear reader, you are me except you never
  will be.
We’ll hunker together, groping flippers
masticating the salt out of each other’s
teardrops. Here we are, squeezing
each other’s oranges! Disavowing
the citrus that rages inside the churning
ambivalence in us. My reader,
my homie, my hypocritical cousin,
Yes, I said that we’re cousins.
We’re satanic cousins!

And so it goes for some hundred pages, with poems in verse and prose that recontextualize Baudelaire’s world (its cats, swans, flaneurs, vampires) within twenty-first-century pop culture: Paris becomes Paris Hilton, Buffy contends with the vampires, and the poet’s life is tuned to the punk scene, rap lyrics, Kanye West’s clothes, and Justin Bieber’s hair. One of the poems, entitled “Correspondences,” takes us to a café ennui called Starbucks:

At Starbucks they’re showing a portrait
   of one
of their slaves lugging a big basket of
on his shoulder. They’re really rubbing
in my face and/or I’m really rubbing “it”
in my own face. Heinous laziness that

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