The Sad Songs of Hell by Brent Cunningham
Ugly Duckling Presse 2017; 20 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson


Brent Cunningham’s chapbook of Rimbaud translations begins in sensation (“mostly I use these bruised digits to make you feel”) and ends with the incitement to “look how the language trembles / to escape the life it was.” Cunningham’s small group of poems follows this arc from intuitive production of feeling to language’s innate excessiveness. More importantly, The Sad Songs of Hell renders the translator hypervisible, foregrounds translation as a technology, and disturbs the boundary between a source text and its emanations.

In the afterword, Cunningham describes his largely homophonic process of translation: “I started by finding poems online, in French, by Arthur Rimbaud. After copying them to a document I would stare at them until I decided approximately what they might mean. Then I would write down that meaning in English.” Cunningham’s combination of homophonic equivalencies, cognates, and divinatory guesswork yields a denatured, chopped and screwed Rimbaud, an uncanny double which is sometimes recognizable and sometimes not. Readers familiar with the source texts will catch echoes of the unmistakably vatic, profane Rimbaldien voice in lines like “I regret the delirium that first severed me from Earth / from its odorous streets, its roses singing in green trees / & the veins in bread that metastasize worlds.” In other poems, the translation process becomes more defamiliarizing and carnivalesque. “Sunlight on a Chair,” for instance, refuses to cede the weight of “flesh,” reducing the French word to the brute physicality of a piece of furniture. “Le Dormeur du Val,” perhaps Rimbaud’s most affectively piercing poem about a soldier killed in the Franco-Prussian war, becomes “The Truth About Dormitories”: “if he’s an insurrectionist I’m Ke$ha / part cream cheese, part blueberry bagel.”

Directly challenging the translator’s conventional invisibility as described by Lawrence Venuti, The Sad Songs of Hell privileges the translator, to the extent that Rimbaud’s name only appears in the explanatory note at the end of the book. Cunningham presents his versions en face, but the original French text is unreadably miniscule without the included magnifying bookmark. This decision posits the translation as an occult body, obscuring the source text but leaving an afterimage to squint toward. Cunningham leads the reader to consider the book-object and the process of translation as technologies which produce textual meaning at their intersection. The bookmark magnifier often seems to distort the image of the text more than to sharpen it, recalling Joyelle McSweeney’s concept of translation as a “deformation zone.” Cunningham’s book also presents translation as a kind of masque where the reader is never entirely sure whose face might be revealed at the end. An undertone of concealment and revelation appears throughout The Sad Songs of Hell. In “Sunlight on a Chair,” for instance, the speaker asks, “why, then, do I shroud the truth of language / in plastic decoder rings / or wrap lovely young boys in newspaper?” The concept of the translator masquerading as the author also recalls David Wojnarowicz’s photo series Arthur Rimbaud in New York, a project which also interrogates the complicated temporal and personal relations between artists.

One might be inclined to believe that Cunningham’s species of translation might elide the colonialist context of Rimbaud as a gun runner and slave trader in Abyssinia. Despite moments of Dadaist absurdism or Language poetics-style linguistic revelry, Cunningham often confronts the reader with lines that seem to speak to Rimbaud’s colonialist enterprises: “so if a marine breeze occasionally blows’ll only deepen the shame of this darkening coast” (“The Truth About Dormitories”) or “violence is white & well-protected” (“The Faraway”). In other poems, such as “Party Prizes,” the speaker expresses an anxiety of influence framed as the fear of malevolent textual interference:

she got wrecked in the hills
did indiscreet things in a forest
but reading about it is useless
& always harmful, always
words can’t extend the party
or reset the sun to a better time

but they do this: tell
the savagery of people
cut off from invisible songs
in rare, happy bits of glass

Taken as a representation of Rimbaud’s voice, these lines grant him a measure of self-awareness—not an excuse for his brutality, but at least some critical recognition. On the other hand, as the anachronistic translator’s voice, this poem asks the reader to think about Rimbaud’s lasting influence in the context of the human cost of his art.

In the essay “Translation Wounds,” Johannes Göransson defines “translation as a wound through which media enters into a textual body. The wound of translation makes impossible connections between languages, unsettling stable ideas of language, productive ideas of literature.” By insisting on the extreme visibility of the translator and emphasizing translation as a technology, The Sad Songs of Hell creates a landscape for these impossible connections to take place. Like Rimbaud’s “Dormeur du Val,” whose bullet wounds become conflated with the green hole where he lies, Cunningham allows Rimbaud’s texts to effloresce again: “at least dying has flowers! growing from virgin holes / accreting, calcifying, like from a bear’s cave.”