Sonnets: Louise Labé by Edward Byrne
(Nomados, Vancouver BC, 2011)
Sonnets: Louise Labé, Edward Byrne
Nobody no other so clever
given my looks so divine so good
could ever discover breathless love
Mad love sharp eyed wound innocent heart
suck and sucking cauterize harsh fate
makes the fix both cut and remedy
I beg assailant scorpion prick
kill only pain and not desire
without which caro I cannot be
Another example of the opening of the sonnet form (which, despite a dearth of sonnets over the past twenty years, is rarer than you might think) is Vancouver writer Edward Byrne’s Sonnets: Louise Labé (Vancouver BC: Nomados, 2011). As Byrne writes in his impressive postface, “Sonnets: Louise Labé (Set One) is the first part of a longer work and consists of translations from Italian and French of the twenty-four sonnets of Louise Labé.”
Not much is known about Louise Labé’s life. Some of what has been said of her is based on slim or fabulous evidence. She was born in Lyon around 1520 and died there in 1566. […] In terms of secular writing and printing, Lyon was the cultural capital of France. Labé was part of a circle of well-known poets associated with the publisher Jean de Tournes – most notably Maurice Scève, Pernette du Guilllet and Olivier de Magny. Her “Works” were published in 1555, with a second edition in 1556. They included an introductory letter to a younger woman, Clémence de Bourges, defending the education of women and women’s writing; a dialogue between Folly and Love, which displays the influence of Erasmus, but also of Finico’s De Amore and other contemporary and classical sources; three elegies that owe as much directly to Propertius, Tibullus and Ovid as to contemporaries such as Clément Marot; and the twenty-four Petrarchan or, one might argue, anti-Petrarchan sonnets here translated. The original edition of her works also included a couple of dozen poems by “divers Poëtes, à la louenge de [in praise of] Louïse Labé Lionnoize.” In the first of these, an ode in Greek, she is identified as the Lionnaise Sappho. She was publically characterized in her time as both a “courtesane” and a prostitute – terms which in some minds amounted to the same thing. John Calvin called her “plebia meretrix”, variously translated as “common prostitute” and “vulgaire courtisane” – that is, if “La Belle Cordière,” the cross-dressing beauty to whom he referred, was in fact Labé. Two historians writing within ten years of her death referred to her as, on the one hand, extremely virtuous and a prodigy of knowledge (Guillaume Paradin) and, on the other, as a lewd, public courtesan (Claude de Rubys). Her fame has persisted. La Fontaine adapted the debate between Folly and Love; Voltaire referred to it as the most “jolie” modern fable; Sainte-Beuve praised it. In the nineteenth century Marceline Desbordes-Valmore praised her in verse, as did Louis Aragon in the twentieth. Rilke translated the sonnets into German.
Originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Vancouver writer, editor and member of the Kootenay School of Writing collective Edward (or, Ted) Byrne is the author of the poetry collections Aporia (Vancouver BC: Fissure/Point Blank, 1989), and two editions of Beautiful Lies (Vancouver BC: Sprang Texts, 1995; Vancouver BC: CUE, 2009), and a frequent contributor to The Capilano Review, including a recent interview with the poet Lisa Robertson. Byrne was also co-editor, with Charles Watts, of The Recovery of the Public World: Essays on Poetics in Honour of Robin Blaser (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1999), the collection of essays, talks and lectures that followed the Robin Blaser conference in Vancouver in 1995. As Byrne writes of translation generally (or perhaps, specifically) in his introduction to The Recovery of the Public World: Essays on Poetics in Honour of Robin Blaser, “This touching of texts is a wonder, but a rough business, wrought more through disturbance, difference, impropriety and distance than through faithfulness or the carrying across of a burden.” Given the connection, it would be difficult not to see the influence of Robin Blaser, perhaps the strongest touchstone for the press as a whole, in these translations of Louise Labé. “Nobody so other so clever / given my looks so divine so good / could ever discover breathless love,” he writes, in the first sonnet.
Produced with the original French, Byrne has moved some of the spacing and language, in an attempt to be as faithful as possible, such as, for example, the seventh sonnet:
On voit mourir toute chose animee,
Lors que du corps l’ame sutile part:
Je suis le corps, toy la meilleure part:
Ou es tu donq, o ame bien aymee?
Ne me laissez par si long tems pàmee,
Pour me sauver après viendrois trop tard.
Las, ne mets point ton corps en ce hazart:
Rens lui sa part & moitié estimee.
Mais fais, Ami, que ne soit dangereuse
Cette recontre & revue amoureuse,
L’acompagnant, non de severité,
Non de rigueur : mais de grace amiable,
Qui doucement me rende ta beauté,
Jadis cruelle, à present favourable.
Evidence shows that the body dies
when the quick and subtle spirits part
If I’m flesh then you’re that other part
abandoned parted rejoined too late
Lust is corporeal and risky
for its part a danger Set aside
this joining this panting revision
exchange harsh words for comelier signs
render your looks once cruel now kind
But what might I know, not able to read or understand the original language, save for the most obvious kind of guesswork? The thirteenth sonnet even manages two translations, the first, and then an “alternate,” twisting and turning Louise Labé’s language in entirely different directions.
If ravished if crushed against his breast
if rage did not forbid nesting there
if coupling he said let’s not return
fast from tempest from rush or current
from disjuncture this Oedipal life
if grasping like ivy round the trunk
death came envious of my pleasure
soft tongue lift ghostly breath from my lips
well then I’d die more lively and glad
Only if if enfolded wrapped
not dying but turning in your grasp
desire allowed me all my short days
if only against me dear friend you
hold fast promise neither storm nor tide
could tear us from Europe from this shore
our embrace this pole our happy death
if only your lips my spirit steal
away from here in bliss only if
Does the alternate presume a poem that spoke to Byrne in two directions, suggesting two different responses to the source material, or was it a poem that simply spoke to Byrne a second time, suggesting that the translation of these pieces a more immediate and intuitive process? Part of the appeal of these pieces is for the choices Byrne makes for what he decides to hold on to of the originals, not necessarily adhering to fourteen lines. Are these translations or, as Montreal writer and translator Erin Mouré once deemed, transelations, writing out her version of Pessoa in Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2001), or Vancouver writer George Bowering’s earlier reworking of Rilke in his Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986; Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008)? More recently, Toronto writer and publisher Mark Goldstein worked a book of what he called “transtranslation,” rewriting Paul Celan in his Tracelanguage: A Shared Breath (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010). As Goldstein wrote in the acknowledgments of his own small collection:
This “Shared Breath” of Paul Celan’s seminal work, Atemwende, is a transtranslation because, to quote Mauriece Blanchot, “translating is madness.” One would like to feign accuracy where there is none and yet Lagerbrot can never be Challah, no matter how hungry we are. In exhausting this hope, we need no longer circle the poem seeking rest having accepted its groundlessness.
Where does this work of Byrne’s fit into the consideration of translating? Perhaps something closer to what Blaser might have considered translating poetry; less a matter of rewriting or weaving in his own concerns or patterns over the originals, but feeling out where the translations meet the contemporary through the words themselves, and feeling out where they go. It’s as though Byrne feels out the words themselves and listens to what they are saying, pausing only to recode and record.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com