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Helen Palma

Helen Palma holds advanced degrees in the Classics and in Comparative Literature from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Over twenty-five of her translations from the poetry of Baudelaire have been published in several journals. She lives in New York City.

Sympathetic Horror / Horreur Sympathique
by Charles Baudelaire

From this strangely livid sky,
A sky tormented as your fate,
What thoughts descend into the eye
Of your dead soul? Speak, reprobate.

As I'm insatiably avid
For the vague and imprecise,
I won't dissolve in tears, like Ovid,
Chased from his Roman paradise.

O skies, like shores split at their seams,
You are the mirrors of my pride;
Your clouds, in mourning colors dyed,
Are the dark hearses of my dreams;

And your red glow the firelight
Of Hell, where my heart finds delight.

Translation from the French by Helen Palma
First published in TRINACRIA #5 (Spring 2011)

Taking on Water

When it's too hot to sleep, too hot to eat,
Too hot to kiss, put on a shirt, or think;
When outside in the warring, crowded street
The uncollected mounds of garbage stink;

When we've declared a “drought emergency,”
Or the electric power is blacked out;
When pseudo-issues gain an urgency
That robs more genuine concerns of clout;

When sickness is expensive, good health boring,
When each new drug is hailed as our salvation;
When prudery, pornography or whoring
Reduces human love to copulation;

When politics rejects the art of speech,
When “therapeutic” means a chance to gripe;
When all the news the newspapers can teach
Is gossip, propaganda, sports and hype;

When students with a VISA in their names
Pay for their schooling with high-interest loans;
When ruling gratifies and serving shames,
When healers only deal with flesh and bones;

When governments don't plan to pay their debts,
When winning is the only thing that counts;
When murder's sanctioned with sincere regrets,
When poets can do nothing but denounce—

I wonder if the churches and the schools
Can rise to save this listing ship of fools.

Sensible Parts

I love to see
A sparrow sitting in a tree,
A rose receive a bumblebee;
But let that be.

I love to hear
Familiar footsteps drawing near,
And words, provided they're sincere;
So banish fear.

I love to smell
The ocean in a cockleshell,
Roast chestnuts that the vendors sell
When all is well.

And then to taste
Espresso with sambuca laced,
And past'asciutta served post-haste;
I never waste.

I love to feel
An injury begin to heal,
Devotion to a fine ideal;
For that is real.
(Published under the pen name Rose McCausland)

The Lid / Le Couvercle
by Charles Baudelaire

Go where we will, be it on land or sea,
Beneath a sun that’s searing or cold-white,
As votaries of Christ or venery,
Possessed of millions or a widow’s mite,

Provincial, urban, settled, young and free,
Whether our trifling brains be dull or bright,
We all endure a fear of mystery,
And looking upwards, tremble at the sight

Up there, the Sky! A crypt that smothers all,
The flood-lit ceiling of a music hall
Upon whose blood-drenched stage each actor toils;

Atheist’s dread and hermit’s hopeful prayer,
The giant and black-lidded cauldron where
Humanity, immense, unnoticed, boils.

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

Correspondences / Correspondences
by Charles Baudelaire

Strange Mother Nature is a temple, where
The living pillars speak confusing words;
We enter in through its symbolic woods,
Beneath an enigmatic, ancient stare.

As prolonged echoes merging far away
In a profound and opaque unity;
As vast as darkness, vast as clarity,
The colors, textures, sounds and perfumes play.

Some perfumes are refreshing as a child,
And some mellow as oboes, green as grass,
While others are triumphant, rich and wild,

For they contain the age that shall not pass;
Of such are amber, musk and dried incense:
These chant the ecstasy of mind through sense.

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

The Setting of the Romantic Sun / Le Coucher du Soleil Romantique
by Charles Baudelaire

How splendid at its dawn the sun can seem,
With its explosion flinging forth good-day;
And happy he who lovingly can say
Its setting is more glorious than a dream.

I’ve seen how every flower, rut, and spring
Beneath his gaze swooned like a racing heart…
Let’s run towards the horizon—quick now, start
And catch the final ray that’s lingering.

But see the god I chase in vain retire;
Resistless Night erects its own empire
Where foetid, deadly, dismal dark prevails;

Sepulchral smells float up in the dense fog
And my foot, at the margin of the bog,
Hits unexpected toads and soft, cold snails.

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

The Pit / Le Gouffre
by Charles Baudelaire

Even Pascal was haunted by depression.
It’s all abyss—desire, action, dream,
Words too! And often through my hair I seem
To feel the breath of terror’s dread progression.

Up, down and all around are depths and desert,
Silence, hideous mesmerizing space…
Within the night God’s expert fingers trace
An endless nightmare, multiform and wretched.

For as one fears a crater dark and deep
And filled with horrors, so I fear to sleep,
Infinity through every window seeing.

My mind over its giddiness obsesses,
Jealous of the calm the void possesses,
O, no escape from Number and from Being!

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

To The Reader / Au Lecteur
by Charles Baudelaire

Illusion, avarice and lust compound
To make our bodies and our minds unsound;
We feed ourselves on false remorse for vice,
As dirty beggars nourish their own lice.

In sin we’re stubborn, in repentance weak,
Contrite because of the rewards we seek;
We relapse quickly to our paths of slime,
As if our tawdry tears could clean the grime.

It’s thrice-great Satan at our bed of pain,
Who soothes with patience our bedazzled brain;
The precious metal of our mind, thus kissed,
That able alchemist transmutes to mist.

The Devil pulls the strings that make us dance:
Through him the most repugnant act enchants;
As step by step, each day towards Hell we sink,
And take no notice of the mounting stink.

As a penniless roué will lick and paw
The tortured breast of a decrepit whore,
We steal clandestine pleasures passed en route,
And squeeze them dry as desiccated fruit.

Thick as a million intestinal worms,
Within our brain a host of Demons squirms;
While with each breath, invisibly Death streams
Deep down our lungs, yet we offer no screams.

If dagger, fire, arsenic and rape
Have not yet painted their pathetic shape
Upon the dreary canvas of our fate,
It’s that our daring is inadequate.

But ’midst the jackals, panthers, bitches, monkeys,
Insects, vultures, goats, rats, snakes and donkeys
That grunt and screech in the infernal noise
That our menagerie of vice enjoys,

There is one uglier, more wicked and defiled;
Neither his gestures nor his words are wild,
Yet gladly he’d reduce the world to rubble—
Engulf it in a yawn with little trouble.

He’s Tedium! A lachrymosal type,
Who dreams of gibbets while he smokes his pipe;
You know him, Reader—frail, yet monstrous, too,
Hypocrite Reader, he is me and you!

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

De Profundis Clamavi / De Profundis Clamavi
by Charles Baudelaire

I ask your pity, You, my only love,
From deep within the pit where my heart lies,
This mournful place beneath dull leaden skies
Where I, with dread and blasphemy, now move.

The sun is pallid six months of the year—
The other six, pitch darkness drapes the earth;
This land’s a frozen waste of death and dearth;
No bird, no stream, no bright green thing is here.

The seven deadly plagues would not suffice
To match the horror of this sun of ice,
And this vast darkness older than Creation.

I envy beasts their thoughtless hibernation;
They’re unaware, deep in October beds,
How slow the skein of time unwinds its threads.

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

Obsession / Obsession
by Charles Baudelaire

Forest, as fearful as a huge cathedral,
You roar like an organ while, in our damned hearts,
Dark chambers where death’s rattle is primeval,
Echoes of De Profundis speak their parts.

Ocean, I loathe your useless fluctuations
For they’re a mirror of my own! That wheeze
Of finished men, their sobs and imprecations,
Are mocked with monstrous laughter by your seas.

You’d please me better, Night, without your stars,
Whose twinkling is a tongue known everywhere;
For I seek out the void, the black, the bare!

Though now even the darkest shadow jars,
For legions thrive, inside its murky haze,
Of vanished dead who haunt my waking days.

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

Hazy Sky / Ciel Brouillé
by Charles Baudelaire

Your face seems hidden by a parchment screen;
Your mystic eyes (but are they blue or green?)
Alternatively tender, cruel or sly,
Are paisley patterns in a lazy sky.

You call to mind the sultriness long past,
Days, like a lover’s temper, overcast,
When in the restlessness and grip of pain
His sleepless nerves upbraid his torpid brain.

You are the sea’s edge, which the sky has kissed,
Lost in the gauziness of autumn’s mist,
And splendid, as a landscape well-endowed,
Aglow, like an illuminated cloud.

Dangerous woman, with your changeling clime,
Shall I adore as well your frost and rime,
And learn to draw from that pitiless winter
Joys keener than its ice-and-steel-tipped splinter?

Translation from the French by Helen Palma

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