The Sad Songs of Hell by Brent Cunningham






The method I used for writing these poems was as follows.

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.

It might be important to note I don’t have any French, although I have watched a good number of subtitled French movies.

Sometimes I relied on English/French cognates (or else Spanish/French cognates since I have passable Spanish) to come up with my guesses. Other times I pretended there was a cognate available even if I doubted there really was (“digits” for “d’été” for instance), a method not far removed from “homophonic” translation. Most commonly, however, I just told myself I knew precisely what the poem was saying without worrying about how that was technically possible. Translation by excessive confidence could be a name for it.

Later I went back and reworked the English poems until they sounded, to my ear, like the sort of thing Rimbaud might have written. I didn’t look at the French very often during this stage.

It turned out I had an extremely specific idea of Rimbaud living in me. Darker than I expected, more cynical, although now, in the winter of 2017, it turns out it maybe wasn’t cynical enough.

Some of the models and inspirations I want to acknowledge for these works include Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl, Sawako Nakayasu’s Mouth: Eats Color (Sagawa Chika Translations, Anti-Translations, & Originals), David Cameron’s Flowers of Bad, Sandra Simonds’s Baudelaire translations, Marie Buck’s Life & Style, and Stacy Doris’s Paramour. Closer in, the works of translation-obsessed friends like Brandon Brown, Laura Moriarty (see her L’Archiviste), Renee Gladman (see her Event Factory), Rob Halpern, Julian Talamantez Brolaski, Norma Cole, Carla Billitteri, David Brazil, Hugo Garcia Manriquez, and many others helped me think about translation in more heretical, complicated, and symbolic ways. Thanks to them these poems felt possible and precedented.

Finally I want to fondly remember the experience I had during the late 1990s studying in the poetics program at the University at Buffalo. So many poets were using mistranslation and variants of translation as a poetic tool there was a running joke about the “Buffalo School of Homophonic Translation.” A lot of my teachers and fellow students from those days feel especially present in these poems. Although I stubbornly refused to translate homophonically (or any other way) at the time, I’m now grateful for their examples.






mostly I use these bruised digits to make you feel

they dress dolls in peacoats, befoul menus with herb-stains

but they never forget: they’re not raspberry-capped feet—

only your bare chest opens their imperceptible vents


if you want an excuse for me here it is: I think the body’s a rind

love only feels infinite & only if you’re on the mounting end

it’s obvious you and I have legs, good legs, like all Bohemians

but when Nature created those, she wasn’t even a Woman





Par les soirs bleus d’été, j’irai dans les sentiers,

Picoté par les blés, fouler l’herbe menue :

Rêveur, j’en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.

Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.


Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien :

Mais l’amour infini me montera dans l’âme,

Et j’irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,

Par la nature, heureux comme avec une femme.




Androgynous Love


her pinkie, a curlicue wrapped in rabbit fur

dips into the cheese; she pulls back her hair

& then, the unexpected: vegetarians

steal the butcher’s financial statements

whether your soul is gray, green, or buffet-colored

makes a difference to the two kinds of people at this resort

there’s the Cowboys, pissing on the poor

& the Gracious Sons, who consume them like parfait

tonight society’s antennae glows red, transmitting gout

& alien horrors into the mind’s buried cables

weaving a fate so singular & brutal it’s unspeakable

& on a dozen rainy graves this phrase: LOVE SAVES

yet the wheel does wheel, sending another corpse

through the terrible, angelic, ulcerous Asshole of the World



Venus Anadyomène


Comme d’un cercueil vert en fer blanc, une tête

De femme à cheveux bruns fortement pommadés

D’une vieille baignoire émerge, lente et bête,

Avec des déficits assez mal ravaudés;

Puis le col gras et gris, les larges omoplates

Qui saillent; le dos court qui rentre et qui ressort;

Puis les rondeurs des reins semblent prendre l’essor;

La graisse sous la peau paraît en feuilles plates:

L’échine est un peu rouge, et le tout sent un goût

Horrible étrangement; on remarque surtout

Des singularités qu’il faut voir à la loupe…

Les reins portent deux mots gravés: CLARA VENUS;

—Et tout ce corps remue et tend sa large croupe

Belle hideusement d’un ulcère à l’anus.



Excerpted from Brent Cunningham’s The Sad Songs of Hell, a collection of experimental “translations” of Rimbaud’s poems forthcoming from Ugly Duckling Presse in August and available for pre-order now.

Brent Cunningham is a writer, publisher and visual artist living in Oakland, California.  He has published two books of poetry, Bird & Forest (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2005) and Journey to the Sun (Atelos, 2012).  He works as the Operations Director at Small Press Distribution in Berkeley.  In 2005 he and Neil Alger founded Hooke Press, a chapbook press dedicated to publishing short runs of poetry, criticism, theory, writing and ephemera.