During the pandemic, while taking care of her dying husband, quarantined from friends, and without much help from Medicaid, one day in the spring of 2020, Daisy Fried read a translation of Baudelaire’s “Paysage” by John Ashbery, thought to herself, “I can do better than that,” and began to work on her own “Landscape.”
Shut in his garret, but able to look out his window and see, hear and imagine what’s going on outside in a world he has little control over, Baudelaire’s “Paysage” is a passive poem that ends with a great force of will and desire to change and make “De mes penser brûlants une tiède atmosphère,” which Fried translates, “Of my burning thoughts a gentler weather,” which says what Baudelaire is saying perfectly.
As she worked on the poems in her spare time, she began to realize that Baudelaire was someone she needed. “His disgust is glorious,” she says. “It is diagnostic. And I think that we in America could use more romantic disgust.” In her preface, she writes, “Each poem I did seemed to have something to say about life in 2020, about illness, about losing one’s beloved, in a corrupt, violent, economically spiraling country led by an incompetent malignant narcissist, with its police and other institutions racist, its people in crisis.”
Enclosed, with caregiving the priority, Daisy, who was not a big fan of Baudelaire to begin with, translated him. Paris became Philadelphia where she lives. The 19th century riots outside Baudelaire’s windows became 21st century riots outside hers. The swan in “Le Cygne” becomes a Canadian Goose floundering in a puddle outside the Philadelphia Zoo. Baudelaire’s lust for his mistress, Jeanne Duval in “Les Bijoux,” in “The Jewels” becomes Fried’s lust for her husband, Jim Quinn. She did twenty-eight adaptations, and says, “I basically ran his work through my American 21st century woman’s idiom and nervous system.”
I like Charles Baudelaire. In my early twenties, he was essential when I was striving to be a poet. “What was a poet?” I wanted to know. Even in translation, Baudelaire told me, “If you want to be a poet, focus on one thing clearly, and tell us what you see. Give us an image.” When Baudelaire writes a poem called “L’Abatros,” you can be certain that poem will be about an albatross. When I translated “L’Abatros,” I called it “The Albatross.” When Daisy Fried translates “L’Abatros,” she calls it “White on White.”
Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers,
Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.
À peine les ont-ils déposés sur les planches,
Que ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux,
Laissent piteusement leurs grandes ailes blanches
Comme des avirons traîner à côté d’eux.
Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!
Lui, naguère si beau, qu’il est comique et laid!
L’un agace son bec avec un brûle-gueule,
L’autre mime, en boitant, l’infirme qui volait!
Le Poète est semblable au prince des nuées
Qui hante la tempête et se rit de l’archer;
Exilé sur le sol au milieu des huées,
Ses ailes de géant l’empêchent de marcher.
White on White
Bored, our crew traps albatross,
Great birds of the deep,
Lazy fellow travelers
Of vessels sliding along the bitter chasm.
The minute we lay them out on the boards,
These piteous kings of the azure,
Awkward and ashamed, splay,
Like oars, their white massive wings.
Winged wayfarer! Gauche. Stupid.
Was lovely, now ludicrous, and foul.
I stuff my lit pipe in its beak.
Another mocks its crippled step.
Sky poet, prince of clouds
Who haunts the storm and laughs at hunters,
Grounded amid hoots and mocks, can’t walk.
What lifted you smacks you flat.
“White on White” ends with a line that can only be American: “What lifted you smacks you flat.” Baudelaire became Daisy Fried, and that is plain to see when you read.
I read Les Fleurs du Mal in French in my early fifties while commuting five days a week on a train that took an hour each way. My French is not so great; I can read it OK, but I lack the practice to speak. I had a bilingual translation, a dictionary, and an Algerian friend who came for dinner once a week, and went over the poems with me, correcting my pronunciation as I read them. When I heard Daisy Fried read from The Year the City Emptied at KGB last April, I did not remember “Je n’ai pas oublié,” the poem she begins with, and it touched me to the core, it floored me, a poem in memory of her husband. The simplest things in time, like dinner with a friend, come back to us in retrospect as blessed. Daisy Fried expresses it. Enjoy.
The Year the City Emptied is published by Flood Editions. You can check it out here: