FROM THE POEMS OF A. O. BARNABOOTH BY VALERY LARBAUD
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH BY RON PADGETT AND BILL ZAVATSKY
MUSIC AFTER READING
Enough words, enough sentences! O real life,
Artless and unmetaphored, be mine.
Come into my arms, sit on my lap.
Come into my heart, come into my lines, my life.
I see you in front of me, open, interminable,
Like a street in the blessed South, narrow and warm,
Winding between such high houses, whose rooftops,
Steeping themselves in the evening sky, are bumped
By soft-flying bats,
Street like a large fragrant passageway
Of a Barrio del Mar whose neighbor is indeed the sea,
And where, in the quiet night, in a little while,
The serenos will sing out the hours like psalms...
But, my life, it's always this street on the eve
Of Saint Joseph's Day, when musicians,
Guitars beneath their capes, go serenading.
On the brink of a very gentle sleep you'll hear
The sound of strings and wood, even gentler than sleep,
So trembling, so joyful, so touching, and so tentative,
That if only I were to sing
All the Pepitas would dance in their beds.
Cries interrupt my song! My own song!
(You're not the one, America, your cataracts, your forests
Where the coming spring trembles, you're not the one,
Great silence of the stupendous, lonely Andes,
No, you're not the ones who fill this heart
With an indescribable harmony, mingling
Fierce joy and sobs of pride!...)
Oh! If I could only go where no one lives, far from books,
And let the lyrical beast leaping in my breast laugh and howl!
Lying on the couch in the back of the cabin
(Rocked like a doll in the arms of a crazed little girl
By the pitch and roll-foul weather),
I have a luminous circle on my soul: the porthole,
Like a shop window where the sea is for sale,
And half-asleep, I dream
Of constructing, in a completely new form, a poem
To the glory of the sea.
O Homer! O Vergil!
O Corpus Poeticum Boreale! Yours are the pages
One must search for the eternal truths
Of the sea, and those myths that express a vision of weather,
And the fairylands of the sea, and the history of the waves,
And ocean spring, and ocean autumn,
And the lull that smoothes a flat green road
For Neptune's chariot and the Nereids' processionals.
I have a luminous circle on my soul that travels
Up and down, sometimes filled with the blue-gray flecked with white
Of the Mediterranean landscape, with a patch of pale
It's the sky that comes down to fill the circle, sometimes
I plunge into a cold and glaucous light,
Swirling, and sometimes, in one fell swoop,
The porthole blinded by froth flies up, dazzling itself in white open sky.
On the ever-moving horizon line,
Big as a toy, painted white, a Rumanian steamer passes.
It rolls as on a road crisscrossed by muddy ruts, and sometimes
The propeller lifts out of the sea and churns the air full of foam.
They salute, with the flag on the stern at half-mast,
Sounds of the ship: voices in a passageway.
Creaking of woodwork, squeaking of hanging lamps,
Rhythm of machines, whiffs of their stale odor,
Cries eaten by the wind, jumbling the music
Of a mandolin picking "Sobre las olas del mar..."
And the usual drone that ends by being silence.
Oh! Up there on the bridge, the long fierce wind, the piratical wind
Whistling in the ropes and cracking the flag like a whip
Of stars and stripes in three colors...
THE DEATH OF ATAHUALPA
Pues el Atabalipa llorava y dezia
que no le matasen . . .
O how many times have I thought of those tears,
Those tears of the supreme Inca and his empire undiscovered
For so long, on the high plateaus, at the far shores
Of the Pacific-those tears, those poor tears
From those huge red eyes beseeching Pizarro and Almagro.
I thought about them, when I was a little child, standing
For a long time in a somber gallery in Lima
In front of that historic, official, terrifying painting.
There we first see-a fine study of the nude and of expression-
The wives of the American Emperor, mad
With grief, demanding to be put to death, and here,
Surrounded by clergy in surplice and crosses
And lighted tapers, not far from Fray Vicente de Valverde,
Atahualpa, lying on the horrible
And inexplicable device of the garrote, his brown torso
Naked, and his lean face shown in profile,
While at his sides the Conquistadors
Are praying, fervent and fierce.
This is one of those strange crimes of History.
Surrounded by the majesty of Law and the splendors of the Church,
So prodigious in their agonizing horror,
One cannot believe that they do not endure
Somewhere beyond the visible world eternally,
And that even in this painting, perhaps, always the same sorrow,
The same prayers, the same tears remain,
Like the mysterious designs of the Lord.
And I like to imagine, this very moment,
As I write alone, abandoned by gods and men,
In a suite of the Sonora Palace Hotel
(In the California quarter)
Yes, I imagine that somewhere in this hotel,
In a room blazing with electric lights,
This same terrible silent scene
-This scene from Peruvian national history
That we drum into our children in our schools back home-
Is happening exactly
As it did four hundred years ago at Cajamarca.
Ah, let's hope no one opens the wrong door!
In this great blast of dark wind we're cutting through
I wander, exalted, weeping on the deck of the yacht.
Midnight on the sea, no land in sight.
A little while ago at sunset
The cannons of the Bosphorus were booming in the fog,
The coast of Asia answering the coast of Europe
(To guide ships) every quarter hour.
And with these warlike sounds off the stern,
My bounding ship with its farcical name, the Narrenschiff,
Entered this pitchblack night and the chaos of the Euxine Sea...
As a child I followed this route
Of darkness, this unrolling of the great porphyrian wave
Bursting with the livid flowers of sea edelweiss.
O tomorrow! Sunrise on the coast
And in my own dear heart full of bells!
The pink and green coasts of the Ottoman Empire stretched out to
With gentle undulations, where villages
The color of earth are hidden, and old fortresses,
Or the approach of a Russian port, announced
By thousands of green gourds floating on the sparkling water
(The way Ausonia, more discreetly, sometimes
Announces itself to the navigator by an empty fiaschetto rocking
On the Tyrrhenian wave).
Oh, summer dawns on resounding seas
And the silence of shores seen from far away!
But let me be touched a little by my childhood,
Seeing myself again at fifteen in the streets of Odessa,
Let me weep in the darkness without knowing why,
Singing these lines into the wind:
"Ya que para mi no vives,"
To a waltz melody heard I don't know where, a gypsy melody,
Sobbing as I sing a gypsy melody!
Memory opens onto dazzling countries again:
Harbors full of ships and blue ports
Lined with docks planted with giant palm trees
And gigantic fig trees, like tents made of hide hung from the sky,
And immense forests half-submerged,
And the shady paseos of Barcelona,
Silver and crystal domes against the azure,
And Little Cythera, hollow as a cup,
Where, along the calmest streams in the world
All the old-time pastorals are played:
And those Greek islands floating on the sea...
Whether I weep this way from joy or despair
I can't say, mingling
My stifled sobs with the panicky cries of the North Wind,
[no stanza break]
To the rhythm of the machinery, the thunder and the hissing
Of waves twisted into masses of glass on the sides
Of the ship, and suddenly spread like a cape of precious jewels
(But all that is invisible)...
But my sorrow... Oh, my sorrow, my beloved!
Who will adopt this groundless sorrow,
Unknown to the past and whose secret
The future will doubtless never understand?
Oh, to prolong the memory of this modern sorrow,
This sorrow which has no cause, but
Which for me is a gift from Heaven.
The page numbers below referring to Barnabooth's poems are those of the Pléiade edition,
Oeuvres de Valery Larbaud. References to The Diary of A. O. Barnabooth are from the
McPherson &Company edition. The reader should not confuse Barnabooth's Diary (Journal
intime) and Larbaud's Journal, 1912-1935, which is not included in the Pléiade edition.
The most easily available volume of the Barnabooth poems is Gallimard's Poésie series
pocket edition, Les Poésies de A.O. Barnabooth.
MUSIC AFTER READING
13: Serenos: "Night watchmen," in Spanish. The serenos not only patrolled the streets, they
also called out or sang the hours; hence the suggestion, in Larbaud's verb psalmodieront,
of the singing or chanting of monks, perhaps at matins. (Decades after this
poem was written the Spanish government modified the role of the serenos, commissioning
them simply as municipal policemen.)
15: St. Joseph's Day: This important Feast Day is celebrated by the Roman Catholic
Church on March 19. The third Wednesday after Easter is also the Feast of St. Joseph,
who is the patron saint of the Church as a whole.
Thalassa ("the sea," in Greek) "reflects the impressions of the Adriatic sailed by the writer
in 1903" (Pléiade, 1195).
10: Corpus Poeticum Boreale: Most likely Larbaud is referring to Corpus Poeticum
Boreale: The Poetry of the Old Northern Tongue from the Earliest Times to the Thirteenth
Century, edited, classified, and translated with introduction, excursus, and notes
by Gudbrand Vigfusson, M.A., and F. York Powell, M.A. (London: Oxford at the
Clarendon Press, 1883). Volume I: Eddic Poetry; Volume II: Court Poetry.
35: "Sobre las olas del mar": "Over the waves of the sea," in Spanish.
THE DEATH OF ATAHUALPA
The epigraph ("Then Atahualpa wept and asked that they not kill him") is from the Spanish
historian Gonzalo Fernandez de Oviedo y Valdes (1478-1557). Not only had Oviedo
seen Columbus previous to his first voyage to America, but he also visited America himself
on several occasions in an official capacity. Appointed historiographer of the Indies,
Oviedo wrote two historical works, Sumario de la natural y general historia de las Indias
(1526) and La historia natural y general de las Indias, Islas e tierra Firme del mar oceano
2: the supreme Inca: Atahualpa (c. 1502-1533) was the last Inca king. After the swift triumph
of a small band of invading conquistadors in 1532, "the emperor was brought
to trial on as many charges as could be trumped up...convicted and sentenced to be
burned alive that very night in the public square of Cajamarca... As the wood was
about to be ignited, Atahualpa was told that his sentence could be changed to strangulation...
if he would accept Christianity. He did, was baptized, and then garroted"
5: Pizarro and Almagro: Francisco de Pizarro (c. 1471-1541) and Diego de Almagro (c.
1470-1538), with a priest named Hernando de Luque, comprised the syndicate that
initiated the conquest of Peru. Later disputes between Pizarro and Almagro plunged
Spanish Peru into the first of a series of civil wars.
7: a somber gallery in Lima: When Francisco Contreras confronted Larbaud with the
fact that the painting in question depicts the funeral rather than the execution of Atahualpa,
Larbaud replied that it made no difference: "Barnabooth was so little then..."
(Contreras, 17). The painting might well be Los funerales de Atahualpa by Luis
Montero (1827-1869), a Peruvian artist trained in his homeland and Italy, where this
painting was made in 1867. It depicts the grief-stricken wives of Atahualpa (though
they are hardly naked) and the other elements described in the poem, though in the
painting Atahualpa is already dead, laid out on his catafalque, with no garrote in sight.
This affecting work was purchased by the Peruvian government, which used it for a
while on the 500 Sol banknote.
13: Fray Vicente de Valverde: A Dominican priest who came to Peru with Pizarro after
1529. He conducted the crucial interview with Atahualpa in the great square in
Cajamarca, surrounded by more than 3,000 of the Emperor's people, while Pizarro's
artillery and troops, strategically placed in buildings and streets opening onto the
square, looked on. Atahualpa listened through an interpreter to the priest's statement
of the history and tenets of the Christian faith and the Roman Catholic policy. Fray
Vicente then called upon the Inca to become a Christian and to acknowledge Charles
V of Spain as his master. Atahualpa vehemently pointed out certain difficulties in the
Christian religion, acknowledged the obvious greatness of the Spanish emperor, and
then declined to accept either one. In fact he is said to have taken the Bible from the
priest's hands and flung it resentfully to the ground. Pizarro gave his troops the signal
for the attack. The Peruvians were cut down by the hundreds. When Atahualpa was
later sentenced to death by fire, Pizarro's most influential advisors protested the decision,
with Valverde being a notable exception.
15: garrote: A device used for the execution by strangulation of condemned criminals. The
execution was performed by twisting a cord or bandage on the condemned man's neck
until strangulation occurred, but later a mechanically operated metal collar was
30: the California Quarter: The California Quarter is in Cannes (Pléiade, 1195).
The title is "the name of a kind of song from the...Andes" (Pléiade, 1195). In his Diary
Barnabooth notes a recurrence of the ennui that plagues him, "a disgust, an intolerable
weariness," and relates it to the "'heavenly gift' of the poets...it really is a gift of Heaven,
the gift of Apollo" (284), sentiments that are reflected in the last two lines of this poem.
Barnabooth also notes, "In the fold of the water bobbed a green pumpkin" (103), similar
to the flotsam in line 20 of the poem.
5: Bosphorus: The ancient Strait of Constantinople, connecting the sea of Marmara and
the Black Sea. Istanbul is on its west bank.
9: "Narrenschiff": Barnabooth's yacht takes its name from the satire Das Narrenschiff
(The Ship of Fools) by Sebastian Brant (1457-1521).
10: Euxine Sea: The Greek name for the Black Sea, and perhaps the scene of the Argonauts'
16: Ottoman Empire: The empire founded by Osman (1288-1320), which lasted until
21: Ausonia: The name applied by Greek writers to Latium and Campania in Italy; the
Augustan poets used it as a synonym for Italy.
22: fiaschetto: A small flask or bottle, in Italian.
23: Tyrrhenian wave: Synecdoche for the Tyrrhenian Sea, the part of the Mediterranean
between the Italian peninsula, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily.
27: Odessa: A port city in Ukraine on the Black Sea. In 1905 a revolutionary focal point.
30: "Ya que para mi no vives": "Since you no longer live for me," in Spanish.
38: paseos: "Streets," in Spanish.
40: Little Cythera: Probably the small Greek island in the Aegean Sea now known as
Andikithera, near the larger island of Cythera (famous in antiquity for its temple of
Valery Larbaud (1881-1957) invented A. O. Barnabooth and anonymously published the first volume of his works, these poems, in 1908. In 1913 Larbaud signed his name to the book, adding a lengthy personal journal and short story by "Barnabooth." This new edition, revised from the 1977 translation by Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky, and with the French texts added, was published in 2008 by the Black Widow Press (Boston).
Ron Padgett's twenty books include How to Be Perfect, You Never Know, Great Balls of Fire, and New & Selected Poems. He is also the translator of Blaise Cendrars' Complete Poems, Pierre Reverdy's Prose Poems, and Guillaume Apollinaire's Poet Assassinated. For his service to French literature, the French government named him Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters.
Bill Zavatsky's most recent book of poems is Where X Marks the Spot. His co-translation (with Zack Rogow) of Earthlight: Poems by André Breton won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Coub Translation Prize. Most recently he was anthologized in The Face of Poetry. For many years Zavatsky was the editor-in-chief and publisher of SUN magazine and SUN, a literary press.