Translated by Samantha Pious
… I spot a young woman…
She was dressed in white linen,
She fired a missile of truth
By simply passing by.
It was the sway of her hips,
Sway of her hips,
Sway of her hips…
I think I saw God.
Those are song lyrics from “Sway of Her Hips” by Teresa Trull and Barbara Higbie. I cite them here, because they are the first thing that came to mind when I sat down to review a new collection/ new translation of poems by Renée Vivien. The collection is A Crown of Violets and the translator, Samantha Pious, is a doctoral student whose specialties are medieval courtly poetry and women’s writing.
… and yet… somewhere amid all that drama and all those bouts with addictions and compulsive behavior, still… Vivien managed to produce 17 volumes of poetry—not including compilations—and 16 volumes of prose, in addition to a sizable stash of juvenilia and correspondence.
Pious has collected some of Vivien’s most iconic and tantalizing poems, and—as near as I can tell—she attempts to retain rhyme and rhyme schemes in her translations. Inevitably, this is at the expense of literal translation. That said, I appreciated the effort to communicate the lyricism and the musicality of Vivien’s exquisite work. My own preference would have been to publish the originals side-by-side with the translation. For the curious, they are available online at the Lavender Review website.
This was the case for Renée Vivien. In fact, she responded with disgust and contempt to displays of carnal desire that did not lead to transcendent experience. Emphasizing this aspect of her work could lead one to conclude that Vivien was morbid, prudish, and/or homophobic.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and I appreciate how conscientiously Pious has selected poems that balance out this polarity.
Starting with the poems of disgust:
In “The Grazers of Grass” Vivien calls out the idyllic conventions of earlier pastoral poets. The entire poem is a rant about the horror of grazing sheep:
“Innocent, just like the little lambs of Holy Writ,
They ruminate in burblings of spit.
Indifferent to the buzzing of the flies,
They never raise their greedy-glutton eyes.
And, more overbearing than a host of victory calls,
The greasy noise of chewing rises from their jaws.”
“… We hate the smirking song-and-dance of day,
The sunlit springtime’s harsh returning gaze…”
We hate the brutish rut that soils desire.
We shun it as anathema, the cry
In which the unborn sorrows of life are sired.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, I’ll just give one more example. This is from “Gray Eyes,” where Vivien is describing what it’s like to gaze into the eyes of her carnal lover, presumably Natalie, whose hedonism was everything Vivien despised:
“… I interrogate your pupils’ stagnant pools.
They have the void of winter, dusk, and graves:
I see eternal Limbos drifting there,
The terrible dull endlessness of ocean waves.
Nothing lives within you, not one tender dream.
Your dark, soulless eyes extinguish all you see,
As though a silent home an ashy fireside…
And time grows tedious as a rosary...
...Within your eyes I’ve found the stillness and the death
One breathes from sleeping near the dead too long.”
She tells us in “Words to My Love:”
“I love the dying day extinguished gradually,
The fire, the cloistered closeness of a chamber
Where the lampshades, veiling their transparent amber,
Blush red the bronze and blue the pottery.
My eyes upon the rug more worn than sand,
I lazily invoke the gold-grained shore,
The glimmers of the drifting tides of yore…
And I had the terrible audacity to year
For sister-love, of bright, white, pure light,
The gentle voice uniting with the night,
The furtive step that doesn’t break the fern.”
“Our mistresses could never do us wrong,
For, in their forms, we love infinity…
And since their kisses grant us immortality,
We have no fear of Hell’s oblivion.
And so we sing, and our souls overflow,
Our days, with neither sorrow nor remorse,
Uncurl themselves like long, melodious chords,
And we love, as they loved on Lesbos long ago.”
Vivien suffered from an occupational hazard not unknown to this lesbian writer. She fell in love with the utopian worlds of her own artistic vision, and this enabled her to refuse accommodation with the imperfect world of fleshly, lesbian mortals. Throw some drugs and alcohol into the equation, and her fate was sadly sealed.
“Ocean violets shall pour down before us
Within the green and violet windowpane…
And, in suspense, I taste the perfect pain:
The wait for joys that only come at dusk.
In silence, I await the hour I envision…
Night passes, trailing light and shadows, by…
My boundless soul is scattered in the sky…
The air is mild, and see: the moon has risen.”
A Crown of Violets is available is at Amazon. I have a one-act dream play about Vivien's summer on Mt. Desert Island with Natalie Barney in 1900, Souvenirs from Eden.