Thursday, August 18, 2016


Anne Berkeley: The Men from Praga (Salt, 2009)

I'm not sure how I ended up with this on my shelves, because it's quite remote from the kind of poetry book I normally read, but I must say that picking it up now and then gives me a lot of pleasure and a lot to think about.

The poem "Baudelaire's Pipe" consists of six rhymed sonnets, all of them more or less translations of Baudelaire's poem "La Pipe" from Fleurs du mal.

Here's the first:


my Abyssinian hip:
I'm an experienced pipe --
a real writer's smoke.

When his spirits ache
my chimney fires up
like a home where good soup
greets the ploughman from work.

I embrace
and rock him idle
in my gauzy blue cradle,

whispering peace
in fragrant loops
from my passionate lips.

As we read on, the translations layer one upon another, and thus the poem slowly turns the pipe over and over, uncovering its layers of colonialism, narcosis, well-earned relaxation, mastery and submission, housewives and prostitutes.


La Pipe

Je suis la pipe d'un auteur;
On voit, à contempler ma mine
D'Abyssinienne ou de Cafrine,
Que mon maître est un grand fumeur.

Quand il est comblé de douleur,
Je fume comme la chaumine
Où se prépare la cuisine
Pour le retour du laboureur.

J'enlace et je berce son âme
Dans le réseau mobile et bleu
Qui monte de ma bouche en feu,

Et je roule un puissant dictame
Qui charme son coeur et guérit
De ses fatigues son esprit.

None of Berkeley's translations treats Baudelaire's twelfth line quite literally. They translate "dictame" as "balm", "peace", "spell", etc.

Literally, it means "dittany". This in turn refers to one of several aromatic plants.

Origanum dictamnus

[Image source:, photograph by pella2011.]

Mainly, Baudelaire must have been thinking of Cretan Dittany (Origanum dictamnus, endemic to Crete), a valued herb used as an aphrodisiac, in witchcraft (e.g. as an incense from which spirits may materialize), in perfumery, and as a flavouring (e.g. of vermouth and absinthe).

He may also have known something about the Dittany, Fraxinelle or Burning Bush (Dictamnus albus)  of the wider Mediterranean region (including southern France), a shrub famous for its volatile oils which can actually ignite the air around it. A very appropriate metaphor for a pipe!

Dictamnus albus

[Image source:]

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger