EXPLORING THE HOT, HONEST CONTINENT IN BAUDELAIRE’S “LA CHEVELURE”
By Anne Babson
I was a lonely, angry punk-rock teen. I felt misunderstood, perhaps more so than the other tenth grade girls did. I got in trouble frequently for my bomber jacket, my torn-up prom dresses, and my snark. I intimidated many of my high school peers, I think, and I often sat in a corner with a beat-up copy of Les Fleurs du Mal by Charles Baudelaire and a dog-eared French-English dictionary in the part of campus where kids smoked clove cigarettes and complained. I found I had a knack for languages, and I decided to learn French fluently after I read one of the poems I meticulously translated with a dictionary for my own pleasure, and what a peculiar pleasure it was! I wanted nothing to do with the opium-addicted quasi-Satanism of the obviously disturbed Baudelaire, but when he talked about his mistress Jeanne Duval, I was thrilled. I did not want to love the way he did. Their relationship would have had a Facebook status of “It’s Complicated,” but when he talked about her head of hair, and where it took him, I was enraptured. The poem somehow made me feel powerful, connected, as if I had an uncle in some sort of midsummer night’s mafia that had the power to whack bad gangsters and, paradoxically, to cast a sort of love spell, one for the bravest of lovers.
I poured over the poem, learning each vocabulary word, using each in a French sentence, and above all, visualizing the fire Baudelaire described in his verses.
“J’irai là-bas où l’arbre et l’homme, pleins de sève,
Se pâment longuement sous l’ardeur des climats;
Fortes tresses, soyez la houle qui m’enlève!”
I give you Richard Howard’s rather cerebral translation –
“Take me, tousled current to where men
As mighty as the trees they live among
Submit like them to the sun’s long ardor.”
Here, though, is mine, of those same lines, less pretentious, more punk:
I will go back there where man and tree, full of sap,
Swoon at length under the hot ardor of the climate;
Strong tresses, be the swell that lifts me!
How I wanted to go to a place of such frankness! When Baudelaire inhales the perfume of his mistress’ hair, he imagines himself on a continent where men and women can finally be emotionally bare, savagely naked before one another — Adam and Eve in no Miltonian Eden, no tamed English garden, but in a sultry tropic, one surely writhing with jewel-backed serpents, with Baudelaire’s first man and first woman able to enjoy a great sensual truth of each other.
When I first read these lines, I had experienced nothing of sex except on the pages of Baudelaire’s book. I had shared a couple of furtive kisses with boys, with one in particular who ultimately decided he was gay, so I had never known a swell that lifted me of the kind that Baudelaire describes. I wanted the nakedness of truth shared in a storm. I wanted a romance that had the hard edge that my spiky red hair and black lipstick invited, but the young people around me did not share my desire for that kind of courageous passion, at least not with me.
Later that year, though, my sophomore English teacher tried to undress me in his office. I pushed him away. I glared at him with a surprising command of myself, and snarled at him haughtily, “you have got to be kidding!” Secretly frightened as I was at this assault, I walked away from it with the dignity of a 1930s film heroine, shoulders back, gaze straight, telling him I would not attend classes any more that semester but would expect to receive no less than a B in exchange for my silence.
I was fourteen! Where did I get the nerve to talk to an adult like that? How did I know I would win? I remember the echo of my stiletto heels in the corridor as I walked away from his office at a moderate pace, heart racing, fearful but not without a slight and horrible thrill, not at the assault but at my victorious repulsion of his advances. I never told a principal. I never told a parent. I knew they might have blamed me as a temptress with torn-up chiffon and fishnets. Instead, I was an undiscovered continent content yet undiscovered. I hadn’t been raped. I had barely been touched. I was too scary to rape, if the rapist needed to rape a child. I belonged to myself entirely. I was misunderstood because nobody was really strong enough to understand me, to face me in absolute truth.
I wonder if, in reading Baudelaire’s “La Chevelure”, I had not adopted a posture of subversive power, one with a decidedly French acceptance of passion with a shrug as a thing that happens in wildly inappropriate and socially unacceptable ways. Long had I meditated on the lines by Baudelaire at the end of this poem:
“N’es-tu pas l’oasis où je rêve, et la gourde
Où je hume à longs traits le vin du souvenir?”
My translation (I won’t bore you with Howard’s):
“Are you not [oh head of hair], the oasis where I dream, the drinking gourd
Where I inhale with long gulps the wine of memory?”
I must have been remembering my ancestry on an imagined continent which I had never visited, a virgin who despite inexperience remembered nonchalantly being the object of a great passion, both the volcano and the sacrifice to that volcano at once. My teacher belonged in jail, I thought, though I knew he would never go there. I was not ashamed. Neither was I tempted by any curiosity. I knew that teacher couldn’t know what I already knew, that Baudelaire’s once-banned verses had already taught me theoretically. I realized that if I had slept with him, he would have bored me. Instead, I walked away with a B, and instead of producing insipid essays for that sex offender, I read more and more Baudelaire on my own in the clove-cigarette-and-complaint section of the campus.
Thanks to my efforts, I am fluent in French now. Whether the scent of the perfume in my hair transports one to a continent of flamboyant truth, it is not for me to say. What is certain is that I am still nostalgic for a place that Baudelaire in his own complicated idiom imagined where gender roles are leveled by the glory of an ardent candor. We are all volcanos yet uncharted when we encounter good poetry.
Anne Babson’s first collection The White Trash Pantheon won the Colby H. Kullman prize from the Southern Writers Southern Writing Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. She wrote the libretto for the opera Lotus Lives, which has been performed in multiple cities and is slated for production once more in Montreal in 2018. She is the author of three chapbooks– Poems Under Surveillance is still in print with Finishing Line Press, and she has a forthcoming chapbook from Dancing Girl Press entitled Dolly Shot. She has been anthologized in the United States and in England, most recently in the notable collection Nasty Women Poets: an Unapologetic Anthology of Subversive Verse released in 2017. Her work has appeared in literary journals on five continents and has won numerous editorial awards. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times. She has received residency grants from Yaddo and Vermont Studio Center. Her blog about moving south, The Carpetbaggers Journal, has close to 50,000 hits and has been picked up by Y’all Politics and PBS-related websites. She writes lyrics for a variety of musical projects, most recently a blues album. She teaches writing and literature at Southeastern Louisiana University. She writes and lives in New Orleans. She will read there at this year’s Tennessee Williams Festival. Polite Occasions was released by Unsolicited Press in March 2018.