Tony Brinkley translating Charles Baudelaire

Voyage by Charles Baudelaire

À Maxime du Camp


For a child in love with lithographs and
maps, his hunger and the universe are
equals. How vast his world appears at night
beneath a lamp—how small a memory!

We depart one morning—brains enflamed,
hearts coarse with spite and bitter wishes.
And we’re off, following wave-rhythms
cradling infinities, rocked by the sea’s

finitude. And some escape an infamous
country, some childhood horrors—and
are happy. Others, the stargazers, drown
in Circe’s tyrannies of lethal perfumes,

drink metamorphoses, not animal-becomings,
but sky-changes—changing space and light
and inflamed ceilings—cold mirror-gnawing
and sun-darkening—gently effacing every trace

of kisses. All voyages depart. Real travelers also
leave but only for the sake of leaving—hearts careless
as balloons but never swerving from their own
fatalities, not knowing, always chanting,  “Come!”

“Join me!”—desire like the clouds, like nudes in
paintings—or a fresh recruit who dreams artillery—
dreams unknown variables—vast sensualities—
for which the human spirit has no name.


And now the horror, how we leap and waltz and
mimic, imitate a ball, a spinning top, then sleep—
but Curiosity torments us—frets and tosses—
like the Angel with a whip who whisks the sun.

What singular good fortune—make-shifts with 
their moving targets—being nowhere, perhaps
anywhere we hope——hope never tiring—
to rest however briefly—like a fool.

The soul like some three-master, looking
for its Icarus—shouts from the bridge—
“Sharp eyes!”—and from the mast—
“Love! Happiness!”—such fervor!—

every island sighted, Eldorado!—as
Fate promises—Imagination orgies—
fanciful erections—to be wrecked
the morning after on the coral.

Lost, amorous beggar in a country of chimeras!
throw him in irons, toss him in the ocean—
silly, drunken sailor—inventor of America—
mirage-embittered in an abyss! How he wanders,

the old vagrant—trampling mud—nose
in the air, dreaming dazzled Edens—and
everywhere finds Capua, eye’s bewitchment,
City of the Marshes, everywhere a candle
            lights a ghetto.


My astounding travelers, we read stories,
your seas chasm in eye-histories. Show
us your riches—your memory-settings—
your star-ether's marvelous jewelry.

Lighten our prison boredom: we will journey
without engines, unveiled, unshrouded, crossing
the mind, stretched like a painting, carried on
the memories that are framed by your horizons!

Tell us what you have seen.


                        We have seen
tides and sand—unforeseen
disasters—shock—and often 
been as bored as we are now.

Sunlight glories on the purple
oceans, cities glory in the purple
sunset, light disquiets and we
dive into the quiet of the sky.

Urban riches, sublime landscapes 
lack the mysteries chance creates
from random clouds. Desires
always leave us anxious!

Pleasure swells, a will for power
hardens the desire like an old tree 
juissance manures, branching
climbs to bring the sunlight nearer!

Great tree, hardier than cypress—
is your force perennial? With what
care we sketch the drawings for your
album. Our brothers see the beauty
but only from a distance. Once we
greeted elephants as idols, throned
radiance, palaces like fairy-tales—
the wealth would ruin bankers—

costumes for drunken visions—women
whose teeth and nails are painted—
subtle juggling that the snake caresses.”


And then . . . and then?


                            La chose capital:

in every face we saw—finding,
not seeking—forcing us
to see—boredom’s theatrics—
the eternites of sin . . .

Alienated nausea, infatuated pride,
Woman debased, enslaved to self-love;
Man, the cockroach, slave to his slaves,
tyrant, sewer, Onan’s bereaved;

power the poison that angers its thug;
festival juissance flavoring salt;
torturer’s semen, the martyr’s sob;
arousing the People with soporific whips;

everywhere everyone climbing the skies,
for Holiness sweet penetrations of nails
like solitary love on a feather-bed of pens,
these temples our mirrors, our sacraments
theirs. . . . Humanity chatters
for genius, Mad Jane, crazed
as before, curses God in agony:
“Mon maître—mon semblable.”

Companies of actors perform in Destiny’s
cage; the less foolish, daring Madness,
in opium-sheltered space, nomadics of
intensity—demented lines of flight . . .

Circling the world with these bulletins,
eternities report. . . .


From travel, bitter wisdom—
the world is our image—today
or tomorrow—an oasis of horror
in a desert of boredom.

Go or stay? Stay or go? 
Will you hide, try to flee
the adamant foe—self-
defeating Time—always

on the go—like the Wandering
Jew or apostles in transit—no
exit from the trident? Others kill
time without leaving their cradles.

Time-steps in time, tramples
the breath, but we will set sail—
eyes seeking, wind-stretched—
as we once sailed for China,

pleased as young sailors,
we sail on the darkness—
Listen to the voices!—
how the night charms us:

“Here is the Lotus—drink the strange
sweetness, drugged by the perfume—
afternoon without evenings—gather
the fruit whose core is your hunger.”

And by the accent,
we know the spectre,
Orestes’ friend Plyades,
reaching for the woman

whose knees we have
kissed—who says,
“Feed your hunger.
Swim to Electra.”


Death, my Odysseus, it is time to travel!
Death, my dear friend, this country bores us!
Though sky and sea are black as ink,
you know with me the nights are radiant.

Pour the poison that frees the thirst! 
Our brains burn—luminous stretch—
Hell or Heaven?—we dive the gulf.
We dart your tally to find the new—

au fond de l’abîme, de l'Inconnu.

Translator's Note

Translating Baudelaire: Lines of Flight

The phrase “lines of flight” or ligne de fuite is Deleuze and Guattari’s and—with its sense of fleeing and evading, of flowing and leaking (at least in French) and of flying (if not in French then in its English translation)—“lines of flight [ligne de fuite]” offers a “nomadics of intensity” with which Deleuze and Guattari imagined one could evade “the powerful signs that massacre desire.” This nomadics seems to me to be an accurate description of the impulse that shapes “Le Voyage,” the concluding poem in Les Fleurs du Mal, and it is this impulse that I have been trying to translate into English. Baudrillard writes that there is always a desire not to be interpreted. In their reading of Kafka, Deleuze and Guattari trace lines of flight in a practice that evades “attempts to interpret it” and “does not offer itself to anything but experimentation” (they are using the word “experimentation” as Cage does, “not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as an act the outcome of which is unknown”). Of Baudelaire’s poetry it seems to me one can also say that it offers itself to nothing but experimentation. How to translate in ways that participate in the experiment. Rather than interpret what Baudelaire means, can I translate in such a way that the experimental impulse in his French verse will also shape Baudelaire’s poetry in English?

A few additional notes on the experiment: if, as Benjamin suggests, a necessary context for reading Baudelaire’s poetry is an emerging global capitalism as it transformed 19th Century Paris, if in this context the powerful interpretative signs that massacre desire turn out to be instances of the same sign, i.e. money as capital as it transforms by commodifying into instances of itself (i.e. exchange-value)—always the same interpretation—what Benjamin calls the “eternal return of the self-same”—thus Baudelaire’s l’ennui (boredom) and its toxic spleen—then the alternative will be the “new,” as Benjamin also suggests, but a “newness” that will not reduce to its interpretation, its commodification, as another novelty. Perhaps what eludes this fate in Baudelaire’s poetry is an exuberant, lyric expression of what might otherwise reduce to novelties. Where Baudelaire begins with novelties, so easily clichéd, so beautifully inauthentic, he translates them as intensities. I wonder if translation, an art that both Baudelaire and Benjamin practiced idiosyncratically, might also be a way of approaching a newness both sought, a way of evading any exchange value, any return of the self-same, inasmuch as translations are not—cannot be—exchanged for the original (they are never the same), but must always, like the original, be incommensurate. In the introduction to his translations of Baudelaire, Benjamin suggested something like this, that translations are not an equivalent of the original but their “continuing life [Fortleben]” With respect to Baudelaire’s “Voyage,” I would like to think of this “continuing life” as the experiment, of translations from the original as its lines of flight.

Tony Brinkley

Tony Brinkley teaches English at the University of Maine, where he is also the Senior Faculty Associate at the
 University’s Franco-American Centre. His poetry and translations have appeared in Another Chicago Magazine,
 Beloit Poetry Journal, Cerise Press, Drunken Boat, Four Centuries, Hinchas de Poesie, Hungarian Review, MayDay,
 New Review of Literature, Puckerbrush Press, Poetry Salzburg Review, Otoliths, Shofar, and World Literature Today.
 Recent translations include poetry by Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Valéry, Rainer Maria Rilke, Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris
 Pasternak, and Anna Akhmatova (

Charles Baudelaire

Charles Baudelaire published Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857. “Le Voyage” appeared in the second edition (1861) to which many poems had been added but from which poems the French courts censored had necessarily been omitted. In an 1859 letter, Victor Hugo wrote to Baudelaire:  “vous allez en avant. . . . Vous créez un frisson nouveau.” In 1924, Paul Valéry said of Les Fleur du Mal: “elle s’impose comme la poésie même de la modernité.”