Rimbaud’s poem opens with a shocking line and continues to disturb to the end, yet the form – the rhymes and regular syllable count – allows his sensational material to be delivered with a measure of grace and irony. Merely writing about lice outraged traditional advocates of literary propriety, but the inclusion of parasites in a highly eroticized tableau multiplied the offense immeasurably. In the end both the steamy excitement (the charming fingers, the wish to kiss) and the disgusting details (sucked saliva, the sound of crushed insects) are subsumed in what looks very much like a drive for union with Ultimate Reality.
The all-too-human child his face covered with open sores, like Job an icon of suffering, might well seek the oblivion of dreams, but that psychic deliverance is realized only through the covertly (or unconsciously) sensual actions of the ministering ladies which make a powerful impression on the hypersexualized boy. “L’air bleu baigne un fouillis de fleurs” is of a piece with the “l’essaim blanc des rêves indistincts.” The poet does gain access to that transported realm, contained within the experience, figured as a taste, of the sound of the ladies’ breathing which to him seems “longs miels végétaux et rosés.” The same enchanted jouissance recurs in “les silences parfumés,” “grises indolences,” each emptied yet heightened.
The climax of the piece is the child’s submission to his Castle of Indolence, the “vin de la Paresse,” which is represented as a “soupir d’harmonica qui pourrait délirer.” This culminating image includes both the melody of the delicate music (a “glass harmonica,” I understand, like Mozart knew, not a mouth organ) and the delirium (corresponding to the earlier lesions) as the child finds that eros, even in artistic representation, as a succession of images, has the power to bring one outside oneself into the undifferentiated consciousness (because nothing, Nirvana, thus everything). Or nearly to that point, since the urge to weep recurs to him repeatedly, rhythmically, like the plangent waves rolling to shore and receding. What a poignant conclusion!
A number of critics take pains about the biographical details that may be associated with this poem. Since it seems as much about me as about young Rimbaud, I do not comment on that element.
Keeping the rhymes has required sacrifices, but that calculus cannot be evaded. The specifics of the translator’s decisions are of interest only, I think, to other translators, who then feel constrained from using similar wording. To my mind I have decided to be faithful to the original far more times than I have taken a liberty.
The Lice Pickers
When the child’s face, so full of red raw sores,
implores the pale swarm of vaporous dreams,
two great charming sisters come to his door
with their frail fingers and silver nails’ gleam.
They seat him in the casement window chair,
open to a blue air bath where scent lingers.
He feels through his dew-laden heavy hair,
the touch of fine, fearsome, and charming fingers.
To him their cringing breathing makes a tune
with long honied notes vegetal, rosehips,
and every now and then a whistling croon,
the wish to kiss or suck spittle from lip.
He hears the beating of their black eyelids
in perfumed hush. Electric hands so nice
crackle sweet amid grey indolence hid
as regal nails bring death to little lice.
Then in him rises up the wine of Sloth,
the breath of a mad harmonica’s sigh.
The child feels, along with their slow caress,
come and go without end, the wish to cry.
Les Chercheuses de Poux by Arthur Rimbaud
Quand le front de l’enfant, plein de rouges tourmentes,
Implore l’essaim blanc des rêves indistincts,
Il vient près de son lit deux grandes sœurs charmantes
Avec de frêles doigts aux ongles argentins.
Elles assoient l’enfant auprès d’une croisée
Grande ouverte où l’air bleu baigne un fouillis de fleurs
Et, dans ses lourds cheveux où tombe la rosée,
Promène leurs doigts fins, terribles et charmeurs.
Il écoute chanter leurs haleines craintives
Qui fleurent de longs miels végétaux et rosés
Et qu’interrompt parfois un sifflement, salives
Reprises sur la lèvre ou désirs de baisers.
Il entend leurs cils noirs battant sous les silences
Parfumés ; et leurs doigts électriques et doux
Font crépiter, parmi ses grises indolences,
Sous leurs ongles royaux, la mort des petits poux.
Voilà que monte en lui le vin de la Paresse,
Soupir d’harmonica qui pourrait délirer :
L’enfant se sent , selon la lenteur des caresses,
Sourdre et mourir sans cesse un désir de pleurer.