Would aliens have the same reaction to your work as some of your contemporary critics, who were humans?
How does it feel to continue to be suppressed, now in space?
Dear Monsieur Charles Baudelaire,
Let me just start by telling you that I’m not one of your devotees. I’ve read some of your poems, and I’ve felt their raw power, that pumping vein in them, but I never tried to claim you. I like decadence, it’s tolerable enough, but it’s not for me.
I struggled for a while wondering if I should even write this letter to you. There are plenty of other authors involved with the Golden Record—the collection of sounds, images, music, and greetings that were attached to the two Voyager scientific probes and then launched into space more than a hundred years after your death. The message on the record is there in case either of them are ever found, by future humans or some other form of life. There is Carl Sagan, most importantly; the record was his brainchild. But I feel as if I talk to Sagan frequently. My entire book The Voyager Record feels like some form of contact with him. The record also involves Jimmy Carter, a former president of the United States, an author of many books. His contribution to the record, coincidentally, is a letter. It won’t get an answer, and neither will mine: he addressed his letter to life forms that may not even exist, I’m writing this one to you, someone who doesn’t exist anymore.
What does a dead author want to say to the universe?
I ask because—you may not be aware of this, I may be the first to write to you about it—one of your poems appears on the record. A part of one of your poems, actually: the first two stanzas of “Élévation” from Les Fleurs du mal.
The selection was not made by the committee Carl Sagan put together to curate the record’s contents. It was chosen to be read by the French delegate from the United Nations Outer Space Committee, Bernadette Lefort, as one of the greetings from Earth to potential extraterrestrials. I suspect she read “Élévation” (translated here) because of its description of flying free of the confines of the known world, and loving every second of it.
Au-dessus des étangs, au-dessus des vallées,
Des montagnes, des bois, des nuages, des mers,
Par delà le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par delà les confins des sphères étoilées,
Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se pâme dans l’onde,
Tu sillonnes gaiement l’immensité profonde
Avec une indicible—
But there is a complicated hitch. The recording of your poem is not the full first two stanzas of the poem: the last line of the second stanza has been truncated. Cut in half. At exactly the point where the poem’s undeniable erotic content reveals itself. The full last line of that stanza—“Avec une indicible et mâle volupté”—does not appear.
You were the kind of poet to invoke “unspeakable masculine joy.” That probably means fucking, right? I am going to go with that reading. It’s explicit content such as that which led many critics to denounce your work, to the point where some of it was even officially suppressed by the authorities.
I think that kind of knee jerk reaction is why the recording of the poem cuts short at that point. It’s very specific. Without that line everything that comes before can be read only as an analogy for flying through space, not for having sex. The “love with the immensity” could be no other immensity than space. Not a body, not a space between bodies.
I read the poem this way and hear it disappear as Lefort’s voice is suddenly silenced. It feels like a frantic cut. A nervous move. This was probably ass-coverage: the material on the Voyager record were being highly scrutinized for sexually explicit content since the record and Voyager were something of a follow-up to the earlier Pioneer 10 & 11’s plaque. This plaque included a depiction of a fully naked man and woman, an image that many people did not find appropriate to send into space. Some people even wrote letters to NASA.
It’s also ironic that something you yourself call “unmentionable” or “unspeakable” is never read out loud.
You are a dead author more than some other authors are dead. You get taught in schools now, by people who have tenure, and you died broke, and I think you wouldn’t want to be taught if you could sit in on a class covering your own work. You would be a nightmare to have in a class. That is death for the dead, I think, living on as someone else’s thesis.
Would aliens have the same reaction to your work as some of your contemporary critics, who were humans? It would be a testament to the strength of your work if among all the contents of the Voyager record your poem would be the one to raise their ire. How does it feel to continue to be suppressed, now in space?
You’re not the only poet to appear on the Golden Record. There’s Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory” too. Unlike your poem however, Martinson’s appears in its entirety. This is a poem that is wholly about the science of space. I don’t think the poem’s wholesomeness and its wholeness are unrelated. Martinson was also a winner of a Nobel prize in literature. It’s an honor that, even if it had been given out during your lifetime, you would never have won.
Dive past those first two stanzas and your poem is less and less about space, and more about what it is to think like a poet: to be bored with the failure of the world, to think that you can hear things that no one else can. Self-centered. Dirty. But it’s a human self-centeredness, and a human desire for more of the world.
It seems like something an alien life form might like to know about us. It seems like the kind of thing that we have poetry for.
Anthony Michael Morena
[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]
Anthony Michael Morena is a writer from New York who lives in Tel Aviv. In 2015 he received his MA in creative writing from Bar-Ilan University. His poetry and prose have appeared or will soon in The Normal School, Ninth Letter, Flapperhouse, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. He has also been a guest editor for The Ilanot Review and a regular reader for Gigantic Sequins, a good-looking, biannual, black & white literary arts journal. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (Rose Metal Press 2016) is his first book.