Archives For Letters to Dead Authors

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?

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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 del
à le soleil, par delà les éthers,
Par del
à les confins des sphères étoilées,

Mon esprit, tu te meus avec agilité,
Et, comme un bon nageur qui se p
âme dans londe,
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.

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“The Yellow Scale,” a painting of Baudelaire by Franz Kupka

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.

Yours truly,

Anthony Michael Morena

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[This is the latest post in the new Letters to Dead Authors series.]

210a56_ad839d2428b140498087c92fada0238dAnthony 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.

Charles Baudelaire was a 19th century French poet, translator, and literary and art critic whose reputation rests primarily on Les Fleurs du mal; (1857; The Flowers of Evil) which was perhaps the most important and influential poetry collection published in Europe in the 19th century–an excerpt of which was sent to outer space on the Golden Record.

 

Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space?
Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?

martone

Martone: “I grew up playing on Hamilton land in Hamilton Park. Edith’s sister Alice was one of the first woman MDs graduated from Yale. My Mother led the movement to have monumental statues erected in their honor in a downtown Fort Wayne park. They are a few of the few monumental statues of women in the country.”

 

Dear Miss Hamilton,

Where are you? In 1957, 90 years old, you are berthed in The Delphi Suite of the Greek luxury liner the S.S. Queen Frederika at sea en route to Athens where your translation of Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound will be performed at the Herodes Atticus beneath the Acropolis. You are expecting Blanche Yurka, the actor cast as Io, who will broach the delicate subject of abbreviating the play before the performance. I know you will say Cut! All the geography can go. You amaze me. That, you, the author, well, you are not the author, Aeschylus is of course the author, the translator then, you the translator would so severely cut her words astonishes me. This description of a city, a town, this mountain range here, all of it was long ago local color, parochial interest. You would cut all of it!

Miss Yurka played a cow, a cow in such a classic theatrical production. Such stock livestock is always a result of fallout between Zeus who desires, it seems, anyone and everyone and Hera the constantly betrayed and vengeful wife. Hera was known as the ”Cow-eyed One” so perhaps being a bovine was not that bad? But the speeches are only mooing travelogues of the cow’s flight to Asia, the gadfly stinging her on. It reads almost like modern advertising. “Be sure to stop at this sacred grove.” “This water nymph is standing by to help you.” “That temple is open late.” No, these bits and pieces were all expendable.

Prometheus Bound is the actors’ worst nightmare, the director’s dead end. There is no action! It is like this letter to you there in the Delphi Suite on the SS Queen Frederika. Out to sea, indeed. Nothing going on but making speeches about speeches. Where is the action to act in that? The play is merely a bundle of recitations—don’t get me wrong these speeches contain some of the most magnificent poetry ever written and its themes are universal, timeless—with little drama. Prometheus, is shackled to a mountain right from the start—very hard to act when wrapped in chains—though I bet those new method actors would want to give it a go with their eyebrows alone. Miss Yurka will have a rough enough time engaging the audience with a stock-still cow decked out in horns just trying to keep her balance on buskin hooves and mooing out a pretty speech.

You must have been flattered, moved that this translation will be performed there at the Herodes Atticus, at the foot of the Acropolis, but I am surprised that this was the play chosen. Think, this play was written twenty-five hundred years ago and translated by this 90-year-old woman from, of all places, Indiana, about as far away from Acadia as one could get.

But there, in a place called Fort Wayne, you read ancient Greek and Latin, Hebrew and even a little Sanskrit in your father’s library. Rustic? Bucolic? You bet. No schools to speak of then. It was after the war, yes, the Civil War, in the shadow of all those depressions, economic, emotional. And yes, there were cows, like Dame Io, roaming the downtown streets, the front yards. And you put on your own plays, with your sisters and brother, your own actors and audience.

Did you think about those years in Indiana so far away now in time and space? Back then and back there, what was it you felt, so far away in time and space, reading Hesiod and Horace in the garden, marching in your imagination with Xenophon’s 10,000 to the sea?

And there you were, there in the Delphi suite, looking back into the past, looking forward to Athens and this grand performance you cut down to size.

You will be led to the stage. The king of Greece will give you some sort of cross. The Stoa above the theater, the Parthenon and the Temple of Zeus will be flooded with lights for the first time. And you will be made a Citizen of Athens. A Citizen of Athens, of the city you have for so long loved as much as your own country. A piece of paper from the mayor. It will be “the proudest moment of your life” or some such. Another speech. Speeches are only speech we must remember. But we also will never forget the stages, the places the speech is given. The context. The where. The where where.

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[This is the very first post in the very new series, Letters to Dead Authors.]

Michael Martone was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and is the author of several books, including Four for a Quarter, Michael Martone, and The Blue Guide to Indiana. He’s happy that, now, his computer actually counts the number of words allotted (he has been given 75) to tell his life story, like robotic Fates, measuring out the length of line, there, at the bottom of window frame, cutting him off at the exact

Describing her Ft. Wayne, Indiana childhood, Edith Hamilton said, “My father was well-to-do, but he wasn’t interested in making money; he was interested in making people use their minds.” And so he taught her the classics. In 1958 Life magazine called Edith Hamilton the “greatest living woman classicist.” Famous for her translations of Greek myths, she became an honorary citizen of Athens in 1957 at the age of 90.