The Orphans’ New Year’s Gifts

Last time I said I looked through Arthur Rimbaud’s collected works in the middle of the nighttime looking for something to translate, combine with music, and perform. I guess I could have saved myself some time, because I eventually chose the first poem in the collection, The Orphans’ New Years’ Gifts,  placed first because it was the first poem he ever published. When it appeared in print on January 2nd, 1870 Rimbaud was all of 15 years old.

On first reading, it’s not representative of the poems Rimbaud would be writing in little more than a year or so. While the entire poem is a gothic story, it’s also quite sentimental and largely conventional. For reasons of time and preferring shorter works, I decided to only perform the first part, but spoiler alert: it’s soon revealed that the children are recently orphaned and they are dreaming of their family still being intact and how they will give their now dead mother they expect to find in their dreams a pair of “for mother” plaques from each of them as a New Year’s gift.

But for us, the performer and listeners today of this first section only, this is no matter, because it’s the last day of 2021 and tomorrow is a new year. We know nothing of 2022 save for dreams pleasant or frightening. The coming year is a more mysterious ghost to us than our past years.

It might seem odd to say, but I’m an orphan — that’s not unusual, at my age most everyone is. It’s a different matter to write this as a 15-year-old, as an adolescent, as Rimbaud was. Those are the years that children learn how to gradually break away from their parents in whatever manner they fall into. Rimbaud instead would do this early and abruptly, leaving his mother — and for Paris, and unrest, and rebellion of all sorts  in that “about a year” timeframe. Poetically and emotionally, this poem hardly seems to be a rehearsal for the Rimbaud of 1871 and after.

As I worked on translating this poem, I saw a little window into that other Rimbaud in this short first section. Those intimations were unlikely put there by conscious choice. Maybe they were slipped in by Rimbaud’s future ghost?

A few notes on how I translate. I generally don’t try to bring over the word-music (too tough, too damaging to other elements of the translated poem). I start attempting to be as faithful as I can, but then while in process I am often tempted to sharpen or expand on the images I’m trying to bring forward into contemporary English; because those images expand in my mind as I consider them, and because I want them to remain vivid. I’m of two minds about doing that, and I try to make clear here when I’ve really inserted something altogether invented. If you’d like to read the whole poem in it’s original French, here’s a link.

The Orphans New Years Gifts

My local forecast says –11 F (-24 C) for New Year’s dawn. I think of a blues song Leo Kottke used to sing with the line “So cold in China, the birds don’t even sing.” Maybe that’s why I choose the guzheng today?

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Here are a few examples in this one, in ascending order of significance. I suspect the curtain Rimbaud has blowing in the winter drafts is a bed canopy, a largely unfamiliar antique item, and instead I’m leading you to see a window curtain. Leading you to the window lets me transition to an image I sharpened. Rimbaud doesn’t explicitly say the cold winter birds are walking, but I think he did intend to tell us they aren’t able to fly in this moment, and I thought I’d underline that. And the final image, the one of New Year arriving as a woman in a dress of snow, I wanted us to see a tipsy celebrant whose party gown is no longer arranged neatly. Did the 15-year-old Rimbaud intend that image? I don’t know, but his future ghost might well have chosen it!

Yesterday I revealed that I wanted to do this piece to honor ardent Rimbaud admirer Patti Smith. Obligation completed, though you may notice this is nothing like how Patti Smith or her band would characteristically perform this. The first instrument you hear is a Chinese guzheng,* a sophisticated zither family instrument, then eventually a variety of drums and percussive sounds arrive along with electric bass, and finally a low synth moan. But did I make clear in talking about Smith yesterday: one of the things she demonstrated was that untapped possibilities of presentation styles are the point, not just duplication of one’s heroes.

The player gadget to hear my new translation of Rimbaud’s New Year’s Day poem is below for some of you. Don’t see it? This highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to hear it.

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*With expensive and exotic instruments like this I usually use what are called “virtual instruments” that sample the notes and sounds of the entire range of the instrument; and as in today’s piece allow you to articulate some of the instrument’s particular attacks and variations, like the guzheng’s vibrato. I select and play the notes with a little plastic keyboard or my guitar with a MIDI interface.

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