Rug yanked from reality
If Symbolism was birthed with the publication of Charles Baudelaire’s scandalous volume Les Fleurs du Mal in 1857, it was formalised in September of 1886, when Jean Moreas published his Symbolist Manifesto in the pages of Le Figaro newspaper in Paris. As all good literary manifestos do, Moreas’s proclamation inveighed against the literary precursors it was hoping to replace: in this case, the Parnassians and the Romantics, who were once “full of sap and freshness” but had become “dried out and shrivelled”.
Symbolism, he declared, would be the enemy of realism, “declamation, wrong feelings, and objective description”. It would instead cloak ideas in the “sumptuous lounge robes” of subjective and sensitive analogies, and “luxuriant and energetic” language.
Rather than being celebrated for cloaking ideas in “sumptuous lounge robes”, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal was ruled to have offended public decency and cost him and his publisher a 300 franc fine.
Nonetheless, Les Fleurs du Mal — full of frank eroticism and decadent decay, lustily celebrating Paris’s squalor and bemoaning its modernisation — ricocheted through France and spurred poets including Paul Verlaine and Stephane Mallarmé in its wake, ultimately producing one of France’s greatest literary movements.
On the whole, the Symbolists believed, as Rimbaud once wrote in a letter, the poet “must become a seer … by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of the senses”.
Their poetic outlook privileged dream, oracular visions and the associative quotient of the imagination; they were less interested in reality than the sensations that accompanied it.
This drowsy, sensuous passage from Baudelaire’s Evening Harmony, with its synaesthetic imagery, gives a good sense of the Symbolist mode:
Now every flower stem swings a censer chain And every flower gives incense to the night. Sounds, perfumes circle in the evening light. Turning in languorous waltz, again, again;
And every flower gives incense to the night … The violin trembles like a soul in pain.
Round goes the languorous waltz again, again, The sky is like an altar, vast and bright.
This week’s poet, Graeme Miles, bears the influence of the Symbolists in his third collection, Infernal Topographies (UWAP), which even includes a number of translations of poets from the Symbolist orbit.
The title evokes not only the combustive destruction of the bushfires that have ravaged the poet’s current home state of Tasmania, but also of Rimbaud’s Season in Hell.
Indeed, these two reference points converge in the apocalyptic post-bushfire poem Salt and Ash, where, the poet writes, “It’s raining now in the house that burned down this morning, / the one built in the year of the Symbolist Manifesto.”
Distant, untouchable night is stooping over fingers of street-lights that push her away. And the children of night? The children of night are in hiding wherever the dark still is, under their mother’s gauzy veil or in the street where an ambulance just passed.
I was drunk once in a dream, years ago.
The bushfire sun was orange and I said that I wouldn’t remember this.
So disjunct things drop, as you forget them, with an oily, lurid swirl of dream, a little drum-roll on the lids of the eyes.
Miles’s poems don’t easily fall into thematic clusters. Some centre on the after-effects of the bushfires and on extinction; others are located in the domestic sphere.
Others yet take the form of ominous, surreal visions, including one in which the poet is “convinced / that I died at eighteen in a house / near the sea from too much bourbon”, and another in which the poet’s “brother died from a dirty needle in a dream”.
These moments recall the nightmarish jump cuts in David Lynch films, where the rug is yanked out from reality. As Miles writes in his translation of Rodenbach’s La Vie des Chambres, “evening is / a messenger of terrors who won’t be comforted”.
Miles’s style, as these extracts suggest, is one of dreaminess and fluidity; his poems have a pleasing slipperiness about them, a feeling of attention wandering where it will. They tend to focus, as the Symbolists once did, on the tactile and the sensory apprehension of experience, but they transplant this focus into 21stcentury settings such as the bushfire-ravaged skyline in the Huon and Tasmanian Highlands.
Miles’s dreamscapes are replete with the disjecta of the past — hermits crop up, as do oracles, tapestries, effigies, carriages, muskets, tympanons, bronzes and ballrooms — yet rather than feeling archaic, these vestiges are vivified by contact with the present. “Meaning,” the poet writes, “can catch on anything: movements / in the curtains, netted veils over beds, / the petal by petal suicide of a flower / in the next room.”
There’s even an appearance of distinctly Baudelairian swans in the poem Ornithomancy — a term referring to the Ancient Greek practice of divinating signs in the movement of birds — in which swans populate a surreal landscape that evoke, circling a sleeping woman:
They revolve around a sleeping, pregnant woman
clockwise and make their two sounds at once: their cry, their wing
whistle. They verge on migration.
The poet goes on to describe how “the myth conflates these two species / of white swan, all over / like the flash of white under a black swan’s wing”.
Which myth Miles is referring to is unclear. It may be that of Andromache, Baudelaire’s reference point in one of his most important poems in Les Fleurs du Mal, The Swan.
But in its reference to a sleeping, pregnant woman, I’m also tempted to read it as a nod to Leda, whose rape by Zeus in a swan’s form left her pregnant.
These correspondences converge without resolution — indeed, perhaps the apparition is a myth of Miles’s own making.
In this week’s poem, Miles evokes the languor just before sleep, in which “distant, untouchable night is stooping / over fingers of street-lights”.
Night here is personified as a mother, whose children “are in hiding,” perhaps under a “gauzy veil”, or, the poet tells us disjointedly, “in the street where an ambulance / just passed”.
The dual possible functions of “still” in the phrase “wherever the dark still is” — either as an adverb or a noun — hints at both stasis and retrospection.
The sense of the poem’s setting slipping out of our grasp intensifies with the mood shift towards decadent oblivion: “I was drunk once / in a dream, years ago”, the poet tells us, as each new line removing us further from the present moment and into intoxicated reflection.
The poem closes with the velveteen image of the “oily, lurid swirl / of dream”, and with the final flourish of a “drum-roll on the lids of the eyes”, we are subsumed fully into the poet’s Symbolist dream.
In a Symbolist Mood,
is a poet and an associate professor at the school of creative practice at the Queensland University of Technology. Poet’s Voice receives sponsorship from The Copyright Agency and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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