Recent translation of Emma Ramadan by Lizzy Mercier Descloux Desiderata (1977) makes the first book of poetry by the French post-punk icon available to the English-speaking public for the first time. Written and published before the release of Descloux’s first solo album, Tap Color (1979), Desiderata offers readers a glimpse into the early stages of his poetic imagination, sparked by a collision with New York’s punk and No Wave scenes in the 1970s.
Desiderata (1977) is the result of Descloux’s first visit to New York in 1975 and bears the mark of his encounters within his early punk scene. Traveling with her then-partner Michael Esteban (with whom she ran the diary briefly lived rock news and the Harry Cover boutique, a sort of Parisian analogue of Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s London SEX), she befriends, among others, Patti Smith and Richard Hell, who both appear in the book. Hell contributed a collage-poem, “I Had to Get Out”, while Smith wrote the book’s preface (nominally a poetic reflection on Robert Bresson) and added drawings and photographs.
The word “desiderata” comes from the Latin desired, meaning “things desired or desired”. It’s an apt title for this explosive little book of poems and pictures. Descloux’s verse is charged with a voracious life force. His poems tend to be quick and abrupt, his prose syncopated and pivotal, cycling through an economy of images whose free-associative character sometimes recalls a surreal form of automatic writing. A line from “Isadora Duncan Pallet” reads: “The swell will intensify / a hoop / a human race / Piraeus is drowning.And another, from “Meat”: “Under the tongue colored settling capsules / A tracheal taste, bled with dividends.“The senses are often blurred. Other times, Descloux’s poems are rooted in a specific site, with “Hudson River” and “One Fifth”, for example, drawing a clear line between the urban and the imaginary, anchoring the collection in space -1970s New York times.
Smith’s contributions situate Desiderata in a larger poetic mythology. At the end of his preface we find a photograph of Smith barefoot in a white dress hugging Descloux around the waist. Descloux is in costume, dressed as Arthur Rimbaud. Smith is dressed like her sister, Isabelle. Smith’s attachment to Rimbaud is well known, and there is reason to suspect a bit of transference at work. The comparison may be overdetermined, but Rimbaud certainly occupies an important place in Desiderata, especially in his images. And if we let ourselves go with the pairing, it invites us to read Descloux’s verse. Rimbaud said that a poet can become a visionary “by a long, gigantic and rational derangement of all the senses”. Hints of such synesthesia are scattered throughout Desiderata, appearing in phrases such as “Trouble of green-chartreuse gouache/blood-smile green”, which describes the Hudson River, and “Blue synthetizer, shivering dog/aquamarine of the Siberian eye dripline” in “Siberian”. And in the short poem “His glass of”, a kind of alchemy takes place: “The armed machine of my Fender Jaguar / Music transforms passion into vinegar.”
But there is also a darkness in the poetic imagination of Descloux, which resembles less the jubilant Rimbaud than the sinister Lautréamont. A portrait of the latter accompanies the poem “Eva with the Compliments of the Air Force”, and her name is playfully quoted in the title “Isadora Duncan Pallet”, which suggests a nocturnal alter ego for the poet. Take the closing exclamatory lines of “Rising Tiger Balm,” which point to a death urge lurking beneath all the excitement: “The missing birthmarks / Such and such a dead person. / The Savage Death.; / Embalmed! Jaxing! Or the first lines of “ANTIMACASSAR. “: “To the mutilated forever / The neck suspended by strings. Part of what makes Descloux’s poems exciting is their frequent invitation to make such intertextual leaps, but more so their ultimate refusal to be drawn into a fixed poetic lineage. Their hints remain open and unfinished, a collection of non-exhaustive entry points. There’s also something playfully iconoclastic at work, pitting 19th-century poetry against 1970s New York punk.
The elegant translation of Ramadan manages to capture the electricity of Descloux’s verses. Not an easy task, given the latter’s taste for neologisms and onomatopoeia. The native French of Desiderata is included in its entirety, laminated in the middle of the book (“head to tail” as the publisher’s site says). This avoids any alteration of the composition of the book as an art object and preserves the layout of its poems, images and collages. One suspects that a side-by-side translation would have been a disaster.
Readers familiar with Descloux’s music might find Desiderata pleasantly anachronistic. The frenetic energy and jerky rhythm of songs like “Slipped Disc” or the clownish mix of curious and exclaiming vocal phrasing of “Torso Corso” read into the poems, animating them with the future. The combination accentuates the dynamic collage effect of Descloux’s book. My advice is to read and listen at the same time.
At Lizzie Mercier Descloux Desiderata is available from Inpatient Press.
There will be a reading of Desiderata by Stephanie LaCava and Emma Ramadan at Codex Books in New York on July 28.