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February: The Shipwreck

Renée Vivien's relationship with Natalie Barney was one big shipwreck, starting with a bang and ending with emotional debris everywhere and a long, slow slide into the deep.


Both parties moved on in the sense that they went on to have relationships with other people (some more successful than others), but Vivien never really quite got over it--which is not the same thing--as this month's poem illustrates.


The shipwreck cocktail is both a reflection of that relationship, and also a tribute to one of Vivien's most famous short stories, "La dame à la louve" (the Woman with the Wolf), which takes place on board a ship.


You will need a few special items for this cocktail, be warned (see illustration). And if you really want to push the boat out, you can watch the film version of "La dame à la louve" (dir. Greta Schiller) with Alex Kingston while you sip.



How to make a Shipwreck


In addition to the ingredients (absinthe, Eristoff vodka), you will need an ice cube tray in the shape of ships and icebergs, plus a roll of Lifesavers candy.


Step 1: Make the ice cubes ahead of time.

Step 2: When you are ready to make the cocktail, put a ship icecube and a couple of iceberg cubes in an absinthe glass.

Step 3: Add a shot (1.5 oz) of absinthe.

Step 4: Wait for the absinthe to melt the ice cubes, and while you wait, ruminate on What Went Wrong.

Step 5: Place an absinthe spoon on top of the glass with a couple of sugar cubes on the spoon.

Step 6: Pour a shot (1.5 oz) of Eristoff vodka (its emblem is the wolf) over the spoon so that it melts the sugar into the absinthe.

Step 7: Add a splash of water.

Step 8: Serve with a couple of Lifesavers. Good luck.


If this cocktail doesn't sink you, nothing will.

Titanic ice cube mold.jpg

"Poème" (Poem) by Renée Vivien (published posthumously)


J'ai ruiné mon coeur, j'ai dévasté mon âme

Et je suis aujourd'hui le mendiant d'amour:

Des souvenirs, pareils à la vermine infâme,

Me rongent à la face implacable du jour.

J'ai ruiné mon coeur, j'ai dévasté mon âme,

Et je viens lâchement implorer du destin

Un reflet de tes yeux au caprice divin,

O forme fugitive, ô pâleur parfumée

Si prodigalement, si largement aimée!


J'ai cherché ton regard dans les yeux étrangers,

J'ai cherché ton baiser sur des lèvres fuyantes;

La vigne qui rougit au soleil des vergers

M'a versé dans ses flots le rire des Bacchantes;

J'ai cherché ton parfum sur les lits étrangers

Sans libérer mon coeur de tes âpres caresses.

Et, comme les soupirs des plaintives maîtresses

Qui pleurent dans la nuit un été sans retour,

J'entends gémir l'écho des paroles d'amour.


O forme fugitive, ô pâleur parfumée,

Incertaine douceur arrachée au destin,

Si prodigalement, si largement aimée,

J'ai perdu ton sourire au caprice divin;

O forme fugutive, ô pâleur parfumée,

Tu m'as fait aujourd'hui le mendiant d'amour

Etalant à la face implacable du jour

La douleur sans beauté d'une misère infâme...

J'ai ruiné mon coeur, j'ai dévasté mon âme.

English translation

I have ruined my heart, I've laid waste to my soul

And now I am reduced to begging for love:

Memories, like the infamous vermin,

Gnaw at me as I face the implacable day.

I have ruined my heart, I've laid waste to my soul

And cowardly I come to beg from destiny

One light from your eyes with their divine caprice,

O fugitive form, ô perfumed paleness

So prodigally, so broadly loved!


I searched for your look in strangers' eyes,

I searched for your kiss on fleeting lips;

The vine that turns red in the sun of the fields

Poured me the laughter of Bacchantes in its flow;

I searched for your perfume on strangers' beds

Without freeing my heart from your sharp caresses.

And, like the sighs of plaintive mistresses

Who weep in the night for a summer gone by,

I hear the moaning echo of words of love.


O fugitive form, ô perfumed paleness,

Uncertain sweetness torn from fate,

So prodigally, so broadly loved,

I lost your smile with its divine caprice;

O fugitive form, ô perfumed paleness,

You have reduced me to begging for love

Spreading before the implacable day

The unlovely pain of infamous misery...

I have ruined my heart, I've laid waste to my soul.

A few things to think about in this poem (by Melanie Hawthorne)

The first thing to note is that this poem never appeared during Renée Vivien's lifetime. Its first publication was in Les Ecrits Nouveaux in 1920, before it was picked up in the addendum "Poèmes retrouvés" (found poems) in Jean-Paul Goujon's edition of the complete works, Oeuvre poétique complète de Renée Vivien, in 1986. I would love to know whose decision it was to authorize this posthumous publication in 1920 (Salomon Reinach, perhaps, who took charge of her literary estate?), but perhaps we'll never be able to tell for sure. Goujon adds that according to a note, the poem was written towards the end of 1901.


Given that date, it's hard not to think that it's about Natalie Barney, and that the narrative voice here is that of Vivien. I know you are not supposed to read everything a poet writes as a personal statement, but this poem above all seems supremely personal. "Confessional" poetry doesn’t become a movement until the second half of the twentieth century in the U.S., but it always strikes me that Vivien was ahead of her time in writing in this mode. And I find this to be one of the most poignant statements of regret about a lost love that I have ever read. It is disarming yet devastating in its simplicity.


The poem consists of three stanzas of nine lines each, in regular alexandrines. There's a slightly complicated rhyme scheme: ABABACCDD, with the added refinement that the last verse picks up the rhyme scheme of the first verse, but backwards: DCDCDBBAA. Thus, the poem takes us full circle, back to the starting point, and the last line is the same as the first, a restatement of the state of the poet's inner landscape.


And on the subject of devastation, let's take a moment to focus on that word. I've translated the verb "dévaster" here as "laid waste," even though "devastate" is a perfectly good English cognate word. I wanted to underscore the root word "waste," as in Waste Land, with all the cultural resonances of that word from the Grail romances of the middle ages to the high modernism of T.S. Eliot (and I suspect that Eliot was familiar with Vivien's work). We use the word "devastated" casually sometimes for any setback or disappointment, but devastation is an ecological catastrophe. A Waste Land does not support life, and it often carries a symbolic connotation of punishment for a moral failing.


Now let's go back to the rhyme and meter. Nine lines is an unusual choice for a stanza; it's an odd number, and can leave the reader with a feeling of incompleteness. We expect couplets, a "that" for every "this." And indeed two rhymed couplets is what we get at the end of each stanza, so it's in the middle of the verse that we experience the sense of incompleteness. We have five lines (the ABABA pattern), but we end on an A, expecting a B that does not materialize. So the sense of incompletion, of emptiness, occurs in the middle of the verse, echoing the hollowness at the center of the speaker. Clever, no?


A couple of other word choices and references in the poem also merit comment. First, the reference to being a "mendiant d'amour." "Mendier" is literally to beg, as in beg for alms or charity. It becomes the name of the mendicant order of monks, ascetics who were committed to eating only what they were offered by others. But care must be taken in translating this. "Begging for it" has taken on a very different connotation in modern slang, mostly as a way of putting down women's sexual desire; that's not what the French means to evoke.


And lastly, those "infamous vermin." I think Vivien means to refer us to the vermin Baudelaire wrote about in his famous poem "Au lecteur." Here, he writes about "les mendiants [qui] nourrissent leur vermine" (beggars who feed their vermin)-- notice the use of "mendiants" here--as a way to illustrate how "we" feed our remorse (and Vivien's poem is all about remorse). Baudelaire is full of contempt for the way we all cling to our failings, pretending to want to conquer them, but secretly nourishing them. We abjectly confess and promise to change, but all that is hypocrisy; we don't really mean it, and we slink back to our old, familiar ways and the habits never change. Vivien's poem is an exploration of this theme in one particular dimension: the speaker thinks she has conquered one bad habit, she had broken with a lover who is bad for her, but underneath, this is all she really wants, and she continues to seek out this one love like an addict who can never really quit, never really wants to quit. She is ruined for anyone else, and wants nothing better than to go back to the old ways, but there's no going back.


The poet describes how she seeks the lost love with other people, poor substitutes. None of them succeed in replacing the one she really pines for. Biographer Jean-Paul Goujon would describe Vivien's final years in terms that echo this poem. Vivien never really got over Barney, he says. In the last couple of years of her life (1907-09), "Elle voit des gens affreux et elle mène une pauvre vie d'orgies et de poisons qui ne la grisent même pas" (she sees awful people and she lives a sad life of orgies and poisons that don't even succeed in inebriating her). It would seem, from this poem, that Vivien knew exactly what she was doing.

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