June: The Sunset Goddess

The "Renée Vivien Cocktail Hour" is being launched in June (2020) in honor of Renée Vivien's birthday. She was born Pauline Mary Tarn in London on June 11, 1877. So raise a glass this month to wish her a Happy Birthday. We'll be starting with the first cocktail that I created for this series, the Sunset Goddess.

  

How to make a Sunset Goddess

 

Step 1: Put 4 ice cubes in a highball glass

 

Step 2: Add 1 oz. limoncello...

 

Step 3: ... and a dash of blood orange bitters (.25 oz), or equivalent

 

Step 4: Top up to about 1½ inches from top of glass with blood orange soda e.g., San Pellegrino (or a combination of half orange soda and half club soda if you prefer less sweet)

 

Step 5: Carefully pour on a rum floater: 1.5 oz of a spiced dark rum such as Kraken (it will remain at the top until stirred if you pour carefully)

 

Step 6: Garnish with a slice of blood orange (the setting sun) and slice of fresh strawberry (the red reflection of the sun, the "cou coupé")

 

Step 7: Stir carefully to watch the sunset

Sunset goddess.JPG

"To the Sunset Goddess" by Renée Vivien (Evocations, 1903)

French

 

Tes cheveux sont pareils aux feuillages d'automne,

Déesse du couchant, des ruines, du soir!

Le sang du crépuscule est ta rouge couronne,

Tu choisis les marais stagnants pour ton miroir.

 

L'odeur des lys fanés et des branches pourries

S'exhale des ta robe aux plis lassés: tes yeux

Suivent avec langueur de pâles rêveries:

Dans ta voix pleure encor [sic] le sanglot des adieux.

 

Tu ressembles à tout ce qui penche et décline.

Passive, et comprimant la douleur sans appel

Dont ton corps a gardé l'attitude divine,

Tu parais te mouvoir dans un souffle irréel.

 

Ah! l'ardeur brisé, ah! la savante agonie

De ton être expirant dans l'amour, ah! l'effort

De tes râles! – Au fond de la joie infinie,

Je savoure le goût violent de la mort....

 

English translation

Your hair is like autumn foliage,

Goddess of the setting sun, of ruins, of the evening!

The blood of sunset is your red crown,

You choose stagnant marshes for your mirror.

 

The odor of wilted lilies and rotten branches

Comes from your dress with its tired folds: your eyes

Follow pale reveries with languor:

In your voice the sob of goodbyes still weeps.

 

You resemble everything that bends and declines.

Passive, and compressing implacable pain

Of which your body retains the divine posture,

You seem to move in an unreal breath.

 

Ah, the broken ardor, ah, the clever agony

Of your being expiring in love, ah! the effort

Of your groans! - At the bottom of the infinite joy,

I savor the violent taste of death ...

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

This poem was published in Evocations, Vivien's fourth collection of poetry, in 1903. Critics have a tendency to look for the keys to Vivien's poems in her life. Everyone wonders, who is this goddess? It seems unlikely that it refers to Renée Vivien's most famous lover, Natalie Barney. Barney is usually evoked in a very different register. Her ash blond hair suggested the nickname "moon beam" to Vivien. Barney is associated with the moon, not the sun, the night, not the evening, is cold (like winter) not warm (like autumn), and often noted for the blue of her eyes, not the red of her hair. The person in this poem is seen in terms of the colors of the setting sun: reds and golds.

 

One theory is that the poem is about Evalina (Eva) Palmer (1874-1952; see the recent biography by Artemis Leontis), who was famous for her long red hair (like "autumn foliage"?) Eva Palmer later became part of a Greek poetic revival movement thanks to her marriage to the poet Angelos Sikelianos, but before that, she was more intimate with women such as Barney and Vivien. 

 

Vivien met Palmer through Barney, and the three women spent time together in the US in the fall of 1900.  But Vivien denied that she and Palmer had been lovers, whereas the poem to the Sunset Goddess clearly suggests a scene of sexual intimacy in the last verse: the poet describes her partner who is "expirant d'amour." As the poet herself experiences the "joie infinie," she "savors the violent taste of death." The groan of pleasure at the moment of orgasm is compared to a death rattle ("râle"), and the longing for death promised at the beginning of the poem is realized on a smaller scale, through "la petite mort" of orgasm.  True, Vivien could simply fantasize about intimacy with Palmer, so there can be no definitive answer to the speculation about any real-life relationship.

 

But if this is a love poem, Vivien has a funny way of expressing it. When you look more closely, it's a bit of a peculiar one once you get past the flattering opening. This goddess looks at herself in "stagnant marshes," for example, and her dresses smell of dying lilies and rotten branches. The dying lilies could be forgiven as a form of extreme decadent preference for powerful odors so strong that they border on the unpleasant, but rotten branches don't seem to have the same alibi. Then there's the fact that the person addressed in the poem is said to resemble everything that is bent over and declining. Not very goddess-like at all, in other words.  If this is a love poem, it is a very ambivalent one.

 

Instead of treating the poem as a form of autobiography, however, we could also approach it from the point of view of its connections to other poems. For example, we could concentrate on the images of the setting sun. "Sunset" is part of the title (in English), and the third line of the poem brings the image of sunset (here "crépuscule") into conjunction with another red thing, blood. This is not an entirely uncomplicated image. Bringing blood into the picture is the first hint of trouble, that this might not be a simple love poem. But this metaphor connects with a chain of poetic resonances that move backward and forward in time to place the author, Vivien, in relation to other poets--major ones--in the French tradition.

 

First, going backwards, the association between sunset and blood ties Vivien to other poets who evoke the same phenomenon such as Charles Baudelaire. He notably describes a sun setting over water, thinking that the reflections of the low red sun as it dips below the horizon make it look as though the sun is bleeding into to the sea: "Le soleil s'est noyé dans son sang qui se fige " ("Harmonie du soir"). The fact that the sun has "drowned" is what tells us that the sun has disappeared into water, and what is left is "coagulating" blood. Put like that, it doesn't seem such a "harmonious" image (especially since the sun drowns in its own blood, which is a bit macabre to say the least). Not exactly a peaceful image of contemplation, then, but you have to remember that for Baudelaire one of the good things about evening was that it brought the promise of death (evening is the agony of day), and death meant release from pain and suffering (see "Recueillement"), so part of what was peaceful and poetic about the evening was its reminder that we shall all soon be delivered from life and finally have eternal rest. It's the kind of sentiment Vivien would have shared. We know that Vivien read and was influenced by Baudelaire, and critics have commented on his role in her work. Vivien's evocation of the image of the bleeding sun--in a collection titled Evocations, no less—seems a deliberate echo of Baudelaire's work. Vivien is consciously presenting herself as a poet in Baudelaire's lineage.

 

The image of the bleeding sun will also play a role in the direction poetry takes after Vivien's death. I am referring to Guillaume Apollinaire's famous concluding line "Soleil cou coupé" that ends the poem "Zone," Apollinaire's poetic manifesto that breaks with the past and announces the beginning of a new era of modern poetry. And let's remember here that "Zone" is the opening poem of the collection Alcools, first published in 1913, four years after Vivien's death. The title of the collection is not irrelevant. It can be seen as a reference both to the heady drunken feeling of excitement of the modernist mood in the early twentieth century and also to the fact that poetry, like alcohol, involves (or can involve) a process of distillation, taking an idea and gradually over time, and with some work, causing the liquid to become more concentrated, allowing the inessential to evaporate, until you have an essence of the thing, a poem.

 

Apollinaire begins this challenge to poetic tradition, then, with the poem "Zone" that announces (among other things) "je suis las de ce monde ancien." Tired of the old, Apollinaire wants to ring in the new. It is the beginning of a new century, there is a sense of amazing new things afoot in the arts. Apollinaire was close friends with Picasso, with Cocteau, and his work is associated with all sorts of modern –isms—cubism, surrealism, simultaneism. He was at the forefront of a time of huge ferment in the arts.

 

The ebullient "Zone" fires the opening shot in the culture war to clear out the old and make way for the new. The radically innovative, free-form poem says goodbye to the old world, "le monde ancien" of which we are tired, and heralds the arrival of the exciting new dawn. It ends with a single line of an image that again brings the sun and blood together: "soleil cou coupé." There is no verb to explain the relationship, simply the juxtaposition of two images: on the one hand the sun, on the other a neck (cou) that has been cut (coupé), inviting the reader to see the red disk of the setting sun as a cross section of a bleeding neck. The metaphor of sun as bleeding neck is again a troubling image. It anticipates the celebration of violence in movements such as futurism, perhaps. A new day is dawning in the arts.

 

In this image of the bloody neck, you can almost hear the sound of the guillotine falling. After all, Apollinaire told us at the outset that it was the end of the "ancien," and although he does not add the word "régime," we can hear it implied. He is cutting off ties to the traditional in poetry and announcing a revolution. But the new dawn looks a lot like an old sunset, and this trenchant line, while announcing a rupture, enacts a continuity. It is a case of "Le roi est mort. Vive le roi," because the image Apollinaire uses—the bleeding sun—revives and reinvigorates an image made resonant by his predecessors, such as Baudelaire and Vivien. Because Apollinaire certainly knew Vivien personally, and it is not much of a stretch to think that he read her work.  He wrote a poem about her that also appeared in Alcools. Although she is not named, it refers to her obliquely through its title, "1909," the year of her death.