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Capital of Pain – book review

Capital of Pain by Paul Eluard, translated by R.J. Dent Black Scat Books 2023
Available from Amazon

Review by Reese Saxment

Among the Surrealist art-forms, poetry has always been the poor relation in the Anglophone world, almost completely eclipsed by the visual arts – especially painting. Ask any passer-by in the street in the US or the UK to name a Surrealist, and they’ll say ‘Dalí’; challenged to name another – you’ll most likely get ‘Er…’ – but other names may be forthcoming. Possibly Magritte, Picasso (not precisely a Surrealist but we’ll let that pass), maybe Ernst, nowadays quite likely Kahlo, Carrington, Tanning – all painters (although some dabbled in prose). Somewhere down the list André Breton may put in an appearance, more for his leadership role than for his poetry – and the other poets – Aragon, Soupault, Éluard – the people who founded the movement and who remained central to it for more than a decade? A long way down the roster, if they feature at all.
For that reason alone it is gratifying to find a collection of Paul Éluard’s poetry translated into English by R. J. Dent, and published (with a glorious cover!) by Black Scat Books – one of the last publishers to keep the flag of Olympia, Éditions Jean-Jacques Pauvert and Grove Press flying, with new writing as well as classics of Surrealism, the Absurd, Dada, Erotica and ‘Pataphysics.

Important as it is to remind us of the centrality of poetry to the Surrealist project, it is equally important that the quality of the translation does justice to the original, and here Dent hits the target again and again. Capturing the vitality of Éluard, in poems like ‘Woman in Love’ (p. 52) the light, airy, flowing beauty is precisely attuned to the lyricism, sensuousness, even romantic tenderness of Éluard, while in others, like ‘The Flame of the Whip’ (pp. 94-95), the angst and anguish of the poet is powerfully rendered. In poems like ‘Among a Few Others’, (p. 111) Dent does justice to the oxymoronic and startling juxtapositions by which Éluard shows us the world in unfamiliar, surprising ways, refreshing traditional imagery and rescuing it from cliché into ‘something rich and strange’, while in others, for example, ‘The Deaf and the Blind’ (p. 53), an almost uncanny synaesthesia pervades, reminding us of a de Chirico painting – evocations of visual encounters with painting being one of Éluard’s characteristic themes (in poems dedicated to Ernst, Picasso, Klee, Masson, Braque, Arp, Miró – and de Chirico), beautifully rendered here by Dent’s translation.

All in all, Dent, a poet and novelist in his own right, demonstrates clearly the truth of the old maxim, it takes a poet to translate a poet.

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