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In 1993, I lived in a small Italian town for a winter. Expanding to a population of 350,000 German tourists during the summer, the town contracted back to 1500 rich but sleepy locals in winter. Housing by the sea was plentiful and affordable. The place I took was cheap and fine, with nine beds and two pots. There were also books left by prior renters. Potboilers in German; a Bible in Swedish; and a bilingual collection of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems, French/Italian.
I’d never been a big fan of Rimbaud. As a teen I found him to be too much.
As I discovered during that Italian winter, this early judgment proved to be a limitation not of Rimbaud’s but of mine. The poems turned out to be terrific, of course, and the copy of them that I lucked into, as much as it taught me an important lesson about taste and timing, also helped me learn Italian, which was why I’d gone to Italy in the first place.
Going to a country is the best way to learn a language; second best is to have a foreign lover, whether you’re in a foreign country or not (although, of course, if your lover is foreign and your affair domestic, they’ll learn more of your language than you theirs); third best—and the least costly (in every sense) of the top three—is a good bilingual collection of poems you love.
My Spanish is terrible, the spoken version of it limited to a very crude and limited (but effective) range of insults. I read it okay, but it’s like looking the landscape through gauze: What a pretty tree… I mean moose… I mean…. And so this week I’ve been enjoying, both for its content as well as its utility, The Romantic Dogs from New Directions (called, fondly, “Nude Erections” by Ezra Pound) a bilingual version on facing pages of Roberto Bolaño’s excellent Los Perros romanticos, in Laura Healy’s translation. You can grab one of the English versions of the poems for your e-reader here, and the full book here. It is agreeable for the brain:
ENTRE LAS MOSCAS
Ya nada de lo que podía ser vuestro
Ni templos ni jardines
Admirables poetas troyanos
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”