What Would Baudelaire Do?
He’d gulp stars
prowl the allée d’amour
beg her thighs’
for a price
pray with his tongue—
on her cat-tongue
he’d offer cream
his flesh not his breath
on the bureau
bottled lure, chanson
vert et blanc:
Poet, I am not
behind the eyes
starburst of now &
pry me wide!
Kallet comments on her poem:
Baudelaire is my boyfriend. He opened poetry for me, gave me my first taste.
Madame Pradal read aloud “Correspondences,” in her deep, theatrical voice
(she had played the role of Phèdre), and I swooned. I was 18, a poetry virgin
for all intents and purposes (Yeats and I had petted a little in high school), but
Baudelaire in Georgette Pradal’s mouth made me dizzy. I stared at the words
on the page and tried to figure out how these combinations of words and sounds
could effect such physical impact. I had to leave the classroom at Tufts, and sit
outside under a shade tree—I needed air.
More than four decades later, I’m still trying to figure out how sounds can transport the reader. I go to France each spring to write poetry and to teach poetry for the Virginia
Center for the Creative Arts in Auvillar. Last spring it was chilly in the studio, and the Garonne River that flowed right in front of the building looked dangerously high. I was seriously alone. In the studio library, I found a book of quotations from French writers. And there was my guy—“I am the knife and the wound” he wrote. “Je suis la plaie et le couteau!” I tried to write the knife-wound poem and wound up whining.
On the heels of that failed poem, another one arrived, “What Would Baudelaire Do?” The sensual atmosphere of the little village in Auvillar started to stir. Out of the shadows of the ancient walls stepped Charles B, and his most dangerous mistress, Jeanne Duval. The perfume, “Vert et Noir,” was actually my first perfume, what I was wearing when I took my first lover, at nineteen. Over the next few days in Auvillar, the roses grew bigger. There was one purple rose in Odette’s garden at the top of the hill that was the size of a child’s head. Its perfume wafted closer to “Joy” than to the innocent green-and-white fragrances of childhood. Velvety siren! What would Baudelaire do? You know the answer as well as I do—he would drink, write, make love to Jeanne Duval and to the white lady, Marie. He would take opium, try to get “anywhere out of this world”—with wine, virtue, or poetry. The man gave me my life in poetry.
“Souvenir,” memory, must have been one of Baudelaire’s favorite words, resurfacing in so many of his poems. It’s a passageway for me between who I was and who I am, between America and France, poems, translations, poems. Charles cracked me open and put me together again, again, with expert fingers, languorous sounds. Knife, wound, hair, perfume. Count me in.