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NYRB Poets - Louise Labe

(Posted here in its entirety from the website I briefly worked for, now shut down)

Genre: Classics
Author: Louise Labé
Publisher: NYRB Poets
Type: Poetry
Year Published: 2014

Bottom Line: 5 / 5 – Incredible

“Kiss me again, rekiss me and kiss me.” Nick Cave fans should know that one. It’s a line from the song ‘Green Eyes’ on The Boatman’s Call, extracted from one of Louise Labé’s sonnets and, for many people, probably the only place they’ve even heard of Louise Labé. Praise the man for having taste.

Louise Labé (c. 1520-1566) is one of the premier poets of the French Renaissance and one of the very few notable women poets France has produced. She was rumoured as both “La Belle Cordiere,” an educated courtesan, daughter of a ropemaker, and as “Capitaine Loys,” a teenage jouster and war re-enactor skilled in horsemanship. It could be legend or hyperbole or a form of slander, but the image of a courtesan crossdresser poet certainly captures the imagination.

There is now plentiful debate as to whether Louise Labé actually wrote the poems attributed to her. According to French academic Mireille Huchon, while Labé was living, the works attributed to her were written by a committee of contemporary male poets under the leadership of Maurice Scève. Scève was a known literary hoaxer who, in 1533, had claimed to discover the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura in Avignon as a stunt for French nationalism. He was also friends with Jean de Tournes, who brought out the first edition of the Works of Louise Labé in 1555.

Being in close proximity to such a man is the biggest red flag in the Labé case. However, many people still vouch for her existence and her importance, and so New York Review Books have ushered in a new bilingual edition of her poems, translated by Richard Sieburth. It’s a splendid volume, replete with footnotes, chronology, preface, her own dedicatory epistle and a very informative afterword. Sieburth had already translated some of Scève’s work and it is his opinion that the sonnets are Labé’s own best defense. He argues that committee writing could never show the consistency and the singularity of vision on display here and “as for Scève, his poetry was always in a class by itself–dense, hermetic, and radically silent in the manner of Mallarmé: the voice of Nobody, the voice of Language. This is definitely not the tongue of Labé.”

French was considered a vulgar tongue in that era; highbrows preferred Italian and neo-Latin. King Henri II’s decree that legal documents be written in the common French tongue was less than 20 years old at the time of Labé’s publication and her comfort with the vernacular was beyond any of her old-school contemporaries. Her vitality stems in part from that refreshing lack of elitism. Her sonnets are neither weighed down with dense classical allusion nor mannered to an extreme of irrelevance. They are expertly balanced. On the one hand, their subject is the decorous heartbreak brought on by an absent or indifferent lover, (pining, the number one theme of courtly poems). And yet her manner is never limp-wristed but instead is playful, suggestive and sexy. “I can’t bear living on my best behavior,” she writes.

Her voice is at once learned and ironic, combining feminine poise and grace with an emotive honesty and independence of will. In one sonnet she turns the tables on the popular praises of the day: “What good is it now, that you so perfectly/Once praised the golden tresses of my hair,” listing all the sentimental blandishments poets offer their muse only to abandon formalities and use the sestet to her own advantage:

Or was it all a cruel ruse on your part
To pretend to serve me, enslaving my heart?
Forgive me, Love, if I speak so free,

For I’m beside myself with rage & grief:
But I’d like to think, wherever you might be,
You’re every bit as miserable as me.

Sonnets are always split in half, an eight-line octave followed by a six-line sestet. Labé knew how to accentuate the difference and make the most of the constraint. Love Sonnets & Elegies is also a boon to anyone planning to learn French. And as old as the poems are, the language has actually shifted from under them. Nick Cave’s quoted line, in French, reads “Baise m’encor, rebaise moy & baise:” Over the centuries this word has transformed from the Latin basium (a kiss) into something much more explicit (exemplified by Virginie Despentes’ novel Baise-Moi, translated as Rape Me). The sonnet is charged with sexuality and passion; reading it, one wonders at the word’s evolution. In Sieburth’s translation:

Kiss me, rekiss me, & kiss me again:
Give me one of your most delicious kisses,
A kiss in excess of my fondest wishes:
I’ll repay you four, more scalding than you spend.

You complain? Well, let me ease your pain
By giving you ten more honeyed kisses.
And as kiss with kiss so happily mixes,
Let’s ease back into our shared joy again.

What’s interesting about Labé is how her suggestive tone manages to work within the romantic rather than the raunchy tradition, never playing it for low comedy or simple lust, (as was rather common). Yet her sonnets also hold an edge of cynicism which comes to fruition in her three elegies. Love is personified not as the expected Cupid or a capricious Venus but, as Sieburth says, as “a frightening god of war who defeats everybody on the field of battle…”

… I’ve subdued the gods
In Hell below, in the Seas & the Skies.
This is the same power I exercise
Over mortals. I force them to understand
There is nothing that can escape my hand.
The stronger they stand, the sooner I strike.

Thus does Love take his pleasure:
No two desires are of equal measure.
This man loves not, whom a Lady loves,
While that man loves, never to be loved:
Thus does Love extend his reign,
Holding out hopes he knows are vain.

As well as envisioning Love as a vengeful spirit, the elegies are perhaps all that gave rise to the alluring “Capitaine Loys” myth. “You should have seen me in the lists,/Jousting away, with my lance held high,/Dutifully unhorsing all who rode by,/Spurring on & wheeling my glorious steed.” Labé thus fits into a series of powerful, androgynous women from history and myth–from Sappho and Semiramis through Joan of Arc, even to Tilda Swinton’s Orlando.

It may never be confirmed whether Labé was the author of her works or not. If she was behind it, she was a genius. If her poems and image were the concoction of another, the same holds true. This is a classic case of Barthes’ death of the author. Who wrote it is less relevant than the clear craft and skill of the result. Your collection of French poetry is not complete without Love Sonnets & Elegies. Moreover she is wonderfully accessible and the non-scholar will find nothing intimidating here. This excellent edition is due out on April 8th.

Louise Labé

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