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Review: Defying Fate, by Maurice Carème

Another excellent bilingual French-English collection from Arc, no.25 in the Visible Poets series, is Maurice Carême's Défier Le Destin / Defying Fate translated by Christopher Pilling, one of the very best poet-translators of our day. Carême (1899-1978) was actually a Belgian, whose essentially traditional work had, for a long while, a greater reputation than it does nowadays (my search in the library catalogues of three universities with departments of French failed to turn up a single volume of his work). My only previous acquaintance with his work came from familiarity with Poulenc's La Courte Paille: sept mélodies sur des poèmes de Maurice Carême (1960), which sets seven of the poems for children. Christopher Pilling has here translated a volume of poems by Carême published posthumously in 1987. Carême is hardly an especially profound poet, but there is an attractiveness in the way in which the beautifully turned and polished surfaces of his lyrics are very slightly at odds with the somewhat troubled sub-texts of more than a few of them. Pilling captures both dimensions of the work, in translations sufficiently free to produce genuine English poems but never so free as to traduce the originals. As Martin Sorrell puts it in his brief introduction to the volume: He has rethought these poems in English, essential to do, paradoxically, if you're to be a faithful translator of the original poem.