Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Charles Baudelaire and Bushwick Bill

A couple of weeks ago I read at the ACLU's Banned Books event at the Bridge Lounge here in New Orleans.

I read from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which upon publication in 1857, was seized and Baudelaire and his publisher were fined for the inclusion of six poems - Lethe, Jewels, Lesbos, Damned Women, Against Her Levity, and Metamorphoses of the Vampire. (These titles, and the poem below, are all from Richard Howard's translation.)

I read Lethe, Against Her Levity, and Metamorphoses of the Vampire, along with Baudelaire's introduction, Au Lecteur ("To the Reader"), which I have always liked because of how it confronts the reader ("Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust/torment our bodies and possess our minds,/and we sustain our affable remorse/the way a beggar nourishes his lice."), and his Epigraph for a Banned Book, which appeared in the 1868 edition and quite clearly told off his unappreciative readers. ("Inquiring spirit, fellow sufferer/in search, even here, of your own Paradise,/pity me . . . If not, to Hell with you!")

The idea of flowers of evil has always had great potency for Nikki and me. Whenever we like something that is tragic but beautiful or awe inspiring - a kind deed by an inmate doing life in prison, crumbling, old New Orleans houses (or pretty much anything else in this city, for that matter), courage in the face of injustice - we tell each other, in shorthand, that it was a "fleur du mal".

Before the reading, I told my friend Barry that I was going to read Against Her Levity and I told him about the crude rape fantasy that closes the poem. It reads:

You tilt your head and smile - as if
across the countryside
a breeze had rippled through the grass
out of a brilliant sky.

The sullen stranger you brush past
stops, turns and relishes
that radiant health which aureoles
your shoulders and your arms.

In all that panoply of silks
that colors you parade
awaken in our poets' minds
a giddy valse des fleurs -

garish gowns which designate
the motley of your mind:
infectious folly! all I loathe
is one with all I love!

Often, when I would drag myself
into some leafy park
and when the sun like a rebuke
would lacerate my breast,

so deeply did the Spring's new green
humiliate my heart
that I would punish in one rose
all Nature's insolence . . .

I'll come like that to you some night
when lovers ought to come,
creeping in silence till I reach
the treasures of your flesh,

to castigate your body's joy,
to bruise your envied breasts,
and in your unsuspecting side
to gash a gaping wound

where in final ecstasy
between those lovelier
new lips, my sister, I'll inject
my venom into you!

Barry told me it reminded him of a Geto Boys song that got them kicked off of their record label. That song, Mind of a Lunatic, includes an account of a brutal rape, murder, and necrophilia, just like Baudelaire's poem, rapped by Bushwick Bill, a one eyed, alcoholic, depressive dwarf who could have easily been the subject of a Baudelaire poem or, at the very least, would have been good company for Baudelaire as they consumed bottles of Bordeaux or everclear (150 proof grain alcohol), depending on whose house they ended up at. While Bushwick Bill's song is more overt, it is not quite as nasty as Baudelaire's, whose depiction of raping a woman through a knife wound he inflicted would lose him his book contract even if it was written today (and especially if he was a black rapper and people couldn't tell the difference between what he wrote and who he was).

You be the judge.

From Mind of a Lunatic (on You Tube):

Lookin through her window, now my body is warm
She's naked, and I'm a peepin tom
Her body's beautiful, so I'm thinkin rape
Shouldn't have had her curtains open, so that's her fate
Leavin out her house, grabbed the bitch by her mouth
Drug her back in, slammed her down on the couch
Whipped out my knife, said, "If
you scream, I'm cuttin"
Opened her legs and commenced the fuckin
She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose
Then slit her throat, and watched her
shake till her eyes closed
Had sex with the corpse before I left her
And drew my name on the wall like helter skelter
Run for shelter never crossed my mind
I had a guage, a grenade, and even a nine
Dial 911 for the bitch
But the cops ain't shit when they're fuckin with a lunatic.

Lest you think that Bill is just a nasty, heartless bastard, unworthy of comparison with one of the nineteenth century's finest poets, check out his song Ever So Clear in which he details losing his eye, while drunk of everclear and weed, to a partially self-inflicted gunshot after a suicidal scuffle with his girlfriend in which he tried to get her to shoot him dead. The song ends, "But it's fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly."

A flower of evil, don't you think?

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