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Monday, January 5, 2009

Fierce Files: Remembering Our History Through Fly Women of Color

"Jeanne Duval" was a creole dancer and singer of Haitian origin, who relocated to Paris in 1842 where she began her infamous twenty year romance with French poet and literary critic Charles Baudelaire. Jeanne was an icon, however, of style and well-known through out the Bohemian world and aristocratic circles. She is the subject of Monet's famous "Baudelaire's Mistress". (Do note that Monet portrayed her as a Caucasian woman, perhaps he was concerned with selling the painting, but by all accounts she was recognizably of African descent).

She is best known, go figure, as Baudelaire's "Mistress of Mistresses" and his muse, and this is of course during a time when interacial love was deemed "gauche". So imagine, what confidence... what swagger, Madame Duval must have exuded. I love it.

In spite of the snubs of his peers and constant turbulance, Baudelaire was hopelessly in love with Jeanne and his "Black Venus" was the subject of many of his love poems. While it is clear that she held him spell bound, his fascination with her percieved exoticism and sexuality courses though the poetry.

Below is one of my personal favorites, "Sed Non Satitata" or "Never Satisfied". It is from his anthology "Fleurs du mal" or "Flowers of Evil", much of it a commentary on the women in his life, real and imagined. This translation from French is one of many variations, but I like this the best.

Sed Non Satiata

Strange deity, brown as nights,
Whose perfume is mixed with musk and Havanah,
Magical creation, Faust of the savanna,
Sorceress with the ebony thighs, child of black midnights,

I prefer to African wines, to opium, to burgundy,
The elixir of your mouth where love parades itself;
When my desires leave in caravan for you,
Your eyes are the reservoir where my cares drink.

From those two great black eyes, chimneys of our spirit,
O pitiless demon, throw out less flame at me;
I am no Styx to clasp you nine times,

Nor can I, alas, dissolute shrew,
To break your courage, bring you to bay,
Become any Proserpine in the hell of your bed!

— Geoffrey Wagner, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (NY: Grove Press, 1974)

1 comment:

H. Millz said...

"Your eyes are the reservoir where my cares drink."

Beautiful poem. No doubt about it - she must've been something f-l-y.