That for these pure nails

Stéphane Mallarmé

That for these pure nails, to the very highs of their onyx
This midnight, Anguish, sustained shade in the lamp of the street
Many dreams have been brought down, Phoenix, by these vespers
That for the cinerarium amphora, have failed to collect,

On the credenza, vacuous shows: the ptyx is nil
Abolishing baubles resonant within the salon
(All so that to the Styx, the Maestro draws sobs
With honor, the Nothingness for which you are nothing).

But neighboring, the angles cutting north a vacancy, of early gold
Dying off only perhaps to be in accord with the décor
Unicorns kick off from a contrary flame, and nix her,

She, that even when nude, has swarms to defunct her fecundity,
Within lapses of oblivion mirrored all along the scope, it's fixed
Scintillations, a septet of stars no sooner than hope

translated from the French by Stephen Cahaly

Read the original in French

Read translator’s note

Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898) was an English teacher who in his spare time became instrumental behind the scenes of France's dynamic 19th-century artistic movement. A significant aspect of his achievement was the way he had been able to blend French lyricism with reading strategies learned from Japanese art. A visionary, he had wished to bring many languages together at once with his poetry, an aim that resonates with our more tightly wound world in which not any single language rules.

Stephen Cahaly (b. 1968) has lived in Japan and is currently residing in Pompano Beach, Florida. His website on poetry and philosophy can be found here.

Mallarmé famously lost a mother and a beloved sister at a young age. Death-haunted (so went much 20th century psychoanalytical criticism of him), his poetry was preoccupied with recovering loss he felt at an impressionable age. An early letter shows him stunned in a moment of funereal vertigo: he recalls himself alone within a darkened room, the loved ones are lost, the furniture is as inert as ever, a window is opened, and somewhere in the back of the room he sees a reflection of Ursa Major against a mirror. He spent a lifetime trying to shape this one stunning moment into clarity.

With this poem the sign of the cross, specifically, the objects of the Catholic Mass, are contrasted with the beauties heard in music that live on without ritual. Keats is definitely invoked with  reference to the two-armed amphora that carries the ashes of the deceased. But rather than focusing on images painted onto an urn Mallarmé focuses on the passions behind creation. The Passion that had inspired the Church is referred to non-specifically as "le Maître" (the "nails" those of the Crucifixion). Many have translated this as "Master", but with its hard edges of "rule and follow" I feel the word doesn't fit with the overall tone of the poem. There are ashes and rebirth, the Anguish of night and Ursa Major that lives on, the darkness of the room and the "early gold" of the new day, nudity that shimmers long after it's observed. These are all musical motifs. Especially with Ursa Major being referred to with the musical term a "septet of stars" I have chosen "Maestro" instead of "Master".

There's a kind of muted hope expressed throughout the poem, which to Mallarmé was the only kind to encourage. The "she" of the nudity of the pure sensation, nondescript too, shows just how far those feelings can range. Like his inspiration, this is his master poem.