Gérard de Nerval

Matthew, heir of Wall Street wealth,
son of Martha's Vineyard mirth,
you stood atop Vail Mountain, dazzling
ski-goggles pushed up on your forehead.
Chimera, it was you who bought me
my first true alcoholic drink
at "the Red Lion," one of the
resort's most happening half-lit bars,
on the same evening that the nosy
bellhop would later spy me praying
at the argyle-stockinged feet
of the reincarnated Bacchus.
Reckless tickler of volcanoes,
you pickled the mid-August lightning
and, shameless, shelved it in the pupils
of your bright dishonest eyes.

I hear that the stock market crash
broke your mother's clay heart, Matthew.
Regardless, should you call my name
(or Laurel's, or Hortensia's,
or green-eyed Myrtle's), against my will
I'll drift back to that snowy hill.

translated from the French by Jenna Le

Read the original in French

Read translator’s note

Gérard de Nerval was born in Paris in 1808. He committed suicide in the same city in 1855. His works, including Voyage en Orient (1851), Sylvie (1853), and Les Filles du Feu (1854), influenced countless writers ranging from Marcel Proust to T. S. Eliot.

Jenna Le is a poet and translator. Her first full-length collection of poetry, Six Rivers, was published by New York Quarterly Books in 2011. Her poems and translations of poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI Online, Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail InTranslation section, New York Quarterly, Post Road, Salamander, the Sycamore Review website, and others. She has been a finalist in the William Carlos Williams Poetry Competition, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and a nominee for the PEN Emerging Writers Award.

In 1854, Gérard de Nerval published a group of twelve sonnets titled Les Chimères (The Chimeras). These esoteric poems, influenced by occultism and numerology and laden with obscure allusions to Greek and Egyptian mythology, have tantalized readers across the centuries. "Myrtho," the second sonnet in the group, is addressed to an ancient Greek enchantress named Myrtho who stands on the rocky heights of the historical Neapolitan district of Posilippo. This Muse-like figure graciously introduces the speaker of Nerval's poem to the joys of wine and poetry.

I initially set out to write a literal translation of "Myrtho," but I found myself stymied by the distant feel of many of Nerval's word choices. In order to make the poem seem more relevant to a modern reader, I capriciously transformed Nerval's ancient Greek enchantress Myrtho into a modern-day American plutocrat named Matthew. I do not think this change is overly presumptuous, as it seems to me that our society worships wealth in a manner not unlike that in which the ancient Greeks worshipped their gods and goddesses.

Once this change had been made, writing the translation became easy:  mountainous Posilippo naturally morphed into mountainous Vail, the famed Colorado ski resort with its glamorous nightlife, and Nerval's poignant tale of a young man who is star-struck by a Greek goddess gave way to my own account of a young woman who is star-struck by a Wall Street "golden boy." I trust that I have remained faithful to the spirit of Nerval's poem, in my own fanciful irony-laden way.