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by Patrick James Dunagan
Daisy Fried’s The Year the City Emptied presents her take on bringing the poems of Baudelaire into the contemporary North American tongue. At once boisterous and witty, there’s also more than a fair bit of gloominess cast over the project, as Fried was writing during short breaks from caring for her husband, poet Jim Quinn, as he lay “slowly dying of a cruel disease that attacked his body and mind” in their Philadelphia rowhouse throughout the beginning of the Covid shutdown. In some poems she throws shade on unhelpful bureaucratic healthcare officials and reflects upon anti-police protests rocking the city. Rising above the gloom, however, is the work’s overall vibrancy, making it not only an engaging read but also a first-class practicum in poetic assimilation from one language and time into another.
Any sense of pretentious drollery regarding her own bona fides is immediately dispensed with: “I don’t know French well and I don’t like Baudelaire much.” Yet Fried is drawn to the work because, as she says in the introduction, “his disgust is glorious, and diagnostic,” and notably worth our while: “We in America could use more romantic self-disgust.” Baudelaire’s malaise—much like that of Poe, who he translated and heralded—provides a kind of countering to Whitman’s celebratory self-prophesizing, an Americanism mirrored by the self-congratulatory nature of much of today’s social media. Fried likewise revels in the morose monotony of living:
The limping days are so fucking longfrom “Temper”  [after Baudelaire’s “Spleen 2”]
Snowed under by years and years and years and years.
Say it: Boredom born of apathy
Achieves immortality. Body, you’re nothing:
Bag of dread and granite crag, magma cooked,
Old sphinx in a fog, mumbling to self,
Forgotten by the whole giddy world,
Haranguing in the dwindling light.
What more perfect company could have been asked for during the stress of the pandemic and the beloved’s slow death? To immerse herself in poems calling on her to bring them into her own tongue creates a kind of escape:
Immense abyss,from “Music” [after Baudelaire’s “La Musique”]
Lull and lullaby me.
Mirror my despair!
This is how a poet lives and works with language, both her own and foreign: thinking through its ebbs and flows, interacting in concurrent fashion with past and future ranges discovered across the scope of its possibilities in the present. And there are no rules, only markers for what needs be moved beyond: “I’m sure—no, I hope—I got many things wrong about the French. I take that as an achievement.” When the poem has all that is required, accuracy takes a backseat. With The Year the City Emptied, Fried has given the poem Everything.
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