“It’s good to be back at the mothership,” joked poet Daisy Fried ’89 as she greeted her audience in McCabe Library last month. Students, faculty, and community members gathered to hear the Swarthmore alumna share selections from her most recent book, The Year the City Emptied: After Baudelaire, a collection of translations of French poet Charles Baudelaire.
After an introduction from William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt, Fried explained the story behind her latest collection. When COVID-19 shook the world in the spring of 2020, and as her husband was dying from a long illness, Fried resolved to read at least two poems each day from her poetry library, in alphabetical order. After finding John Ashbery’s translation of Baudelaire’s “Paysage,” (“landscape”), she was disappointed.
“I thought, ‘I can do better,’” Fried said. “And I think that’s how a lot of translation projects start.”
In The Year the City Emptied, Fried considers the excruciating loss of her husband, falling in love again, and, of course, life during a pandemic. In translating Baudelaire — whom she describes as “full of decay and pestilence” and “too many adjectives” — Fried flirts with the idiomatic, paying close attention to sound in the process. “The Swan,” in which Baudelaire describes a changing Paris, becomes “The Goose,” set in Philadelphia under lockdown: “Shuttered shops with bric-a-brac/Displayed unbought in ghastly windows/Empty bars and restaurants, their outdoor tables/Barely inhabited, heat-lamp flames/Warming air where people aren’t.”
Fried read “The Goose,” her own translation of “Paysage,” and several other poems from The Year the City Emptied, which revels in grief, anger, lust, and love. Afterward, she took questions from the audience, ranging from specific translation choices to her creative process.
“One of the things I think about in all poems is like how an abstract painter would think about a canvas,” said Fried. “You put this color up here, and this color down here, and you create some kind of balance. Or imbalance.”
Reflecting on the event, Schmidt relished the chance to have Fried back to Swarthmore “as her career as a poet enters a significant new phase,” with the publication of The Year the City Emptied and, soon, her fourth book of poems.
“She updates for the COVID era Baudelaire's exploration of the contradiction between modernity's promise and its violent inequalities,” he says.