Extraordinary that the writer – Louise Labé – died in 1566 (From Modern Poetry in Translations Advent calendar ):
Kiss me again, kiss me, kiss me more:
Give me one of your most mouth-watering ones
Give me one of your most smouldering ones
I’ll repay it with four, hotter than any embers.
Weary, you say? Here, let me find a cure:
I’ll give you ten, all different, of rare softness.
Then as we mix up happiness and kisses
We two will please each other at our pleasure.
Now you and I will live our lives twice over
Once inside our self; once in our lover, and
Love, if I dare think this thought aloud,
Living in reserve makes me impatient:
How will I ever satisfy my ache,
Unless I rouse myself to seek, astride.
Who could resist the sonnets of Louise Labé? The tone of voice is immediately compelling, weighing face-to-face directness with fully rounded wit. These are poems which speak to everyone – candidly assertive, warmly human – as if five hundred years were nothing.
Louise Labé’s life – like the lives of so many women of talent – has frequently received more attention than her work. It has been shaped into a scandal (she was a courtesan), a legend (she rode to war), and most recently, a sham (she was a man). But perhaps she was just born in the right place at the right time: to an enlightened father who gave her access to the same education (fencing, riding, poetry, other languages) as her brothers; in Lyon, thriving cultural crossroads of the Renaissance.
The importance and pleasure of the work, notably the 24 Petrarchan sonnets she published alongside her Débat de folie et d ’amour, in 1555, seem indisputable, at least. Labé’s language is limpid, uncluttered; each line often a unit of sense, a clear foil for the aural underpinning of the logic, or argument, of its sonnet: rhyme, alliteration and assonance chime and fuse with unmistakable authority.
It seemed to me that I needed to hold onto, or recreate, that clarity, and cohesion, if I was to have any chance of capturing the bravado and enterprise of the sequence as a whole. These twenty four sonnets explore the way the imagination unlocks sensual pleasure; they enact, through form, an elusive reciprocity; they reclaim ringfenced areas of language and culture.
In short, Louise Labé rewrites the male Petrarchan tradition, giving it a blast of positive, debunking energy, a strong female voice and an intelligent physicality.