French Poetry

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THE POETS

Jacques Réda • Guy GoffettePaul de RouxCharles BaudelaireStéphane MallarméLouis Aragon • Robert DesnosPhilippe JaccottetGilles Cyr

The Translators

Jennie FeldmanAndrew ShieldsIan HouseDavid CookeHarry Guest •  Jonathan Steffen Tim AdèsIan Brinton • Patrick Williamson 

Previous Translations

THW3   September 1, 2016     THW2:June 1, 2016      THW1:March 1, 2016

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Jacques Réda : Two Poems translated by Jennie Feldman

jacques reda

CROSSING THE BRIE

A small, lone valley has meanwhile hollowed out, rounded and not very deep, crowned with shaggy grass and thick bushes, several of which go tumbling down to a brook so narrow it chokes on the sudden rush of water rolling headlong like a white and brown panic of goats on a steep path.
xxxxOtherwise the only contours are the sky’s bulging black clouds and the  snowy ones behind, lakes stretching between them with a sword’s blue gleam, and in the far distance an ocean of polar turquoise veering towards an idea of colour.
xxxxFor a hundred and eighty degrees it’s the plain, a plain that’s utterly flat with nothing to tilt the eye’s spirit-level; flat, but with a quiet joy that carries it swiftly, well beyond what you have time to see:
xxxxsuch as a road with no wayside slopes or ditches to channel the light that blazes, sheers off, converges in full-sailed convoys on the ploughed fields, or scatters in a dazzling horse-coach gallop past villages, sometimes colliding with a wall that has leapt out.
xxxxBut in all this excitability the churches never waver, though each seems to respond to an old modulation of the heart – or is it the other way round?
xxxxIn any case, these surges of love and humility gather and rise with the arching of naves anchored deep in the soil, and refuse to be lost in lyrical fireworks or niceties.
xxxxThe bell-towers plant themselves upright, like men heavy with prayer who never improvise, but trust to the pristine phrases of Low Latin’s muffled logic and dull sonorities:
xxxxthick and square, often with a very wide-angled roof quashing any drift towards vainglory, they stand to a point just high enough to release a strong, patient swell of faith, lifting from the plain as naturally as the beeches and poplars whose brightening screens are crisscrossed by the flitting neumes of a score for crows and magpies.
xxxxThen all the plain rises tremulous as a hymn just beginning, and the still dense woods fan out then throng together again like choirs.
xxxxExalted by November’s ardent intensity, they don’t hum in a minor key to mark the season’s disaster, but flare up with the vernal force of a certainty rooted in light as firmly – on this flat earth that offers itself and sets out on its way – as the sober jubilation of these bell-towers.

THE THIRSTY MAN

I wanted to lean over all the brute waters
Drink each one of the sickly variety
Of tisanes made from moon and reeds, the smell
Of mud, dead fish, incongruous wrecks
Dredged from below when it’s thought a prowler,
For decency’s sake, might have submerged the bodies
Of those who vanished and haven’t been found.

I would have drunk. This demon kept whispering:
To drink his reflection would give me knowledge
Of all that is mirrored in desolate waters –
Clouds, rats, suns and my own apprehension
At being. And sometimes, tense as a water-watchman
Eyes half-closed, lips parted, I have been able
To drink.

*****

Jacques Réda : Two Poems translated by Andrew Shields

BAGS

I am still very interested in the empty plastic
Bags that a whisper of wind along the street or the play
Of air caused by my passage abruptly carries away,
Each of whose swellings and convulsions is so pathetic.

They are almost wholly ignorant of aerostatics
And sometimes glad to just crawl on the ground, it’s sad to say.
But an unexpected fit of joy or rage can gainsay
This timidity. They will never become domestic,

Surely, these souls that never rest, these unhappy demons
Who loll about in the bags at such reanimation.
See how they soar, see how they execute, so gracefully,

Their acrobatics, see how they roll back down by our feet
Before succumbing once again to their epilepsy,
And pity them their every unexpiated misdeed.

CASSANDRA

The contact between a woman’s skin and her silken dress—
That is just what I experienced in front of this house strafed
By a red sun, at just the second when Helen ascends
The rampart at Troy and, while the horizon is raging
With stakes and helms, sees, among lances and catenaries,
Above the tent of Agamemnon, a black flag waving.
You were standing, alone, and one hundred imaginary
Women would have wanted to wear the same dress and your name.
But were you not just a follower or maybe a slave
Of Andromache? You seemed taken in a dim enclave,
A fringing of fire on your cheek, and I couldn’t see
From the train whether your eyes were not already haunted
By the sorrow (although their shine still radiates to me)
Of the evening prefiguring the blaze and the blood.

Jacques Réda was born in Lunéville in 1929. From 1987 to 1996 he was editor of La Nouvelle Revue française and is a reader for the publishing house of Gallimard. One of France’s greatest living poets, he has published numerous collections of poetry since Amen, his debut in 1968. Since 1963, he has also been a regular contributor Jazz Magazine and written several books about Jazz such L’Improviste (1980).

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*****

Guy Goffette: Two Poems translated by Jennie Feldman

goffette

THE WINTER WALNUT TREE

But there’s so much to do and already the neighbour
is sawing the forest by heart. In the meadow cows drink
the sky’s milk and sparrows are grooming the wind.

So much to do and everything goes and unravels.
What of the kitchen of shadows where you let go
your life’s blue thread that had led you as gently

as words unvoiced on the underside of poems;
or maybe there’s a woman on the sea’s far side
who wears it on her finger, her every gesture

– she puts coffee on the table, two cups
then pauses, for she too is alone – her every
gesture comes back to your forehead on the pane

watching the sea as it lifts to the horizon
where there’s nothing but an old winter walnut tree
embracing the blue, embracing the blue.

”TO THINK WE BELIEVED…”

To think we believed in happiness
like kids flying their pennants

on a stagnant backyard puddle
– they know how little it takes

to upend the sea on its keel,
and yet they seem to be waiting

for a higher, battering wave
to wipe out the urge to be

best friends with eternity. We too
once believed the earth turned

in our arms and would keep on
turning like the sun around the apple tree

– O tranquil torpor, even then
the worm was under the bark,

sharp the tools in the fiery shed
and blood on the boil in their muscles,

the hewers of dreams.

*****

Guy Goffette was born in Belgium in 1947. He published his first book of poems in 1969. Since then he has worked as an editor at the publishing company Gallimard and has been referred to by Yves Bonnefoy as an heir to Verlaine, of whom Goffette has written a fictionalised ‘biography’.

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*****

Paul de Roux: Four Poems translated by Ian House

AVT_Paul-de-Roux_5685

THE RAIN

If you could mesh yourself in this veil of rain,
drops on the eyelids and on the palm of your hand,
you’d perhaps be at peace. Dissociation
is being here and just seeing the rain
as it streams down the tiles and lashes
the trees and their buds. To know
how to enter a raindrop is a secret
shared by few, no doubt. It means
to relax in the bone, to trace creation
back to the sea, to the first day
when, in the foam, it was all possibility.

IMPROMPTU

Here – where you’d like to ward off fate
which traps you in the lobby of a bank,
waiting for it to open, pacing up and down –
you wonder how beauty, pity, tenderness
could exist as you look through these windows
at the avenue, the hurrying pedestrians
of 8.50 am, the traffic and not one
ray of sun and you see  an exquisite plant:
language shining.

THE TABLE AT THE REAR

So discreet, the lady in the gloom
at the rear of the brasserie,
coming for lunch each day on her own
and setting herself apart down there.
Should I honour her independence
or grieve for her loneliness?
I don’t know. All I see
is the gleam of light in her lenses.

THE HAYSTACK

Late in life he remembers
how he’d slid down a haystack:
rasping, golden, warm –
in September perhaps?
The farmer’s daughters joined in the game,
his first experience of girls.
‘How old could I have been?’
he asks today, his birthday,
shared perhaps with a woman of sixty-five
who remembers the same moment
in the hay, her sisters, the unknown little boy
whose face she’s forgotten.
What remains is that moment of bliss,
the sliding, her skirt round her thighs.

*****

Paul de Roux, was born in Nîmes in 1937. He is a poet, translator, and encyclopaedist who has worked for several French publishing houses. He founded the literary journal, La Traverse. In 1969 and, since 1980, has published numerous volumes of poetry, a novel, and several monographs on French painters. He has also translated Keats’s Hyperion into French.

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*****

Charles Baudelaire: Two Poems translated by David Cooke

baudelaire

THE ENEMY

My youth was little more than a dark storm,
lit up now and then by brilliant sunshine.
Thunder and rain have left my plot forlorn:
a few windfalls rotting, a tangled vine.

And now I have reached the autumnal phase
I will have to set to with rake and spade,
if I’m to reclaim this watery maze
through which, death-haunted, I am forced to wade.

But who’s to say the flowers I yearn for
will find in soil swamped by every downpour
the mysterious blend of nutrients

growth requires, when Time is the enemy?
Feasting on the heart’s blood, it drains all sense
of purpose, as signs of life slip away.

MY FORMER LIFE

For years I dwelled in a lofty palace
that sun and sea suffused with blazing light;
whose pillars towering above their site
seemed each evening a cavern of basalt.

The ocean refracted shimmering skies
and re-attuned their perfect harmony,
rich and solemn, to the visionary
tints of twilight reflected in my eyes.

And there I wallowed in self-indulgence,
lapped by soothing water, each day a blur,
as I gazed on barely clad retainers.

Fanning my brow with palms, their unguents
exquisite, they were tasked to embellish
ennui, my unaccountable anguish.

*****

Charles Baudelaire : Poem translated by Ian House

SPLEEN

Pluviosus, God of Rain, pissed off
with the whole city, empties his pot
over the pale inmates of cemeteries.
Cataracts of Death splash on foggy suburbs.

My cat tries to bed down on the tiled floor
and can’t stop twitching his mangy body.
An old poet’s spirit wanders the roofs:
a shivering ghost, caterwauling.

The great bell sobs and sobs; a smoky
log spits in time to a wheezing clock.
A dropsical old hag hands down

a pack of greasy cards; the Queen of Spades
and that charmer, the Jack of Hearts,
make snide remarks about their old affairs.

*****

Charles Baudelaire was born in Paris in 1821.  In 1845, he published his first work but gained notoriety and enduring fame for his 1857 volume of poems, Les Fleurs du mal. Following a court case, Baudelaire, his publisher and the book’s printer were censured for offending public morality, and, consequently,  suppressed six of the poems. Baudelaire died in Paris in 1867.

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*****

Stéphane Mallarmé: Poem translated by Harry Guest

mallarme4

APPARITION

The moon was seeming wan. Some seraphins
in tears and dreaming, bow in hand among
moist calm of flowers, drew from sad violins
pale sorrow floating past blue petals hung
on the blest day of your first kiss. I knew
my reverie aiming to hurt could get
me drunk on scent of gloom. With no regret
or aftertaste discovered dream veered to
the heart to find it sooner. Unaware
I wandered, head bowed in despondency,
till you appeared with sunlight in your hair,
at twilight in the street and laughing. I
believed I’d glimpsed that sylph with the bright crown   ̶
in sleep as a spoilt child I’d often see
her pass letting from gentle hands drift down
white galaxies of stars like snow on me.

*****

Stéphane Mallarmé was born on 18 March 1842 in Paris. Having spent a year in London in order to gain a certificate entitling him to teach English, he returned to France in November 1863, at which point he became a reluctant and not very good teacher, until he managed to obtain early retirement on health grounds in 1893. By then his reputation as France’s greatest living poet was firmly established. He died unexpectedly at his country retreat at Valvins on 9 September 1898.

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*****

Louis Aragon: Poem translated by Jonathan Steffen

aragon

RICHARD II ’40

My land is like a flagship
Abandoned in the bay
I’m like that prince whose kingship
Ended the darkest way
Who was the sovereign of his own decay

Survival’s an empty ploy
The wind wipes no tears away
I hate what once gave me joy
And have no tongue left to pray
I am the sovereign of my own decay

The heart can cease its beating
The blood can run cold away
It’s all a game of cheating
I don’t know how to play
I am the sovereign of my own decay

At sundown or day’s dawning
The sky’s like ash and clay
O, Paris of my morning
Our Maytime’s had its day
I am the sovereign of my own decay

Give up your woods and springs
Fall silent, thrush and jay
The heart no longer sings
The catcher’s on his way
I am the sovereign of my own decay

It was an age of broken hearts
When Jeanne bade the Dauphin pray
Cut France into a million parts
The sky is as pale today
I am the sovereign of my own decay

*****

Louis Aragon (1897 – 1982) was born and died in Paris. He was one of the leading voices of the surrealist movement in France, who co-founded with André Breton and Philippe Soupault the surrealist review Littérature.

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*****

Robert Desnos: Two Poems translated by Tim Adès

desnos2

ANDROMEDA SAVED

The water can tailor this body no more.
As much as the mirror, the glade in the wood
Drinks it in. But the belly’s been gouged by a claw
And the weave of a hanky is spotted with blood.

Holding back her stray locks, an enveloping mesh,
Andromeda runs through the brush and the brakes
Like a creature that carries a dart in its flesh
Dictating the cross-country path that it takes.

Her face is all filthy with spittle and sweat
But joy has invaded her senses and spirit.
Nevermore dropping down through the night will she get
Ghosts filling her bed on a nuptial visit.

Adieu, Sabina, Rosamund, Hippolytê: adieu.
The twilight moves you on, has other places planned for you.

Andromeda yields to her innermost rage
In which her exhaustion and thirst are annealed;
There’s a welcome, this time, from the wide open space,
No mistake, no return, for the prodigal child.

She goes, and she adds to the sun’s dying blaze,
And the funeral ocean it props in the west,
The blood of her wound where her own shadow sways,
Prey offered to giants and dwarves to be kissed.

Andromeda travels. The place she has gone from,
The place where her fate that is cancelled was given,
Is marked by the jet of a snowy-white column.

The monster has fled.
It’s too much for high heaven.

PHANTOM

Don’t move! I’m here, but save your straining eyes:
Thick night divides us: they are mis-employed.
You’re quiet, for where the road dissolves, the void
Dissolves us too, and fuddles us with noise.

A plume of smoke and soot. This is the hour
The roof becomes a beach: the slate has shown
A face, the living face of your unknown
Double, mere phantom! in its rainy mirror.

Phantom, you’re just a fool we can deride.
You lurk in castles, churches, woods; but all
The living have you at their beck and call.

You couldn’t harm them with your evil mind:
The night they fling the doors and windows wide,
You’ll be dissolved by dark and noise and wind.

*****

Robert Desnos was born in Paris on 4 July 1900 and published his first poems in 1917 in  La Tribune des Jeunes and in the Dadaist magazine Littérature. He became an adherent of the Surrealist group and by the early 1930s he was also friends with Picasso, Hemingway, Artaud and John Dos Passos. An active member of the French Résistance, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. Deported first to Auschwitz, he ended up in the concentration camp of Terezín, where he died from typhoid, only weeks after the camp’s liberation.

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*****

Philippe Jaccottet: Twelve  poems from Airs translated by Ian Brinton

Our life is spun wind Joubert

WINTER’S  CLOSE

1

So little is left to the errant soul,
almost nothing to expel
the fear of losing space

And yet what sings, lighter,
uncertain of presence,
with a purity of sound
to bridge earth’s distances

2

A scattering of tears
on the altered face,
the sparkling season
of swelling rivers:
grief slicing through earth

Time gazes on snow
shrinking on mountains

3

Gossamer shadows
in the strands of winter’s surviving grass,
hidden patient flutes
convey the faithful and discreet

but as yet unseen death

Ever throughout the day
threading around our bodies,
woven through the open field,
a blue slate to be settled

4

Truth and its opposite
merge, absorbed by smoke

World, no better shaded
than beauty held too close,
enters you, greeted
like dust taking fire

Truth and its opposite
glow: scented cinders

5

‘Moon in summer’s dawn’

This tear glistens still
in the growing clarity of air;
indistinct flame beneath a glass
as gilded shimmer rises
from waking mountain tops;

remains hanging there
on the cusp of dawn,
held between the promise in an ember
and the memory of a pearl

6

‘Winter’s Moon’

In order to fathom that darkness
take this mirror in which
died a freezing glow:

having plumbed the centre of night
you will find nothing reflected
beyond a baptism of sheep

7

I devour youth
alongside this green wood
transferred into most translucent smoke
that was ever borne aloft

Soul, so easily scared,
the earth of winter’s ending
is just a tomb of bees

8

‘In the darkness before the dawn’

Far from the glowing
rose and kisses of the bedroom
he who flees finger-points the distance
to the shadow that goes with him:
Orion, The Plough, Parasols

Then through new light,
through drained light,
across the course of day
earthwards a file of turtle doves.

9

There where the earth draws to its close
rising to its nearest merge with air
(in a light in which the melting dream
of God drifts)

between fantasy and stone

this snow: fleeting ermine

10

Close bosom friend of darkness
listen to what the ashes hear
before they yield to flame:

swelling waters descend
to the levels of grass and rock
and the first birds hymn
the ever-longest day
as light creeps closer

11

You can seize without trespass within
the belt of a winter’s copse
unique light locked up there:
not a glowing funeral pyre
nor a lantern hanging in the branches

But dawn-light on tree-bark
a slowly widening love
perhaps a glimpse of God
released by the axe’s flash

*****

Philippe Jaccottet was born in Moudon, Switzerland in 1925. After completing his studies in Lausanne, he lived several years in Paris. In 1953, he moved to the town of Grignan in Provence. A distinguished poet, he is also has translated numerous authors and poets into French, including Goethe, Hölderlin, Rilke, Mandelstam, Leopardi, Ungaretti.and Homer. In 2014, he became the fifteenth living author to be published in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade and only the fourth Swiss author to be so honoured.

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*****

Gilles Cyr: Four Poems translated by Patrick Williamson

From Fruits and Frontiers, 2006

Sun spots
and apple rust

I make the link

not everything is clear yet
about fruit

the thorns will wait

the double-sour cherry tree
has large warts

this concretion causes chuckles

and while not everything
about fruit is clear yet

I was looking again

perhaps I should finally
explore otherwise

back to the landscape

leaves fall,
the final ligneous stage

will not come about without them

*

Twisted hole-filled tree

shall we cut off
the bit in the way

a saw goes up

everyone improvises
it’s madness

a few strips
land up in the river

a catastrophe foretold

to build on water
other than by metaphor

the crest too in the end

more than one complaint
they’ll be looked into

mainly city dwellers

soon as I’m on the scene
I pull on the roots

it’s still very good
it is good isn’t it?

let’s stand back

difficult to believe your tree
rose some distance away

*

Believing myself lost
I walk alongside a forest

aside its own leafage
an oak can grow

another tree’s leaves
the oak is generous

viscous mistletoe berries
stick to the beaks of thrushes

which rid them by repeated
scraping against branches

I decide to imitate
the thrushes have vanished

gesticulating naturally
makes wild creatures flee

have to wait a while
my tastes are changing

accumulating names
to show things?

I ask for rock roses
the laurel-leaved sort

*

Wind, drought
twist the trees

the vine grows everywhere

nowhere in the world
does it do better

go higher up

discover that the vine
climbs to fifteen hundred metres

roped-up passages

don’t carry too much
bring a bite to eat

a big bag as well

it’s still there
eighteen hundred metres up

on the vertical boulder

the eagles have spotted you
whistle with admiration

please

when you find
it’s too much

it’s time to come back down

*****

Gilles Cyr was born in Quebec in 1940. He gained his master’s degree at the University of Montreal and then spent two years in Paris. Subsequently, he became director of collection at Editions de l’Hexagone (Montreal), where he notably published Fruits et Frontières in 2006. He has been actively involved in editing various literary journals, and translating South Korean and Persian poetry. In 1992, he won the prestigious Governor General’s Award for his poetry.

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The Translators

*****

Jennie Feldman has published two poetry collections, The Lost Notebook (2005) and Swift (2012), and has translated work by Jacques Réda: Treading Lightly: Selected Poems 1961–1975 (2005), and his autobiographical work, The Mirabelle Pickers (Aller aux mirabelles) (2012). She is co-editor and translator, with Stephen Romer, of Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets, 1938–2008 (2009), which was awarded a special commendation by the judges of the Popescu Poetry Translation Prize.

*****

Andrew Shields was born in in 1964 in Detroit, Michigan, and thereafter raised in Michigan, Ohio, California, and England. He attended Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania (where he finished his PhD in Comparative Literature in 1995). He now lives in Basel, Switzerland. His collection, Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong, was published by Eyewear in 2015.

*****

Ian House taught in England, the United States, Moscow, Budapest and Prague and wrote nothing. On retirement the floodgates opened. He has published two collections with Two Rivers Press: Cutting the Quick (2005) and Nothing’s Lost (2014). He lives in Reading because it’s close to Oxford and London.

*****

David Cooke co-edits The High Window. He has won a Gregory Award and has published four collections of his poetry, the latest of which is A Murmuration (Two Rivers Press, 2015). A Slow Blues, New and Selected Poems, was also published in 2015 and is available on the High Window Press page: https://thehighwindowpress.com/the-press/#A%20Slow Blues

*****

Harry Guest’s last collection was Some Times from Anvil in 2010. In 2012 Impress produced his translation of Torsten Schulz’s novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed) called A Square in East Berlin. His long poem Philadelphiana is expected (from Guernsey!) soon, all being well.

*****

Jonathan Steffen read English literature at King’s College, Cambridge and taught translation and interpreting at Heidelberg University during the 1990s, working simultaneously as a freelance translator and interpreter. He has published literary and scholarly translations from the French and German. Jonathan also writes poetry, essays, short stories and songs. For further information, please visit www.jonathansteffen.com.

*****

Timothy Adès is a rhyming translator-poet who works from various languages. From from French he has published award-winning selections of the poetry of Victor Hugo, Jean Cassou and Robert Desnos. From Spanish, he has translated Alberto Arvelo and received an award for his translations of Alfonso Reyes. A substantial collection of the poetry of Robert Desnos will be forthcoming.

*****

Ian Brinton’s recent publications include translations from the French of Yves Bonnefoy and Francis Ponge. As a literary critic he has edited three books of the poetry and prose of Andrew Crozier and two books about the Cambridge poet J.H. Prynne, A Manner of Utterance and For the Future. He edited a book of essays on the poetry of Peter Hughes and wrote Contemporary Poetry since 1990. He is on the committee setting up the new archive of Contemporary Poetry at Cambridge University Library.

*****

Patrick Williamson  is an English poet who also works with music and filmpoems. He is the editor and translator of The Parley Tree, Poets from French-speaking Africa and the Arab World (Arc Publications, 2012).  His most recent poetry collections are: Beneficato (English-Italian, Samuele Editore, 2015), Tiens ta langue/Hold your tongue(Harmattan, Paris 2014), Gifted (Corrupt Press, 2014), and Nel Santuario (Samuele Editore, 2013), which was highly commended by the judges of the XV Concorso Guido Gozzano, 2014.

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