This is a purely personal selection of French 20th century poetry, covering the early to mid-century, and is not intended to be fully representative. I have only chosen to translate poems which I particularly like, and which I consider of permanent value. Though Surrealism and the two World Wars between them determined the nature of French poetry in this period, these poems also reveal individual quality through a distinctive personal voice, distinctive content, or a distinctive approach on the part of the poet.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)

Autumn Crocuses (Les colchiques)

The meadow is venomous but lovely in autumn

The cows graze there

And are slowly poisoned

The colchicum colour of shadow and lilac

Flowers there your eyes resemble that flower

Violet shades like their shadow that autumn

And slowly your eyes empoison my life

The children arrive from school, what a fracas,

Dressed in smocks and playing harmonicas

They gather the crocuses that are like mothers

Daughters of their daughters your eyelids’ colour

That beat as the flowers beat in the wild breeze

The herdsman sings and sings quite softly

While slowly, mooing, the cows abandon

Forever this wide field flowered by autumn

Merlin and the Old Crone (Merlin et la vieille femme)

The sun that day stretched taut a maternal

Womb that bled slowly under the sky

The light is my mother o bloodstained light

The clouds a menstrual flux flowed by

At the crossroads where no flower but the Compass

Rose, without thorns, flowered in winter

Merlin considered life and the primal cause

By which the whole universe dies and recovers

A crone in a green cape, riding a mule,

Followed the bank of the river downstream

And aged Merlin there in the empty plain

Beat at his breast crying out: Rival

O my frozen being through whom fate drowns me

Through whom this sun of flesh shivers would you

See Memory appear, and my mirror-self love me,

And see the fine hapless son that I’d own

His gesture made cataclysmic pride crumble

The dancing sunlight quickened her womb

And sudden the spring of love and the hero

Led a young April day forth from the tomb

The paths that ran out of the west were covered

By skeletal weeds weighed with fate and by flowers

By gravestones trembling beside green corpses

While the winds blew there the seeds of ill hours

Leaving the mule his love stepped towards him

The wind gently smoothing her finery

Then the pale lovers joined feverish hands

Interlaced fingers sole signs of love’s mastery

She hung there enacting a rhythm of being

Crying: For a century I awaited your call

Your stars had power over my dancing

Morgana gazed up at the heights of Gibel

How sweet to dance when a mirage appears for you

In which everything sings and the winds of terror

Feign the peal of the moon’s hilarious laughter

And frighten away the presaging phantoms

I gestured palely deep in the solitude

Ghosts scurried to populate nightmares, apart

My whirling movements expressed the beatitudes

Which are nothing but pure effects of my art

I gathered nothing but flowers of hawthorn

Fading in spring that would lose their white bloom

While the birds of prey were crying their plunder

Stillborn lambs, child-gods longing for doom

And I’ve aged you see during you lifetime I dance

But I would soon have wearied and hawthorn in flower

This April would have shown little assurance

But that of some ancient corpse sadness devours

And their hands were raised like a flight of doves

Brightness on which night swooped like a vulture

Then Merlin strode East saying: Let him rise

The son of Memory matched with the Lover

Let him rise from the mud or be human shade

He shall be my eternal work truly my son

His brow haloed with fire on the road to Rome

He will travel alone with a sky-ward gaze

The woman who waits for me is named Viviane

And come the spring’s new dolorous hours

Couched amongst coltsfoot and sweet marjoram

I’ll dwell ages deep in the hawthorn flowers

Note: The characters are from the Arthurian Legends. The sorceress Morgana or Morgan le Fay is associated with the mythical Mount Gebil. Viviane or Nimue eventually imprisoned Merlin in a hawthorn bower (see the Burne-Jones painting The Beguiling of Merlin.)

Autumn (Automne)

Through the mist a shambling farm-hand goes,

Slowly, with his ox, through the mists of autumn

Which hide the villages, their poverties and woes

And as he goes along the farm-hand sings a tune

A song of love, a song of infidelity

About a ring about a heart breaking yet

Oh! Autumn, autumn, summer’s fatality

Through the mists go two grey silhouettes.

Diseased Autumn (Automne malade)

Autumn diseased and adored

You’ll die when the storm-wind blows through the roses

When it has snowed

In the orchards.

Sad autumn

Die with the whiteness and richness

Of snow and ripe fruit

In the heights of the sky

Hawks glide

Over naive sprites with dwarfish green locks

Who have never loved

At the forest’s far edges

The stags have sounded

How I love oh season how I love your murmurs

The fruit that falls and that no one culls

The wind and the forest that weep

All their tears in autumn leaf by leaf


Trampled as one

A train

That rolls on


Is gone

Engagements (Les fiançailles)

For Picasso

Spring allows perjured fiancés to wander

Blue feathers to be long covered with leaves,

Where the bluebird nests and the cypress heaves

A Madonna at dawn took all the hedge-roses

Tomorrow the wallflowers she’ll gather complete

For the doves’ nests destined, as she supposes,

For the pigeon who tonight seemed the Paraclete

They fell in love in the lemon-tree grove

With the love that we the late-comers love

Like their eyelids the far-off villages rove

And their hearts among lemons hang from above

Always (Toujours)

For Madame Faure-Favier


We will go further without ever progressing

And from planet to planet

From nebula on to nebula

Don Juan of comets ‘a thousand and three’

Without even leaving the Earth

Search for new forces

Take phantoms seriously

And in this world so many forgotten,

Whoever they are, the great forgetters

Who will know how to make us forget some part of the world or other

Where is Columbus to whom we owe a continent’s forgetting

To lose

But to lose in truth

To make place for the newly known

To lose

Life to find Victory

Jules Supervielle (1884-1960)

The Wake (Le sillage)

We saw the wake, but nothing of the boat,

Because it was happiness that had passed by.

They gazed at each other, deep in their eyes

A perception at last of the promised clearing,

Where great stags were running in all their freedom.

No hunter entered that country without tears.

It was the next day, after a night of cold,

We recognised them as those who are drowned for love.

But what we might have taken for their grief

Signalled to us it was not to be trusted.

A shred of their sail still floated in the air

Alone, free to take the wind at its pleasure,

Far away from the drifting boat and its oars.

High Seas (Haute mer)

Among the birds among the moons

That haunt the underside of seas,

Those sensed at the surfaces

In the wild waves of spume,

Among the blind witnesses

And the underwater glide

Of a thousand faceless fishes

Whose course is hid inside,

The drowned man stirs his head

Seeks the song of youth again,

And listening to the shells in vain

Lets them fall to their dark bed.

I Dream of You… (Je vous rêve…)

I dream you equally, whether far or near,

But you are exact, without replica always,

You become music beneath my tranquil gaze,

As if with a glance, I see you through the ear.

You can be in me as though beneath my eye,

So melodious your heart, that heart open wide,

And I hear you beat in my forehead secretly

When you flow in me in order to disappear.

You Disappear (Vous disparaissez)

Already clothed in mist you disappear

Now we must row as through the evening air

Towards your exile in the devouring year,

The last hope cradled in your frail arms there,

There are dead leaves all along your track,

Stirred by the dying breath of loves that fade,

Moonlight steals your strength behind your back;

Your pallor waxes towards your dying day.

Yet what remains and keeps your heart alive

Can still penetrate your bitter candour,

And sometimes in sudden radiant surprise

Awaken, in your night, the owls of splendour.

Regretting the Earth (Le regret de la terre)

One day, we shall say: ‘That was the time of sunlight,

Remember how it illumined the slightest twig,

The old woman as brightly as the astonished girl,

How it gave a colour to things as soon as it fell,

Kept pace with the galloping horse; halted with him.

It was the unforgettable time when we were on Earth,

Where sound resulted if something was dropped,

We looked about with the eyes of connoisseurs,

Our ears comprehended every nuance of air

And when a friend’s footsteps approached we knew,

We gathered a flower or picked up a polished pebble.

That time when we could never take hold of smoke,

Ah! That’s all our hands know how to take hold of now.’

Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961)


It’s my constellation

It’s shaped like a hand

It’s my own hand high in the sky

All through the war through a gap I saw Orion

The Zeppelins that came to bomb Paris always came from Orion

Today it’s above my head

The long pole pierces the palm of the hand that must suffer

As my severed hand makes me suffer pierced constantly by a spear

Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960)

Nomad (Nomade)

The door which opens not

The hand that passes

Far off a breaking of glass

The lamp that fumes

The sparks that light

The sky is darker

Over the roofs

Various creatures

Without shadows

A look

A sombre speck

The house one enters not

Corridor (Couloir)

We are two

On the one line where all’s continuous

In the meanders of night

A word’s in the middle

Two mouths not seeing each other

A sound of steps

One light body gliding towards the other

The door quivers

A hand passes

One would wish to open

The bright ray stands erect

There before me

And it’s the fire that parts us

In the shadow where your profile slips away

A moment without breathing

Your breath has burned me in passing

Live, Flesh (Chair vivre)

Rise up corpse and walk

Nothing new under the yellow sun

The last of the last of the coins of gold

The light that flakes away

Under the layers of time

The lock on the breaking heart

A thread of silk

A thread of lead

A thread of blood

After these waves of silence

Signs of love’s black mane

The sky more smooth than your eye

Neck twisted in pride

My life behind the scenes

From where I see harvests of death undulate

All those eager hands kneading balls of smoke

Heavier than the poles of the universe

Empty heads

Bare hearts

Perfumed hands

Monkey tentacles aimed at the clouds

In the furrows of those grimaces

A straight line stretches taut

A nerve twists

La mer the sea sated

L’amour love

L’amer the bitter smile of death la mort

Pierre-Jean Jouve (1887-1976)

To Himself (A soi-même)

Write now for the sky

Write for the arc of the sky

And may no black lead letter

Veil your literature

Write for the scent and the breeze

Write for the silvery leaves

May no human ugliness

Find sight consciousness breath.

Write for the god and the fire

Write for love of place, desire

That nothing of Man’s contained

In the void chilled by a flame.

We Have Astonished… (Nous avons étonne…)

We have astonished by our great suffering

The inclination of indifferent stars

We have gazed at the blood of the wound

With harsh external eye, we have kissed

Clandestinely through the false back-door,

We have become those iron-clad systems

Which stray distance-less caterpillar horsemen

Of the last judgement, a vast funereal ennui

Bears us toward your hooves of consummation

Red Horse black Horse yellow Horse white Horse.

André Breton (1896-1966)

Free Union (L’Union libre)

My wife with hair of burning splinters

With thoughts of summer lightning

With hour-glass waist

My wife with the waist of an otter between the tiger’s teeth

My wife with mouth a cockade and cluster of stars of greatest splendour

With teeth the prints of a white mouse on white earth

And a tongue of stroked amber and glass

My wife her tongue a pierced wafer

The tongue of a doll that opens and closes its eyes

A tongue of incredible stone

My wife with eyelashes marks of a child’s pen

Eyelashes rims of a swallow’s nest

My wife with brows of slate on a greenhouse roof

And steam on the panes

My wife with shoulders of champagne

And a dolphin-head fountain under the ice

My wife with her matchstick wrists

My wife with fingers of chance and the ace of hearts

Fingers of mown hay

My wife with armpits of sable and beechnut

Of Midsummer Night

Of privet and angelfish nests

With arms of foam of sea and the locks

And the mingling of wheat and the mill

My wife with her spindled legs

With movements of clockwork and despair

My wife with calves of elder-tree pith

My wife with feet carved of initials

With feet of bunches of keys of caulkers that drink

My wife with a neck of pearl barley

My wife with a throat of Valley of gold

Of rendezvous in the very bed of the torrent

With breasts of night

My wife with her submarine molehill breasts

My wife with breasts of the ruby’s crucible

With breasts of phantom of roses under dew

My wife with the belly of an unfurled fan of days

With the belly of a giant claw

My wife with the back of a bird in vertical flight

With a back of quicksilver

A back of light

With a nape of rolled stone and moistened chalk

And the fall of a glass from which one has just drunk

My wife with her cradling hips

Hips of lustre and arrow-fletches

And the stems of white peacock feathers

Of imperceptible balance

My wife with buttocks of sandstone and mineral asbestos

My wife with swan’s-back buttocks

My wife with buttocks of spring

With gladiolus sex

My wife with her sex of rich sandbanks and platypus

My wife with her sex of seaweed and old boiled sweets

My wife with her sex of the mirror

My wife with eyes full of tears

With her eyes of violet panoply magnetic needle

My wife with savannah eyes

My wife with eyes of water to drink in jail

My wife with eyes of wood always under the axe

With eyes of water-gauge air-gauge earth and fire

Vigilance (Vigilence)

The tottering Saint Jacques tower in Paris

In the semblance of a sunflower

Strikes the Seine sometimes with its forehead and its shadow glides

Imperceptibly among the riverboats

At that moment on tiptoe in my slumbers

I turn towards the room in which I lie

Setting it alight

So that nothing’s left of that acquiescence wrung from me

Pieces of furniture change then to identically-sized creatures

Which gaze fraternally towards me

Lions whose manes serve to consume the chairs

Sharks whose white bellies incorporate the last quiver of the sheets

At the hour of love and blue eyelids

I see myself burn in turn I see this solemn hiding place of nothingness

That was my body

Probed by the patient beaks of fiery ibises

When all is over I enter the ark invisibly

Heedless of passers-by whose dragging feet sound far away

I see the ridges of sunlight

Through the rain of hawthorn

I hear the human fabric tear like a large leaf

Beneath the claw of conspiring presence and absence

All looms fade away leaving only a scented lace

A shell of lace in the form of a perfect breast

I touch only the heart of things I grasp the thread.

No Proof (Non-lieu)

Art of days art of nights

The balance-scales of injuries called Pardon

Red scales sensitive to the weight of a wing

When the women riders with snowy collars and empty hands

Drive their chariots of mist over the meadows

Those scales forever quivering I see them

I see the ibis with delicate manners

That returns from the lake laced into my heart

The wheels of a lovely dream their splendid ruts

That rise high above on the sea-shells of their robes

And astonishment bounding wildly over the sea

Depart my darling dawn forget nothing of my life

Seize those roses that climb the wells of mirrors

Seize the tremors of every eye-lash

Seize everything down to the threads that sustain

The steps of rope-dancers and water-drops

Art of days art of nights

I am at the distant window in a city full of terror

Outside men in opera hats flow by regularly spaced

Like the raindrops I loved

When the weather was fine enough

‘God’s Fury’ is the name of the club I visited last night

It’s written on the façade in paler letters

But the sailor-girls who glide round behind the windows

Are too happy to be afraid

Here never a corpse always a murder without proof

Never the sky always the silence

Never freedom except for freedom’s sake

On the Road to San Romano (Sur la route de San Romano)

Poetry is made in bed like love

Its unmade sheets are the dawn of things

Poetry is made in the woods

It possesses the space it needs

Not this but the other that’s governed by

The eye of the falcon

The dew on snake-grass

Memories of a misted bottle of Savagnin Blanc on a silver salver

A tall pillar of tourmaline over the sea

And the path of intellectual adventure

Which climbs vertically

One pause and it’s instantly overgrown

It doesn’t proclaim itself from the rooftops

It’s not appropriate to leave the door open

Or summon witnesses

The shoals of fish the hedges of blue-tits

The rails at the entrance to some large station

The reflections of either shore

The wrinkles in bread

The bubbles on water

The calendar days

The St John’s wort

The act of love and the act of poetry

Are incompatible

With reading newspapers aloud

The direction of the sunlight

The blue glint that connects the lumberjack’s axe-blows

The string of the heart-shaped or keep-net shaped kite

The rhythmic beating of beavers’ tails

The industriousness of lightning

The hurling of sugarplums from the top of old stairways

The avalanche

The Chamber of fascinations

No, gentlemen, is not the eighth Chamber

Nor the fumes of the barracks some Sunday evening

The figures of dance executed transparently over the ponds

The outlining of a woman’s body by daggers thrown at the wall

The bright coils of smoke

The curls of your hair

The curve of a sponge from the Philippines

The lacings of serpent coral

The ivy’s entry among the ruins

It has all of time before it

The poetic embrace like that of the flesh

While it lasts

Forbids every glimpse of the poverty of the world

Philippe Soupault (1897-1990)

Sports Goods (Articles de sport)

Brave as a postage stamp

He went his way

Gently clapping his hands

To count his footsteps

His heart as red as a wild boar

Beat beat

Like a butterfly, pink and green,

From time to time

He planted a little flag of silk

When he had marched enough

He sat down for a rest

And fell asleep

But since that day there are lots of clouds in the sky

Lots of birds in the trees

And heaps of salt in the sea

There are lots of other things too

Life-Saving Medal (Médaille de sauvetage)

My nose is long like a knife

And my eyes are red from laughing

At night I collect the milk and the moon

And run without looking round

If the trees are afraid behind me

I don’t care

How beautiful indifference is at midnight

Where are they going these folk

Pride of the cities

Village musicians

The crowd wildly dance

And I’m only this anonymous passer-by,

Or someone else whose name I’ve forgot

Tristan Tzara (1896-1963)

The Death of Apollinaire (La Mort de Guillaume Apollinaire)

We know nothing

We know nothing of grief

The bitter season of cold

Ploughs long furrows in our muscles

He would have rather enjoyed delight in victory

We wise beneath calm sorrows caged

Unable to do a thing

If the snow fell upwards

If the sun rose among us during the night

To warm us

And the trees hung there in a wreath

– The only tear –

If the birds were among us to be mirrored

In the tranquil lake above our heads


Death would be a long and beautiful voyage

And an endless holiday for the flesh for structure for bone

Way (Voie)

What is this road that separates us,

Across which I extend the hand of thought?

A flower is written at the tip of every finger

And the end of the road’s a flower that walks beside you

Volt (Volt)

The inclined towers the oblique skies

The cars descending into the void of roads

The creatures along the country lanes

Branches covered with hospitable virtues

With leaf-shaped birds at their crowns

You walk but another walks in your footsteps

Distilling her spite through fragments of memory and math

Enveloped by a robe almost mute the clotted sound of capitals

The seething city dense both with proud cries and lights

Overflows the saucepan of its eyelids

Tears flow away in streams of wretched population

Over the sterile plain towards the smooth flesh the lava

Of shadowy mountains the apocalyptic temptations

Lost in the landscape of a memory and a darkened rose

I roam the narrow streets around you

While you too roam different wider streets

Round something other

Poem for a Dress (Poème pour une robe de Madame Sonia Delaunay)

The Angel has slid his hand

Into the basket the eye of fruits

He halts the wheels of automobiles

And the vertiginous gyroscope of the human heart.

Paul Eluard (1895-1952)

‘The arc of your eyes…’ (La courbe de tes yeux)

The arc of your eyes makes the rounds of my heart

A circuit of dance and gentleness,

Halo of time, cradle nocturnal and sure,

And if I no longer know all I have lived

It is because your eyes have not always seen me.

Leaves of daylight and moss of dew,

Reeds of the wind, perfumed smiles,

Wings covering the world with light

Boats charged with the sky and the sea,

Hunters of sounds and fountains of colour,

Scents hatched from a clutch of dawns

That rest forever on the straw of stars,

As daylight depends on innocence

The whole world depends on your pure eyes

And all my blood flows through their gaze.

‘My forehead against the glass…’ (Le front aux vitres…)

My forehead against the glass like the watchmen of grief

Sky whose night I have surpassed

Plains so small in my open hands

In their double horizon inert indifferent

My forehead against the glass like the watchmen of grief

I look for you beyond all expectation

Beyond even myself

And no longer know loving you so

Which of us two is absent.

The Invention (L’invention)

The right hand allows a trickle of sand

Every transformation is possible

Far off, on the stones the sun whets its eagerness to be gone

The description of the landscape matters little

Merely the pleasant duration of harvests

Clear to my two eyes

As water and fire.

What is the role of the root?

Despair has broken all bounds

And holds its hands to its head

A seven, a four, a two, a one

A hundred women in the street

Whom I’ll not see again.

The art of loving, liberal art, the art of dying well,

The art of thought, incoherent art, the art of the smoker,

The art of pleasure, of the Middle Ages, decorative art,

The art of reason, the art of reasoning well, the art

Poetic, mechanical art, erotic art, the art

Of being a grandfather, the art of dance, the art of seeing,

The art of being accomplished, the art of caress, Japanese art,

The art of play, the art of eating, the torturer’s art.

I have never yet found what I write in what I love.

Georges Braque

A bird flies off

It discards the clouds like a useless veil,

It has never feared light

Enclosed in flight

It has never owned shadow.

Shells of harvests shattered by the sun.

All the leaves in the woods say yes,

They only know how to say yes

Every question, every reply

And dew trickles in the deeps of this yes.

A man with wandering eyes describes the sky of love,

He gathers in its wonders

As leaves do in a wood,

As birds do with their wings

And men in sleep.

Second Nature (Seconde Nature)

In honour of the mute the blind the deaf

To the great black stone on their shoulders

The vanishings of world without mystery

But also for the others at the roll-call of things by name

The searing pain of all metamorphoses

The unbroken chain of dawns in the mind

All the cries that conspire to shatter words

And crease the mouth and crease the eyes

Where furious colours dispel the fog of vigil

Setting up love against life the dead dreaming

The living-depths divide the others are slaves

Of love as one may be the slave of freedom.

The Deaf and the Blind (Le sourd et l’aveugle)

Will we reach the sea with bells

In our pockets, with the sound of the sea

In the sea, or are we really the bearers

Of a purer more silent water?

The sea scouring our hands sharpens knives.

The warriors have found weapons in the waves.

And the sounds of their blows are like those

Of rocks shattering the boats at night.

It’s the tempest and thunder. Why not the silence

Of the flood, for we have in us all the space dreamed

For the greatest of silences and we will breathe

Like the wind over terrible seas, like the wind

That slowly clambers over every horizon.

Keeping Alive (Faire vivre)

There were some who lived in the dark

Dreaming of the sky’s caress

There were some who loved the forest

And believed in blazing wood

The odour of flowers enchanted them even from afar

The nakedness of their desires clothed them

They fused in their hearts the breath measured

By that slip of ambition in the life of nature

That flourishes in summer like a richer summer

They fused in their hearts hope for the dawning age

That hails another age even from afar

With love more stubborn than the desert

The briefest of slumbers

Delivered them to the future sun

They endured they knew that life perpetuates

And their shadowy needs gave birth to clarity.

They were only a few

Then suddenly a crowd

So it is in every age.

Antonin Artaud (1896-1948)

Invocation to the Mummy (Invocation à la Momie)

Those nostrils of bone and skin

Where shades of the absolute start,

And the colour of those lips

That you close like a curtain,

That gold that in dream slips you

The life that strips you of bone,

And the flowers of that false gaze

With which you greet the light,

Mummy, those spindly hands

With which to recall your entrails,

Those hands where appalling shadow

Adopts the forms of a bird,

All this with which death adorns itself

As if in an aleatory rite

This idle chatter of shades, and gold

Where your dark entrails swim

Are the means by which I greet you

Through the calcined path of your veins

And your gold is like my sorrow

The worst and best testament.

Plates of Sound (Vitres de son)

Plates of sound where stars veer,

The glass where brains are brewing

Sky seething with immodesties

Devours the nakedness of stars.

A milk, bizarre and vehement,

Seethes in the deep firmament;

A snail ascends and disturbs

The placidity of clouds.

Delight and fury, sky’s immensities

Launched above us like a cloud

A whirlwind of wings, wild shroud

Torrential with obscenities.

Who am I? (Qui suis-je?)

Who am I?

Where am I from?

I’m Antonin Artaud

And since I speak

As I know

In a moment

You’ll see my present body

Shatter to pieces

And gather itself

In a thousand notorious


A fresh body

In which you’ll never

Be able

To forget me.

Louis Aragon (1897-1982)

The Rose of the New Year (La rose du premier de l’an)

Do you know the moon-rose

Do you know the time-rose

One resembles the other

In water’s mirror glows

As one the other shows

Do you know the bitter rose

Made of brine and refusal

That flowers on the ocean

In tidal ebb and flow

As after rain the rainbow

The dream-rose the soul-rose

Sold in posies in the street

The gamut-rose the game-rose

Those of forbidden loves

The rose of wasted moves

Do you know the fear-rose

Do you know the night-rose

Both of which seem painted

As sound is painted on lips

As fruit is hung among leaves

Every rose that I sing

Every rose of my choice

Every rose I invent

I voice their praise in vain

Before this rose I proclaim.

Elsa at the Mirror (Elsa au miroir)

It was in the very middle of our tragedy

And during a long day seated at her mirror

Combing her golden hair I thought I saw her

With patient hands quenching an incendiary

It was in the very middle of our tragedy

And during a long day seated at her mirror

Combing her golden hair it seemed to me

It was in the very middle of our tragedy

Playing an air on her harp without a tremor

During all that long day seated at her mirror

Combing her golden hair it seemed to me

She was martyring memory at her pleasure

During all that long day seated at her mirror

Reviving the flowers no end to the incendiary

Without saying what another there might seek

She was martyring memory at her pleasure

It was in the very middle of our tragedy

The world resembled that mirror cursedly

The comb divided the fires of silken treasure

And those fires lit the corners of memory

It was in the very middle of our tragedy

As at the week’s heart is set a Thursday

And during a long day seated before memory

She saw them dying far off in her mirror

One by one the actors of our tragedy

Who are the best in this world cursedly

You know their names without hearing them from me

And what flames signify as the nights grow longer

And her hair rendered gold as she seeks to linger

Combing an incendiary reflection wordlessly

The Lilacs and the Roses (Les lilas et les roses)

O months of flowering months of metamorphosis

May without a cloud and June lacerated

I will never forget the lilacs or the roses

Nor those spring’s folds have consecrated

I will never forget the tragic illusion

The procession cries crowd the sunlit clarity

The tanks laden with love the gifts from Belgium

The air that quivers the road this buzzing of bees

The rashness of victory that primes a quarrel

The red blood that a carmine kiss prefigures

And those about to die at the turrets, mortal,

Covered in lilacs by intoxicated watchers

I will never forget the gardens of France

Seeming the missals of vanished centuries

Nor the uneasy twilights enigma of silence

The roses all along the route of our journeys

The denial by flowers of the winds of panic

Of the soldiers passing by on wings of fear

Of the mad bicycles of the cannon, ironic,

Of the fake campers’ pitiable gear

Yet why does this tempest of images

Return me forever to one point of rest

At Saint Marthe A General Dark branches

A Norman villa the forest’s furthest edge

All’s quiet the enemy at rest in shadows

They say that Paris surrendered tonight

I’ll never forget the lilacs or the roses

Nor the twin loves we have lost outright

The first day’s bouquets lilacs lilacs from Flanders

Shadowy softness whose face death paints anew

And bouquets of the retreat roses tender

The colour of fire far roses of Anjou

The Red Poster (L’affiche rouge)

You did not ask for glory or for tears

Organ peals or the prayer for the dying

Eleven years so swiftly past eleven years

You were simply handed your weapons

Death does not dazzle Partisan eyes

Your faces were posted on our city walls

Dark, bearded menacing dark as night

Those posters like pools of blood,

The names awkward to pronounce,

Seeking to instil fear in the passer-by

No one seemed willing to view you as French

People went past without seeing you by day

But when curfew sounded then errant fingers

Wrote on the walls THEY DIED FOR FRANCE

And so the dismal morning was transformed

Everything was the one colour of frost

At February’s end to greet your passing

Yet it was then Manouchian you wrote calmly:

Joy to all, joy to those who survive,

I die without hatred for the German people

Farewell the rose, farewell pain or pleasure

Farewell life and light and the breeze,

Marry, be happy, and think of me often

You who’ll be there amongst life’s beauties

In Armenia some day when this is over

A swollen winter sun lights the hillside

How lovely nature is, my breaking heart,

Justice will follow our victorious footsteps,

Mélinée oh my love my orphaned one,

I tell you to live and bear children

There were twenty-two when the guns fired

Twenty-three who died before their time

Twenty-two strangers yet our brothers

Twenty-three lovers of life in their passing

Twenty-three who called to France as they died.

Note: The poem commemorates the execution of twenty-two members of Missak Manouchian’s resistance group (which comprised Armenians, Hungarian Jews, Poles, Italians, a Spaniard, a Romanian, and three Frenchmen) on the twenty-first of February 1944, and the infamous Red Poster in which the Nazis portrayed them as terrorists. It also commemorates the later execution of the twenty-third member Olga Bancic on the tenth of May 1944, and the prior deaths during combat of three other members of the group. Mélinée Assadourian was Manouchian’s companion.

The Red Poster

The Red Poster
(from French, l'Affiche rouge)

Memorial to the Manouchian Group

Memorial to the Manouchian Group

The Free Zone (Zone Libre)

The fading of sadness forgotten

The throb of the torn heart lessened

The ashes grown colourless

I drank the sweet summer wine

I dreamt through that August time

In a pink chateau in Corrèze

What created that sudden

Aching sob in the garden

The dull reproach in the air

Oh, too soon, don’t wake me so,

A moment, no more, the bel canto

Demobilises despair

For an instant it seemed

I heard in field and stream

Rumours of war, unclear,

Whence came that deep grief

Neither pink nor rosemary

Had retained the scent of tears.

Who knows why they chose to relent

Those dark secrets of my torment

In turn the shadows dismember

I no longer sought release

From that pain without memory

When dawn brought in September.

My love in your arms that day

Outside someone murmured away

At an old ballad of France

I knew my illness at last

That refrain like a bare foot splashed

Stirring the green depths of silence.

Note: The zone libre was the ‘unoccupied’ southern sector of France, in the Second World War, established under the terms of the Second Armistice at Compiègne in June 1940. It was administered by Pétain, from his base in Vichy, until the 11th of November 1942 when southern France was freed by the Allies.

Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

The Zebra (Le Zèbre)

The Zebra, horse of twilight,

Lifts its hoof, and shuts its eyes

Sets its backbone resonating

With joyful neighs and cries.

From its stable it emerges

To bright suns of Barbary,

And on the prairie grazes

The herbs of sorcery.

But on its coat the prison scars

Remain, the shadows of the bars.

Under Cover of Night (A la faveur de la nuit)

Glide into your shadow under cover of night

Follow your footsteps, your shadow at the window.

That shadow at the window is you, no one but you.

Don’t open the window behind whose curtains you stir.

Close your eyes.

I’d like to close them with my lips.

But the window opens and the wind, that strangely moves

The flame and the flag, surrounds my flight with its cloak.

The window opens: I know

It is not you.

If You Knew (Si tu savais)

Far from me like the stars and all the tokens of poetic myth,

Far from me and yet present without knowing,

Far from me and more silent still because I imagine you endlessly,

Far from me my sweet mirage eternal dream you cannot know.

If you knew.

Far from me and perhaps more so still through not knowing and still not Knowing

Far from me because doubtless you do not love me or, what is the same, Because I doubt it.

Far from me because you carefully ignore my passionate desires.

Far from me because you are cruel.

If you knew.

Far from me, o joyful as the water-lily that dances on its stalk in the river,

O sorrowful like seven in the evening in the mushroom beds.

Far from me silent still as though in my presence and joyful still

Like the hour in the shape of a stork that swoops from on high.

Far from me in the moment when alembics sing, when the sea silent

And sounding falls back on the white pillows.

If you knew.

Far from me o my present, present torment far from me in the magnificent

Crackle of oyster-shells crushed beneath the night-owl’s feet at daybreak

As he passes in front of restaurant doors.

If you knew.

Far from me, a wilful material mirage.

Far from me, an island that turns aside at the passage of ships.

Far from me a calm herd of oxen wanders from its track, halts

Obstinately at the edge of a steep precipice, far from me, o cruel.

Far from me, a shooting star falls into the poet’s bottle one night.

He swiftly corks it and then watches the star trapped by the glass,

Watches the constellations born on the walls, far from me,

You are far from me.

If you knew.

Far from me a house is finally finished.

A bricklayer in a white shirt on the scaffolding sings the saddest little song,

Suddenly the house’s future appears in his bucketful of mortar: the kisses

Of lovers the double suicides the nakedness in the rooms of unknown

Beauties their dreams at midnight and the voluptuous secrets surprised

By parquet floors.

Far from me,

If you knew.

If you knew how I love you, and though you don’t love me, how joyful

I am, how strong and proud of stepping out with your image in my head,

Stepping out of the universe.

How joyful to the point of death.

If you knew how the world is subject to me.

And you, rebellious beauty too, how much you are my prisoner.

O you, far from me, to whom I am subject.

If you knew.

The Voice of Robert Desnos (La Voix de Robert Desnos)

So like to the flower and the current of air

And the watercourse with its fleeting shadows

And the smile glimpsed that special night at midnight

So like everything like joy and sadness

It is midnight gone lifting its naked chest above belfries poplars

I summon those lost in the fields

The ancient corpses the young felled oaks

The tatters of fabric rotting in the ground and the linen drying round farms

I summon tornados and hurricanes

Tempests typhoons cyclones

Tidal waves

And earthquakes

I summon the smoke of volcanoes cigarettes

Smoke rings of luxurious cigars

I summon love and the amorous

I summon the living and dead

I summon the gravediggers summon assassins

Summon the executioners pilots stonemasons architects

The assassins

I summon the flesh

I call to her I love

I call to her I love

I call to her I love

Triumphant midnight deploys its satin wings and lands on my bed

Belfries and poplars bend to my desire

The former crumble and collapse

Those lost in the fields find each other in finding me

Ancient corpses revive at my voice

Young felled oaks are covered with foliage

The tatters of fabric rotting in the ground and on the ground

Flap at the sound of my voice like banners of rebellion

The linen drying round farms clothes adorable women I do not adore

Who come to me

Obey my voice and adore me

Tornadoes whirl in my mouth

Hurricanes if it is possible redden my lips

Tempests roar at my feet

Typhoons if it is possible ruffle my hair

I receive the ecstatic kisses of the cyclone

Tidal waves die away at my feet

Earthquakes do not shake me but shatter things at my command

The smoke of volcanoes clothes me in vapour

And cigarette smoke scents me

The smoke rings from cigars wreathe me

The lovers and love so long pursued find refuge within me

The amorous listen to my voice

The living and dead submit and salute me

The one coldly the other intimately

Gravediggers abandon barely dug graves and declare

I alone command their nocturnal toil

The assassins hail me

The executioners invoke the revolution

Invoke my voice

Invoke my name

Pilots steer by my eyes

Stonemasons have vertigo listening to me

The architects depart for the desert

The assassins bless me

The flesh trembles at my call

She I love does not hear me

She I love does not listen

She I love does not reply.

The Great Days of the Poet (Les grands jours du poète)

The disciples of light invented nothing

But semi-transparent shadows.

A woman’s small body is rolled along by the river

Which means the end is near.

The widow in a wedding gown takes the wrong train;

We shall all arrive late at our grave.

A vessel of flesh sticks fast on a little beach.

The pilot invites the passengers to fall silent.

The waves wait impatiently nearer to Thee o my god.

The pilot invites the waves to speak. They speak.

Night seals her bottles with stars

And makes a fortune from exports.

Large stores are built to sell nightingales.

But they fail to satisfy the desire of the Queen of Siberia

For a white nightingale.

An English commodore swears he’ll never again be caught picking sage

By night between the feet of statues of salt.

Apropos this a small Cerebos salt-cellar rises with difficulty

On slender legs. It pours into my dish

What’s left of my life.

Enough to salt the Pacific Ocean.

You’ll place a lifebelt on my grave

Because one never knows.

(They’re Seven League Boots those words ‘I see myself’ 1926)

The Landscape (Le Paysage)

I had dreamt of loving. I go on loving but love

Is no longer that bouquet of lilacs and roses

Charging the forest with their fragrance where

A flame rests at the end of branchless pathways.

I had dreamt of loving. I go on loving but love

Is no longer that storm whose lightning imposes

Its funeral pyres on castles, disturbs, distorts,

Lights in departing the parting of the ways.

It’s the flint sparking under my feet at night

The word no dictionary in the world’s translated

The foam in the sea, that cloud there in the sky.

In ageing all becomes rigid and luminous

Avenues without names ropes without knots.

I feel myself grow inflexible with the landscape.

Reclining (Couchée)

On the right, the sky, on the left, the sea.

In front of your eyes, the grass with its flowers.

A cloud, it’s the track, pursues its vertical way

Parallel to the horizon’s plumb-line,

Parallel to the rider.

The horse gallops towards its imminent fall

While the other climbs interminably.

How simple and strange it all is.

Reclining on my left side

I am detached from the landscape

And only think of things extremely vague,

Extremely vague and pleasant,

Like the weary gaze promenaded

Through this lovely summer afternoon

On the right, the left,

Here, and there,

In the delirium of the useless.

Epitaph (L’épitaphe)

I lived in that age and for a thousand years

Am dead. I lived, not deposed but hunted.

All human nobility being imprisoned

I was free among the masked slaves.

I lived in that age yet I was free.

I gazed at the river the earth the sky

Turning round me, keeping their equilibrium

And the seasons yielded their birds and their honey.

You who live what have you made of those treasures?

Do you miss that age in which I struggled?

Have you worked for the common harvest?

Have you enriched the city where I lived?

You living, have no fear of me, I am dead.

Nothing survives of my spirit or my corpse.

Last Poem (J’ai tant rêvé de toi)

I have dreamed so deeply of you that you lose reality.

Is there still time to reach that living body and kiss

On those lips the birth of the voice so dear to me?

I have dreamed so deeply of you that my arms so used

While embracing your shade to cross themselves on my chest

Would not shape themselves perhaps to the lines of your body.

So deeply that faced with the true apparition

Of what haunts and governs me for days and years

I doubtless would become a shade myself.

O balance-scales of feeling

I have dreamed so deeply of you doubtless

There’s no time left for me to waken.

I sleep upright, my body exposed to all

The apparitions of life and love and you,

The only one who matters to me now,

I could no more touch your brow and lips

Than the brow and lips of the first passer-by.

I have dreamed so deeply of you

So walked, so talked, slept so with your phantom

That all that is left for me now perhaps,

Is to be a phantom among the phantoms

A hundred times more shade than the shade

That moves and will move with joy

On the sun-dial of your life.

Jacques Prévert (1900-1977)

Summer (La Belle Saison)

Lost, starving, frozen

Alone, and penniless

A sixteen-year old girl

Standing motionless

Place de la Concorde

August fifteenth, noon, more or less.

Permission to Leave (Quartier libre)

I put my cap in the cage

And went out with the bird on my head


One no longer salutes

The officer said


One no longer salutes

Replied the bird

Oh good

Pardon me I thought that one saluted

The officer said

You are fully excused we all make mistakes

Said the bird

Song (Chanson)

What day are we

We are all the days

My friend

We are all of life

My love

We love each other, we live

We live, each other we love

And we don’t know what this life of ours is

And we don’t know what this day of ours is

And we don’t know what this love of ours is

To Paint a Picture of a Bird (Poure faire le portrait d’un oiseau)

First you paint a cage

With it’s door open

Then paint

Something nice

Something simple

Something lovely

Something useful

For the bird

Then set the canvas against a tree

In a garden

In a grove

Or in a forest

Hide behind the tree

Without speaking

Or moving…

Sometimes a bird arrives quickly

But equally it may take many years

Before it chooses to

Don’t be discouraged


Wait many years if needed

The speed or tardiness of its arrival

Has nothing to do

With the success of the picture

When the bird arrives

If it arrives

Observe the most profound silence

Wait till the bird enters the cage

And when it has

Gently close the door with your brush


Erase all the bars one by one

Taking care not to touch a feather of the bird

Then paint a picture of the tree

Choosing the loveliest branches

For the bird

Paint the green leaves too and the wind’s coolness

The dust in the sunlight

The sound of insects, in the grass, in the summer heat

Then wait for the bird to choose to sing

If the bird won’t sing

That’s an adverse sign

A sign that the painting is bad

But if it sings it’s a good sign

A sign you can sign your name

Then very gently you’ll detach

A feather from the bird

And write your name in a corner of the painting.

The Dunce (Le Cancre)

He says no with his head

But his heart says yes

He says yes to what he loves

He says no to the teacher

He is on his feet

To be is questioned

Asked all the problems

Suddenly wild laughter shakes him

And he effaces

The numbers and words

The dates and names

The sentences the nets

And despite the master’s threats

Amidst the jeers of the child prodigies

With the coloured chalks no less

On the blackboard of distress

Draws the face of happiness.

Breakfast (Déjeuner du matin)

He put the coffee

In the cup

He put the milk

In the cup of coffee

He put the sugar

In the café au lait

With the coffee spoon

He stirred

And drank the café au lait

And he put down the cup

Without speaking to me

He lit

A cigarette

He blew rings

Of smoke

He put the ash

In the ashtray

Without speaking to me

Without looking at me

He stood up

He put his

Hat on his head

He put his

Raincoat on

Since it was raining

And he left

In the rain

Without a word

Without looking at me

And I, I put my head

In my hands

And wept.

The Speech About Peace (Le discours sur la paix)

Near the end of a very important speech

The great statesman stumbling

Over a beautiful hollow phrase

Falls silent

And bewildered, with gaping mouth,


Shows his teeth

And the dental decay of his peaceful discourse

Lays bare the nerve of war

The delicate question of money

The Message (Le Message)

The door someone opened

The door someone shut

The chair someone sat in

The cat someone stroked

The fruit someone bit on

The text someone read

The chair someone toppled

The door someone opened

The road someone ran down

The wood someone crossed

The pool someone leapt in

The ward someone died in

Picasso’s Stroll (La promenade de Picasso)

On a truly round plate of real porcelain

Sits an apple

Facing it squarely

A Realist painter

Tries in vain to paint

The apple just as it is


It won’t allow him

The apple

Has a mind of its own

And several tricks in its pomiferous bag

The apple

And there it turns

On a real plate

Slyly round itself

Blandly installed

And like a Duke de Guise disguised as a jet of gas

Because they want to paint his portrait despite him

The apple disguises itself as a lovely fruit

And it’s only then

That the Realist painter

Begins to realise

That the apple’s appearances are all against him


Like a wretched beggar

Like the indigent pauper who suddenly finds himself at the mercy

Of some philanthropic and charitable foundation

Formidable in its philanthropy charity and formidableness

The unfortunate painter of reality

Suddenly finds himself the pitiful prey

Of an endless crowd of associations

And the apple rotating evokes the apple tree

Terrestrial Paradise and Eve then Adam

The watering can the espalier and Parmentier and the stairway

Canada and Hesperides Normandy Pippins and Ladies

The snake in the Tennis Court grass the Oath of the Cider Glass

And original sin

And art’s origin

And the Swiss with their William Tell

And even Isaac Newton

Winning full recognition at the Universal Gravity Exhibition

Till the bewildered painter loses sight of his model

And falls asleep

It’s then that Picasso

Passing by, there as everywhere,

Every day, as if at home,

Sees the apple the plate and the sleeping painter

Imagine painting an apple

Picasso says

And Picasso eats the apple

And the apple says Thanks a Million

And Picasso shatters the plate

And goes off smiling

And the painter torn from his sleep

Like a tooth

Finds himself all alone, in front of his unfinished canvas,

With, in the very midst of the broken crockery,

The terrifying pips of reality.

Francis Ponge (1899-1988)

Rhetoric (Rhétorique)

I imagine it’s about rescuing a few young men from suicide

And a few others from being policemen or firemen.

I think of those who commit suicide from disgust, because

They find ‘the others’ own too large a share of them.

One could say to them: at least grant the word to the minority

Within you. Be poets. They’ll reply: but it’s then, always then

I sense the others within me, when I seek to express myself and can’t.

Words are all pre-made and express themselves: they never

Express me. Then, once more, I am stifled.

That’s when revealing the art of resisting words is useful, the art

Of only saying what one wishes to say, the art of doing them violence

Forcing them to submit. In short to create a rhetoric, or rather teach

Each the art of creating their own rhetoric, is a visible act of salvation.

It saves those few, those rare individuals who ought to be saved: those

Who show awareness and concern and disgust for the others inside them.

Those who can advance the human spirit

And, literally speaking, change the face of things.

Ripe Blackberries (Les Mûres)

On the typographic bushes constituted by the poem beside a road

That neither leads beyond things nor to the spirit,

Certain fruits are formed of an agglomeration of spheres

Each one filled with a drop of ink.

Black, red and brown, together on the bunch, they seem to offer

The spectacle of a family swollen with pride at various ages

Rather than a keen temptation to go collecting.

Given the disproportion of pips to fruit birds value them little

So little remains in the end for them

When the traverse is made from beak to anus.

Yet the poet in the course of his professional excursion

Extracts from them the seeds of meaning: ‘So then,’ says he,

‘The patient efforts of a quite fragile flower in extensive numbers

Succeed while protected by a rebarbative tangle of briars.

Lacking many other qualities – ripe blackberries they are, perfectly ripe –

Just as this poem is complete.’

The Orange (L’Orange)

In the orange as in the sponge there’s an aspiration to regain face

After enduring the ordeal of expression.

Yet the sponge always succeeds, and never the orange:

Since its cells are burst, its tissues are torn apart.

Whereas the peel alone sluggishly regains its shape

Thanks to its elasticity, an amber liquid has spread,

Accompanied by coolness, sweet fragrance, true – but often

By bitter awareness too of a premature explosion of pips.

Must one take sides between these two ways of failing

To withstand oppression? – The sponge is only muscle

And filled with wind, with clean or dirty water as may be:

Its gymnastics are ignoble. The orange has better taste,

But is too passive – and that odorous sacrifice…

It truly concedes too much to the oppressor.

But not enough has been said about the orange in recalling

Its particular way of perfuming the air and delighting its torturer.

The glorious colour of the resulting liquid must be stressed,

That, more than lemon juice, compels the larynx to open as wide

For the articulation of the name as for the ingestion of the liquid,

With no apprehensive pout at the front of the mouth

The papillae of which it fails to stir.

And what’s more we lack the words to show our merited admiration

For the envelope of this tender, fragile, reddened oval ball in that

Moist dense blotting-pad whose epidermis extremely thin though

Highly pigmented, acerbically sapid, is just wrinkled enough

To capture the light nobly shed on the perfect form of fruit.

Yet at the end of all too short a study, carried out as roundly as we can –

We must come to the pip. This seed, in the shape of a tiny lemon,

Presents, externally, the colour of the lemon-tree’s pale wood,

Internally, the green of peas or of tender shoots. Within are united,

After the sensational explosion of this Chinese lantern of colours,

Flavours and scents that constitute the ball of fruit itself,

The relative hardness and greenness (by no means wholly insipid)

Of the wood, the branch, the leaf: small, admittedly,

Though certainly the raison d’être of the fruit.

Vegetation (Végétation)

The rain does not describe the only hyphens connecting the ground

And sky: another kind exists, less intermittent and more tightly woven,

Whose fabric is not torn away, by the wind, however hard it’s shaken.

If sometimes in a certain season the wind succeeds in dislodging

A fragment or two, which it then seeks to grind to dust in its whirling,

We perceive that in the final reckoning it has dissipated nothing at all.

Looking at it more closely, we find ourselves at one of the thousand doors

Of a vast laboratory, bristling with multi-form items of hydraulic apparatus,

All much more intricate than the simple columns of rain, and endowed

With original perfection: at once retorts, filters, siphons, alembics.

It’s precisely these pieces of apparatus the rain first encounters,

Before it meets the ground. They receive it in a mass of little bowls.

Disposed en masse at every level of a greater or lesser depth,

And emptying one to another down to those at the lowest stage,

By which at last the earth is directly moistened.

So they slow the inundation in their fashion, and retain its liquid

And the benefit to the ground for a long time after the meteorological

Event has vanished. They alone have the power to make the forms of rain

Shine in the sunlight, to display in other words from the perspective of joy

The premises as religiously acknowledged as they were precipitately

Formulated by sorrow. Curious occupation, enigmatic characters.

They grow in stature in proportion to the rainfall; but with more

Regularity, more discretion; and, by a kind of acquired force,

Even when it no longer falls. Finally water can still be found

In certain vessels that they form and wear with a blushing

Affectation, which we call their fruits.

Such, it seems, is the physical function of this kind of three-dimensional

Tapestry that we have given the name of Vegetation because of the other

Characteristics it presents and in particular because of the kinds of life

That animate it…yet I’d wish above all to insist on the following point:

That though the ability to realise their own synthesis and seed themselves

Without being asked (for example between the individual paving stones

Of the Sorbonne), connects the vegetative apparatus to the animals, that is

To say, to all sorts of wanderers, yet in many places they form a permanent

Fabric, and this fabric belongs as one of its foundations, to the world.

André Frenaud (1907-1993)

I Have Never Forgotten You (Je ne t’ai jamais oubliée)

Nameless now, and faceless,

No trace of your eyes left or your pallor.

Released from the assault of desire

In your lost image,

Voided by the false vows of time,

By the counterfeit coins of love redeemed,

By all that lost profit,

Freed from you now

Free like the dead,

Living my lonely sweated life,

Toying with stones and with leaves.

When I slide between gentle unloved breasts

I rest once more on your absence,

On the living corpse you make

Through your power ordained to undo me

To the very end of my silence.

Jean Follain (1903-1971)

Dog and Schoolboys (Chien aux écoliers)

The schoolboys crack the ice for fun

Along the path

Beside the railway tracks

They are warmly clothed

In old dark wool

With belts of polished leather

The dog that follows them

No longer has a bowl to eat from

He’s old

Since he’s their age.

Life (Vie)

A child is born

Into a vast country

Half a century later

He’s only a dead soldier

And this was the man

We saw appear

And place on the ground

A whole heavy sack of apples

From which two or three rolled

Sound amongst that of a world

Where the bird sang

On the sill’s stone.

Eve (Ève)

A book claims that the name Eve

Comes from the Hebrew root haya

Which means to live

While creatures

Certain of their existence

Pass on to girls the knowledge

Of human passion

Though the youngest

Holds a golden apple

On a worn threshold

Doing nothing else

Before she sleeps.

René Char (1907-1988)

Evadne (Evadné)

We had sole tenancy of our life and summer

Landscape consumed the colour of your fragrant dress

Eagerness and restraint were reconciled

The Chateau de Maubec sank into the clay

Soon its crescendo on the lyre would fade

The violence of plants made us vacillate

A dark rook sculling that had left the throng

On the muted flint of quartered noon

Accompanied the tender moves of our accord

Everywhere the scythes were forced to rest

Our rarity had begun its reign

(The insomniac wind wrinkling our eyelids

Turning the agreed page every night

Wishes each part of you I hold extended

Towards a land of famished age, giant tear-ducts)

It was the beginning of delightful years

The earth loved us a little I remember.

Note. Maubec is a village in Provence, in the Vaucluse near Cantaloupe. The second and most notable Chateau de Maubec, the thirteenth century Chateau des Roches, fell into disrepair and was ultimately razed during the French Revolution.

The Lords of Mausanne (Les Seigneurs de Mausanne)

One after another, they wished to predict for us a fortunate future,

With an eclipse like theirs and the anguish appropriate to us!

We disdained such equality,

Answered no to their assiduous words.

We followed the stony road that our hearts traced

Up to the plateaux of air and the unique silence.

We made our exacting love bleed,

Our happiness contend with every pebble.

They say now that beyond their vision,

Hail frightens them more than the snows of the dead!

Note: Mausanne les Alpilles is sited in the valley of Les Baux, in Provence, the territory in the Middle Age of the powerful Seigneurs of Southern France, who ruled over seventy-nine towns and cities. The famous ancient village and ruined fortress of Les Baux de Provence on its limestone hilltop overlooking the valley has been claimed as the inspiration for Dante’s description of the Mount of Purgatory.

Every Life (Toute vie)

Every life that must dawn

Finishes off one of the wounded.

Here is the weapon,


You, me, interchangeably

This book

And the enigma

You in turn will become

In the bitter caprice of the sand.

To the Brother-Tree of Numbered Days

(Vers l’arbre-frère aux jours comptés)

Brief harp of the larch-trees,

On the spur of moss and sprouting stone

– Facade of the forest on which cloud breaks –

Counterpoint of the void in which I believe.

Faction of the Dumb (Faction du muet)

Stones huddled on the rampart and men lived on moss from the stones.

Midnight carried a rifle and women no longer gave birth.

Dishonour’s aspect was that of a glass of water.

I was linked to the courage of other beings, I lived violently,

Growing no older, my mystery among theirs,

I shuddered with the existence of all the others

Like an incontinent boat over thinly-divided depths.

The Rampart of Twigs (Le Rempart de brindilles)

The aim of poetry being to exalt us by impersonalising us, we achieve through the grace of a poem the fullness of what was only suggested, or parodied in the ravings of the individual.

Poems are those fragments of imperishable being we hurl into the vile jaws of death, tossing them so high that they rebound and fall back into the world of creative unity.

Lacking a dream, we have lost our way, but there is always a candle flickering in our hand. So the dark we enter is our sleep to come, growing less and less.

When we are fit to ascend the ladder of nature towards some initiatory peak, we leave the lower rungs behind us, yet when we descend we bring back with us the topmost rungs. And we bury the summit in our rarest most hidden depths, beneath the lowest rung, but among greater riches and treasures than our venture retrieved from the furthest tip of the quivering ladder.

Don’t search out the boundaries of the ocean. You contain them. They are shown you with your vanished life in the one instant. Feeling, as you know, is the child of matter, its marvellously subtle eye.

Young men – go choose the dew of women, their mad cruelty to which your love and violence can respond, rather than the dead ink of the ‘murderers with a pen’. Be quick vibrant fish, stick to the rapids.

We live tied to the base of a clock that watches helplessly as the sun ends and begins its course. But the clock bends time and the earth towards us; that is our victory.

Though an endless storm desiccates my shores, far out my waves are tall, complex, and vast. I anticipate nothing finite; I am resigned to scudding between two unequal dimensions. Yet even so, my buoys are of lead not cork, my trail is of salt not smoke.

To escape the shameful constraining choice between obedience and madness, to evade again and again the stroke of the tyrant’s axe against which we have no defence though we fight on forever: that is the justification of our role, our destination and our tardiness. We must vault the barrier of the worst, run the dangerous race, search on beyond it, cut the evil one to pieces, and finally disappear without too much fuss. A vote of thanks given or received, faintly, that is all.

The Woods by the Epte (Le Bois de l’Epte)

That day, I was only two legs walking.

Eyes blank, at the empty centre of my face,

I set out to follow the stream through the vale.

Flowing slowly, that dull hermit failed to intrude

On the formlessness through which I journeyed.

From the angle of a ruined wall scorched by fire

Two wild briars full of gentle inflexible will

Plunged suddenly into the grey water.

They seemed like a communion of vanished beings

At the moment of proclaiming themselves again.

The hoarse blush of a rose striking the water

Reawakened the first face of the sky

With an ecstatic questioning,

Woke the earth in the midst of loving words,

Thrust me into the future like a famished and feverish tool.

Further on the Epte woods followed a further bend.

But I did not have to traverse them, the dear seed-store of increase!

I breathed, on the heel of a half-turn, the musk of meadows

Into which some creature merges.

I heard the gliding of a timid snake;

I felt – don’t think harshly of me – I was fulfilling all your wishes.

Note: The Epte joins the Seine not far from Giverny. In 911 the Treaty of Saint-Clair-sur-Epte established the river as the historical boundary of Normandy and Île-de-France.

Play and Sleep (Joue et Dors)

Play and sleep, dear thirst: our oppressors here are not severe.

Willingly they joke or take our arm.

To get through the dangerous season.

Doubtless the poison’s dormant in them.

To the point of freeing their barbaric humour.

Yet how they pursued us here, my thirst,

Forced us to live in abandonment of our love

Reduced to our mortal welfare!

Herbs, is this for you? Or all plants struggling under a wall of drouth

Is it for you? Or clouds in the great expanse, taking leave of the column?

In the immensity, how to tell?

What can we do to give those tyrants the slip, o my friend?

Play and sleep, while I estimate our chances.

But if you come to my aid, I’d have to take you with me,

And I don’t wish to endanger you.

So, let’s rest again…And who could call us cowards?

Antonin Artaud (Antonin Artaud)

I lack the voice to sing your praise, great brother.

If I bent over your body the light would scatter

Your laughter would thrust me back.

The spirit between us, during what we improperly call

A fine outburst,

Plunges about several times,

Kills, digs, and burns

Then is reborn later in mushroom softness.

You don’t need a wall of words to exalt your truth,

Nor a conch-shell to anoint your profundity,

Nor that feverish hand your wrist flails round you

And leads you lightly on to fell a forest

With our entrails as the axe.

Enough. Re-enter the volcano.

And us,

Let us weep, let us assume your exaltation or demand:

‘Who is Artaud?’ of this stick of dynamite

From which not a sliver has been lost,

For us, nothing has changed,

Nothing, except this chimera wholly hellishly alive

That takes leave of our anguish.

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2011 All Rights Reserved

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