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The Bonnefoy dossier: Three new translations by Beverley Bie Brahic.

By YVES BONNEFOY

Translations by Beverley Bie Brahic.

1.

EGYPT.

I.

THERE WERE A lot of us on that ship, adrift for days, all its engines and lights off, but propelled, one felt, by a hidden force that kept those of us aboard from feeling alarmed, if not exactly carefree. “One,” “we,” the others, me, were a group of friends, with many events in our common past, then during the first period of voyage or the dream, a thousand ups and downs whose proliferation I still feel, that sense of time truly lived. But this memory was being effaced, and vanished completely with the final episode, right from its start, as if it were in its nature to unravel, without violence but for ever, something that the joys, preoccupations and lessons of a lifetime had brought to maturity.

A few certainties, all the same. It was summer, we were sailing the eastern Mediterranean, and although our voyage had no specific plan it started in Egypt, bent westward, then pushed north towards shores I immediately felt would be mountainous.

One evening at nightfall we arrived at a port whose houses, as it happened, staggered up the sides of a fairly high mountain, and even at times seemed lost in its folds. In this place clearly a major festival was drawing to a close; the streets were dotted with fires mingling under the trees; thrown wide open, the houses glittered, and because of this it was easy to see that the higher-perched neighbourhoods were separated by stretches of woods or rock, bringing the hinterland down into the heart of the city almost. Here or there one made out among the roofs other dark spots, but these flickered phosphorescently: probably the site of churches. Another church, a sort of metropolis, rising from a spur of land near the centre, its whole façade and the base of its great domes alight with a beautiful yellow light, looked down on the harbour in its entirety, the bay—of all the places and monuments in this strange land the church was what one picked out from a distance.  But it looked—was it just an illusion?—deserted, silent.

I was at the ship’s prow among the passengers gathered there, dim already, whispering—and I wondered:  Is this Salonica? Is it Smyrna?” not excluding that it might be an entirely different city, one I might never have heard of. My only conviction, whence a preference, but slight, for Salonica, was that this port slowly looming up faced south and backed onto a vast, almost empty, region that disappeared from sight into Asia’s depths. But the ship was coming alongside the quay, with the same slowness and gentleness it had had these past few days, and already we were disembarking among the men and women who lingered on the shore even if here and there the sea breeze had started to lift and scatter—sparks of brightness under others dying down—the wilted flowers and a debris of garlands.

And I question, gaily at first, some of the first passersby I meet: “What city is this?”

It’s strange, they don’t understand. Heads turn towards me, they smile, they’ve caught the sense of my words, I can see, the lack of understanding hasn’t to do with language, and yet, more deeply, nothing registers. Suddenly anxious, I attempt to reformulate my question. For example: “What do you call this place you live in?” Or: “If you were outside the town, and coming back (I vaguely perceive a track along the sea, under the cliffs, with a donkey, and the city in the distance against the sun, now setting), you would tell me: I’m going to…?” But none of these stratagems evokes the least response. It seems that even the notion of name, or of place, is utterly foreign to these people, at least as far as their city is concerned. Moreover they are hardly listening to me, we move apart, politely, and in the meantime my friends have dispersed in the crowd.

II.

I WAKE, AND all day I can’t stop thinking about the brightly-lit city, the quay, the total incomprehension, with immense sadness and a feeling of solitude.

Then, that evening, the telephone rang, and I learned what had happened during the previous night. My mother, who lived alone in the city where I was born, had had a stroke as she was going to bed; she’d spent the entire night, and the following morning on the floor, almost unconscious—dreaming probably. I also learned that she’d greeted her rescuers with the words of a diminished mind, the uncertain and whimsical perception of a child on the threshold of language, but with all her usual courtesy. She apologised for bothering so many people. She wanted, I believe, to offer them refreshments. I thought then, and not without sadness again, that always hidden under this courtesy, and even from herself, was the experience of a kind of distance: the people around her in this part of the country she’d come to when she was young and where she’d had to spend her life, remained foreign—cold, she used to say, distrustful, without the outgoingness and back-and-forth she associated on the other hand, as its great virtue, with her place of birth, her father’s region.

Morning again, and I went to the station, early. A fine, crisp day, pale sunlight running over the surfaces of shadows that seemed to be water, shimmering. I saw a sort of little girl dressed in jeans wandering along the quay, humming, her shadow falling on the pavement in two or three sharply curved lines that darted like birds; they seemed to me sentences, maybe rich with meaning. Sometimes, holding her right foot out gracefully in front of her in this game of black and whiteness, she tested the ground as if it were thin ice, before putting her weight on it suddenly, laughing and tossing her head. Then she stopped, gazed off at I don’t know what—nothing probably. And I understood—me too all of a sudden—that her name was “Egypt. At this my spirits lifted, for I was no longer in the life where one feels sadness, but back in the dream; and also because I understood perfectly that if the dream were starting up again now but in the places and situations of my waking life, in this country here, where people and cities have names, it was closely related to this life, and it must therefore be a good dream. I boarded the train, once more in my life I looked at the quay; it was beginning to flow gently in the summer light, as if I were on a shore.

III.

ONCE MORE IN my life, and how many times! When I was a child, roughly the age of the little girl, this was in the other part of the country, in the mountains, and the sun coming up behind on the left, the train that shot out from between the rocks on the right, rushed towards us with a smooth brow, then  was gone, splashing us with its shadow, scarcely broken between cars by the commas, the dots—or the words again?—of light. The whole village would go to the station early in the morning “to watch the train go by”; would go back at the end of the afternoon to greet its return; my mother, my grandmother, my aunt often traipsing along, in the idleness of summer, and sometimes we were the ones who climbed down off the still shuddering steps, with our holiday jumble of bags. Ah, wrinkled by the long night spent in packed compartments and in two or three station buffets, overflowing with unfinished dreams, wings flapping like dazzled owls, how well I saw that they were all there together, both the living and the dead! In the foreground, the held out hands, the mustaches, the chignons with steel knitting needles stuck in them, sun glinting on a holy dove broach pinned to a bodice, but off in the distance, smiling, anxious as a photograph in its oval frame, those aged faces of which they’d say later: “No, you couldn’t have known him. No, he was no longer around …”.  And always the  “Promé té ché,” also known as the madwoman, on the quay going from group to group in her great, bouffant, but tattered and dusty black dress, and coiffed one might have said with a vast basket of fruit and flowers, long since fresh.  She would go up to everyone, she would even lean over me, laughing, wagging her finger as if in warning, jokingly, or recalling an old promise. “Oh, I promise you…”, she’d say, and you told yourself, or I ended up believing, that a fiancé had once left her here in this station and hadn’t come back. Everyone was talking very loudly, of course, exclaiming, laughing, no one paid her the least attention, any more than to the shadow that passed over her face when the last train door slammed shut. After which, with the last of the voyagers, humming a little apart, she returned to the village and you’d see her there at night still, crouched in her dark doorway, busy stirring the embers under some cast-iron pots. I loved her, it seemed to me she was the earth itself, the earth that I sensed, in the dying of villages, the last processions for good weather or rain, the last patois songs of the goose-girls in the meadows, was growing old aphasic. And I dreamed that one day I would—but how?—right the wrong done by the fiancé who had fled in the morning of the world.

From Rue Traversière (Paris: Mercure de France, 1977; translation in progress).

 2.

AT THE GARDEN GATES

Let us dream at the garden gate. Over
The exhausted man and woman
The angel that is death hovers. Neither theology
Nor art to hear them. But look—

They fall asleep, his legs touch hers,
A fire heats their bodies, and what’s this
Crawling under cover of the high grass:
A serpent? No, the tree’s fruit has split,

The seed has sprouted, and a sort of crab
Has crept forth. Ball of cries
Roughed out of ordinary death.

Painter, make this dream your strategy,
A childhood, and this fire, pittura chiara
In the colour of the angel’s robe.

 —from The Present Hour (US) (Seagull Books, forthcoming November 2013), by Yves Bonnefoy. Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.

3.

WATER AND BREAD.

This scrap of a canvas—torn?  Sky
Over a heath where shepherds roam
With nothing, at night, but their cries
To trouble with their beasts the vast dream.

I sense that the painter wanted
The angel who repairs wrongs
To look, even in a painting,
For Hagar and the child who flees with her.

And here they are, and the angel at hand,
But this is where the image is effaced.
The invisible takes back from the colours

The miraculous bread, jug of cool water.
What’s left, on the child, is just a glimmer
Letting us dream that in him day breaks.

 —from The Present Hour (US) (Seagull Books, forthcoming November 2013), by Yves Bonnefoy. Translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.


Dossier: Yves Bonnefoy. Commentary and translations by Anthony Rudolf, Alan Wall, Hoyt Rogers, Beverley Bie Brahic. Index.

Beverley Bie Brahic’s poetry collection, White Sheets, was a finalist for the 2012 Forward Prize. She has published translations of Apollinaire, Francis Ponge (Unfinished Ode to Mud, shortlisted for the Popescu Prize) and books by Hélène Cixous, Jacques Derrida and Julia Kristeva. The Present Hour by Yves Bonnefoy will be published by Seagull Books in November 2013.

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