A Tribute by
[With additional comments by Anthony Rudolf.]
IN JULY OF 2016, the world community of letters mourned the death of Yves Bonnefoy, the greatest French poet of our time. But some of us also lost the man who was our spiritual father. After knowing him well for almost half a century, I am acutely aware that he was the last of my parents—and in many ways, the one who changed my life the most.
Our friendship began with our weekly conversations in Paris in the late sixties, and ranged through our days in Rome, encounters in Cambridge and New York, and an unforgettable sojourn in Ireland. We frequently corresponded, especially when I was translating one of his poems, tales, essays, or books. And truly, the best tribute we translators can pay to such a friend is an echo of his words: an echo that by its very nature must be faint, humble, and distorted.
In his last months, Yves Bonnefoy asked me to translate what he foresaw would be his final collection of poems, Ensemble encore (Together Still), for publication by Seagull Books. The volume would include revisions of pieces that dated back several years, as well as entirely new ones. We had planned to meet in Paris at the end of May to discuss the project, but his rapidly declining health prevented that reunion, and I was told by his family that there would be no hope of a second chance. I had no choice but to continue with a long-planned trip to Southeast Asia, writing him messages about my travels from different stops along the way—Bangkok, Phi Phi, Phnom Penh, or Siem Riep. Every now and then, through his relatives, he would forward me a brief reply; at the end of June, his words took the form of laconic, moving farewells. By coincidence, he expired on the same day I returned to Europe, the first of July. It was a small consolation for me that from Cambodia, I had sent him an English version of the opening poem, his symbolic “will and testament.”
This long meditation in three parts, “Together Still,” gives its name to the collection as a whole. It harks back to The Testament, by the late-medieval poet, François Villon, deliberately retracing the entire arc of French verse. As Bonnefoy “bequeaths” intangibles to his heirs, he returns down the road of time to reach us in the now. Bonnefoy’s valedictory book is a lucid meditation on anamnesis as we live it in the present. And with advancing age, temporality begins to move backwards: more and more, the dwindling future is overbalanced by the vast, oneiric hinterland of bygone years. Accordingly, the chronology of Together Still proceeds in reverse, starting with the author’s immediate legacy to his family and friends, and ending with some of his earliest memories: the seven poems in prose that conclude Perambulans in Noctem—a Latin phrase that roughly translates as “wandering into the night.” They are marked by ample references to the rural France of a vanished age. Readers will also find an array of vivid descriptions of that era in the author’s final memoir, L’Écharpe rouge (The Red Scarf) which will soon be published by Seagull Books in the English translation by Stephen Romer.
For this tribute to Bonnefoy in The Fortnightly Review, I have gathered together several translations from the forthcoming English-language edition of Together Still, with the kind permission of Seagull’s publisher, Naveen Kishore. Mathilde Bonnefoy, the author’s daughter, skilfully helped me as I deliberated over the translations. The first piece, “The Milky Way,” is from a sequence of abrupt, unpredictable fantasias called “The Bare Foot.” The second poem, from the same section, belongs to a decades-long series of works by Bonnefoy that transform the myth of Adam and Eve into multiple variants—sometimes somber, but often whimsical: “Voices in the Treetops” combines both tonalities. Finally, “The Room, the Garden” is the longest of a group of poems in verse that allude to paintings by the French artist Jacques Truphémus, the poet’s long-lived contemporary.
To these selections I have added two essays. In “Paths to Speech,” I recall some of my exchanges with Bonnefoy while I was translating his poetry collection, The Curved Planks (2006; the original, Les Planches courbes, was published in France in 2001). In “Sonnets of Music and Memory,” I compare Shakespeare and Bonnefoy as preeminent masters of the best-loved verse-form in Western poetry.
I am delighted, as well as deeply moved, that Bonnefoy’s longtime friend, Anthony Rudolf—poet, translator, editor, and publisher—has contributed a translation of “Dévotions” and an account of two sadly memorable visits to Paris. His Carcanet edition of Bonnefoy’s Poems, a collaboration with John Naughton and Stephen Romer, comprises English versions by many translators; it will be published in September 2017.
Whether we are Yves Bonnefoy’s family, friends, translators, publishers, or readers, we all join in looking back on his immense achievement with gratitude and awe. Throughout his lengthy and productive life, he selflessly refined the letter of his writings, in order to bequeath to us a lasting spiritual gold.
Hoyt Rogers is the author of a book of verse, Witnesses, and a volume of criticism, The Poetics of Inconstancy. His poems, stories, and essays have appeared in many periodicals. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review and has published dozens of translations, including the Selected Poems of Borges and three books by Yves Bonnefoy: The Curved Planks, Second Simplicity, and The Digamma. With Paul Auster, he published Openwork, an André du Bouchet reader, at the Yale University Press in 2014. His translations of Bonnefoy’s Rome 1630 and Together Still, the author’s final poetry collection, are forthcoming from Seagull Books. He lives in the Dominican Republic and Italy.
→ Note: A partial index of work by and about Yves Bonnefoy appearing in The Fortnightly Review is here.