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New translations from ‘The Dice Cup’.

By MAX JACOB.

Translated from the French by Ian Seed.

Introductory Note.

MAX JACOB WAS born in Quimper in Brittany in 1876. After a religious vision in 1909, he eventually converted from being an ‘atheist Jew’ (Jacob’s own term) to Catholicism in 1916. This did not prevent him from being arrested and transported in February 1944 to Drancy, a transit camp for Jewish deportees, where he died three weeks later.

Max Jacob’s father was a tailor and the owner of an antique shop. Jacob’s large family, including uncles, aunts and cousins, often make an appearance in his poems. In 1894 Jacob left Quimper to study law in Paris, but abandoned his studies two years later to become an art critic. In 1899 he decided to become a painter, supporting himself through a series of menial clerical jobs. When he met Picasso in 1901, the two became friends immediately. Picasso expressed his admiration for some poems Jacob showed him. From this time on, Jacob regarded poetry as his true vocation.

He became a central figure in the Cubist movement of poets and painters, and a mentor to Pierre Reverdy. His book of prose poems, Le Cornet à dés (The Dice Cup), was published in 1917. It remains to this day an innovative and important work, yet much of Le Cornet à dés remains unavailable in English, although some fine selections have been translated – see, for example, The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems, edited and with an introduction by Michael Brownstein (Sun, 1979), with translations by John Ashbery, David Ball, Michael Brownstein, Ron Padgett, Zack Rogow and Bill Zavatsky; The Selected Poems of Max Jacob, edited and translated by William Kulik (Oberlin College Press, 1999); and The Dice Cup: a translation of the first part by Christopher Pilling and David Kennedy (Atlas, 2000). The most beautiful versions are perhaps those by John Ashbery, included in his Collected French Translations: Poetry (Carcanet, 2014). I am currently in the process of translating the whole of The Dice Cup. Best of all, of course, is to go to the original Le Cornet à dés, available from Èditions Gallimard. — Ian Seed.

Small Poem

I REMEMBER MY playroom. The muslin curtains on the window patterned with white trimmings. I tried to find the alphabet in them, and when I could make out the letters I would transform them into imagined drawings. H., a man sitting; B., the arch of a bridge over a river. In the room were several chests with open flowers lightly sculpted into their wood. But what I liked best were two balls on columns I could see behind the curtains and which I thought of as the heads of puppets I wasn’t allowed to play with.

Petit poème

Je me souviens de ma chambre d’enfant. La mousseline des rideaux sur la vitre était griffonnée de passementeries blanches, je m’efforçais d’y retrouver l’alphabet et quand je tenais les lettres, je les transformais en dessins que j’imaginais. H, un homme assis ; B, l’arche d’un pont sur un fleuve. Il y avait dans la chambre plusieurs coffres et des fleurs ouvertes sculptées légèrement sur le bois. Mais ce que je préférais, c’était deux boules de pilasters qu’on apercevait derrière les rideaux et que je considérais comme des têtes de pantins avec lesquels il était défendu de jouer.

Titleless

THE GLASS BOX was painted in pink and in a way that one would think it was made of mahogany. The jewellery inside had been stolen, then put back, but by whom? ‘What do you think?’ my mother said. I looked at the jewels: several clasps, some decorated with stone, others with small watercolours. ‘I think it’s the thief insulting us! He’s giving us back our jewels because they’re worth nothing. I would have done exactly the same.’ ‘That thief is an honest man,’ said my mother, ‘while you…’

Sans Titre

Le coffret de verre était peint en rose et de telle sorte qu’on eût cru qu’il était d’acajou. Les bijoux qu’il contenait avaient été volés, puis rendus, mais par qui ? ‘Qu’en penses-tu ?’ me dit ma mère. Je regardai les bijoux : plusieurs agrafes ornées les unes de pierre, les autres de petites aquarelles: ‘Je pense que voilà une injure du voleur! Il nous rend nos bijoux parce qu’ils ne valent rien. J’en aurais fait tout autant. – Ce voleur est un honnête homme, dit ma mère, tandis que toi…’

An Israelite Literary Man

THE BILL FROM the tailor is the same as the one from the doctor: the shop I don’t know, but the staircase and the man I do. On the staircase I meet my cousins. What! Still so young! One has to go back inside in spite of the hubbub. Everyone is at the table and the fat mother makes a sign to Pierre to embrace me: ‘Oh, with pleasure, my child!’ Cousin Bertha is very ugly, but she was once beautiful: work’s the cause of that. Don’t believe it: age is the cause! She’s never done anything except be beautiful. Everyone’s embarrassed into silence. I’m the first to break it: ‘What’s the difference between a tailor and a doctor?’ They laugh. In my family the tailors are doctors and vice versa. We talk about Macedonia. The Macedonian road where I held my little sister’s hand if they chased Jews because Jews slaughtered too many fat calves. Here, there’s no difference between a tailor and a doctor: a fat calf is slaughtered every day. And me, I’m just a poor, well-meaning person they invite for company out of habit, even on the Macedonian road.

Un litterateur israèlite

La note du tailleur est la même que celle du médecin; la boutique, je ne sais, mais l’escalier et l’homme. Dans l’escalier, je rencontre mes cousins: Quoi! encore si jeunes! il faut entrer malgré la brouille; tout le monde est à table et la grosse maman fait signe à Pierre de m’embrasser: ‘Oh! avec plaisir, mon enfant!’ La cousine Berthe est bien laide, elle était pourtant belle autrefois: c’est le travail! n’en croyez rien: c’est l’âge! elle n’a jamais rien fait que d’être belle. Leur visage à tous est celui du silence gêné. Je le romps le premier: ‘Quelle différence entre un tailleur et un médecin?’ On rit. Dans ma famille les tailleurs sont médecins et réciproquement. On parle Macédoine! la route de Macédoine avec ma petite soeur à la main si on chassait les Juifs parce qu’il y a trop de veaux gras tués chez eux. Il n’y a plus de difference ici entre un tailleur et un médecin: un veau gras est tué tous les jours. Et mois, je ne suis qu’une personne pauvre et bonne qu’on fréquentera par habitude, même sur la route de Macédoine.

Travels

I WILL NEVER get away: I rush to say goodbye to my aunt and find my family beneath the lamp; they hold me back with a thousand pieces of advice. My suitcase is packed, but my suit is still at the cleaner’s. When I arrive at the cleaner’s, I can hardly recognise it: it isn’t mine. Someone has changed it! No, that is my suit, but horribly baggy, mutilated, pulled, stitched up again, hemmed in black. Outside on the street, two delicious Breton girls are laughing near a laundry cart: I really don’t have time to follow them. Damn! But they’re going the same way as me tonight. I see that the names of the streets have changed; now in Lorient there’s one called ‘Lyrical Energy’ street. What amazing town council could give such a name to the streets at night? At the hotel it occurs to me that I should check the bill from the cleaner’s: 325 francs. They will send the suit onto me. Am I going mad? The café is full of curious people. I meet a painter from Paris, difficult to shake off. He adores me here, even though we annoy each other elsewhere: I am so late that I forgo embracing him, and no cab! While they’re looking for one for me, some childhood friends beg me to stop off at Le Mans! No, not Le Mans! At Nogent! Not at Nogent because we’re very much on the wrong side of… ah, my God! I’ve lost the thread of everything… I end up cadging a ride from a transporter of pianos. And the cleaner’s? Here I am in a strange suit, all told quite distinguished: this grey frockcoat bursting open because of the excess of underwear I have on me to lighten my suitcase! This top hat, what a way to travel. Ah! I’ve forgotten to say goodbye to… And the cleaner’s? I’ve let the time of the train’s departure slip by, the only train: everything will have to start again tomorrow! I shan’t sleep all night!

Voyages

Jamais je n’en sortirai: je cours dire au revoir à ma tante, je trouve la famille sous la lampe; on me retient pour mille recommandations, ma valise et faite, mais mon complet est encore chez le teinturier, j’arrive chez le teinturier: j’ai de la peine à reconnaître mon costume: ce n’est pas mon costume, on l’a change! non, c’est lui, mais affreusement gonflé, mutilé, tiré, recousu, bordé de noir. Dehors, dans la rue, deux délicieuses Bretonnes rient près d’une charrette de linge: que n’ai je le temps de les suivre; bah! elles prennent dans la nuit le même chemin que moi. Je remarque que les noms des rues ont changé; il y a maintenant, à Lorient, une rue de ‘l’Energie Lyrique’. Quel étonnant conseil municipal peut donner des noms pareils à des rues la nuit. À l’hôtel, l’idée me vient de regarder la note du teinturier: 325 francs, on vous l’expédiera. Vais-je devenir fou? Le café est plein de curieux, je rencontre un peintre de Paris! que j’ai de peine à m’en débarraser. Il m’adore ici, bien que nous soyons fâchés ailleurs: je suis si en retard que je renounce à l’embrasser et pas de fiacre! Pendant qu’on me cherche une voiture, des amis de mon enfance me supplient de m’arrêter au Mans! Non pas au Mans, à Nogent, parce que nous sommes très mal avec les… ah! mon Dieu! je perds le fil de tout… je finis par enlever une promesse à un camionneur de pianos. Et le teinturier? me voici dans un costume étrange, en somme assez distingué: cette redingote grise, trop ouverte à cause des excès de lingerie que j’ai sur moi pour alleger ma valise! Ce chapeau haut de forme, quelle tenue de voyage. Ah! j’ai oublié de dire au revoir à… Et le teinturier! J’ai passer l’heure du train, du train unique: tout sera à recommencer demain! Je n’en dormirai pas de la nuit!

Mystery of the Sky

HAVING RETURNED FROM the ball, I sat by the window and contemplated the sky: it seemed to me that the clouds were the great heads of old men sitting at a table and that a white bird decorated with its own feathers was being brought to them. A great river crossed the sky. One of the old men lowered his eyes towards me. He was even about to speak when the enchantment fell away, leaving the pure stars twinkling.

Mystère du ciel

En revenant du bal, je m’assis à la fenêtre et je contemplai le ciel: il me semble que les nuages étaient d’immenses têtes de vieillards assis à une table et qu’on leur apportait un oiseau blanc paré de ses plumes. Un grand fleuve traversait le ciel. L’un des vieillards baissait les yeux vers moi, il allait même me parler quand l’enchantement se dissipa, laissant les pures étoiles scintillantes.

Contagion, or Imitation

FULL OF DAYDREAMS, both of us, let’s go down the rue des Boucheries. The pavement’s dry, the sun’s shining. We’re off to see, my mother and I, the joiner’s daughter, who’s gone mad. The joiner’s home has only one floor. There are two beds in the two rooms. Let’s go! The birds sing in their cages and the windows only let in as much the light as the Virginia Creeper allows. In the first bed is a mad woman, in the second there’s another sick one. Ah, my God, with what dreadful reverence they welcome us in. A lady has disguised herself as a sister of mercy; a smock takes the place of a headdress; she’s attired in a red fluffy blouse with the sleeves hanging loose; the old girl sings in an astonishing voice, one that is too loud and that I don’t recognise in her, the voice of a man, and the mother, smiling, pours out some large glasses of cognac. The real mad woman watches from the other room, her elbow on the wood of the bed, calm and sure of herself.

La contagion ou les imitateurs

Pleins de pensées tous deux, descendons! descendons la rue des Boucheries! les pavés sont secs, il fait beau. Nous allons voir, ma mère et moi, la fille du menuisier qui est devenue folle. La petite maison du menuisier n’a qu’un ètage. Il y a deux lits dans les deux chambres: allons! Les oiseaux chantent dans leurs cages et les fenêtres ne laissent passer la lumière qu’encadrée de vigne-vierge: dans la premier lit est une folle, dans l’autre est une autre malade. Ah! mon Dieu! avec quelles effroyables révérences on nous accueille : une dame s’est déguisée en soeur de charité, un sarrau lui tient lieu de coiffe; elle s’est affublèe d’un corsage de peluche rouge qu’elle a mis manches pendantes; la vieille grand’mere chante d’une voix étonnante; une voix trop forte que je ne lui connaissais pas, une voix d’homme, et la mère se verse en souriant de grands verres de cognac. La véritable folle les regarde de la pièce à côté, la coude sur le bois du lit, calme et sûre de soi.

True Ruin

WHEN I WAS young, I believed the spirits and the fairies put themselves out to show me the way, and whatever insults were thrown at me, I believed that they whispered words to others which had no aim but my well-being and mine alone. The reality and disaster which have made me a singer in this square teach me that I have always been abandoned by the gods. Oh spirits, oh fairies, give me back my illusion!

La vraie ruine

Quand j’étais jeune, je croyais que les génies et les fées s’étaient dérangés pour me guider et quelle que fût l’injure qu’on m’adressât, je croyais qu’on soufflait aux autres des mots qui n’avaient en but que mon bien et le mien seul. La réalité et le désastre qui m’ont fait chanteur sur cette place m’apprennent que j’ai toujours été abandonné des dieux. ô genies, ô fees! rendez-moi aujourd’hui mon illusion.

 


 

Ian Seed’s books of prose poems and small fictions include New York Hotel (2018), Identity Papers 2016) and Makers of Empty Dreams (2014), all from Shearsman. The Thief of Talant (2016) (the first translation into English of Pierre Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan) is published by Wakefield. Seed’s work appears in a number of anthologies including The Best Small Fictions 2017 (Braddock Avenue Books), The Forward Book of Poetry 2017 (Faber & Faber), and The Best British Poetry 2014 (Salt), and has been featured on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. He lectures in the Department of English at the University of Chester. An archive of his work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.

 

 

 

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