Skip to content

More 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.

1914.

DON’T THE FLASHES of lightening look like this in other countries? Someone at my parents’ house was talking about the colour of the sky. Are there flashes of lightening? A pink cloud was coming closer. Oh, how everything changed! My God, can it be that your reality is so very much alive? The house where I grew up is there: the chestnut trees pressed against the window; the prefecture against the chestnut trees; Mount Frugy against the prefecture: then lone peaks, nothing but peaks. A voice cried ‘God!’ and there was a burst of light in the darkness. An enormous body was hiding half the landscape. Was it Him? Was it Job? He was poor; we could see his pierced flesh; his thighs were covered by a loincloth: what tears, oh Lord! He had come down…but how? Then couples larger than life descended too. They came from the air in cases, inside Easter eggs. They were laughing, and the balcony of my parents’ house was tangled in threads dark as gunpowder. It was terrifying. The couples settled in my childhood home and we watched them through the window. For they were wicked. There were dark threads spreading all the way to the dining-room tablecloth, and my brothers were unpacking Lebel rifle cartridges. Ever since then, the police have had me under watch.

.

1914.

Les éclairs n’ont-ils pas la même forme à l’étranger ? Quelqu’un qui se trouva chez mes parents discutait de la couleur du ciel. Y a-t-il des éclairs ? C’était un nuage rose qui s’avançait. Oh ! que tout changea ! Mon Dieu ! est-il possible que ta réalité soit si vivante ? La maison paternelle est là ; les marronniers sont collés à la fenêtre, la préfecture est collée aux marronniers, le mont Frugy est collé à la préfecture : les cimes seules, rien que les cimes. Une voix annonça : ‘Dieu !’ et il se fit une clarté dans la nuit. Un corps énorme cacha la moitié du paysage. Était-ce Lui ? était-ce Job ? Il était pauvre ; il montrait une chair percée, ses cuisses étaient cachées par un linge : que de larmes, ô Seigneur ! Il descendait… Comment ? Alors descendirent aussi des couples plus grands que nature. Ils venaient de l’air dans des caisses, dans des œufs de Pâques : ils riaient et le balcon de la maison paternelle fut encombré de fils noirs comme la poudre. On avait peur. Les couples s’installèrent dans la maison paternelle et nous les surveillions par la fenêtre. Car ils étaient méchants. Il y avait des fils noirs jusque sur la nappe de la table à manger et mes frères démontaient des cartouches Lebel. Depuis, je suis surveillé par la police.

1914.

A CORSET BARELY contains his jutting belly. His plumed helmet has been flattened; his face is a terrifying death mask, dark and so ferocious you’d think you were looking at the horn of a rhinoceros or an extra tooth for his terrible jawbone. Ominous vision of German death.

.

1914.

Son ventre proéminent porte un corset d’éloignement. Son chapeau à plumes est plat; son visage est une effrayante tête de mort, mais brune et si féroce qu’on croirait voir quelque corne de rhinocéros ou dent supplémentaire à son terrible maxillaire. O vision sinistre de la mort allemande.

WAR.

THE OUTER BOULEVARDS at night are filled with snow. The soldiers are thieves; they ambush me with insults and swords; they take everything I have. I get away only to fall down in another square. Is it the courtyard of a barracks or of an inn? So many swords. So many lancers. It’s snowing. They inject me with a syringe – a poison to murder me. A skull veiled in black bites my finger. Dim streetlamps cast the light of my death onto the snow.

.

LA GUERRE.

Les boulevards extérieurs, la nuit, sont pleins de neige; les bandits sont des soldats; on m’attaque avec des rires et des sabres, on me dépouille : je me sauve pour retomber dans un autre carré. Est-ce une cour de caserne, ou celle d’une auberge ? que de sabres! que de lanciers! il neige! on me pique avec une seringue : c’est un poison pour me tuer; une tête de squelette voilée de crêpe me mord le doigt. De vagues réverbères jettent sur la neige la lumière de ma mort.

FALSE NEWS! NEW GRAVES!

AT A PERFORMANCE of For the Crown at the Opera House, when Desdemona sings, ‘My father’s in Goritz but my heart’s in Paris’, a shot rang out from a box on the fifth balcony, and then another from the stands, and straightaway rope-ladders were unrolled. A man wanted to slide down from the beams: a bullet stopped him at the balcony. All the spectators were armed and it turned out that the auditorium was full of nothing but… and… Then there was the murder of the person in the next seat, petrol bombs bursting into flame. There was the battle of the balcony seats, the stage seat, and the folding seats of the stalls, and it lasted for eighteen days. Perhaps the two camps were kept supplied – I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that the journalists couldn’t wait to see such an awful spectacle, that one of them being ill sent Madame, his mother, in his place, and that she was excited by the cold-blooded courage of a young French gentleman who held out for eighteen days in the wings without any sustenance except for a little broth. This episode from the Balcony War has done a lot for the recruitment of volunteers from the provinces. And I know, sitting on the banks of my river, under my trees, of three brothers in brand-new uniforms who embraced one another dry-eyed, while their families searched in their attic wardrobes for knitted sweaters.

.

FAUSSES NOUVELLES! FOSSES NOUVELLES!

À une représentation de Pour la Couronne, à l’Opéra, quand Desdémone chante ‘Mon père est à Goritz et mon cœur à Paris’, on a entendu un coup de feu dans une loge de cinquième galerie, puis un second aux fauteuils et instantanément des échelles de cordes se sont déroulées ; un homme a voulu descendre des combles : une balle l’a arrêté à la hauteur du balcon. Tous les spectateurs étaient armés et il s’est trouvé que la salle n’était pleine que de… et de… Alors, il y a eu des assassinats du voisin, des jets de pétrole enflammé. Il y a eu des sièges de loges, le siège de la scène, le siège d’un strapontin et cette bataille a duré dix-huit jours. On a peut-être ravitaillé les deux camps, je ne sais, mais ce que je sais fort bien, c’est que les journalistes sont venus pour un si horrible spectacle, que l’un d’eux étant souffrant, y a envoyé madame sa mère et que celle-ci a été beaucoup intéressée par le sang-froid d’un jeune gentilhomme français qui a tenu dix-huit jours dans une avant-scène sans rien prendre qu’un peu de bouillon. Cet épisode de la guerre des Balcons a beaucoup fait pour les engagements volontaires en province. Et je sais, au bord de ma rivière, sous mes arbres, trois frères en uniformes tout neufs qui se sont embrassés les yeux secs, tandis que leurs familles cherchaient des tricots dans les armoires des mansardes.

MEMOIRS OF A SPY.

TO WRITE TO The Figaro that I stole a rifle! The wretch! It’s him, the hotel owner. My brother forgot his rifle at the Paris Hotel. The owner got hold of it and he’s writing to The Figaro to tell them it was me. It’s not difficult to put right. One addresses a letter to ‘The Gentleman in the Orchestra’, c/o ‘Theatre News’. Would that be any use? I’m leaving the hotel: the bed is never made, old chambermaids come into my room to mock me in my misery; the young maids only know how to show me their shoulders. Have I ever stolen a rifle?

.

MÉMOIRES DE L’ESPION.

Écrire au Figaro que j’ai volé un fusil, oh ! le misérable ! c’est lui, le patron de l’hôtel ! mon frère a oublié son fusil à l’hôtel à Paris ; le patron l’a pris et il écrit au Figaro que c’est moi. ça n’est pas difficile de rectifier : on adresse une lettre au ‘Monsieur de l’orchestre’, ‘Courrier des Théâtres’. Est-ce bien utile ? je quitterai l’hôtel : le lit n’est jamais fait ; il vient des vieilles dans ma chambres pour se moquer de ma misère ; les jeunes bonnes ne savent que montrer leurs épaules. Ai-je jamais volé de fusil ?

IN SEARCH OF THE TRAITOR.

The hotel again. My friend Paul has been taken prisoner by the Germans. My God, where is he? Lautenbourg, a lodging house on rue Saint-Sulpice, but I don’t know his room number. The hotel desk is a pulpit which is too high for me to see over. I’d like to speak to a Mademoiselle Cypriani … if she’s here… that must be room 21 or 26 or 28, and now here I am dreaming of the cabbalistic meaning of these numbers. It’s Paul the Germans have arrested for betraying his colonel: what kind of times are we living in? The 21, 26 and 28 are figures painted in white on a black background with three keys. But who is Mademoiselle Cypriani? Another spy.

.

À LA RECHERCHE DU TRAîTRE.

Encore l’hôtel! mon ami Paul est prisonnier des Allemands. Mon Dieu, où est-il ? Lautenberg, c’est un hôtel meublè, rue Saint-Sulpice, mais je ne sais pas le numéro de la chambre ! le bureau de l’hôtel est une chaire trop haute pour mes yeux. Je voudrais, n’avez-vous pas Mlle Cypriani… ce doit être 21 ou 26 ou 28 et moi de songer à la signification cabalistique de ces chiffres. C’est Paul qui est prisonnier des Allemands pour avoir trahi son colonel : en quelle époque vivons-nous ? le 21, le 26, le 28 sont des chiffres peints en blanc sur fond noir avec trois clefs. Qui est Mlle Cypriani ? encore une espionne.


 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.

More translations by Ian Seed from Max Jacob’s The Dice Cup here.

 

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *
*
*

You can add images to your comment by clicking here.