By ANNA DE NOAILLES.
‘Versions’ in English by Anthony Howell.
You, who I desire, being gone,
Young things of future seasons,
Now I’m mixed with nature here,
I know your secret reasons,
Don’t I merit a pursuit
– Oh human perpetuity! –
Fostered by your love’s alarms?
For since, along each route,
I am the swoon that frantically
Shudders for joy, as when a fever grips,
I carry in my arms
An amphora – poetry!
And now I lift it to your lips.
Poor faun, who must expire,
Reflect me in your pupils.
Take my memory to dance
For my dark immortals.
Go, and tell those pensive dead
For whom my pranks were a joy so rare,
I dream of them beneath the yews
Where I walk, petite and near.
Describe my air, my brow so vivid,
Bound by woollen bandelettes;
How firm my mouth is, fingers plump
And redolent of grass and privet.
Tell them of my weightless moves
As various as the shadow play
That teeters through the living leaves
Innumerable in pearmen’s groves.
You can include the lazy look
That slows my eyelids, almost sullen,
How I do my evening dance
In a dress the breeze has swollen.
Whisper to them how I nap,
My bare arms folded underneath
My cheek, my skin with hint of gold
Admitting veins of violet.
Say how sweet it is to see
My hair as blue as plums can be
And how each foot reflects the other,
How the moon invades each eye.
And how, when dusk weighs sad and gloomy,
Cast down by the cool of springs
And aching for them and their love,
In vain I pull their shadows to me.
3. A MELLOWING
House where I frittered all the gentlest months
In an audacious life of paroxysm,
Dreams of you have ever since delighted me;
A joy refracted through my being’s prism.
Time was oppressed by travel’s tense ennui
When town was left behind for your soft air.
I suffered night with eyes wide open then,
Convulsed by longing, longing to be there!
The garden gate that grated on each hinge
And swept the gravel as it opened grudgingly;
The flags, the umbels dandelions prepare,
The orchard’s tarragon – a feast for me.
The house, its window shiny as the bubbles
Sunlight chased through beams with moted tinge
Above the marble tiles in black and white
Which graced a booming hall that smelt of panels.
Down you stepped: a terrace lay in wait
With two capacious urns of porcelain
Heralding a lawn where baskets crammed
With velvet sage gone blue suffused the air again.
Naïve, the walls of bedrooms papered there
With flowers, with birds, with characters a glance
Would recognise! Repeated patterns drummed
Out chapters from some serial romance.
Each morning proved the festival of Pan.
Too soon, the evening came though – boredom too,
With whines and yearnings, and perhaps the rain
Would set the peacocks off – to screech anew.
Mauve heliotrope enveloped with vanilla
Every drooping head, as if in swoon;
And should an evening gust affect the pond
Its ripples launched a scallop-shell flotilla.
Charcoal night smeared silver by the moon
Took over all the country round with ease.
The lissom trees, the hillocks and the lakes
Felt delicately, darkly Japanese.
And nothing’s changed there. Ah, but I have changed.
It’s only in my soul a vision brings
To me those blooming suns of the outdoors,
Around which like a swarm of seeking bees
My pleasure hovers on its golden wings.
4. I WANT TO TAKE A ROUGE
I want to take a rouge of petals for my palette,
And give a languid poem some slippery refrain
In which the summer rose, the carnation and the privet
Spill out heady scents and prompt a soft migraine.
A poetry more odorous than some parterre in June
Where hand pressed to heart one may loiter on a stroll,
Till wearying of light and the blooms’ too lavish boon,
One sighs, half bemused, underneath one’s parasol.
A poetry that’s made of those first gardens we inhale
Where scattering the sand and the pebbles in his flourish
The peacock flaunts the fine, bright foliage of his tail
Blending soft mauves with the bluebell blue of borage.
A poetry all gooey, made of sugar and liqueurs,
To pour down the throats of the suavest of these “fleurs”
Which the bee on skinny feet goes squirmily within
To get all nectar-coated and powdered with vermilion…
And raspberries, so balmy, on bushes where you’re rife!
As a little girl, I could devour you with a kiss,
Already well aware of the loves that shape a life:
The morning with its smells, the lawn – such utter bliss!
Roses filled with shadows and with insects that alight,
Orange trees that harbour inexpressible delight…
I’ve a penchant in my heart for that vehement malaise
Of Catherine the Blest and of Blessed Saint Thérèse.
Springtime! Cherished spell. I’m overwhelmed by you.
Nuzzle me, your features warm against my neck.
Drunk on its soft knoll, each bloom will be a wreck.
Morning comes so crisply in its sandals of bamboo.
There in dazzling space, that sun that caused your birth
Is just so huge, so gentle, so carefree, and so bold,
All I can see is atmosphere: it’s just one ring of gold
From which he nakedly descends – to wake up all the earth.
Blessed with little plots and with orchards fitted tight
Against their low gates that are hidden from the lanes,
The houses, which the warmth like leaking honey stains,
Prove alive as plants – agleam – with Algerian white.
Each and every garden lies shaded by its arbour.
Over drowsy gravel made of granite grits and marble
Time, in childhood mode today, tiptoes out to marvel
At that lovely silence that’s a bowl of fresh azure.
Summer and desire, they both oppress each flower:
Animated presence can but passionately sigh
As through all your odours now a bird repeats a cry
Which penetrates the gold of this delirious hour.
Between the bright shutters, through some opened window-pane,
One glimpses, in the shadowed corner of the parlour,
The tea-cups and the teapot, and a stack of China
Crammed with little bridges, and with greenish Chinamen.
– And I sense, in the dusk replete with jasmine’s charms,
While underfoot the baking terrace tiles beg for rain,
At the hour dedicated to the wailing of a train,
That there are women, resting their heads in their palms.
Girls who’ve no idea what to do with how they’re feeling,
– The moment so sweet, the dream so strongly scented;
A little touch so subtle that, with no one to prevent it,
The heart’s corolla softens and goes moist in its unpeeling.
Ah, I know so well how, unbuttoned at this hour,
Scented with desire and with sighs, they can but baste
With their own tormented juices the springtime that they taste,
As if a bee should bring its honey to a flower.
Ah, within these Springs, what ardour spreads around us
Among the jet petals of their scent-releasing nights,
What inclinations move the aching brim of our delights
To spill into jouissance all the syrup that confounds us.
The well and truly dead are those hearts without audacity
Who’ve made no demands: for nothing’s ever tempted them.
Beneath the frantic blue with its ravishing capacity,
Their summer’s undevoured. If hope came, it exempted them.
They don’t know how to suffer, as it is right and proper to,
Deprived of appetite and sleep, when breathing proves hard work!
They’re like those sullen fish, the pearly ones, who lurk
In Davie Jones’s locker, secreted far below.
To turbulent good life, which keeps the air alert
And sends a panic cry to which all others rally,
These wary of the heart prefer an arid desert;
Their carcasses at risk of falling prey to melancholy.
However all is safe and steady, and it seems
Just as it should be for them. Upon an ancient shore,
Temples get absorbed by sand and by azure
That lengthens into sanctity in some tomb of dreams.
Will you ignore your wishes? Those who answer, Never!
Those who have the gall to buck what fate imposes,
Who enjoy through death and through all metamorphoses
The gift of pleasures gained: it is they who live forever.
The bell for lunch entices noses.
Over the pane that lets in sun
A hessian blind has come undone.
Peaches scent the air and roses.
Wasps know sugar’s all they need,
So coasting through the dining-room
A melon’s what they choose to zoom
In on – to allay their greed.
Few beat retreat, their swarms advance:
Fresh fruit, in dishes over-stacked!
The buzz enough, you’d think, to have cracked
Our ancient plates of fine Faïence.
And itching for your taste again,
Young fruit, so pleasant to behold,
These knifes have gleaming blades of gold
And handles made of porcelain…
Discreet though, near a pewter tankard,
Madam Spider heeds her web:
The fruit we feast on at day’s ebb
Only tastes good to a drunkard.
Best is the touch of joyous morn
To gild the wrong done to their sweetness:
Undo all their compact neatness
At the encouragement of dawn.
Those that tempt us most we crush:
Their morning flesh just perfect for
A martyrdom we all adore,
Since it’ll feed our sugar rush.
Virgin fresh, as dew. Insistence
On this helps us choose which parts
To feast on. Seeping little hearts,
We rupture for their crisp existence.
Summer in the suburbs,
Its wealth confined to a bedroom
Where a tepid waft disturbs
And strokes with silver gloom
The long beast with demon eyes
Who, stealthy as all cats, will come
To tipple from the vase of the anemones.
9. SUMMER EVENING
A languor now extends itself across the space between us.
Can you feel invading you the scent of drooping grass?
A damp breeze translates the dusk into some garden of despond.
Water shudders, dimpling the ripples on the pond:
Things share a sense of being weighed down by foreboding.
Sap in stalks seems to taint the air with an uneasy loading.
My hand still held in yours, nevertheless you’re aware
That my bad dream – to which you can but compare
The bliss of your own – has made us, brusquely, strangers to each other.
How unconscionable our mutual heart, how frail our being together.
The leaves that played in the trees have now gone cold on us.
See how they twist and turn as the darkness grows in us.
These blooms have a scent that cuts, sharp as a knife.
What stirs now in my soul? The previous sadness of my life?
Cherished phantoms circle you. They seem to keep me away.
Winter would be far better for this, it seems to me. But why
When inappropriate must Spring incessantly return?
How simple and how brief our childhood was, we learn…
All the love we yearn to keep cannot be held in our hands,
But there are always things to do, our roads have their demands.
Come, let’s go in, the hazy dark of the bedroom would be preferable
To this summer atmosphere that makes us feel uncomfortable.
Surely we can rummage for a sweet relief together there?
Ah, but a summer fragrance opts to linger in your hair
And the languor of this day seems the sole emotion lawful.
Where, oh where can we go now, just to feel less awful?
10. I HAVE ENJOYED YOU
I have enjoyed you, nature, since your earliest days,
As if at the birth of a child, her ears first bent
Toward sounds: branches, water, breezes, bees
Floating past a novel if blear-eyed astonishment.
Everywhere I’ve seen, lifting from an acrid terrain,
More than a mist, a vapor balanced there
And softening the green. Nature, known is your every snare –
Your strength is beauty, and your quiet piety.
You are aware that in us all, ceaselessly, is re-begun
That immense adherence to your universal end.
Surreptitious love extends its furtive appeal…
But I am here! The eglantines lace briars around
A marble bench teeming with the scents that make it real.
Everything swells and cracks open with the sun
Tempting the resin to seep; the wind, high in the trees,
An inspired conductor, sweeping with his baton!
Sad that this healthy, this innocent urge
From the big nest of all life, felt by us all who believe,
And who ready ourselves – must be so tempered by qualms
It has to be dismissed as a threat to our humanity.
Among the upheavals of harvests and swarms,
Nature, would that you had need of one
Misled into mixing into your tart, fresh bakery
The ridiculous wish for a love touched by divinity!
Disabused of which notion, there is nothing here for me.
Essentially contented, even when a trifle frazzled,
Irises like flowers were mine – opening all dazzled.
Daybreak, with its amber lips, would banish night, and I
Would wake, admire the wallpaper that made my room so spry,
But oh, how could I wait to see if it was nice outside?
The sun that smeared the curtains gold was not to be denied.
I’d listen for the strokes from the grand-paternal pendulum,
Dignified and steady: the hoped-for hour would come!
“It’s seven o’clock, my waking’s now as perfect as a rhyme,
And there’ll be a whole day to go and gambol in the thyme
Close to where the cherry offers blushes to cicadas;
One whole day to chew the herbs, to raid the soft armadas
Of their petals, run a ring around the roses,
Dance among the midges that an open sky discloses,
Throw myself down suddenly in pastures blue, in stasis,
Knowing well I animate one of the sweetest faces
Ever seen…” It dawned on me that what so gave me pleasure
Would not last as long as what was still to come, adventure
So immense, and yet I felt no sudden shock or sorrow,
Save for when dusk came and made you “wait until tomorrow”.
Not a clue had I of the existence of a plight
Worse than that some pious hope might usher forth the night.
Like the soft corollas, like the bushes, like the birds,
I had no use for beings, I had no use for words.
I chimed so well with everything the universe contains
That when I stretched my arms out I seemed to hold the reins
Which attached the whole of space to one little girl.
I told myself, “I am the light, I am the dazzling whirl!”
And then I chose for sister, out of ardour, out of vanity,
The rose herself, the sovereign of summer, as she seemed to me.
I lived without a care, without a search, without your “knowing”.
Then, before too strong a scent could get my fever going,
It stopped me in my tracks, saying “Better beat retreat!”
An odour rich with passion that caught fire beneath my feet
Would rise from piercing grasses where the baskets took their ease
As if an ever-changing cloud of ardent honey-bees.
In the making of my way, I might lose my self-command,
But the goodness of the evening would take me by hand
And gently lead me home by the most divine allée:
Voluptuousness alone was what had shown me such a way.
Frankness of my child heart, cool, straight-forward stare,
That about you I adore! With lowered head of hair,
It seems you’ve fallen fast asleep, a sleep without an end:
My childhood, my own delicious childhood, my friend.
12. THE ADOLESCENTS
That moment when a day must end, well I know the wrench!
That hesitation, trembling before what night entails.
It’s when a drifting breeze almost elegantly trails
An elder branch across the warmth of some low bench.
It’s when the dusk is softer than the feathers of a dove
And the air is troubled – such a serious embarrassment
One takes its sweetness to one’s heart. What can circumvent
Its kindred with our spirit? It fits it like a glove.
Well I know these evenings, my little adolescents
Oppressed to the core by some desire sans limit:
Your anguish, your songs, your trepidation imitates
The sighs of desolation that sustain my essence.
Look around you now, and try your best to throw
The widest net of love across the milky firmament.
Already you are dying for that green, silent element
Full of secret frissons which the soul alone may know.
A train is heard, you recognise its whistle by the wail
Arriving, growing loud…then passing, as you will,
Levelled by a darkness in which each voice grows still,
So take between your teeth now the hopes that must prevail.
You may dream, you may bolt, yes, and you may toss the mane.
Strait may be the stall, but go and seize the rest!
For gliding on the wind, as a stork towards the nest,
My poem wings towards you with its celebrant refrain.
Solitary singles, if the park is where you go
To dream of doing damage to that callous sixteenth year,
Though weary of the petals you have plucked in your despair,
Be wary of those games that fit the arrow to its bow.
Well I know, my charmers, that at times you feel the need
To enjoy the rosebushes that freshen my creation;
Whisperings of eagerness, the bee’s inebriation,
Flights and fancies of desire in every line you read.
Gather that on me the summer is no less
Brutal than he is on your tart but fragile puberty;
That I am also troubled by the untoward dubiety
Of those intense aromas the orange trees possess.
Amidst all your researches, you’ve identified my art,
And you draw unto yourself a sisterhood in me.
All these plaintive gestures – let my Laurel set you free,
For I advertise the naïve nature of the heart.
And I can wish for nothing now more alive and glorious,
Than that your sweet appeal, blameless, countrified,
Will echo all my pleasures – even after I have died –
And your glances meet my glances, oh, how lovely that will be for us!
And, that you’ll grow to be nor held back nor uncouth,
I’ll always try to laugh and to help you see the joke.
Darling Candour, lightly now, let’s throw off every yoke!
Dripping from my lips, let honey feed your youth.
Adolescents in the dusk, I cherish your uncertainty.
Upon these open pages, it is fair to spill your tears,
Your charm remains ineffable, your strength is in your years,
For Spring will come again for you more times than for me.
13. I WRITE FOR THE DAY
I write for the day when I will no longer be here
To share how pleasure wept for joy – was air!
For carried into the future’s throng, my book
Should show how I loved life with a natural look.
Attentive to all toil, in dwellings as in pastures,
Every day I’ve traced a season’s changing contours:
Water, earth and a flaming torch uplifts
No corner quite so much as through my spirit’s gifts.
I’ve shown what I have seen, and what I’ve sensed,
With a heart for which the truth is no extravagance,
And now I have this yearning, as if for an affair,
To be, beyond death, loved, more loved than heretofore.
And that a young man, say, deep into what I’ve written,
Feels through me his heart: moved, astonished, smitten;
One who just erases all his commonplace amours,
Takes me to his breast, and tells me, I am yours!
Anna, Comtesse Mathieu de Noailles (15 November 1876 – 30 April 1933) was a popular Romanian-French writer and a socialist feminist whose books sold better than Colette’s. She was the first woman to become a Commander of the Legion of Honour, the first woman to be received in the Royal Belgian Academy of French Language and Literature, and she was honoured with the “Grand Prix” of the Académie Française in 1921. This collection is published to accompany Anthony Howell’s Fortnightly essay, ‘Meandering through la Belle-Époque.’
Translator’s note: The Comtesse de Noialles has been written out of history.
Anthony Howell, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).