Dreaming as one.
By DAVID ROSENBERG.
LESS AMBITIOUS THAN Lewis Warsh, when he worked on Robert Desnos’s small book of an epic poem, Night of Loveless Nights, I translated some short ones:
—Nothing interests me
—Laughs, lovingly, Therese
Actually, of course, Desnos is quite interested in Therese, but she fails to take him seriously. Which one is alive? In this tiny poem, Therese resurrects him from the dead of “nothing”, so that Desnos can lose her again: she is enlivened only by the poem. Or: Therese is in dialogue with herself, doubly distant in her self-love. What it can’t be is an homage; it’d be a burlesque of a coquette. So, is it comedy or tragedy? Rather, it’s a blues. With these six words, the trimeter is stretched from nothing (as it were) in the first line to a double caesura in the second.
And with this tiny piece among others, Desnos has brought American blues to Paris, to underscore the jazz age. Here, it’s an advance on the strength of imagism in Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.” (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/ Petals on a wet, black bough.”) What Pound called “an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time,” has become within almost the same period and place (both poems were written in Paris) more of an intellectual and emotional drama in Desnos’s instant of time.
Night of Loveless Nights works hundreds of lines to the same eﬀect. It invokes every mode from epic to lyric, yet it’s none of them, nor is it Apollinaire’s early jazz. It’s a solo theater of the blues, an orchestration of despair raised to the level of a post-devil-may- care postwar goodbye to romantic, unrequited love. It may have seemed complementary to Ravel’s Bolero (written as a ballet first performed at the Paris Opera in 1928, the same year as Desnos’s poem) yet it can’t be danced, Desnos is glued to his seat, his girl oﬀ with another man. Actually, the man, in drug parlance. That’s a biographical note; she isn’t named in the poem.
Perhaps it’s the first blues performed without an audience (not even that of southern farm prisoners). And this is what Lewis Warsh’s translation confirms like no other.
AND YET, HAD Desnos lived beyond his demise in the Holocaust’s death camps—in 1945 at age 44, tracked down in Paris as both Jew and resistant—he would probably have put blues or surrealism (the movement within which he’d been a storied dreamer) aside after the war. Although it cheapens the word surreal to apply it to death camps, the Auschwitz-surviving French-language novelist Piotr Rawicz, in Blood from the Sky (Gallimard, 1961) did push surrealism into a realistic dark alley, whence it emerges bloodied but still breathing. I take Rawicz’s novel (twice translated into English) as a marker for how Desnos might have proceeded, had he survived. In Anthony Rudolf’s chapter entitled “The Companion of a Dream”,1 this excerpt from Rawicz:
A quarter of a century ago, in a death cell where the emissaries of this city shut you up, you swallowed a quantity of cyanide. And you survived. That, at least, is what is claimed. And then, other dreams are reborn in a garret in an old quarter of Paris between a man and a woman who do not succeed in loving each other, for they are but a single non-being”.
That “single non-being” reminds me of Lewis Warsh’s early title, Dreaming as One2. Nevertheless, if Blues derived from surviving slavery, Blood from the Sky derives from surviving death slavery in Auschwitz. In Lawrence Langer’s intro to Peter Wiles’s translation of the novel,3 Langer wrote: “Its sense of artistic urgency is driven less by moral fervor than by the compulsion to witness”.
Did Warsh have such an angle on Desnos in mind, even as in his own work Lewis uniquely domesticated becoming a witness? When we might think the quotidian history on the page is ready to be framed, contextualized, it is only an as if—for any context turns into a story: “no more stories”.4 Instead, like a postwar bebop saxophone suppressing the melody, we see the mind at its natural work, art resolved into witness—post-Objectivist but still rendered a necessity by a horrendous century. Even Warsh’s novels forced our attention from narrative to the artless sentences. “Brightlingsea sounds good,” he wrote to me while I briefly lived there. It was impossible for him to write the simplest thing sans the complexity of timing or sound. And speaking of bebop, Lewis in early 2020, still expecting another remission from his cancer, wrote to me that behind the Brooklyn hospital room’s screen, the dying man snoring in the next bed, two decades his senior, was legendary saxophonist Lee Konitz.
LATER IN 2020, his last year on earth, Lewis Warsh told me he’d reread his 47-year-old translation of Robert Desnos’s [The] Night of Loveless Nights, and was startled by its tonic relevance to late life. We were twenty-somethings when we took the French avant-garde poets in primarily the 1920s, from Max Jacob to Pierre Reverdy, as our forefathers of deadpan, no less than Louis Armstrong: it was the decade in which American jazz riveted Paris. Stein, Breton—they were a bit too programatic for our sensibilities, though Stein was in our blood and manifested later. We could say that Lewis’s collaboration with his wife, Bernadette Mayer, on Piece of Cake was the domesticated Stein, evoking her collaboration with Alice B. Toklas on the autobiography.
Robert Desnos was in-between; he seemed to push through surrealism and come out on the other side as a literal dreamer, in search of reality and lost love. Desnos’s dreamer was parallel to a soul, disembodied—not the disordered mind’s “we must change life” of Rimbaud. Desnos was more grounded by loss. In A New Theory for American Poetry (2004), Angus Fletcher compared Ashbery to Desnos: “A French tonality touches his new surrealist style of sensibility, which to my ear recalls the rhythms of a poet like Robert Desnos.” We were reading Ashbery back in ‘73, when Lewis translated Desnos, but we were less close to the “rhythms” and more to what Fletcher also describes as “a certain tenderness” in Ashbery.
Lewis finds the root note in Night of Loveless Nights at the tender bottom of its surrealist chords: “lover/ whose pain never dies.” I think we first heard it in our own neighborhood from Ted Berrigan, who might translate dream for pain. But Ted’s sleepless night was no dream; in fact, it was a dismantling of dreams, down to the soul walking its East Village sidewalks, just happy to have a bodily home. Joubert was ironic in his 1796 notebook—“I will build a temple for the worship of dreams,” in Paul Auster’s translation—a dream in itself. Desnos’s poem might be a dream temple in this sense: he is passionately searching for a way out, to ultimately arrive at “Many a withered fan falls on the landings./ Be quiet, lay down your pen and close your eyes”. That line in the poem’s penultimate stanza foretells the last stanza’s “If you are unable to sleep”… you might become “Like a knight of stone”… ”Revolt!”. It’s a most tender revolution against written dreams, for it’s daylight now, and you are alive, whether asleep or awake.
“CAN WE MOUNT an authentic performance as Shakespeare would have seen it? No. Authenticity in the performing arts is ultimately impossible.” So writes Peter Hall in Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players (2003). Saying the same for literary translation seems a commonplace—except the word “performing” reminds us that, in the sense a written poem is a performance on the page, a poem in translation may come alive when the new performance echoes the original in quality. Beyond Pound’s Cantos (“Nothing matters but the quality/ of the aﬀection—/in the end—that has carved the trace in the mind”), what matters is that the translator makes his/their struggle to echo—i.e. befriend—the original, palpable. Timothy Ades, among his extensive and important Desnos translations,5 ardently engages the text of Desnos’s poem. If you’re a structuralist you’ll sympathize with its almost hysterical pitch of textual drama. But is Desnos an opera singer? Lewis Warsh doesn’t think so. He is in rapport with the poet himself and his plumbing the depth of his love—or more accurately, his love for the lost. What kind of love is that? It’s between the poem’s muse and the life story behind it: Which will win, the poem or the life? Desnos apparently moved on; now it becomes Warsh’s agon.
Back in ‘73, Lewis and I commiserated on recent broken relationships. He maintained friendship with Anne, as he seemed to do with everyone in his life, and as Desnos had tried to, with Yvonne. Ades writes: “The night-club singer Yvonne George was dying of drink and drugs. He worked through this difficult period with a series of big poems…ending with an epic, The Night of Loveless Nights.” For Lewis, Yvonne and Anne dissolve into a bodiless love of language, a tenderness for it, a mother tongue, the child’s drive to hear the sense of it, but always beyond him, and as in Warsh’s later work, often turning into collage.
Of Desnos, Ades wrote that he “experimented with montage and collage to generate associative leaps across kinds of language and registers of meaning.” However, in his own translation, Ades’s overdetermined meter and rhyme contrast with Warsh’s dedication to a disembodied language speaking as if on its own:
Women with white panties underneath a skirt”
Who, under their skirts, wear a pair of white pants”
In French, it is pantalon, literally pants, rather than culotte, suggesting panties. This may seem minor, but it’s one of many instances where Warsh’s translation reveals its devotion to the language having its own sense: “pants” is generic but also surprising in this female context because it reminds us language by itself is blind, and thereby gender blind. You could imagine the poet’s brain was down there on the page, not thinking or ruminating but intensely curious about its disembodied state shaped by inexact words—curious as well to be looking back at its body behind the typewriter.
Except Desnos was looking at himself bereft at the keyboard, love lost, the passion still driving onward of itself.
I TRIED TO graphically translate that thought to the cover, the ghost of Desnos adding disembodied hands to the typewriter. It was another aspect of the minimalist vogue at the time, which my Toronto poetry journal, The Ant’s Forefoot, had raised from mimeo to Linotype printing onto paper plates. In 1971, I received an envelope from my Buﬀalo draft lawyer containing a terse telegram from Attorney General John Mitchell: “Rosenberg charges dropped.” Soon in NYC again, issues 9–12 were edited on St. Mark’s Place: #11 comprising the Warsh Desnos book, printed at Brooklyn’s CCLM grant-supported Print Center. Every graphic aspect of it was de luxe minimalism; the leftover paperstock I scrounged was complemented by exquisite late-night typesetting and layout on nonuniform page size, including a slight bleeding/aging process to the dreamy archive photos Lewis added for illustration. It’s impossible to reproduce; the materials of that impoverished graphic arts scene are long gone.6 In his last weeks, Lewis urged us on. He also suggested, a few months before that, when he still somewhat hoped for a remission, that he might do a Zoom poetry workshop entitled “How to Continue.” 7
When I mentioned that hypothetical workshop to Matvei Yankelevich, one of the UDP editors, he asked: “Where do I sign up?” Actually, Lewis had always stalked the literal history, just as his translation tries to drag Desnos into common sense while the poem gets away from both of them. Although the text of the poem sounds heroically bigger than himself, the wounded poet behind it is crucial to Warsh. Both Desnos and Warsh were connoisseurs of the labor of writing; that is, for Warsh especially, the double work of writing as reading; and what Lewis was reading in his own or in Desnos’s lines was the “almost surreal”. In the essay, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Ralph Ellison writes:
Like a blues sung by such an artist as Bessie Smith, [Wright’s] lyrical prose evokes the paradoxical, almost surreal image of a black boy singing lustily as he probes his own grievous wound.”
Lewis as Bessie? No, it’s the “almost surreal” that Warsh takes from Night of Loveless Nights, in his devotion to the language itself speaking. It wants what the “mecha” David is programmed to want in the Kubrick/ Spielberg underappreciated film collaboration, A.I., “to feel love.” Lewis’s version of Loveless Nights wants a Desnos that loses himself, however momentarily, in the language, letting it take over. It wants to be the living Desnos and, momentarily, it succeeds, as does the robot David in the end—but only for a day (or Desnos/Warsh’s night), alive to feeling love’s loss.
AT AROUND THE same time I published his Desnos, Lewis published Some Psalms, my first versions, as an Angel Hair Book. I cared about the poet lost behind his text as Lewis did, and what’s lost is the ancient Hebraic poet behind so many of Psalms. You couldn’t find any translation that cared first for the poet; they’re fine with “anonymous”. Hebrew can allow for a living David writing a very few of the psalms, though translators make no such distinctions. Desnos was still alive (barely) when Lewis was born, so it made sense a mythic surrealist could be rescued from myth. For the psalmists, I’d need a mixture of ancient comp lit, daguerreotype poetics, structuralist seal impressions, and stethoscopic archaeology to recover them.
How I saw it in 1973, in parallel with Warsh’s unrequited, half-dreaming Desnos in the same year: “Many Hebraic poets of biblical psalms wrote in a cosmic theater in which their countrymen were creatures bound into an existential covenant with their Creator. What does He–and life itself–want from them? To grasp the poets working out the complications of the answer, in the form of our perilous journey through human history, requires that you sense them alive and at serious play with their language.” They’re the dreaming cosmic players a surrealist like Desnos, substituting small-c consciousness for big-c Creator, mimics in his unrequited hymn of night.
You can hear more of Shakespeare in current UK poets than North American ones, in terms of human relationships and mortality. What we lack in English-language literary roots we make up for in a plumbing below worldly attachments to a species consciousness–comparable to Desnos exploring dream life. Warsh has written more than once on the Canadian poet, bpNichol (1944-1988), as preeminent explorer of consciousness—from a review in Poetry magazine back in 1967 to “The Music of Pure Thought.”8 “The real wandering, in the 1960s, was happening in real time,” he wrote in ‘09. “Even yesterday is a distant memory, as far back as any past you might conjure up.” Typically, Warsh refers to the actual poet, Barrie Phillip, behind the narrating bp, as does his close colleague, Alice Notley, when she writes (in the same issue) of “the speaking voice that the poet puts within and between the words: it’s almost everything”.
Also, in that same ‘09 journal, I’d written of “lost love” as I would have of Desnos and Warsh in ‘73:
Nichol steps out of his poetic world to continually critique or reject it. But it’s the stepping outside that is most unique, for it’s only possible because Nichol created a ‘writer’ in bp who is strong enough to do so… one with a psyche and unconscious, trapped in the human, for whom a return to unconditional love is requited in the mothering of language—at the expense of a real-world unrequited love, or lost love.”
In 1973, Night of Loveless Nights was the first book by Desnos translated and published in English (beware of the biographical mishmash at the Poetry Foundation website). Written in the mid-1920s (Warsh the same age as Desnos when he wrote it) the poem was initially published in French in a small press edition, parallel in size to Warsh’s Ant’s Forefoot edition; it was 1930, the year of its inspiration’s early death, chanteuse Yvonne George.
To bring back for a moment the mediating poet Nichol:
Thus is established in the early books of his The Martyrology the theme of a lifelong journey to an inevitable death—a journey of love in the remembrance of loss, and hatred of the false turns and false journeys that loss makes inevitable.”
Alas, an inflated bit of lit crit par moi. For Desnos and Warsh, the hatred is a form of grandiosity that language itself makes inevitable.
They undercut it in Night of Loveless Nights by allowing it to exhaust itself in an anti- grand opera encompassing all the socialized manners of civilization—shedding them, as it were, by tossing them oﬀ extempore: “The air of the chase is extinguished”; “the contemptible ink at the bottom of an inkwell”; “the seductive necks of the beautiful, miserable women”; “the crystal heart”; “the beautiful mouth with the meat-eating teeth”.
Robert and Lewis journey out of hell with the saving methods of poetry. In French, Desnos explodes traditional meter and rhyme; in English, Warsh subverts conventional free verse. As Warsh describes it, via Nichol:
You get the feeling of a person in dire need using everything in poetry at his disposal. It’s like being in the middle of a blizzard, with a light at the end.”
In 1944, the year Lewis Warsh was born, Desnos was arrested in Paris by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, via Drancy.
David Rosenberg is the coauthor and translator of The Book of J, with Harold Bloom, about the origins of the written Bible. He has published biographies of the historical Abraham, Moses, and Jesus in their Sitz im leben among lost writers. His early books of poetry were published by Toronto’s Coach House Press and NYC’s Angel Hair Books, later reprinted with further work over the years by Harper, Schocken, Doubleday, Crown, Hyperion, and Counterpoint, some of it in collaboration with artists Jim Dine, David Bolduc, George Schneeman, Hannah Wilke, Mimi Gross, Rudy Burckhardt, Larry Rivers, and Leonard Baskin. He has a Guggenheim Fellowship and, most recently, has been a visiting creative writing professor at Princeton. His A Poet’s Bible won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Prize, the first biblical translation in America to win a literary award. Rosenberg lives in Miami with his wife, the scientist Rhonda Rosenberg. His latest book, A Life in a Poem, published in 2019 by Shearsman, is a memoir centered on biblical translation, the New York School of poetry, and tropical species consciousness.
Of his own development as a poet Rosenberg has written: “How does a translator of Rimbaud turn into a biblical scholar? Rimbaud stopped writing poetry, moved to a country along the Red Sea, and studied science, just as I moved from Manhattan to Israel and pursued the origins of Hebrew authorship. That is, how one becomes a writer for a tiny, ancient readership in Jerusalem that wants history delivered with the truth test of poetry.”
- From Rudolf’s Engraved in Flesh, Menard, 1996, 2007
- Corinth, 1971.
- Harcourt 1964, Yale 2003; updated by Rudolf, 2009, Elliot & Thompson
- Piece of Cake, Station Hill, 1976, 2020.
- See Surrealist, Lover, Resistant: Collected Poems (Arc, 2017).
- But if anyone could come close, in a 40ish-year updating, it’s Ugly Duckling Presse.
- He was referring to the present pandemic, but I hear it now as the lifelong Warshian drive morphing into poetic afterlife, much like disembodied Desnos (and the sleep-talking clarity of Lewis’s late volume, Alien Abduction.
- Open Letter, 2009; accessible online here.