By YVES BONNEFOY.
Translated and with an introduction by Hoyt Rogers.
Introduction: Bonnefoy the Voyager.
‘One day,’ said Bonnefoy in October 1969, ‘they’ll ask you to write a thesis. As a theme, I’d suggest “Baudelaire et le voyage”: later, you could turn that essay into a book.’
We were sitting in his library at 63, rue Lepic, in Montmartre. I was only nineteen, and so the notion of a thesis—much less a book—seemed remote, though I did like the subject he’d proposed. Five years down the line, also at his suggestion, I would do my dissertation for Oxford on a wholly different topic: the Baroque poet Etienne Durand. Even so, that long-ago Baudelairean afternoon remains vividly lodged in my memory. In his measured, solemn voice, Bonnefoy read aloud ‘Le voyage,’ followed by ‘L’Invitation au voyage.’ He then commented drolly that Baudelaire was mostly a virtual traveller, not a practitioner, like the hapless albatross reduced to walking the deck of a ship. Tormented, irresolute—except in the decisive realms of meter and form—Baudelaire would live to see the far-off country of ‘luxe, calme et volupté’ perpetually elude his grasp. His two excursions abroad, to Réunion in his youth and to Belgium in his final phase, both ended in frustration and disillusionment: Paris would continue to be the backdrop of his existence, ‘changing its shape more quickly than a mortal’s heart.’
By contrast, Bonnefoy was an ardent voyager throughout his life. His constant journeys and sojourns in foreign countries left an indelible mark on his oeuvre. We have only to think of the enormous effect of Italy on his creation—from his essays on the tombs of Ravenna, Quattrocento painting, or the Roman Baroque, to the manifold traces of Italian art and architecture in his poetry. The ‘country of Shakespeare,’ as he fondly referred to England, occupies an equal place, especially through his many translations of Shakespeare and other English-language authors. Among them was Yeats; as a consequence of his masterly French renditions, he was duly invited to Ireland for several weeks in 1987. His extensive periods at universities in the United States, above all in Massachusetts, also influenced his writings in demonstrable ways. Within Europe, he visited Sweden and Austria, taught in Switzerland, and often spent time in Germany. Much farther afield, he rejoined Octavio Paz in India, perhaps his most far-flung voyage. Nor should we forget that for Bonnefoy, raised in the Touraine and the Lot Valley, Paris was not a native ground at all. Along with those childhood haunts, other regions in France—such as the highly divergent landscapes of Provence and Normandy—recur in his poems with a pervasive insistence.
Given his frequent displacements, it comes as no surprise that he entitled one of his major books La Vie errante (1993); often overlooked up till now, The Wandering Life will appear in translation at Seagull Books next year, the centenary of the author’s birth. The work occupies a central importance in his development, not only because it crystallizes the voyager theme, but also because it founds a new aesthetic: that symphonic interweaving of verse and prose in a single volume which characterises the final twenty years of his oeuvre. The ‘wandering life’ Bonnefoy knew so well finds its emblem in a verse-composition included in his tapestry: ‘From Wind and Smoke’ plays brilliantly off the Homeric legends. While Odysseus himself (a main figure elsewhere—for example in Les Planches courbes of 2001) is not named at all, here the travel motif is reimagined through the epochal voyage of Helen to Troy. But The Wandering Life expands our poetic horizons from the familiar locales of the Mediterranean to destinations as mysterious—for a Frenchman, at least—as the esoteric depths of Iowa.
The three prose-poems from The Wandering Life presented below all approach the traveller theme from distinctive angles. In ‘Read the Book!’—which serves as an introduction to the entire work—Bonnefoy revisits the garden and side-room of one of his childhood houses. In Les Planches courbes (The Curved Planks), he will summon it up again in a twelve-poem cycle called ‘La Maison natale.’ By juxtaposing that early setting with orange-trees, white sands, and passengers arriving on a ship, in The Wandering Life he depicts his voyages as both far and near, both exotic and interior. The latter twist is taken up in the following poem: the ‘alchemist of colour’ ostensibly pursues an inner quest, the transmutation of colours into light. Yet his attempts to achieve his goal resolve into something much more comprehesive: landscape-painting, an art that embraces the entire globe. This is underlined by the concluding visitation from the ‘angels of the Earth.’ Their raiment in vibrant colours recalls the angels painted by Piero della Francesca—a subtle allusion to Bonnefoy’s lifelong journeys to admire his work, not only in the Brera or the Museo di Sansepulcro, but in lesser-known museums such as the Clark Institute. In the third poem, the mode shifts emphatically to external wandering. With a guidebook, the cultivated voyager sets out to explore a splendid city—reminiscent of the Genoa Bonnefoy describes in a later poem, ‘Les Deux scenes,’ though the ocean is transmuted here into a boundless river. Early memories mingle once again with novel discoveries in a foreign land, so that the voyager’s inside and outside worlds ultimately merge into one.
— Hoyt Rogers
“READ THE BOOK!”
The garden was full of orange trees; their shadows were blue, and birds cheeped in their branches. A large vessel, all its lights ablaze, slowly advanced between silent riverbanks. What is color? he wondered. He’d just opened the small, low gate; its wood was crumbling, shearing off in flakes after so many years, so many rains. Perhaps color is the sign God makes to us the whole world over: this green, this blue, or this reddish ochre is like a sentence that makes no sense and so comes to a halt… like the boat? It had stopped. All the people going to and fro on one of its bridges became more visible now: black silhouettes over little tongues of fire, surrounded by smoke. But the world has no colors, as we so naively believe, he said to himself again. Only color exists, and its shadows, whether places or things, are merely its way of cleaving to itself alone, looking out for itself, seeking a shore. Night falls, day breaks, but it’s always the same blue, sometimes grey, or the same red throughout the hours, isn’t it? And as to words! — Already they were disembarking: children, many children who ran in every direction, laughing; then an elderly woman, her head encircled by flames; then an old man leaning on a young man’s arm, dressed in white. And so many others as well! But he who was also arriving no longer looked at them; pensively, he walked along in the orange grove, on the sand.
As to words! Who has claimed that they’re only a faulty evocation of things, because their sounds—their colors—might add their resonance to the world? The word night is bright, but so is the night itself, just as much as it is dark. Or rather night is neither bright nor dark, it’s simply a word, like the fallen orange or the bluish grass. Still meditating, now he treaded on that grass between the trees. He sat down among them, since his fatigue had grown after crossing the garden’s threshold, with all the heat of summer streets on the nape of his neck. A tall black woman has come to lean her elbows on the windowsill, next to her son. Without a word they both watch the falling night, or else the rising sun, a bit of very somber red above the port: it’s deserted on that side of the quays, and even covered up by big stones.
Tomorrow the boat will leave again, with them on board; or else it will stay there, rusting. And they themselves disembarked from it yesterday—or when? They’re walking now, almost randomly, on the sand. I know you well, he’d said to the little girl dressed in red, when he was still only a child. I know you, I recognize you. You were coming towards me for such a long time with these palm-fronds in your hands—it was the sky, wasn’t it? You were very small, and behind you was pure color, its high waves tilting against the jetty of time, swirling without a sound.
He strolls further into the garden. From now on, there are wide pathways everywhere: far off, their arches of leaves and fruits narrow onto a blue shadow of mosaics, or perhaps a canvas that glints. But this trail he wanted to follow, then another one soon after, then more of them still… they all fork quickly on powdery sand where his footsteps sink, as if on a sloping dune. The oranges are ripe: plentiful and heavy, in their bottomless basket of low branches. Here’s a bench, and he sits down; he lays a book beside him he doesn’t plan to read. The mother and son face the night; the fire behind them glows on two raised stones, in the darkened room. The starry sky spreads beneath their feet, into the infinite—its dazzling clusters bereft of any rays, any gleams in the inky blackness.
How peaceful everything is around this bench, as he leans against the trunk of an ancient tree… as the heat stiches embroideries, almost transparent, in the fabric of bluish grass. How good it is to live amid the somnolence of the world: a massive nude who stirs at times without waking—hair scattered against the sheets, zebraed with light and shade by the blinds… He listens to that even breathing. He sits up a bit. He takes this hand, unaware of itself, and loosens its unresisting fingers one by one, as they shed a hint of the dream, no doubt.
But what’s this he’s been hearing now for a while? This monotonous noise, like the tireless, annoying dings he used to make, in the tiny garden of his childhood? With his little rake, he’d strike an iron bucket, sometimes filled to the brim with moist dirt. Three dings, then a pause, then three or four more, then again the mystery of silence—repeating on and on for the longest time, although he didn’t want to! He feared they’d rush from up there to shout that they’d had enough; but no one called out, no one hastened down to him from those high stairs… And so he had to walk on beneath all these skies, forever alone.
“Read the book!” Suddenly he’s understood that these are the words, and that the sounds he was hearing, that he listens to now, are the words of a child who’s softly singing, who’s pretending to chant. He’s all alone, no doubt, in the sunroom of a nearby house. A small boy in a wicker chair, he sways while holding a picture book in his hands—a book from which color leaks out.
And the man jumps up: he’s already striding straight through the trees as they melt before him. He comes across another gate—a low, faded barrier as well—which opens onto the other garden. He follows its short path of old, beaten earth, then climbs the stairs. The child has fallen silent. He’s poring over the book. He’s placed it in front of him on a little table—where there are pencil crayons, too, along with brushes and vials of bright paints. And he who’s just arrived moves closer still. “I’ll take your small face in my hands, my God. I’ll turn it toward me, gently. I’ll tell you: Open your eyes again. Forgive me for having wandered on the earth.”
But no, not at all: he hasn’t left the bench under the orange trees, and his own book is nothing more than a notebook of thick grey paper, or yellowish brown. It’s stitched with twine, like those that beginners learned to draw in long ago. For him, certainly—for a child—the drawings would be of large, simple things and beings and animals; with them he’d been told he’d have to live one day, awkwardly—and also die. The orange in the orange tree; the boat that glides forward among the branches; the beautiful figure—this woman—upright in black at the prow; and the dog, the cat, the cat’s bowl of milk the dog knocks over; the mouse that runs; the little boy, the little girl. And certain words—if they’re words these shadows that shift; and certain sentences—if they’re sentences these cries of sudden recognition, these embraces, these hands that join as if forever, these statues with eyes shut, these enormous clouds over there, red because the sun has already started to set. Read the book—what book?
Now he believes that the voice has fallen silent; that the sunroom over there is empty—like the garden all around him, like the white roads further still, like the world. He believes that there is nothing in the world but color: meant to fade away, to trickle into the sand. All the same, he hopes and dreams that a hand unknown to him will gently open his fingers one by one; will place a colored pencil into them, then close them again—yet without saying anything, and with no one coming down from inside the house to help him create the world.
THE COLOR ALCHEMIST
He was convinced that just as we can produce gold from the most ordinary metals, we can also transmute colors—those minerals of the mind—into gold’s equivalent: the light.
So he set to work. He mixed the most varied colors, but all he ever got was grey: that mud they formed on the good-sized board, quite smooth, he’d chosen for his experiments. Days, then years of research! The most singular names, borrowed from Pythagoras, from the Platonists, from the Cabalists, yielded the batches of blue or red which he proposed to green, to saffron yellow, to indigo. But all in vain. He ground the rarest earth-minerals, and the coarsest as well. The purest waters—but also the murkiest at times, where iridescent glints fleet by like dreams. These cleansed his mistakes, and countered his despairs. But in vain, always in vain. No matter how much the colors on wooden palettes met each other and interfused; no matter how much even the most delicate brushes—for lining the edges of eyelids, for deepening the gaze—melded the hues as patiently, as inwardly as could be… Despite all this, no light ever came through that would turn the wooden panel into a mirror; and even, thought the alchemist as he bent over his task, into far more than that. For the world’s light is but a reflection of the veritable light—isn’t this so? Even high noon is only a shadow. Each time he finished his work and stepped back, with anxious, questioning eyes, all he saw was grey, an indefinite grey. Just grey, even if at times that shadow seemed very white, like a sunny spell between two rains.
The stubborn seeker was growing old, and he’d tired of his quest; he even went so far as to interrupt it now and then, for several days. All the same, one morning he dripped from a vial yet another drop of color on the useless mix. His numbed attention was suddenly called to the fore: before knowing why, he felt a sudden surge of hope.
Maybe it was because, near a dab of very dark, very saturated red, a brighter value had appeared by contrast—which led him to believe there was something like a gleam in the indeterminate mud of the other color. Later, he couldn’t remember what he’d thought or imagined in that minute; but after some hesitation, he’d applied a daub of saffron yellow next to the red splotch. Then he stood back from the panel, which by now he’d propped up against a wall. With his eyes half-closed, he looked at the two colors side by side. God knows why, he was reminded of a field drenched with water he’d seen one evening, at sunset: he’d been troubled by the two colors that collided there in the shadows. After wavering once more, he placed a third color beside the other two, a blue—perhaps because of stones he’d observed in the stream that drained the pools at the bottom of the field.
Three spots now, that almost touch! And they give off a beam that isn’t just the greyness of matter stirred in vain—but isn’t quite the simple sun, either, as it edged the field on that first day.
We meet the alchemist again a few weeks later, feverishly exploring the iridescence wrought by opposing colors on the grey background, on the patches of light and dark. From now on, he’s convinced that at certain moments this contrast heats up, intensifies, as if a glowing force pressed against it, possibly from a fire that strives to penetrate matter through this path. He came to think that it isn’t from the mixture of colors, utterly material, but from their juxtaposition—which unites them at a higher level—that one day, abruptly perchance, a streak of lightning will be born.
And now at last—though years have passed—he’s completed his task. The ray of light shines with mystery; it peacefully burns in the vessel of his great work: the wooden panel he’s kept before him, resting against the wall, for such a long time. We look over his shoulder, sympathetically. Has he really done nothing more than study the bonds between values, between tones? It seems to us we’re gazing at a fairly free rendition of a field of maize, or sunflowers, at dusk beside a stream; or else it’s a marsh, where blue water has flooded the clumps of yellow blooms. Have we just witnessed a grand moment of history—of the mind? In which the alchemist of color may have invented landscape painting?
He’s taken the picture in his hands, and he’s going to set it on a small pile of stones—since we’re outside, I should’ve said. For a long time he’s been working in front of his door, near these stones blackened as if by sacrifice. And it’s here, too, that this field begins; at present, its far end trails off into the crimson clouds of evening. He sets the picture down, and steps back once again—but happy now, satisfied. Then he turns around. Three angels are standing there, who look at him and smile. One wears a red robe; another’s raiment is blue-gray; the third is swathed in saffron yellow, inconceivably vivid and intense. ‘Who are you?’ he asks them.
“We are the Earth,” they answer. “The Earth that you create. We’ve come to sit with you under the arbor. Offer us some bread and wine. We need to speak for quite a while, my friend, before the fall of night.”
ALL MORNING IN THE CITY
He left his hotel very early, with what he thought was an illustrated guide to the city. He crossed the river on a bridge built in the century when that city had achieved its independence, newly focused on the future and on architectural grace. On the other shore were the monuments of this resplendence, severe as to their facades; and yet a wild excess, so he was told, all chimeras and great bursts of color, lay hidden on the other side—silent, empty—of their heavy doors.
Between two of these edifices, here’s a street that leads behind them into scenes of ordinary life, up to the ramparts. It can only be a rather untidy clutter of houses, as a lot of time has gone by since the initial period of grandeur; hence the run-down, abandoned aspects. But there were fresh beginnings as well: new buildings jutting out at the crossroads, and even some innovative styles. And that’s exactly what he beholds; yet there are so many facets he hadn’t foreseen! He’d imagined bare walls, and high windows with fitted grills; but on the contrary, all he discovers is low, cramped shops—quite silent, it’s true. They’re the kind you have to come up close to, pressing your forehead against the glass, so you can make out what’s on display, such as a vague little flame in a mirror’s pool, untouched by the sun. As to the street itself, it’s longer, much longer than he’d thought, with side-streets cutting through it again and again. These offer him other neighborhoods he sometimes explores, suddenly attracted by a half-concealed chapel, or a shaft of sun at the far end of a dark passageway. But he comes back fairly soon, because these new streets branch off in turn, revealing still more chapels, more lofty stairways under colonnades, more of those princely mansions with their heavy, studded doors—where violent knocks had been struck now and then, the thuds resounding for ages in the depths of vacant rooms.
Yes, he retraces his steps: he always returns to the street he’d wanted to follow, glad he succeeds in finding his way. Yet these spaces never stop seeming vaster to him than he’d realized; he even begins to think perhaps they’re expanding, as he moves forward under the morning sky. The sky itself appears to stand still: a scale balanced between two azure weights. Everything multiplies, fans out. He reaches the point where he perceives afar, on the city heights—admittedly rather dark—passersby who’re tinted by the bright hues of memory. That man, for example, or that woman. The man walks forward, offering his hand with a smile; but at the last moment, where is he? And the woman’s figure, so vague from the start—though she makes gestures and calls out, in her phosphorescent dress beneath a hat of light… They were there, or almost. Hello, good-bye: he must press on in this street that increases, stretches out, fades away.
It remains quite narrow, all the same, with bookshops here along its steep, downhill slope. The traveler walks right into them, since he’s noted they only contain the piled-up glimmers of stones, often dusty; or leftover timberwork, broken and blackened, with shreds of cloth that also show up amid the disarray; or sheets of paper where several words are legible, who can say, between the adjacent burns—imprinted by fire long ago. Shift those joists, those stones. Extract from their depths this little steel wristwatch, tarnished now, with its ribbon of black silk and dainty hands: the very one the wanderer’s mother used to lay on the mantelpiece beside the clock every evening. Two tick-tocks that answered each other, that merged; but only the ear of God could’ve heard the weaker of the two from where the child slept, and could’ve mulled over their nearness in the night.
Let’s leave these memories behind, and go on into the depths of the shop, where we find the street once again that keeps descending; and at the bottom now, nearby, is the river’s light.
Soon I’m on the quay, where I meet with luminosity on every side. I see the great river retreat into the distance: no longer as it was in the early morning, but instead an immense body of water, between banks very broad themselves—like avenues with numberless vehicles streaming by, noiseless and glittering. Across the river, faraway under the light blue sky, are the superb monuments of the opposite shore—steeples and domes. And before me, this bridge with the same proportions as the quays and the river, with the same vehicles, the same passersby like floating shades of evanescent hues. No, they don’t exist, nor does the bridge. Maybe only the water is real; it surges from every direction, amplified even more. I survey the magnificent panorama: the city seems limitless, infinite. I’ve forgotten the name of my hotel, and what street it’s on as well; I only know that it’s somewhere over there, so I’ll have to cross the river. But on the horizon, to my right, I catch sight of the little bridge I traversed when this morning began, and now I head that way.
YVES BONNEFOY. Before his death in July 2016, Yves Bonnefoy had published eleven major collections of verse, several books of tales, and numerous studies of literature and art. He is recognized as the greatest French poet of the last fifty years, and his work has been translated into scores of languages. In addition, he himself was a celebrated translator of Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats, and Leopardi. He received the European Prize for Poetry in 2006 and the Kafka Prize in 2007, among many other honours. An anthology of his last two decades of poetry in translations by Hoyt Rogers, Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011, was published by the Yale University Press in 2012. The most recent English-language reader of his work, edited by Anthony Rudolf, Stephen Romer, and John Naughton, was published in the UK in two volumes by Carcanet Press: Yves Bonnefoy: The Poems in 2017 and Yves Bonnefoy: Prose in 2020. Next year, the centenary of his birth, a long-awaited volume of his poetic works will appear in the prestigious Pléiade series of French authors. In another celebration of the centennial, The Wandering Life (a translation by Rogers of La Vie errante)—from which the above pieces are drawn—will be published by Seagull Books.
HOYT ROGERS is a poet, writer, scholar, and translator; he has published widely. His study of Renaissance verse, The Poetics of Inconstancy, appeared in 1997 (UNC Press), and he translates from the French, German, Italian and Spanish. He has published five translations of books by Yves Bonnefoy, among them The Curved Planks (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006); an anthology of the poet’s late work, Second Simplicity (Yale University Press, 2012); and Rome, 1630 (Seagull Books), which received the 2021 French-American Translation Prize. His translations of Jorge Luis Borges appeared in the Viking-Penguin edition (2000). In 2014, Yale published Outside, his anthology of poems and journal entries by André du Bouchet, prepared in collaboration with Paul Auster. Hoyt Rogers is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review; for an archive of his Fortnightly work, see here. He divides his time between the Caribbean and Europe. His forthcoming works include a new poetry collection, Thresholds (MadHat Press), the novel Sailing to Noon (book one of The Caribbean Trilogy), and a translation of Bonnefoy’s The Wandering Life (Seagull Books). His website is here.
See also: ‘The Curved Planks’, in a translation by Anthony Rudolf, with etchings by Paula Rego.