To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Translating André Breton: Robert Duncan & David Antin

[Going through some old files recently I came across two translations by Robert Duncan of poems by the Surrealist overlord & master-poet André Breton.  That brought me back too to a series of translations from Breton that David Antin composed & that I published sometime in the 1960s.  An old theme of mine – & ours – that I still cherish is the relation of the second great wave of American experimental poetry to antecedents not only “in the American grain” – as then widely promulgated – but in a direct line from forerunners in other languages & cultures.  For myself, writing & living in the same late-twentieth-century America, there was a sense that all of us, as poets, shared a past & future with forerunners & contemporaries across a startling range of times & places. This came at a time when we were discovering ourselves also as American poets with a new language in which to write & a new perspective – a series of new perspectives – that we could write from.  As I look at Duncan & Antin then, both of them taking pleasure in the work of our great French predecessor, I feel again the sense of what I’ve written of elsewhere as our French connection, & that connection & others I take to be as vital for us as any rooted solely on our native shore. (J.R.)]  

dreams                                                                                                                                             translated by Robert Duncan

But the light returns
the pleasure of smoking
The spider-fairy of the cinders in points of blue and red
is never content with her mansions of Mozart.
The wound heals cvcrything uses its ingenuity to make
recognized I speak and beneath your face the cone of
turns which from the depths of the sea has calld the pearls
the eyelids, the lips, inhale the day
the arena empties itself
one of the birds in flying away
did not think to forget the straw and the thread
hardly has a crowd thought it fit to stir
when the arrow flies
a star nothing but a star lost in the fur of the night

New York, October 1943 

vigilance                                                                                                                                                      translated by David Antin                                                                                                                 

In Paris the tower of Saint Jacques careening
Like a sunflower
Nearly collides with the Seine
Its shadow slides imperceptibly among the tugs
At this moment in my sleep
I steer silent toward my couch
I rise and set the fire
That will destroy the remains of my extorted consent
The furniture gives place to animals of the same size
With friendly faces
Lions whose manes consume the chairs
Dogfish whose white bellies absorb the last shudder
     of the sheets
I see myself in the hour of love of blue eyelids
Burning in my turn I see the solemn receptacle of
That was my body
Excavated by the patient beaks of the fire-ibises
And at the end I pass into the ark

Indifferent to the dragging steps of life’s remote
The spines of the sun fall golden
Across the white pines of the rain
I hear the tearing of human underwear like a great
Under the nail of absence and presence who connive together
All of the ways are exhausted there remains only a scrap of
     perfumed lace
The husk of a lace perfectly shaped like a breast
I touch nothing now but the heart of things I hold the thread
     in my hands 

windward                                                                                                                                           translated by Robert Duncan
Jersey Guernsey by times somber and illustrious
restore to the flood two cups overflowing with melody,
the one whose name is on all lips,
the other which has been in no way profaned,
and this one discloses the imprint of a scene, familial and
beneath the lamp an adolescent reads aloud to an aged dame
but what fervor on the part of each and in him what transports
however little she had been the friend of Fabre d'Olivet
and he had been calld to exalt himself with the name of
     Saint-Yves d'Alveydre and the octopus in his crystalline
retreat gives way in whorls and ringing sounds
to the Hebrew alphabet
I know what were the poetic directions yesterday,
they are no longer valid for today.
The little songs go on to die their natural death.
I persuade you to put on your hats before going.
It will be better no longer to be satisfied with your thin soup
brewd up in measure in blinking rooms
while justice is renderd by three quarters of beef,
once for all Poetry must rise again from the ruins
in the robes and the glory of Esclarmonde
and reclaim aloud the cause of Esclarmonde
for there can be no peace for the soul of Esclarmonde
in our hearts and the words die that are not
good nails for the hooves of the horse of Esclarmonde
before the precipice where the edelweiss keeps the breath
     of Esclarmonde
the night's vision has been something it is a question now
of extending from the physical to the moral
in which its empire will be without limits.
The images have pleased me, it was the art
wrongly decried for burning its candle at both ends,
but everything is much more wick, the complicities are
     otherwise learned and dramatic.
As you will see I have just seen an eskimo mask
it's the head of a grey reindeer under the snow
realistic in conception except that between the right ear                                                       
     and eyes lies in wait the tiny rose-colord hunter
just as he is supposed to appear in the distance to the
But fitted with cedar and a metal without alloy
the marvelous blade
cut out in waves on an egyptian
back in the reflection of the fourteenth century of our era
alone will express it
by one of the animated figures of the tarot of the days
     to come,
the hand in the act of taking at the very moment of
     letting go
quicker than at the game of la mourre* and of l'amour 

*La mourre—a game of flashing the hand and asking "How many fingers do I hold up?" R.D.

a man and woman absolutely white
translated by David Antin 

At the depths of the parasol I see the marvelous prostitutes
On the side near the street lamps their gowns are the color
      of polished wood
They are walking a great piece of wallpaper
At which one cannot look without that choking feeling about 
    the heart of  ancient floors in buildings being demolished
Where a slab of marble lies fallen from the fireplace
And a skein of chains is tangled in the mirrors
A great instinct toward combustion rises from the street
     where they walk
Like scorched flowers
Their distant eyes raising a gale of stones
As they sink motionless to the center of the whirlpool
Nothing equals for me the sense of their useless thought
The freshness of the gutters where their little boots bathe
     the shadows of their beaks
The reality of their wrists of fresh cut hay into which they
I see their breasts which seize a point out of this profound night

Where the time for lying down and the time for getting up are
     the only precise measures of life
I see their breasts that are stars over waves
Their breasts in which the invisible blue milk cries as ever

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