Thursday, September 9, 2010

L'hirondelle blanche

Joë Bousquet was gravely wounded on May 27th, 1918, at Vailly near the Aisne battle lines at the end of the First World War. A bullet entered his back and shattered his vertebrae. He would be paralyzed for life. He was twenty one years old. He spent the rest of his life in a shuttered bedroom, in Carcassonne, at 19, then 41, then finally 53 rue de Verdun, lying in bed, smoking opium, and writing poetry. A bullet, he wrote, a bullet

in the vertebral column, my spinal marrow smashed, my legs paralyzed, a single bullet will take thirty-two years to kill me. Alone, lying in my bed, I attained such heights that I dug into the sky. Enclosed in my bedroom, enclosed in my body, I shined in this immobile light. The bad as well as the good has its sky in me; and I know the voluptuous satisfaction of not being mediocre in anything. Each day I rediscover that I have been wounded, that I am wounded and I owe to this wound the knowledge that everyone has been wounded as me. I was born March 19th, 1897, at Narbonne, I was hit by a bullet in the vertebral column May 27th, 1918 at Vailly on the front, I was twenty one. Who am I such that one sees me, floating between two identities, the one of my heart and the one of my death?

I first heard “L’hirondelle blanche” (The White Swallow) a few days ago, on September 6th, 2010. Each day, Monday through Friday, La Comedie Française presents a poem on the French radio station France Culture, which broadcasts in France but is also available online, which is how I came to hear Bousquet’s poem.

The poem engulfed me. I was entranced. Fascinated. There was an enigma at the heart of the poem that had something to do with this world and the next; not the afterlife, but the world we do not see unless, by some extraordinary means, a drug or a poem, a painting or piece of music, our senses are so elevated that we can see, as William Blake put it, infinity in a grain of sand.

I had a difficult time translating the poem. Bousquet’s syntax is very dense and convoluted. This impaction contributes to the sense of enclosure the poem delineates, a verbal density contrasted by images of the sky, and what the French term clair-obscur, or chiaroscuro, the mingling of light and shade to dramatize an image or idea.

Here is the poem. I have included the original below.

          The White Swallow

It is not night upon the earth; obscurity lurks, wanders around
And I know shadows so absolute that all form perambulates a
and becomes a presentiment, perhaps the dawn of a regard.

These shadows are in us. A devouring obscurity inhabits us.
The shivers of the pole are nearer to me than this stinking hell
where I cannot breathe myself.
No sounding can measure these densities: because my appearance
      is in one space
and my entrails in another; I ignore it because neither my eyes
      nor voice can see it or hear it
nor is one in the other.

It is day your regard exiled from your face
Cannot find your eyes turning around you
But in a double enclosed mirror on another space
Where the highest star extinguishes itself in your voice.

Upon a body that silvers with the rising tides
The day ripens the oblivion of an immaculate pole
And moistens upon your eyelashes a star expired
Upon the rainbow that it draws from the roots of the wheat.

The days that put their odor to sleep under your rosy flanks
Gather themselves in your eyes that open without seeing yourself
And their wings of silk enroll in your enclosed night
The earth where the entire night is but the overture of an evening.

The shadow hides a smuggler of fragrant absences
It loses upon your hands the day which was your eyes
And like the consumed whiteness in the hollow of a lily
Smashes on the wire of these nights a sky too large for them.

It blackens in me, but I am not this shadow although rather heavy
for darkening a day.
This night is: one could say that it has made my eyes today and
      closed me off from what they see.
Colors tinted blue since I see them only through my depths,
reds that illumine my blood, black that sees my heart.

Night of the sky, poor enclosed shade, you are the only night for
      my lashes.

Very little ash has made this bouquet of eyelids
And which is neither this ash or this effaced world
When its fists of sleep carry all the earth
Where neither love nor night have ever begun.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

          L’hirondelle blanche

Il ne fait pas nuit sur la terre; l’obscurité rôde, elle erre autour du
Et je sais des ténèbres si absolue que toute forme y promène une
et y devient le pressentiment, peut-être l’aurore d’un regard.

Ces ténèbres sont en nous. Une dévorante obscurité nous habite.
Les froids du pôle sont plus près de moi que ce puant enfer
où je ne pourrais pas me respirer moi-même.
Aucune sonde ne mesurera ces épaisseurs: parce que mon
      apparence est dans un espace
et mes entrailles dans un autre; je l’ignore parce que mes yeux, ni
      ma voix, ni le voir, ni l’entendre
ne sont dans l’un ni l’autre.

Il fait jour ton regard exilé de at face
Ne trouve pas tes yeux en s’entourant de toi
Mais un double miroir clos sur un autre espace
Don’t l’astre le plus haut s’est éteint dans ta voix.

Sur un corps qui s’argente au croissant des marées
Le jour mûrit l’oubli d’un pôle immaculé
Et mouille à tes longs cils une étoile expirée
De l’arc-en-ciel qu’il draine aux racines des blés.

Les jours que leur odeur endort sous tes flancs roses
Se cueillent dans tes yeux qui s’ouvrent sans te voir
Et leur aile de soie enroule à ta nuit close
La terre où toute nuit n’est que l’ouvre d’un soir.

L’ombre cache un passeur d’absences embaumées
Elle perd sur tes mains le jour qui fut tes yeux
Et comme au creux d’un lis sa blancheur consumée
Abîme au fil des soirs un ciel trop grand pour eux.

Il fait noir en moi, mais je ne suis pas cette ténèbre bien qu’assez
pour y sombrer un jour.
Cette nuit est: on dirait qu’elle a fait mes yeux d’aujourd’hui et me
      ferme à ce qu’ils voient.
Couleurs bleutées de ce que je ne vois quaver ma profounder,
rouges que m’éclaire mon sang, noir que voit mon coeur…

Nuit de ciel, pauvre ombre éclose, tu n’es la nuit que pour mes

Bien peu de cendre a fait ce bouquet de paupières
Et qui n’est cette cendre et ce monde effacé
Quand ses poings de dormeur portent toute la terre
Où l’amour ni la nuit n’ont jamais commencé.


Joseph said...

John, this is fantastic stuff. Is there more, and is it like this? I'm very curious.

John Olson said...

Hi Joseph. Yes, Bousquet published a number of books of poetry, including Le Mal d'enfance, (Denoël, 1939), Traduit du silence, (Gallimard, 1941), Le Meneur de lune, (1946), and La Connaissance du soir, (Éditions du Raisin, 1946. I pulled these titles from the Wikipedia site. I don't know as yet how many English translations are out there. Norma Cole translated a section from a work of prose titled Language Entire, which is included in her anthology Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France, from Burning Deck in 2000.