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Although I have spent nearly a quarter or so of my life in France and, during most of this time, maintained a keen interest in French literature, I had never heard of Jean Cassou until Timothy Adès, his gifted English translator, brought him to my attention.  Cassou seems to have been forgotten even by his own countrymen and women although he died not so long ago (1986) and seemingly had impeccable credentials politically as an active Resistant left for dead by the Germans at the liberation of Toulouse and not bad poetic credentials either since one might just place him in the slipstream of  the French surrealist movement. However, he broke decisively with the French Communist Party in 1949 for which they never forgave him; also, his occasional archaisms and the fact that his poems generally make some sort of sense presumably stopped him from being accepted as a true modernist, or post-modernist.
His 33 Sonnets composés au secret were written in a Vichy prison “nearly all in the dark, half a sonnet per night and committed to memory”. Jean Cassou was not exactly in solitary confinement since most of the time he shared a cell with another prisoner (because the prisons were full) but he was allowed no exercise, no visits, no books and no writing materials. Although Aragon sees the sonnet form as “embodying freedom under constraint”, which is fair enough in a sense, Cassou’s choice of form also had a more prosaic raison d’être : poems in strict rhyme and stanza form are a good deal easier to memorise. Also, the sonnet at fourteen lines is about the right length to at once stretch but not overburden the brain.
It would seem that the choice of form was a happy one. For me, it is wonderful to come across ‘modern’ poems that one can actually quickly learn off by heart and recite to oneself : people today seem to have forgotten that poetry is essentially something to be heard. And Cassou’s varied pace and  rich sound patterning make these poems, at their best, very eloquent indeed.
What of the content ?  Surprisingly, and yet not so, they are not really ‘prison poetry’. There are occasional outbursts of anger, patriotism and aspirations after a better life for all, as one would expect from a French Resistant and (at the time) communist party member but these are not the sonnets that appeal to me most. In a strange way, these poems bear witness to a kind of mental liberation rather than constriction : other people who have spent some time, voluntarily or not, in solitary and nearly immobile conditions have testified to this ‘expansion of inner space’.  (I must make it clear, however, that we are not talking about Abu Graib prison in Iraq or Guantanamo Bay : Cassou was not tortured or brutalised by his jailors though he could, had he  eventually been  convicted, easily have ended up in a concentration camp as so many of his comrades did.)

Emily Dickinson spent the last years of her life in a single room without exactly being a chronic invalid, seemingly by choice.  More to the point with regard to Cassou is the remarkable book, also alas completely forgotten, Solitary Confinement by the Englishman Christopher Burney recounting his (total) solitary confinement at Fresnes during eighteen months at more or less the same time as Cassou was incarcerated (for a year) at Toulouse.  (Like Cassou, Burney was suspected of being an agent of the Resistance, but absolute proof was lacking.) He writes of his first day inside :
“Being shut in this little cell was the prelude to what was to become life in a new element, a change as drastic as a transformation of the lungs to use some other gas than oxygen, a rarefaction, seeming often like death, and yet  fuller of elemental life than the red-blooded life outside.”
This is exactly what Cassou gives us in sonnet form : the surgings and outpourings of  ‘elemental life’ frozen into the words and rhythms of thirty-three fairly regular sonnets.
We should all be grateful to Timothy Adès for bringing this remarkable human document and  notable piece of  literature to the non-French reading public. (I would probably have had to be put in incommunicado myself to even think of  taking on such a daunting task as translating these poems while keeping to rhyme and stanza form.)
I give Sonnets II and VI, my favourites, first in French and then in Timothy Adès’ translation.

II

Mort à toute fortune, à l’espoir, à l’espace,
mais non point mort au temps qui poursuit sa moisson,
il me faut me retraire et lui céder la place,
mais dans ce dénuement grandit ma passion.

Je l’emporte avec moi dans un pays sans nom
où nuit sur nuit me pressent et m’effacent.
L’ombre y dévore l’ombre, et j’y dresse le front
à mesure qu’un mur de songe boit ma trace.

Ce n’est vie ni non plus néant. De ma veillée
les enfants nouveau-morts errent dans l’entre-deux.
Transparentes clartés, apparues, disparues,

Elans sans avenir, souvenirs sans passé,
décroître fait leur joie, expirer fait leur jeu,
et Psyché brûle en eux, les ailes étendues.

Jean Cassou

II

Dead to all fortune and to hope and space,
but not to time whose fullness is to be,
I must draw back, leave time to set the pace;
my passion deepens in this penury.

I take it with me to a nameless place
where night and night on night bear down on me.
Shadow eats shadow there. I show my face;
my tracks are drowned in mental masonry.

Not life, not nothingness, I cannot sleep:
in no-man’s-land my new-dead children stray.
Now here, now vanished, lucid shimmerings,

memories of no past, a forward leap
to nowhere; dearth’s their joy and death’s their play,
and Psyche burns in them with outspread wings.

Timothy Adès

VI

Bruits lointains de la vie, divinités secrètes,
trompe d’auto, cris des enfants à la sortie,
carillon du salut à la veille des fêtes,
voiture aveugle se perdant à l’infini,

rumeurs cachées aux plis des épaisseurs muettes,
quels génies autres que l’infortune et la nuit
auraient su me conduire à l’abîme où vous êtes ?
Et je touche à tâtons vos visages amis.

Pour mériter l’accueil d’aussi profonds mystères
je me suis dépouillé de toute ma lumière :
la lumière aussitôt se cueille dans vos voix.

Qu’on me laisse à présent repasser la poterne
et remonter, portant ces reflets noirs en moi,
fleurs d’un ciel inversé, astres de ma caverne.

Jean Cassou

VI

Life’s distant sounds, celestial, tucked away:
horns hooting, children going home to tea,
the church bells pealing for a festal day,
cars blindly heading for infinity,

rumours — wrapped, muffled, swathed; what people say:
demons of darkness and adversity
have brought me to your chasm; who but they?
I touch your friendly faces haltingly.

Such depths of mystery! To earn the right
of welcome, I dispensed with all my light.
Your voice is heard; light quickly gathers there.

Let me bring back these star-signs from my cavern,
back through the postern-gate, and upward bear
black images, flowers from an inverse heaven.

Timothy Adès

Note : The book Jean Cassou 33 Sonnets of the Resistance, which includes a number of other poems by Cassou, some in free verse and some in other rhymed forms, is published by Arc and can be ordered from their website.

Sebastian Hayes

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Much as I abhor the Internet and indeed wish that the     ‘Information Technology’  revolution had never got started, I must admit that it does turn up the occasional rare and captivating shell amongst the thousands of plastic bottles washed up by the waves onto my minuscule section of the world wide beach.   annadenoailles.com (which I started) somehow attracted the attention of Roger Hunt Carroll (left) with whom I have subsequently exchanged letters and who has kindly sent me some of his own publications, one of which is entitled Variations on images in the verse of ….

His approach to the rendering of poems in a foreign language  is quite  the reverse of my own but, for that very reason, worth noting. In the Preface he writes

“A pure translation is never my intent. These are songs I sing out of their original languages and into my particular American English prosody with the aim that their essential poetry be kept intact.
(…) My terms arranging and transcribing bear some resemblance to what is done in the instrumental or vocal music sense. I don’t make translations: I place a poem in an alternate language, as if in another musical key…. I recast its images, as though for some other instrument. I hear languages as distinct musical instruments, listening to their harmonies, dissonances, assonances, all things in structured music.

This is an interesting and original approach and he  goes on to quote the words of  John French about musical transcription :
“Transcription is an art form in its own right and not just self-indulgent scribbling. A good study, arrangement, or transcription does not copy note for note and chord for chord, but it tries to adapt the original music to characteristics of the new instrument.

The author goes on to refer to the ideas of Walter Benjamin (unknown to me) on what ‘translation really is’
“He [Walter Benjamin] said, in effect, that the translator has to allow her/his work ‘to discover the pure language’ existing somewhere between the translator’s language and that of the poem being translated. I take this to mean that a poet conveying lines from one language to another must somehow get in touch with the ‘language beyond specific language’ and let it be the vehicle ultimately carrying the work.”

All  this is very thought-provoking and I would welcome readers’ reactions to these ideas which are so much the reverse of current practice.
For the moment,  I limit myself to the following observation. As a contemporary writer,  I would be greatly offended (indeed livid) if someone ‘translated’ me in a way that transformed my message into the very opposite of what I intended. It has, however, to be admitted that in the eras when literature was thriving, such as the Elizabethan era, authors took a very cavalier attitude indeed towards literary property, shamelessly lifting not only plots and characters but whole scenes one from another. And the ancient Greeks seemed to think it perfectly acceptable for not only different dramatists but even different cities and regions to have their own wildly different versions of semi-sacred myths. Indeed, not only culture but philosophy and religion would never have evolved, had not previous societies been largely lacking in our contemporary squeamishness about recasting and ‘translating’ as we deem fit ancient traditions. It is true that a poem is not quite the same thing as a myth or a philosophical doctrine, but nonetheless….
Rather amusingly,  one of Roger Hunt Carroll’s own poems (not translations) prompted me to make a variation, in effect write the poem I would have written myself had I conceived the original idea. (I would, however, not take the liberty of publishing the result as my own work and the author took the’ joke’ in good spirit, I hasten to add.)
Enough about theory : what are the results?   I give two ‘renderings’ — I dare not use the term ‘translation’ — of two very different poems taken from the beautifully printed  little booklet Variations

LA LUNE BLANCHE

The white of the full moon shrouds the arbor,
and from all branches of its trees
there is a voice calling: ‘Beloved.’

Like a deep mirror, the embowered lake shines
with the shadow of a willow at its edge —
in its bowed limbs, the wind sighs.

It’s the hour of dreaming; a vast, tender lull
descends on us from star-radiated skies.

Now: ecstasy

Paul Verlaine

VOM ERTRUNKENEN MÄDCHEN

The pitiful girl drowned and sluiced downstream
until she was washed into grander rivers,
and all the while the opaline gleam in the sky
burned extraordinarily, as though commanded
to give salute to her passing.

The marsh reeds and grasses wrapped around her —
and in slow motion she grew heavy enough to sink.
Freezing cold fishes caressed her limbs there,
proving that flora and fauna were her burdens,
even in her final descent.

And the sky at evening darkened in a dire smoky screen —
and it stole what was left of starlight, kept it suspended, hidden.
But the new day returned all patterns:
so there was for her dead self a morning,
and as well the sacred hours of night.

And when she drifted to and fro long enough,
her fading flesh diffused itself in the water slowly,
so slowly; and the thing that created her being
didn’t remember her, not even her having-been.
There slipped from her creator’s memory

first her face, and then her shriveled hands, and then —
at the very last of its recollection — her hair.
That was the morning when she assumed definition
as human river-debris, floating away without her flesh,
headed towards currents already full of scattered human reverie.

Bertolt Brecht





At the Jan 27th meeting of the ongoing series Poetry in Translation : The Trace I Wished to Leave at the Poetry Cafe, Covent Garden, Sarah Lawson, introduced us to the Mexican poet, Manuel Ulacia.

She writes :

“Manuel Ulacia (1953-2001) was still building his reputation as one of Mexico’s younger distinguished poets when he died in a drowning accident off the Pacific coast of Mexico. He was a Yale-educated academic, specialising in the poetry of Luis Cernuda. Both his parents were poets, and his maternal grandfather was Manuel Altolaguirre, one of the leading lights in the Spanish “Generation of ‘27”. Ulacia’s best poetry is of a very personal nature and often deals with his homosexuality, both his coming to terms with it as a youth and his frank enjoyment of same-sex relationships in later years.”
She adds,  “I regret that I never knew Manuel Ulacia, but I know people who did know him, including members of his family, and no one has a bad word to say about him. He was charming and charismatic and all the rest of it. As a young man he was really strikingly good looking.”

Biographical note on the translator:  Sarah Lawson translates from French, Spanish, and Dutch. Her translation of Jacques Prévert’s Selected Poems was a Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation in 2002.

As examples of Manuel Ulacia’s work she gives us here a Cavafyesque sketch of the encounter of two men in a hotel, and a poem from a collection he wrote about his father’s death which many critics consider his finest work.

In the Ritz in Meknes

Just one glance was enough,
the silence between two sentences,
the light touch in your hand
when you asked for the key
in the heat of the siesta,
for the young concierge
with the look of a gazelle
to follow you to the room.

Such delight to touch
his olive thighs,
smelling of orange blossoms,
and to kiss his full lips
tasting of cardamom
while the fan revolved
cooling the entwined bodies
in their delirium desiring each other
as the desert desires water.

So much enjoyment in an instant
when the bodies forget reality
letting themselves go,
but where? where?

The city woke up after an hour.
The cars, the motorbikes,
the music from a radio,
the mysterious babble
brought you back to the world.
The concierge hurriedly,
said good-bye and left the room.
You went back to sleep.
You woke up in another dream
when the muezzin began
to pray into the microphone.
From the balcony, the Palace
glittered in the resonant night,
full of stars.

–Manuel Ulacia

translated by Sarah Lawson.

Note : Meknes is in Morocco. That’s why the muezzin is praying into the microphone. This doesn’t happen much in Mexico. Manuel Ulacia wrote this about the same trip in a few other Moroccan poems, like “Express to Marrakesh”.” (Sarah Lawson).

The Stone on the Bottom

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
the probes removed, the needles
and the oxygen mask,
between systole and diastole,
on the stage of memory,
one after another,
a slide-show of past life.
The trip to school at eight in the morning
with his quizzes
about the Yellow River,
the gardens of Mesopotamia,
the Great Wall of China and Newton’s apple,
and later, in the break
in the cool shade of tall ash trees,
in conversations with other boys,
the image of my father transformed
into the hero of an adventure story,
and now back home
the family together again,
my father tells about the thousand and one inventions
of his laboratory,
essences of rose, musk and lavender,
and the adventures of his mother as a girl,
in the trains of the Revolution
from Campeche to Mexico City,
the cockfights
that his father liked so much,
the walks through the fields and along riverbanks,
the forgotten image of his grandfather
who painted fans in Valencia,
his brief childhood in a huge garden,
stories about emigrants of almost a century ago
who left behind the Gothic tower, the olive grove and the herd
and who never returned.

And at the end of the day
I watch how my parents get dressed up
to go to a party,and after the good-night kiss,
absorbed in the movieon the black-and-white television,
I imagine that life is like this,
and that my parents are dancing
on a moon-lit terrace,
to a waltz by Agustín Lara,
and that my father is the leading man of the screen,
the corsair of a sea battle,
Tarzan in the Amazon jungle,
and that someday I too will be grown up
and I will catch on a girl’s neck
the odour of violets
and I will play out my destiny as they explained it to me.

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
and each pulse is slower than the last,
between systole and diastole,
time expands
like the concentric circles that form
when you throw a stone into the mirror of the water.
Each instant is an hour,
and each hour a life.
Brief the passing time.
Those days full of sun in the country,
the rusty walls of the house,
the stable, the corral,
the dam of the watering hole
with its clouds reflected as they pass,
where one day my father taught me
to measure the depth of water
by the time it takesthe thrown stone to reach the bottom.
And the woman who shells ears of maize
as if she were shelling the seeds of time.
In what waters do we fall
when we go if time doesn’t exist?
What is the depth of the sky?
Where do the hours of living germinate?
And now here we are as evening falls,
in a dimly lit room,
among loud steam of red-hot irons
on white sheets,
my father told me
that in the next room
his father had died:
the first image of finite time,
a falling stone,
a vast measurement that we are unaware of,
the sharp outline of his face,
the white sheet that shrouded his father,
the secret glance of the two ironing women,
the hand and the watch that take the pulse.
My father sits up
and asks, “What time is it?”
and without listening says: “Tomorrow at the same time.”
Shaking from cold his body begins
to give birth to another body,
the invisible butterfly with white wings,
that awaits the exact moment
to break free in nuptials with nothingness.

While my father’s breathing fades away,
an anxiety revives,
a sharp-edged stone in the throat.
Those meals in my youth,
in which the only sound was
the contact of the cutlery and the china,
the shy glances
that hid the blush caused by
carnal passion,
and my secret games in the bedroom,
while the piercing light, coming in through the window,
lit up the clouds of the pitcher,
the empty dishes and the crumbs,
because wakeful in my lascivious dreaming
I grasp the strange nature of my desire.

Now I wouldn’t be the picture of the hero after all
who danced with a girl on the screen,
nor the manager of industries,
nor the prudent man with social approval,
nor the man at the mercy of alluring virgins,
nor the father who perpetuates the species.
And later you argue;
Liberty
doesn’t make men happy,
says my mother, it only makes them men.
My father is silent:
indifference is fragile armour.

My father lives in the ideogram of his world,
he builds other dreams,
without a thought for the finite quality of time,
for the stone and its fall,
in the shadowy bedroom.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow
and the household increases
while my mother’s hair is turning white
and my sister discovers in the mirror
her budding breasts,
and my grandmother becomes a child again.
Tomorrow, tomorrow, always tomorrow.

While my father’s breathing
little by little fades away,
I want to tell him
that the only thing I wanted
was to live the truth of my real love,
but he no longer hears anything,
he no longer says anything,
silence has been taking possession of his body,
of the body of my mother,
of the circle formed around his bed,
of the shadowy room,
of the clear mirror of water
in which the stone keeps falling
in the fragile gravity of the moment.

While my father’s breathing fades away
the transparency of the window reminds me
that outside the world exists.
I contemplate the lighted city,
the cars that circulate,
the teenager in a corner
meeting his girlfriend,
the cyclist who goes past,
the athlete who runs on the grass.
Absorbed in the fragility of time,
I contemplate the world,
the window again,
the gathered family,
and I think that my father no longer speaks,
no longer sees, no longer hears,
that his dead senses
begin to perceive the theatre of the world
through us,
that the only memory of his life
is the fragments of our memory:
vast jigsaw puzzle from which pieces are missing.
What is he thinking about as he is leaving himself?
About my mother’s skin?
About the news bulletins of World War II?
About his first communion and the commandments?
About the tumours that are spreading through his body?
My father, between stammerings,
says that he has a stone in his neck,
that the stone doesn’t fall,
that he will fall with it.
Where to? In what place?

While my father’s breathing fades away,
it seems that he is beginning to forget everything:
the chemotherapies and the executioners,
the waiting rooms and the operating theatres,
the portrait of his grandmother
and the young legs of girls,
the stone from Oaxaca and the canary’s song,
the red rattle and the first cry.

Or perhaps, in his oblivion
—the last dream that time devours—
he may travel by a road
in search of his father.
But the road is already another road,
and the house another house.
His life now is contained in an instant.
All the parts are reconciled.
A single sun burns in his conscience,
frozen fire that consumes the world.
In the mirror of water
the last ripple appears.
The stone, in its fall,
reaches the bottom.

Manuel Ulacia

translated by Sarah Lawson

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