This one I love.
“When you are under this influence, you cannot get caught up in the misery of the world”
Poetry, and love, won’t allow escape from the intimacy of presence…
Sur la route de San Romano
by Andre Breton
translated by Simonne Guillerm Allen
Poetry is made like love in a bed
Its undone sheets are the beginning of things
Poetry is done in the woods
It has the space it needs
Not this one but the one that depends
On the eyes of the hawk
The dew on the snake-grass
The fogged souvenir of a bottle of Gewürztraminer on a silver tray
A high stem of tourmaline over the sea
And the road of mental adventure
Which rises up abruptly
One pause and she is mixed up right away.
It is not screamed on the rooftop
It is unproper to leave the door open
Or call witnesses
The school of fish the hedge of chickadees
The rail and the entrance of a great station
The reflection from two banks
The furrows in the bread
The bubble of the brook
The days of the calendar
The St. John’s Wort
The act of love and the act of poetry
Are not compatible
With the reading of the newspaper loudly.
The direction of the ray of the sun
The blue light of the return of the blow of the axe of the woodcutter
The thread of the kite shaped like a heart or a fish keep-net
The beating in rhyme of the tail of the beaver
The diligence of the lightning
The throw of the sugar coated pill from the top of the steps
The chamber of prestigious things
No sir, it is not the eighth chamber
Nor the vapor of the bedroom on a Sunday evening
The dancing figures executed transparently above the palms
The delineation of the outline of the body of a woman from the throw of daggers against the wall
The light undulation of the smoke
The curls of your hair
The curve of the sponge from the Philippines
The snares of the coral snake
The entrance of ivy in the ruins
She has all of time in front of her.
The poetic embrace like the fleshy one
As long as it lasts
Forbids all escape on the misery of the world.
Simonne* translated this poem today. I breathe these poems in and they reveal themselves to me like the resonance of a dream I am sharing with the poet. They encapsulate a moment in time or an emotion like a memory held in a raindrop that seeps inside me as Simonne reads me her translation and I transcribe the words into into the computer. We are painting in mental imagery together, the poets, Simonne and I. Once it is in the computer, we read at least one other translation to inspire us, line by line comparing it to her own, sometimes adapting her version minimally to make sure her very direct translation expresses in English grammar what we feel the poet was articulating in French, sometimes adopting a more precise word if we happen upon one. We then read this almost final version together, she reading a line in French and then I in English, back and forth, to make sure we like the final image it presents.
This is a very sad and beautiful poem by Jacques Prevert, a French poet and playwright of the twentieth century. He was one of the original members of the surrealist movement, who eventually rejected both the movement and its founder Andre Breton. Perhaps more on this as I research further, I am fascinated by the sudden intimacy I feel with these deep, sensitive and passionate writers.
This particular poem published in 1945 reflects, to me, the imprint of a sense memory of an amorous moment, of an experience of beauty that touches us deeply and allows a sense of connection that stays with us even if the encounter is brief, even if the encounter is only witnessed rather than directly shared. And perhaps if and when remembered is a tether to that beauty, to that connection, that can transcend erasure, even from the shadow of war, from the pouring rain that rots and washes everything away until nothing remains, nothing but maybe the resonance of memory.
Barbara de Jacques Prevert translated by Simonne Guillerm Allen
It was raining on Brest that day, constantly,
And you went walking, smiling
Radiant, delighted, dripping under the rain
It was raining continuously on Brest
And I crossed you on Siam Street
You were smiling
And as for me, I was smiling also
Did you remember Barbara
You whom I did not know
You who did not know me
Do you remember
Do you remember at least that day
A man was sheltered under a porch
He shouted your name
And you ran towards him under the rain
Dripping, delighted, radiant
And you threw yourself in his arms
Do you remember that, Barbara?
And no hard feelings if I use the familiar “tu” with you
I say “tu” to all that I love
Even if I’ve seen them only once
I say “tu” to all that love each other
Even if I do not know them
This rain wise and happy
On your happy face,
On this happy town
This rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the boat from Ouessant
What stupidity the war is
What has become of you?
Under this rain of iron,
Of fire, of bloody steel
And the one who holds you tight in his arms
Is he dead, vanished, or still alive?
It is raining constantly
Like it was raining before
But it is not quite the same and
Everything is damaged
It’s the rain of terrible and desolate mourning
Its no longer a storm
Of iron blood
But quite simply clouds,
Which die like dogs
Dogs which disappear
In the course of the water towards Brest
And go to rot far off
Far off, very far off from Brest
Of which nothing remains.
Prevert often collaborated with musician Joseph Kosma to turn his poetry into music, this version is performed by one of Simonne’s favorites, Yves Montand.
I was initially introduced to Simonne Guillerm Allen in order to teach her pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques. This was recommended by her doctors in France as a way to develop core strength and support her deteriorating back.
Simonne is an 87 year old French woman who grew up in Vietnam and spent her adult life between France and the United States, making her career as a university French language teacher. She moved from Brittany, France to New Hampshire to live with her son about a year ago.
At first we met once a week. Over time, the breathing exercises evolved into a meditation practice. Then we started integrating yoga and movement adapted to her physical condition, accompanied by some of her favorite French music from the internet. We discussed the transition into both her new living situation and the changes in her body and independent mobility. We contemplated Yogic and Buddhist psychology and philosophy to help her adapt and find a way to access her best quality of life with things exactly as they were. It was during these meetings that she began sharing tales from her life story. I became fascinated and she became more comfortable. Her seated posture, range of motion, mood and energy level improved significantly as we continued to meet. I currently see her four to five times a week, and there is always more to do than we have time.
The first spark that led to our current project came as we were dancing to Charles Trenet videos on YouTube. We had begun dancing together, she holding my arms for balance, in order to make range of movement exercises more interesting and invigorating. While scrolling through the videos, I happened upon Trenet’s version of the poem Chanson d’automne by Paul Verlaine put to music. Simonne freestyle translated the words as we listened to the song so I could understand what what he was singing. We were both inspired by this, so we started looking through French poetry on the internet.
Simonne mentioned that she had memorized some poetry throughout her life, which gave me an idea. Although her recall of past events is often extremely precise, her ability to imprint new memory is waning. I recalled hearing that some people find “passage meditation” in the tradition of Eknath Eswaren improves memory. Passage mediation utilizes a memorized passage silently recited internally as a focus point for the mind, the way we often use the breath as a point of concentration in meditation. Although this style of meditation typically employs spiritual writings from a wide range of traditions, I knew it would be difficult for Simonne to memorize a new passage. I asked if she remembered any poetry enough to try it. She said yes, and immediately recited aloud Harmonie du Soir by Charles Baudelaire. In full, en francais.
We each brought our head, neck and spine into alignment so that our posture felt somewhat weightless and stable, and sat for awhile. She in her chair and I on the floor, she internally reciting the poem and I the Mahamrityunjaya Mantra – a Shaivite predecessor of sorts in meaning to the Serenity Prayer. It went well. I asked her to translate the poem so I could understand, and so she did, aloud, as I typed it into the computer. Our excitement was palpable. I left her with a copy of the translation to edit, and another poem to translate while I was gone.
She has been at it ever since. She direct translates first and then plays with it to make it sound clear in English, while staying as close to the original text as possible. We look at other English translations sometimes for inspiration and as a dictionary of sorts, and yet her versions are often unique and I typically prefer them to what we find in books and online.
And the poetry is beautiful; Baudelaire, Verlaine and Victor Hugo are our favorites so far. She recently translated a Verlaine, En Sourdine, which I discovered was the inspiration for a song composed by Debussy – one of my favorite composers, who we had been listening to while doing slow range of movement yoga in her chair. Looking further, I realized that poetry was often a muse for Debussy, which has led us into an interesting inquiry into the social history of the time period in which these artists were creating, gleaned from their personal histories and the medium of their art. Clair de lune, one of Debussy’s most famous compositions, is also a musical interpretation of a Verlaine poem. This translation is less distinct than many of her other efforts, as the original French is more straightforward than some of the other poems she has worked with, most notably Mallarmé, another muse of Debussy. Yet it is one of our favorites.
Enjoy! We sure do.
Moonlight translated by Simonne Guillerm Allen
Your soul is a chosen landscape
Where charming masqueraders and jesters go Playing the lute, and dancing, and almost Sad beneath their fanciful disguises
All sing in a minor key
of victorious love and the opportune life
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.
Clair de lune de Paul Verlaine
Votre âme est un paysage choisi Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau, Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.