Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Time for another translation here on a fine warm Tuesday morning in the Idaho rangeland—or wherever this fine Tuesday morning finds you.
& this Tuesday, we have a poem by the godfather of surréalisme himself, André Breton. For those of you who don’t know, Breton was a founder of the Surrealist movement (picking up on the term coined by Apollinaire), & worked closely with other writers with similar visions, among them Philippe Soupault, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, Benjamin Péret, & Robert Desnos (et al.) Breton is particularly known these days for his prose writings, both theoretical/polemical (e.g., the 1924 Surrealist Manifesto) & novelistic (e.g., Nadja). A leftist in politics, Breton collaborated with Trotsky on Pour un art révolutionnaire indépendent while Trotsky was in hiding in Mexico; Breton also was a member of the Communist Party in the mid 20s, but became disillusioned. At its best, his poetry can be a provocative swirl of images containing very memorable phrases.
Breton looked at poetry (& art in general) as the “dictation of thought”—i.e., as unmediated thought, as an unconscious welling up of imagery that was free to move between realms & beyond opposites. As you may know, the Surrealists practiced automatic writing, which is an attempt to divorce the writer from conscious intrusions on the creative process; this concept is central to the whole Surrealist project.
I’ll let Breton’s poem speak for itself, only commenting that one question I’ve always asked myself about the poem concerns the title. The title in French, Facteur Cheval, translates literally as Postman Horse. I’ve followed the tradition of other English language translators by retaining “Cheval” & not translating it. These little puzzles are both a great pleasure & a great bewilderment whenever one attempts to bring poetry from one language to another.
Hope you enjoy it.
We the birds you always charm from atop these belvederes
And who each night form no more than one blossoming branch
from your shoulders to the arms of your beloved wheel-barrow
Which we uproot from your wrists more sharply than sparks
We are the sighs of the glass statue that rises itself up on its
elbow when man sleeps
So shining breaches may open in his bed
Breaches through which can be glimpsed stags with coral antlers
inside a glade
Or naked women at the very bottom of a mine
You remember then you got up you got off the train
Without a glance toward the locomotive preyed upon by immense
That moans in the virgin forest for all its murdered boilers
Its smokestacks smoking hyacinths and stirred by blue serpents
We would then go before you we the plants subject to metamorphoses
Who each night send signals man can intercept
While his house tumbles down and he’s astounded by the
His bed seeks with the corridor and staircase
The staircase branches out indefinitely
It leads to a millstone door it opens suddenly onto a public square
It’s made of swans’ backs an outstretched wing as the rail
It turns upon itself as if it’s going to bite itself
But no it’s content at the sound of our footsteps to open all
its steps like drawers
Bread drawers wine drawers soap drawers ice drawers
Flesh drawers with handfuls of hair
At the hour when the ducks of Vaucanson preen their feathers
Without turning around you seized the trowel used for
We smiled at you you held us by the waist
And we assumed the positions of your pleasure
Motionless under our eyelids forever as woman loves to see man
After making love
translation © 1990-2009 by John Hayes