Tuesday, July 21, 2009

“Postman Cheval”

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.

Postman Cheval

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
            barometric roots
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
            odd couplings
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
            staircase 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
            making breasts
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

André Breton
translation © 1990-2009 by John Hayes


  1. Wow. This is an amazing piece. Fabulous translation, John. The line that stopped me in my tracks was "Without turning around you seized the trowel used for
    making breasts".
    Gorgeous. And the picture of
    Breton is priceless.

  2. Hi Willow:

    Yes, Breton can come up with the arresting image! Glad you liked it--& I agree about the pic.

  3. Hey, John, thanks for your excellent inaugural post on Just A Song. I hope your followers check it out.

  4. Hi K:

    Very glad you liked it--I'm trying to head folks in that direction--put up a brief teaser post below this one.

    Thanks again for asking me to contribute.

  5. I have a feeling that some of these images are going to stick with me a long time. The staircase opening its steps like drawers : "Bread drawers wine drawers soap drawers ice drawers staircase drawers, Flesh drawers with handfuls of hair". Powerful stuff. Thanks for the excellent translation.

  6. How pleasing to see Breton's picture again lol it always made me sure of my conviction that he and Trotsky were insane (in the best of ways). Do you care for Bertolt Bretcht, speaking of Marxists? I remember always clarifying myself by saying "Yes I'm a Marxist, but a Marxist-Leninist" what naivtee of youth! Do you like Jacques Brel? Always love coming here to visit and your translation was superb, worth another read.

  7. Hi Alan & Cathy:

    Alan: So glad you liked it. I think the stair passage is quite intriguing myself.

    Cathy: Love Brecht! Both the poetry & the plays (& music, too, by Weill et al.) & I like Jacques Brel quite well, too. The Alice in Wonder Band went thru a phase in which we did a few Brecht numbers--the most succesful one, I think, being the beautiful "Sons Of"-- "Fils De" Thanks for your kind words.

  8. "At its best, his poetry can be a provocative swirl of images containing very memorable phrases."

    And so it very well is...

    "We would then go before you we the plants subject to metamorphoses
    Who each night send signals man can intercept"

    and so the interplay ever present...

  9. Hi Rose Marie:

    & thanks for your appreciation of this!

  10. Thanks so much for this translation, I'm writing a paper on this particular poem by Breton and found your translation to be a lot better than other one's I've run into on the interwebs. In case you were still wondering about the title: it (and the whole poem btw) refers to Ferdinand Cheval, the famous postman who built the Palais Ideal. It took Cheval 30 years to finish this great piece of art and Breton was probably very impressed by its statement against surplus labour and surrealistic process of creation.


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