Tuesday, July 14, 2009


It’s Bastille Day, or le quatorze juillet, & in honor of the same I’m kicking off a series of translation posts; for the foreseeable future, this will be a regular Tuesday feature. As folks who’ve been reading Robert Frost’s Banjo for some time know, I translated a pretty fair amount of 20th century French poetry during the 1990s, & I’ve posted several of my Apollinaire translations already.

But today’s poem is by Robert Desnos, a marvelously lyrical poet who was very much a part of the Surrealist movement in the 1920s, but who later broke with the Surrealists (& in particular André Breton). Desnos continued writing poetry as well as working as a journalist during the 1930s, & joined the French Army in 1939 at the onset of World War II. After France fell to Nazi Germany, Desnos worked with the Resistance & also (under several psuedonyms) published satirical articles about the Nazis. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944 & sent first to Auschwitz & then to Terezín, where he died of tyhoid fever in 1945, a few weeks after the camp’s liberation.

Moving from that grim reality to today's poem, I think you'll agree that “Cuckoo” presents a lovely, fairy-tale like dreamscape. The title might be translated as “Cuckoo-Clock,” (because "coucou" in French also means the clock) but this isn’t the primary meaning, which simply refers to the bird. Of course, as I believe Eberle used to tell her writing students, “if you have a radiator & leopard skin pants, you already have a jungle,” so course you have a cuckoo clock once you have a cuckoo.

Hope you enjoy my version of Desnos’ poem.


It was all as if in a childlike picture
The moon wore an opera hat that eight reflections ricocheted off
          across the surface of ponds
The ghost dressed in a natty shroud
Was smoking a cigar at the window of his room
At the castlekeep's top story
Where the sagacious crow told the cats their fortunes.
There was the child in her nightgown lost in the snow's paths
Having searched inside her shoes for the silk fan and the high heels
There was the conflagration against which, immense,
The firemens' shadows stood out,
But, above all, there was the fleeing thief, a big sack on his back,
On the road the moon whitewashed
Escorted by the barking of dogs in the sleeping villages
And by the cackling of hens startled awake.
I am not rich, said the spectre flicking the ash from his cigar, I am
          not rich
But I'll bet a hundred bucks
He'll go far if he keeps it up.
Vanity all is vanity, answers the crow.
And what about your sister? asked the cats.
My sister has beautiful jewels and beautiful spiders
In her castle of night.
An innumerable mass of servants
Comes every night to put her to bed.
When she wakes she has a piece of cake, and witchgrass, and a
          toy trumpet
To blow into.
The moon laid its top hat on the earth
And that made for a dense night
Where the ghost dissolved like a sugar cube in coffee.
The thief looked a long time for his lost path
And wound up falling asleep
And nothing was left beyond the earth
Except a smoky blue sky where the moon sponged its brow
And the lost child who was walking into the stars.
Here’s your beautiful fan
And your dancing shoes,
Your grandmother's corset
And rouge for your lips
You can dance amidst stars
You can dance for the beautiful ladies
Across the array of heavenly roses
From which one falls each night
To reward the sleeper who dreamed the most beautiful dream.
Slip on your shoes and lace your corset
Put one of these roses in your bodice
And some rouge on your lips
And now sway your fan
So there still may be on earth
Nights after days
Days after nights

Robert Desnos
translation © John Hayes 1990-2009


  1. I wonder what the brain scan of someone who can translate French poems into English looks like! This seems like such a feat. Congratulations. The poem is beautiful.

    I've been reading translations of Lorca's poetry. No matter how hard I try to like him, I don't. This is what I do - read and read and read the greats to see if they'll grow on me. Sometimes they do, sometimes, nahhhh. At any rate, I wondered if I could read/speak Spanish if his brilliance would be more apparent to me.

  2. Hi Jen:

    Glad you liked it. Have you been reading one particular translation of Lorca? There was an edition of his "Selected Poems" put out by Noonday Press with several different translators; I like that one a lot, but of course not everyone is going to like every poet! Being able to read the original language certainly helps-- R Frost said "poetry is what gets lost in translation," & while that may be overstating the case (those of us who have translated poetry hope!) there's more than a bit of truth, too.

  3. Loved the poem. The lines "And nothing was left beyond the earth /
    Except a smoky blue sky where the moon sponged its brow" will stay with me for a long time

  4. Hi Alan:

    & thanks! In the original: "Et il ne resta plus au dela de la terre/Qu'n ciel bleu fumee ou la lune s'epongeait le front" (sorry to leave off the accents).

  5. Great work ,John, you are a clver and talented man, some lovely lines in there,as pointed out by Alan, above.Glad your computer troubles seem to be over.Keep doing the do.A bientot!

  6. Lovely translation, John. I am very impressed. It's not so easy as it might seem to translate into another language and maintain the beauty and flow of the words.

  7. Hi TFE & Willow:

    TFE: Thanks--yes, the computer is back in biz, new CPU & all! & I got a good deal on a laptop in the bargain so I should be good to go for awhile.

    Willow: I haven't done any in several years, but it is an enjoyable pasttime--much different than writing poems "from scratch." Glad you liked it!

  8. beautiful verse - so glad for your sharing of it all - jenean

  9. Hi Jenean:

    So glad you liked it. Thanks!

  10. It's like Desnos "Pillow Book". I loved the, "Where the sagacious crow told the cats their fortunes." line, of course.


  11. Hi Kat:

    Now I can see why you'd like that. Thanks!

  12. Thanks for this dreamlike poem. It's filled with beautiful and interesting imagery. I really like these lines:

    "And nothing was left beyond the earth
    Except a smoky blue sky where the moon sponged its brow
    And the lost child who was walking into the stars."

    To hold to the original intent of the poet and nuances of the language must be tremendously challenging and rewarding.


Thanks for stopping by & sharing your thoughts. Please do note, however, that this blog no longer accepts anonymous comments. All comments are moderated. Thanks for your patience.