Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Verb To Be

As promised, more André Breton on Translation Tuesday. Today’s offering is a prose poem, “Le Verbe être,” &, like last week’s offering, comes from Breton’s 1932 La Revolver à cheveux blancs (The White-haired Revolver). There’s one particularly pesky line in this one: “Il fait un temps du temps.” The phrase “Il fait un temps” typically is used to describe weather, since the French noun “le temps” refers both to “time” & “weather.” My solution—in order to keep some semblance of this gloriously untranslatable pun, was “The weather’s time”—hoping to have some echo of “the weather’s fine” in that. I’ve also seen this translated as “It is time weather.”

I’ve long been fascinated with the prose poem form, something I’ve worked in myself, & this is a beautiful example of the form. Hope you enjoy it.

& if you can, please check in later today for an exciting new poetic feature right here on Robert Frost's Banjo!

The Verb To Be

I know despair in its broad outlines. Despair doesn't have wings, it isn’t necessarily found at a cleared table on a terrace, in the evening, by the seashore. It’s despair and not the return of a quantity of minor facts like seeds that desert one furrow for another at nightfall. It’s not the moss on a stone and it’s not the drinking glass. It’s a boat pelted by snow, if you will, like birds that are falling and their blood lacks the least thickness. I know despair in its broad outlines. A very small shape delineated by jewels of hair. It’s despair. A pearl necklace for which no one can find the clasp and whose existence doesn’t hang by even a thread, that’s despair. We don’t speak about the rest. We haven’t finished despairing if we begin. Myself I despair of the lampshade about four o’clock, I despair of the fan about midnight, I despair of the condemned man’s last cigarette. I know despair in its broad outlines. Despair has no heart, the hand always stays out-of-breath in despair, in despair whose death mirrors can never tell us. I live off this despair that charms me. I love this bluefly that flies through the sky at the hour when stars are singing. I know in its broad outlines despair with its long slender fissures, the despair of pride, the despair of anger. I get up each day like everybody and I stretch my arms against flowered wallpaper, I don’t remember anything and it’s always with despair that I discover night’s beautiful uprooted trees. The air in the bedroom is fair as drumsticks. The weather’s time. I know despair in its broad outlines. It’s like the wind in the curtains that gives me a helping hand. Can anyone imagine such despair! Fire! Ah they are still going to come... Help! Those here that are falling down stairs... And the newspaper advertisements, and the electric signs along the canal. Get going, sandpile, you old sandpile! In its broad outlines, despair has no importance. It is menial labor of trees that are going to make a forest yet, menial labor of stars that are going to make one fewer day yet, it is menial labor of fewer days that are yet going to make my life.

André Breton
translation John Hayes, © 1990-2009


  1. That was quite wonderful. Yet another of your posts that I have had to cut out and stick into my pocketbook. I have a feeling that I will need to come back to it again and again.

  2. Hi Alan: Thanks for stopping by--good to see you after your jazz festival work is done; & glad you liked it!


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