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Jacottet: Earl Poems Translated

by John Cobley

Saturday Aug 20th, 2022



Philippe Jaccotet  (1925-2021) published poetry for over 50 years. The eight translated poems below were written over the first 30 years of his career. They all appear in Derek Mahon’s important Philippe Jaccotet: Selected Poems (1988). Choosing at least one poem from each of the seven collections Mahon has used, I have made my own translations. These differ somewhat from Mahon’s in that I have stayed closer to the original, whereas Mahon, from my perspective, took some “liberties” with Jaccottet’s original words. This means that Mahon’s translations are better poems in English, while my translations keep as closely as possible to the original French. 




1.  Waters and Forests



The brightness of the March woods is unreal;

Everything is still so fresh that it hardly insists.

Birds are not plentiful, and that’s fine,

As far off, where the hawthorn brightens the coppices,

A cuckoo is singing. Sparkles are visible in the smoke

That rises from the day’s bonfire. 

The dead leaf serves the living crown,

And following the guidance of the worst paths,

I am reunited, under the brambles, with the anemone nest,

Clear and familiar as the morning star. 



Even if I understood my nervous system,

Which is as delicate as a spider’s web, 

I wouldn’t praise less these marvels of green,

These columns, even the ones chosen for felling,


And those logging horses… My trust

Must stretch one day to the axe, to lightning,

If the beauty of March is only the obedience

Of the blackbird and the violet, in clear weather.



Sundays fill the woods with whining children

And aging women; half the boys have bloodied knees, 

And they’re taken home with grey handkerchiefs,

Leaving old papers by the pond…  The cries

Fade with the light. Under the elms

A girl tugs at her skirt with each alarm,

Nervously. All gentleness whether in the air 

Or in love has cruelty on the reverse side,

Every beautiful Sunday takes its ransom, like feasts

These table stains when daylight disturbs us.



All other worry is still futile,

I’ll not walk these forests for long,

And speech is neither more nor less useful

Than the marshland willow catkins.


It matters little that they fall to dust if they shine,

Many others will walk these dying forests:

It matters little that rotted beauty falls,

Since it seems to be in total submission.




2.  In a Snowstorm


They are still riding in frozen spaces,

The horsemen whom death hasn’t been able to exhaust.


They light fires far and wide in the snow,

At each gust of wind they blaze a little less.


They’re unbelievably small, dark and compact

Before the immense white and lingering misfortune to overcome.


For sure, their granaries no longer store gold or grain

But they hide there a hope that’s furbished with the greatest care.


They track trails effaced by the clumsy monster.

Perhaps they are too small to hunt it effectively.


Finally, we always defend ourselves with the same fist

Against the breath of the foul snout.




3.  Every Flower


Every flower is just the night

Pretending to draw near


But that place where its scent rises

I cannot hope to enter

That’s why it troubles me so much

And makes me keep watch so long

At this closed door


All colour, all life 

Is born where the gaze stops


This world is merely the crest

Of an invisible conflagration  




4. Grapes and Figs


Grapes and figs

Brooded over from afar by mountains

Under slow clouds

And freshness: 

To be sure….To be sure…


There comes a moment when

The exhausted elder goes to bed. 

From day to day we see

His step become less assured.


It’s no longer a matter of moving

Like water between plants:

That doesn’t comeback.


When the master himself

Is taken so far so quickly,

I search for what can follow:


Not a lantern of fruit,

Nor an adventurous bird, 

Nor the purest of images,


Rather a change of linen and water,

The caring hand,

Rather the patient heart.




5.  Talking Is Easy


Talking is easy and penning a few words on a page,

As a general rule, is hardly risky:

Cosy, peaceful lacemaking

(we could have even asked the candle for 

a softer, more deceptive light),

All words are written with the same ink.

“Flower” and “fear,” for example, are nearly the same,

And if I could repeat “blood” from top

To bottom of the page, it will not be stained,

Nor I wounded. 


Also it happens that we play this game, horrified,

That we don’t understand what we wanted to achieve

By playing it, instead of venturing outdoors

And making better use of our hands.



That’s when we can’t escape the suffering

That resembles someone approaching

By tearing apart the mists enveloping us

Knocking down obstacles one by one, crossing

The increasingly weak distance—suddenly so close

That we can only see its snout that’s larger 

Than the sky.


To speak then is a lie, our worse: a craven

Insult to suffering, a waste

Of the little time and energy left to us.




6. Flowers, Birds, Fruit


Flowers, birds, fruit, it’s true that I invited them,

Studied and used them. I said:

“Their strength is in their actual fragility,”

Easy to say! and too easy to juggle 

With the weight of things once turned into words!

We were building Elijah’s chariot with light seeds, 

Breaths, glimmers, we were aspiring 

To clothe ourselves with air like birds and saints…  


Weak signs, home to mist or sparks.


               then, creaking, doors close

One after another.


And still I speak more,

No longer carried by the flow of blood, no longer winged,

Beyond all enchantment,

Betrayed by all the magicians and all the gods,

Long shunned by the nymphs

Even at the edge of transparent rivers            ,

And even at dawn,

                               yet forcing me to speak, more stubborn

Than the child when he painstakingly carves his name

On the school table,


I persevere, although I no longer know the words,

Although this in not the right way

--which is straight as the course of love

towards the target, the rose inflamed at dusk,

Whereas I myself have a dark walking stick

Which, as well as not tracing any paths, ravages

The last grass on its edges, perhaps sown

One day by the light for a 

Hardier walker. . .




7. Glimpses


We see schoolchildren running around on 

The thick grass of the playground and shouting.


Like a fresh waterfall

The tall tranquil trees

And the ten o’clock September light

Still protect them from the huge anvil

Sparkling with the stars up above.


Must the soul, so frileuse, so fierce,

Really walk eternally on this glacier,

Alone, barefoot, not even able to remember

Its childhood prayer,

Punished eternally for its coldness by the cold?


She goes to a mirror that’s round 

Like the mouth of a child 

Who doesn’t know how to lie,

Wrapped in a blue dressing gown,

Which is worn out too.


Hair soon to be ashen

by the very slow fire of time.


The early morning sun 

Still invigorates her shadow.

In the window with a frame

Whitewashed against flies and ghosts,

The hoary head of an old man leans

Over a letter or the local news.

Dark ivy grows against the wall.


Save him, ivy and lime, from the dawn wind,

From nights too-long and from the other, eternal.




8. The Word Joy


I’m like someone excavating in the mist

For something that escapes the mist,

After hearing far off a few of the steps

And of the words exchanged between passers-by . . .


So did I invent it,

The paintbrush of the setting sun

On the rough canvas of earth,

The golden evening oil over the prairies and woods?


Still, that’s like the lamp on the table with the loaf.


But each day perhaps we can take up again

The torn net, stitch after stitch,

And that would be, in space higher up

Like re-stitching, star by star, the night . . .


As we see now little leaf-fires 

burning in February gardens

(and you could say that it’s less for cleaning the place 

than for aiding the light to grow),

Is it really true that we can no longer do as much 

with our invisible heart?


Show me the one who has overcome certitude

And who is shining from there in peace

Like the last mountain to be extinguished

that never trembles under the weight of night.



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