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
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. . .
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.