Jean Morris

Jean Morris lives in London, translates from French and Spanish, and thanks the Internet for a latish-life discovery of creative interests. Her recent online work includes an article on Reading in Translation, book reviews at Shiny New Books, translation at the Asymptote blog, photos and poems at Gnarled Oak and poems in Otata.

Anna de Noailles, 1920

Black and white portrait of Noailles.

 

As a knife entering a fruit
slides into it, ravaging,
the soft sound of a melody
cleaves the heart in two
and tenderly destroys it
— and the iridescent languor
of chords and arpeggios
descends, cunning and cutting,
through the body’s weakness
and the divided soul…

 

Comme un couteau dans un fruit
Amène un glissant ravage,
La mélodie au doux bruit
Fend le coeur et le partage
Et tendrement le détruit.
— Et la langueur irisée
Des arpèges, des accords,
Descend, tranchante et rusée,
Dans la faiblesse du corps
Et dans l’âme divisée…

 

Portrait of the poet by Paul Thévenaz
More on Anna de Noailles in a previous post

The Tub 1917 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961

Today’s word is raw, said the weather forecaster,
and you flinched, soft skin flayed by wind and sleet,
soft heart by unremitting news of inhumanity.
So embrace this respite, stuff your stiff winter coat
into a locker, stretch and let your sore soul touch
the curves and colours of the pictures, slow-dance
with the fading shapes and figures frescoed on every wall.
You know the artist too was flayed, continued painting
through the worst of times, death and betrayal, two long wars…
Her work outlasted all of it, is here to wrap your fear,
your sorrow in warm flesh, bathe you in earth-green light.

 

Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery
The Tub, 1917 (Tate Modern)

Black-and-white photo of the end of a park bench with a wide open space behind it and a line of trees in the distance.

Today, crossing the scrap of Clapham Common
right by the tube entrance, this unappealing piece
with scanty grass and grubby benches shat upon
by crows and pigeons, I remember again a lanky,
windswept woman and glimpse the fading shape
of brassy wings. Here is where I’d often see her,
comfortably hunkered on one of these greasy seats
or stalking towards them, all flying silver mane
and lamentable, flapping coat, happy to hang out
alone or with the old homeless guys who favoured
this draughty and neglected corner of the common,
facing the statue of Temperance and Providence
from a safe distance. I used to stare, imagining wide-
eyed and shy the fabulous mechanics of her mind.

 

The British novelist Angela Carter died 25 years ago – such mixed feelings in remembering an amazing writer who died too young, and a time when we had great hopes for post-Cold-War peace and democratisation.
Angela Carter: official website and another lovely site with new publications, events and discussion.
Statue of Temperance and Providence on Clapham Common, 1884.

photo of weeping willows

My castle has a moat
bordered by weeping willows
and filled with tears.
Great blue herons pattern the sky
with dinosaur wings.
They land and line the bank,
erect and still as meditating monks
in grey-blue robes, no longer
prehistoric but eternal.
Happiness holds my hand as, slowly,
we walk to raise the drawbridge.

bust of Anna de Noailles by Rodin

I thought I was

So calm and sad I thought I was,
resigned to noble silence,
as befits a weary heart,
but evening, with its slipping,
sliding wind, its cooling,
vegetable smells,
this peaceful landscape
where desire lies dreaming,
seems determined to undo
my safe but joyless rest,
compelling me to face
these artful, airy games
that overwhelm and plunder
warming earth and fading skies
– ah, gentle, porous evening,
perfumed with vanilla,
why would you want to hurt
the ever hopeful girl
within my tense, half-open,
hesitating heart?

Je croyais être

Je croyais être calme et triste,
Simplement, sans demander mieux
Que ce noble état sérieux
D’un coeur lassé. Le soir insiste:
Avec les glissements du vent
Et la froide odeur des herbages,
Et cette paix des paysages
Sur qui le désir est rêvant,
Il défait mon repos sans joie,
Ce repos qui protégeait bien,
Il exige, hélas, que je voie
Ces rusés jeux aériens
Où tout s’enveloppe et se pille,
Du sol tiède aux clartés des cieux…
– Pourquoi, soir mol et spongieux
D’où coule un parfum de vanille,
Blessez-vous, dans mon coeur serré
Qui soudain s’entr’ouvre et vacille,
Cette éternelle jeune fille
Qui ne peut cesse d’espérer?

 

Tranquillity

Here in the wake of dazzling day
comes fine, devoted night.
It feels as if the sky is bowed
beneath a tranquil weight of stars.
The juddering breath of a train
sets even this calm hillside
beating to its hearty rhythm.
Here in the darkness every
shimmering sound – a voice,
a footfall or a shutter slammed –
gleams like a marble or a rosary bead.
Can this airy, empathetic
but mysterious night, so gentle
and attuned to all our thoughts,
really be built upon graves?
This evening, dear, your love,
your tenderness, is all I need,
my soul’s contented only
when I have no hopes or plans.
We talk so much of souls,
but sated with pleasures
all we need is languorous rest.
Our hearts cry out for nothing more
– content to live or die,
we’ve found this calm and ease.
Dearest companion, is it just
desire we suffer from?

Tranquillité

Après le jour luisant d’entrain
Voici la nuit, dévote et fine,
Il semble que le ciel s’incline
Par le poids des astres sereins.
Le soufflé saccadé d’un train
Transmet à la calme colline
Sa palpitation d’airain.
Dans l’ombre, les bruits qui scintillent,
– Bruits de pas, de voix, de volets –
Semblent polis comme des billes,
Comme les grains d’un chapelet.
– Ȏ Nuit, compatissant mystère!
Se peut-il, quand l’air est si doux
Et semble penser avec nous,
Qu’il y ait des morts dans la terre!
– Je n’ai besoin de rien ce soir
Grâce à ta tendresse amoureuse,
Une âme n’est vraiment heureuse
Que sans projets et sans espoirs.
Nous parlons sans cesse de l’âme,
Pourtant, après ce long plaisir,
Tout nous est paresse et loisir,
Plus rien en nos coeurs ne réclame;
Nous pourrions vivre ou bien mourir
Contents ainsi, calmes, à l’aise,
– Ȏ mon cher compagnon, serait-ce
Qu’on souffre que de désir?

 

Photo: Unfinished bust of Anna de Noailles – Rodin, 1906, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Anna de Noailles (1876-1933) was highly praised and acknowledged as a philosophical and aesthetic influence by Rilke, Proust and Colette. Prolific and beloved poet, novelist, patron, muse, she was heaped with honours and thousands lined the streets for her state funeral. Then she disappeared from the canon – surely mostly for the usual reason that she was a woman, but perhaps also because, written in iconoclastic times for European poetry, all of her poems rhyme.

I can’t help finding even the most sensitive and skilful rhymed translations of her poems rather wordy and distant from the originals – French rhymes so much more easily and lightly. But it’s also true that de Noailles consistently defended form and rhyme at a time when many poets were abandoning them, so these attempts to better capture her emotional intensity in unrhymed translations are very tentative.

The old Dulwich burial ground

photo of a cemetery

This ground heaves, lurchingly
    uneven through its mulch of leaves,

tips us towards the tilting graves,
    the shade of tall, stooped trees.

The stone sarcophagi are empty – burial
    was below, in now unfathomable depths.

Toppled headstones sink slowly
    in a green lawn where the nameless

are marked by darker green hollows
    that tempt today’s visitors to lie down,

and a girl in a vintage print frock
    carries a golden bowl — her cycle helmet,

its glinting curves reflecting miniature
    monuments, tiny people, old light.

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Louise Labé

After Louise Labé, Sonnet XII

painting of a woman playing a lute by Matisse

Lute, you’ve always been there for me:
true friend in the worst of times,
companion of all my sorrows,

you’re my comforter when I weep.
I know my tears really get to you
because every tune becomes a lament,

every rising note plunges
to a melancholy key.
If I try to play something uplifting

you go silent on me.
Sad songs are all you let me sing
and they give me such sweet closure.


Lut, compagnon de ma calamité,

De mes soupirs témoin irreprochable,
De mes ennuis controlleur veritable,
Tu as souvent avec moy lamenté:

Et tant le pleur piteus t’a molesté,
Que commençant quelque son delectable,
Tu le rendois tout soudein lamentable,
Feignant le ton que plein avoit chanté.

Et si te veus efforcer au contraire,
Tu te destens & si me contreins taire:
Mais me voyant tendrement soupirer,

Donnant faveur à ma tant triste pleinte:
En mes ennuis me plaire suis contrainte,
Et d’un dous mal douce fin esperer.

 

Picture: Le luth, Henri Matisse (1943), which I didn’t know till last week – trying for a sort of poignant flatness in the poem, inspired by the vibrating flatness of the painting.
Louise Labé in Wikipedia.
More posts on Louise Labé here, here, here and here.

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Louise Labé

After Louise Labé, Sonnet VII

Detail from a lithograph by André Minaux

We’ve all seen death – the soul,
the subtler part, depart the body.
Where are you now, beloved?
I’m the body, you’re the soul, my better half.
How could you leave me for so long? I know you,
you’ll be thinking just to stretch your legs
and you’ll be back. It doesn’t work like that!
You left my soulless body swinging in the wind,
unloved, unanchored. I’m at risk, I’m nothing,
you are all my worth. So come to me, my love,
but never undermine my sanity again.
No more demands, no more mixed messages.
Show me your softer face. You’ve been
so cruel. Time now to make amends.


On voit mourir toute chose animée,
Lors que du corps l’ame sutile part:
Je suis le corps, toy la meilleure part:
Ou es tu donq, o ame bien aymee?

Ne me laissez par si long temps pamee,
Pour me sauver apres viendrois trop tard.
Las ne mets point ton corps en ce hazart:
Rens lui sa part & moitié estimee.

Mais fais, Ami, que ne soit dangereuse
Cette rencontre & revue amoureuse,
L’accompagnant, non de severité,

Non de rigueur: mais de grace amiable,
Qui doucement me rende la beauté,
Jadis cruelle, à present favourable.

 

Louise Labé in Wikipedia.

Picture: detail from another lithograph by André Minaux.

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Louise Labé

photo of shadow of a head and hand

Don’t scorn me, Ladies, just for having loved.
Yes, I have felt a thousand torches’ fire,
a thousand sorrows, thousand biting pains.
Yes, I have spent a lot of time in tears…
look, think before you start maligning me –
if I’ve done wrong I’m suffering for it now,
don’t make things worse than they already are.
You’d do well to remember Love appears
unbidden, needs no Vulcan to inflame
your ardour or Adonis leading you astray –
its merest whim can leave you overcome.
Think you’re immune, strangers to violent
passion as you are? So sure you’re not like me?
Beware: you could be all the more undone.


Ne reprenez, Dames, si j’ay aymé:
Si j’ay senti mile torches ardentes,
Mile travaus, mile douleurs mordentes:
Si en pleurant, j’ay mon tems consumé,

Las que mon nom n’en soit par vous blamé.
Si j’ay failli, les peines sont presentes,
N’aigrissez point leurs pointes violentes:
Mais estimez qu’Amour, à point nommé,

Sans votre ardeur d’un Volcan excuser,
Sans la beauté d’Adonis acuser,
Pourra, s’il veut, plus vous rendre amoureuses:

En ayant moins que moy d’ocasion,
Et plus d’estrange & forte passion.
Et gardez vous d’estre plus malheureuses.

 

Thank you, Louise Labé, for continuing to surprise and engage me across the centuries.

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Louise Labé

VIII

Painting by André Minaux 1

I’m living, dying, drowning, burning up –
extremes of heat and then I’m cold again.
Life is too soft on me and then too hard –
my trials are great, but intertwined with joys.

I burst out laughing and then into tears,
smile through the torment of my many wounds.
My happiness dissolves and yet endures:
I wither and I flourish, both at once.

So Love’s inconstant but remains my guide
and when the pain seems at its very worst
I rise above it unexpectedly.

Then just when I think joy has really come,
that peak experience is mine at last,
I find myself back where I started from.


Je vis, je meurs: je me brule & me noye.
J’ay chaut estreme en endurant froidure:
La vie m’est & trop molle et trop dure.
J’ay grans ennuis entremeslez de joye:

Tout à un coup je ris & je larmoye,
Et en plaisir maint grief tourment j’endure:
Mon bien s’en va, & à jamais il dure:
Tout en un coup je seiche & je verdoye.

Ainsi Amour inconstamment me meine:
Et quand je pense avoir plus de douleur,
Sans y penser je me treuve hors de peine.

Puis quand je croy ma joye estre certaine,
Et estre en haut de mon desire heur,
Il remet en mon premier malheur.

IX

Painting by André Minaux 2

As soon as I allow myself to rest,
safely tucked up in my own comfy bed,
my stupid, sorrowing mind can’t help itself –
it leaves my body, flies straight back to you.

It strikes me then: within this tender breast
I harbour still the very thing I’ve craved,
the object of my deepest sighs, of sobs
I’ve often felt would break my heart in two.

Oh sweetest sleep, oh night of happiness!
May joyful, calming rest bring me this fond
illusion every time I close my eyes.

If my poor lovesick soul is destined now
to never really know such love again,
at least let me have dreams and fantasies.


Tout aussi tot que je commence à prendre
Dens le mol lit le repos desiré,
Mon triste esprit hors de moy retiré
S’en va vers toy incontinent se rendre.

Lors m’est avis que dedens mon sein tendre
Je tiens le bien, où j’ay tant aspiré,
Et pour lequel j’ay si haut souspiré,
Que de sanglots ay souvent cuidé fendre.

O dous sommeil, o nuit à moy heureuse!
Plaisant repos, plein de tranquilité,
Continuez toutes les nuiz mon songe:

Et si ma pauvre ame amoureuse
Ne doit avoir de bien en verité,
Faites au moins qu’elle en ait en mensonge.

 

Louise Labé in Wikipedia.

Paintings by André Minaux (1923-86) – I came across his work by chance for the first time this week and the sharp, stylized imagery, often of women alone in interiors, somehow resonated with the sonnets; also an exquisite concert on the radio of short pieces by J S Bach and Jörg Widmann made me think about how mutually enhancing old and new(er) works can be.