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.

The men were lithe, dark-eyed and curly-haired, stepped out
of a Roman mosaic, the women massive, with sea-green medusa hair
and soup-stained bosoms. An ancient, noble family used for centuries,
in their palazzo high above the Bay of Naples, to owning servants,
this new one a lost girl, spewed out from education
with no notion of who to be, still shaken by the death of a father
I didn’t love enough.
Yelled at for not understanding, you learn a language fast: sporco,
dirty, presto, hurry, you, now, no! No doubt about the no: no free time
except grudgingly on Sundays, no breakfast not even a cup of coffee
before washing dirty nappies, no sleep with a little one wailing all night
and who could blame him, plucked from his mother’s breast to be dumped
on this girl with a bottle and no clue. You learn fast, too, about babies,
even more about myself, all the love, patience and nurturance
I never knew were inside me.
And Napoli, encircling vision of grandeur, with its secrets,
poverty and crumbling art and the blue, blue bay to be seen from
every ivy-shaded window of the ducal mansion? Truly, I was too tired
to pay attention. Life narrowed to slow-motion endurance of routine,
the fog of longing for rest, grateful for the baby nodding off
or for a good meal – and meals, prepared by Lola the malevolent,
were huge: the sweating beef and luminous tomatoes, pasta piled
and steaming above sticky kitchen oilcloth.
So I grew a belly for the first time, watched it with growing dismay
but continued eating, even when the fat tubes hot with angry chillies
grew cold before I was allowed a moment to fall to. And once or twice,
on Sundays off, quick, groping sex in the woods or in the back of his car
with a man who looked a little like my dad, succumbing half-ashamed,
this too a way to feel my body, briefly know myself as less diminished,
more than foreign skivvy.
Now like a far-off dream, that season of cavernous apartments,
harpy voices and cowed failure to tell the dreaded duchess vaffanculo!
Only a tiny taste of servitude, never destined to last more than
a few months, but it left scars and, familiar to women everywhere
who care for other people’s babies, a bittersweet remembered love.
Forty years later I spell out the long, absurdly grandiose family names
and there he is – my bambino’s middle-aged face
on the Internet.


In response to Luisa A. Igloria: Help.

Vaffanculo = fuck off in Italian

black-and-white photo of clouds and trees reflected in a basin of water

 

It will stay light late tonight, the days lengthen…
Today’s living soundtrack fades and retreats,
and the trees, surprised not to see the night,
are still awake in the pale evening, dreaming.

The chestnut trees spread their fragrance
far and wide on this heavy air replete with gold
– we dare not move or toy with this tender air
for fear of stirring up more sleeping scents.

Distant rumblings reach us from the town…
The cloak of dust on a scarcely quivering tree
flies up, disturbed by every little breeze, only
to fall back gently on the peaceful paths below.

This is the same familiar road, the one
we’ve seen and walked so often, every day,
and yet something in this life has changed –
never again will our souls be as they are tonight.

 

Il fera longtemps clair ce soir

Il fera longtemps clair ce soir, les jours allongent,
La rumeur du jour vif se disperse et s’enfuit,
Et les arbres, surpris de ne pas voir la nuit,
Demeurent éveillés dans le soir blanc, et songent…

Les marronniers, sur l’air plein d’or et de lourdeur,
Répandent leurs parfums et semblent les étendre ;
On n’ose pas marcher ni remuer l’air tendre
De peur de déranger le sommeil des odeurs.

De lointains roulements arrivent de la ville…
La poussière, qu’un peu de brise soulevait,
Quittant l’arbre mouvant et las qu’elle revêt,
Redescend doucement sur les chemins tranquilles.

Nous avons tous les jours l’habitude de voir
Cette route si simple et si souvent suivie,
Et pourtant quelque chose est changé dans la vie,
Nous n’aurons plus jamais notre âme de ce soir…

 

Again from her first collection, Le Coeur innombrable / The Uncountable Heart (1901). More translations of Anna de Noailles on Via Negativa are here, here, and here.

black-and-white photos of tree foliage seen from below

To be in nature like a human tree, your desires
spread out like deep, luxuriant foliage, and feel,
on peaceful and on stormy nights alike, the universal
sap flow through your hands. To live with the sun’s rays
warm on your face, drink the scorching salt of sea-spray
and of tears, and hotly taste the joy and then the grief
that fashion foggy human forms in space. To feel
in your own beating heart the turbulence of air and fire
and blood like wind upon the earth, reach for reality
and stoop to mystery, embrace the rising daylight
and the falling dark. Like evening’s purple and cerise,
to let the flame and flood flow from the crimson
of your heart while your soul, like pale dawn resting
on a hillside, sits beside this world and dreams…

 

La vie profonde

Être dans la nature ainsi qu’un arbre humain,
Étendre ses désirs comme un profond feuillage,
Et sentir, par la nuit paisible et par l’orage,
La sève universelle affluer dans ses mains !

Vivre, avoir les rayons du soleil sur la face,
Boire le sel ardent des embruns et des pleurs,
Et goûter chaudement la joie et la douleur
Qui font une buée humaine dans l’espace !

Sentir, dans son coeur vif, l’air, le feu et le sang
Tourbillonner ainsi que le vent sur la terre.
– S’élever au réel et pencher au mystère,
Être le jour qui monte et l’ombre qui descend !

Comme du pourpre soir aux couleurs de cerise,
Laisser du coeur vermeil couler la flamme et l’eau,
Et comme l’aube claire appuyée au coteau
Avoir l’âme qui rêve, au bord du monde assise…

 

From Anna de Noailles’ first collection, Le Coeur innombrable / The Uncountable Heart (1901). A fairly close translation, but lately I’ve been writing dense 14-line poems and this seemed to pour itself so naturally into that shape… More of my translations of Anna de Noailles on Via Negativa are here and here.

The tame, respectable, hard-working folk
that I grew up around were very quick
to spin a lurid tale or two and give
a little girl a night of troubled dreams:

the evil imp that lived behind my wardrobe
and the monster underneath my bed,
the people in white coats who’d come
and get me if I misbehaved again,

the agonising death that surely followed
swallowing a fingernail, the children
I should stay away from who would only
do me down and laugh behind my back,

the strangers I should never trust, also
the enemy within the family, the miserable,
undeserving poor, the patronising rich,
the cat that scratched, the dog that bit,

the endless, ill-paid, unappreciated work,
the misery, the cynicism, lack of hope…
surprising, really, but the worse things get
the surer I become that they were wrong,

that all these stories were the creatures
of a quiet but overwhelming bitterness
we don’t have to succumb to – there are
always other ways to meet the world.

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.