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.

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

Louise Labé - engraving by Pierre Woeiriot

Dear lioness, Louise, coming upon
the sonnets was a coup de foudre
you reached across the centuries
to touch a lonely heart as I thought
nothing old and formal could.
Your lute-songs, silliness and sorrow
inspired me to wordplay – hours
of delight today, tomorrow…

You ambushed me with memories,
a buried sense of self – so long since
I’d been young, yet I was moved.
Nearly five hundred years apart
and some things never change: yours,
Louise, is the lasting roar of love.

 

Image: Louise Labé – engraving by Pierre Woeiriot, 1555.

Here endeth, for now anyway, my small series of tributes to Louise Labé.

This entry is part 6 of 7 in the series Louise Labé

After Louise Labé, Sonnet XVII

etching by Paula Modersohn-Becker

So I’ve not been going into town or to church
or anywhere,
she says, where I might
run into him and let him soft-soap me
into giving it another go.

I’ve not been dancing, or to watch the game –
it’s no fun without him anyway. I’ve tried
everything to cool things down, stay away,
find new interests, even…

find myself a new man! I’ve been taking
long walks in the woods on my own, the lot,

she says, but now it dawns on her

he won’t be leaving their town any time soon –
she’s the one who’s got to get out of there,
out of her own head, start over.


Je fuis la vile, & temples, & tous lieus,
Esquels prenant plaisir à t’ouir pleindre,
Tu peus, & non sans force, me contreindre
De te donner ce qu’estimois le mieux.

Masques, tournois, jeus me sont ennuieus,
Et rien sans toy de beau ne me puis peindre:
Tant que tachant à ce desir esteindre,
Et un nouvel obget faire à mes yeus,

Et des pensers amoureus me distraire,
Des bois espais sui le plus solitaire:
Mais j’aperçoy, ayant erré maint tour,

Que si je veus de toy estre delivre,
Il me convient hors de moymesme vivre,
Ou fais encor que loin sois en sejour.

 

Image: etching by Paula Modersohn-Becker, c. 1900.

My other translations and versions of sonnets by Louise Labé are here.

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.