Erasure translation of a poem by Jacques Brault

This entry is part 31 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Visitation, the long poem that begins Jacques Brault’s first collection, Mémoire (short extract with translation in this earlier post), is a complex evocation of cultural oppression and the poet’s sense of exile from self. It’s full of words and images that cannot but also evoke today’s physical exiles, the millions of refugees, and these suggested a much simpler and shorter erasure poem. French, with its changing word-endings, gives less scope for erasure than English, but the process was still an interesting way of engaging with language and emotions.

black-and-white photo of an Antony Gormley figure from his sculpture installation Another Place


Remember your nakedness, their exile
the man struggling to live

I find myself again at the appointed place
and thirsty for these words

I left my country with little pride
Exile is hard, my fear follows me

Silence is no longer possible – listen
some evening to what I shall say

Come closer and touch my voiceless misery
my faceless body, my silent hope

Poetry has no importance, but it speaks
Sweet violence rises up

My despair arrives with broken neck
no name, no past and harbouring no hatred

Some grey morning a comrade I cannot name
and a beloved country tremble

I shall live weighed down and bent over
my words still resounding from land to land

A shadow will trace the outline
of your pale face when I find it again.

(words and phrases culled from Jacques Brault’s nearly 900-word-long poem, Visitation)

Souvenez-vous / de / votre nudité / de leur exil /
de celui qui a mal de vivre /

Je me retrouve / au / rendez-vous /
J’ai soif / de / ces paroles /

J’ai quitté / le pays / peu fier /
L’exil est dur / ma peur / me suit /

Je ne sais plus / me taire /
Ecoute / ce que / je / dirai / un soir /

Approche et / touche / ma misère / sans voix /
mon corps / sans visage / ma silencieuse espérance /

La poésie / est / sans importance / mais elle / parle /
La violence / douce / se relève /

Ma détresse / arrive / le cou brisé /
sans nom / sans passé / et sans haine /

Un matin gris / une /compagne / innommable /
et / un pays aimé tremblent /

Je vivrai / lourd et penché /
Mes mots / vibrent encore / entre terre et terre /

Une ombre / tracera /
ta figure blanche / retrouvée.

Image: Another Place — photo by Jean Morris, 2007

Nameless as the rain: two poems by Jacques Brault

This entry is part 30 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


It was raining in London – serious rain with fast-flowing gutters and burst water mains – and I’d stopped serially internet-dating “Other-American” poets in order to hang out for a while with Jacques Brault. Both of these are from his first collection, Mémoire (1965).

abstract black-and-white photo of water by Jean Morris


Here on the streets the water wails its old lament
Seagulls crash-land

I do not know your name know nothing any more
All these human shapes barely floating now in the gutters
Fingernails marred by eyelids
Smiles in the hollow of a groin
Jumbled faces in old windows

So many dead unadorned unlabelled
Melting in the sweet water
April casts its light and shadow on their graves

Water mingles our little hopes
Mutely agile not a bubble or an eddy
A volley of laughter rains down on the streets
Oh watery folly

The water’s soft lament against the tide of time
This murmuring of pale lips this wrinkling of old skin
All those who leave here are undone

And you scattered to the four winds
You whom I seek among these long tresses swept towards the sewers

But water runs its own business in its own way
A fine embroiderer of death’s complex designs
Water sews and re-sews a lovely length of fabric
As it flows


L’eau dans la rue se plaint d’une vieille plainte
Où se cassent des mouettes d’eau

Je ne sais ton nom je ne sais plus
Tant de formes humaines à peine coulent encore dans les caniveaux
Doigts à l’ongle embué de paupières
Sourires au creux de l’aine
Visages disjoints de vieilles fenêtres

Tant de morts sans collier ni bannière
Fondent en la douceur de l’eau
Avril sur les tombes met une ombre de lumière

L’eau raccorde les petits espoirs
Agile et muette et sans bulles ni remous
Une volée de rires qui s’abattent dans la rue
O folie de l’eau

La plainte de l’eau tout bas à contre-courant de l’heure
C’est un murmure de lèvres blanches un froissis de vieilles peaux
Tous ceux-là que s’en vont se défont

Et toi éparse çà et là
Toi que je cherche parmi les cheveux qui s’allongent vers l’égout

Mais l’eau mène bien son ouvroir et sa façon
Brodeuse fine des morts aux dessins compliqués
L’eau coud et recoud fait une belle étoffe longue
Et coule

abstract black-and-white photo of water by Jean Morris

Like All Those Others

You are the one invented by my gaze
like the shape of an ink blot on paper
and I am unafraid to speak my love
for you the way you are just as I fashion you
as my hands find themselves again upon your body
and the greedy expectancy of every day
the annunciation of a world scarcely beginning
the gestures of morning on a street corner
that snatch at a vagabond’s one instant of light
and this folly of feeling like your newest unborn child
I love you like all those others yesterday tomorrow
still learning this old refrain learning it always
I love you in the future wind in the rubble of fear
love you in the little life of hair curlers
love you in these paltry ecstasies these meagre glories
love you alone and abandoned by myself

Comme tant d’autres

Ton être que j’invente du regard
comme une tache d’encre sur le papier
je n’ai pas peur de nommer mon amour
tu es comme je t’aime telle que je te fais
avec mes mains retrouvées sur ton corps
et l’espérance goulue de chaque jour
l’annonciation d’un monde qui commence à peine
le geste du matin au coin de la rue
qui reprend à la rôdeuse un instant de lumière
et cette folie d’être en toi un nouvel enfant à naître
je t’aime comme tant d’autres hier demain
cette vieille rengaine je l’apprends encore je l’apprends toujours
je t’aime dans le vent du futur dans la pierraille de la peur
je t’aime dans la petite existence en bigoudis
je t’aime dans les pauvres extases dans les chiches gloires
je t’aime seul et déserté de moi-même

Intersections: reading, translation, writing

This entry is part 29 of 38 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas


Jacques BraultBelow is a short translation of an extract from Visitation, a long poem in French by the Quebecois poet, essayist, novelist and translator Jacques Brault. The trajectory of his work has a particular resonance for a translator and for readers in translation. Born (1933) and raised in Montreal in both financial poverty and what he experienced as linguistic poverty and disenfranchisement, he militantly embraced the cause of a separatist, francophone Quebec, but the output of his long writing life also reflects a journey first into the riches of his own language and thence into a broader, cosmopolitan consciousness, which has involved him in translation and transnational/translingual collaborations. A recurring image in his poetry is that of the street corner, the intersection of writing and other art forms, of life and language, language and language, self and others.*

I’ve been reading Jacques Brault’s work while trying to formulate a few thoughts about the pleasure of translating some poetry for the Poetry from the Other Americas project. And about my surprise, because I’d only rarely written poetry myself and had stoutly maintained that only poets should translate it. Even greater surprise that it led to writing a few poems of my own: the patient exercise of translating a poem mobilises the relevant muscles, I suppose. Like many, I’m often too speedy and compulsive a reader to fully appreciate poetry, fret against slowing down enough, going deep enough. Translation is an exceptionally close kind of reading. It makes you slow down a lot, read and re-read a poem over a considerable time. This concentrated, fierce encounter with words is rewarding, and I’d encourage fellow sceptics to have a go. If you don’t think of yourself as someone who writes poetry, but do know more than one language, translation might prove to be a way in. It might even lead you to the puzzling, scary but alluring place Jacques Brault describes here:


          But I don’t know don’t know any more if I should speak or keep silent let the waters flow or plunge myself into them forget myself in the moment of turning down this street or inhabit myself down to the bone down to the cry

          Tell me do you know you who listen to me watch me do you know what it is that I don’t say won’t ever say so there it is between us like a night falling and hiding us in darkness

          In a low voice lower your voice I beg you come closer let your breath touch my ear it makes a sound I had forgotten the human voice

          Or je ne sais pas je ne sais plus s’il faut parler ou me taire laisser les eaux couler ou me rouler en elles m’oublier dans l’instant qui tourne le coin de la rue ou m’habiter jusqu’à l’os jusqu’au cri

          Dis le sais-tu toi qui m’écoutes et me regardes le sais-tu ce que c’est que je ne dis pas que je ne dirai jamais et c’est là entre nous comme un soir qui tombe et nous oscurcit

          À voix basse baisse la voix je t’en prie approche et que ton souffle me touche à l’oreille cela fait un bruit que j’avais oublié la parole humaine


* I found out about Jacques Brault from Sherry Simon’s absorbing book, Translating Montreal.