The death of Yves Bonnefoy (on 1st July 2016) was marked last week by The Guardian and The New York Times and many others. Anybody who has followed this blog for a while will know that I have found considerable inspiration in Bonnefoy’s poetry and writing about poetry. John Naughton in The Guardian obit sums up the nub of Bonnefoy’s thought: “we tend to replace the reality of things and other people with an image or concept, which deprives us of a more direct and immediate experience he called the experience of “presence”, in which one has a fleeting apprehension of the essential oneness of all being”. That latter phrase will explain how I have stumbled my way in recent years from translating Rilke to versioning the texts of the Daodejing.
The NYT obit suggests Bonnefoy’s poetry has often been found “highly abstract and often obscure” and to counter this misleading impression I thought I’d post four sonnets from his 2011 collection L’heure presente (The Present Hour) in Beverley Bie Brahic’s pellucid translations. Bonnefoy is thinking of his own father here (who died when the poet was young) but the valedictory tone seemed right for the occasion. Bonnefoy translated a great deal of Shakespeare and (in part – he’s also arguing with Mallarme) the fourth of Bonnefoy’s sonnets is in dialogue with the ideas of Sonnet 63 (“His beauty shall in these black lines be seen, / And they shall live, and he in them still green”). It’s a mark of Bonnefoy’s achievement that even in such an emotional, personal context, he can still articulate ideas about language (“words cut”) and the way in which “the real flower becomes metaphor” by bleeding the temporal and in doing so yields up a great deal of what it means to be real. Instead, we must “love the bouquet for its hour. / Only at this price is beauty an offering”.
This photograph—what a paltry thing!
Crude colour disfigures
The mouth, the eyes. Back then
They used colour to mock life.
But I knew the man whose face
Is caught in this mesh. I see him
Climbing down to the boat. Obol
Already in his hand, as if for death.
Let the wind rise in the image, driving rain
Drench it, deface it! Show us
Under the colour the stairs streaming water!
Who was he? What were his hopes? I hear
Only his footsteps descending in the night,
Clumsily, no one to give him a hand.
Who is he, astonished, wondering
Whether he should recognise himself in this picture?
Summer, it seems, and a garden
Where five or six people gather.
And when was it, and where, and after what?
What did these people mean to one another?
Did they even care? Indifferent
As their death already required of them.
But this person, who looks at—this other,
Intimidated all the same! Strange flower
This debris of a photograph!
Being crops up here and there. A weed
Struggling between house fronts and the sidewalk.
And some passers-by, already shadows.
He seemed very old, almost a child;
He walked slowly, hand clutching
A remnant of muddied fabric.
Eyes closed, though. Oh—isn’t believing
You remember the worst kind of lure,
The hand that takes ours to lead us on?
Still, it struck me he was smiling
When, soon, night enveloped him.
It struck me? No, I must be wrong.
Memory is a broken voice,
We hardly hear it, even from up close.
Yet we listen, and for so long
That sometimes life goes by. And death
Already says no to any metaphor.
I Give You These Lines . . .
I give you these lines, not that your name
Might ever flourish, in this poor soil,
But because trying to remember—
This is cut flowers, which makes some sense.
Some, lost in their dream, say ‘a flower’,
But it’s not knowing how words cut
If they think they denote it in what they name,
Transmuting flower into its idea.
Snipped, the real flower becomes a metaphor,
This sap that trickles out is time
Relinquishing what remains of its dream.
Who wants now and then to have visits
Must love the bouquet for its hour.
Only at this price is beauty an offering.