i.m. Yves Bonnefoy: love the bouquet for its hour

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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.

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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”.

 

A Photograph

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.

 

 

Another Photograph

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.

 

 

A Memory

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.

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War on the Poor God Bless the Palaces: Volker Braun’s ‘Rubble Flora’ reviewed

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Volker Braun’s Rubble Flora (tr. David Constantine and Karen Leeder (Seagull Books, 2014)) was one of the commended texts in this year’s Popescu Translation Prize. I was surprised it did not make it to the final shortlist. His passionate and abrasive voice (in these excellent translations) is certainly worth sampling as a model for poetry engaging with political change. Here he is writing from the GDR after the Berlin Wall has come down.

Property

That’s me still here. My country’s going West.

WAR ON THE POOR GOD BLESS THE PALACES.

I helped it out the door with all the rest.

What paltry charms it has it gives away.

After winter comes the summer of excess.

And I can go to hell is what they say.

I don’t know the meaning of my text.

What I never owned, they’ve taken even this.

What I never lived, I know I’ll always miss.

It was hope that came before this fall.

My property, you flog from stall to stall.

When will I say mine again and mean of all.

(tr. Karen Leeder)

Braun was born in Dresden in 1939. His childhood was spent in the post-war ruins of that city which he describes as a locus of re-birth as much as devastation: “Fiery lupins and / Widows in the ruins set up house and home” (‘Rubble Flora’). His early work reflects the pioneering spirit of the foundation of the GDR, though a poem like ‘Demand’, with its vigour and idealism expressed through bold exclamatory phrases, already runs counter to the growing repressiveness of the state. Braun consistently relishes the provisional:

Don’t come to us with it all sewn up. We need work in progress.

Out with the venison roast – in with the knife and the forest.

Here experiment is king, not fixed routine.

His urge to move forward becomes an unhealed wound. ‘At Dawn’, in its entirety reads: “Every step I’ve still to take / tears me apart”.

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There is also a strong streak of sensuality throughout Braun’s work and eros is celebrated in contrast to what ‘Afternoon’ terms “the pre-printed schedules / And fully synchronised reports” that constituted ‘really existing socialism’. Karen Leeder’s Introduction discusses Braun’s ability to “manoeuver within the [Communist} system” and, feeling the pressures of history unfolding, ‘Fief’ expresses something of a stoical attitude: “I’ll hold out here, find succour in the East”. By the 1980s, Braun’s hopes for a fitting fief were also taking the form of Rimbaudian flights of fancy as here in the landscape of ‘Innermost Africa’:

Under the soft tamarisks

Into the tropical rains that wash

The slogans off, the dry memoranda

Also around this time, Braun alludes to Goethe’s idyllic images of lemon trees in bloom from his 1795 lyric ‘Mignon’. Here they flash past in a fragmentary manner, alongside other literary references, prose passages, graffiti-like capitalised phrases and seeming non-sequiturs. Both Leeder and Constantine deal brilliantly with the challenge such a style presents to its translators. In this way, Braun’s work betrays the pressures of speaking in a repressive regime and so it is interesting that the more lucid lyrics of The Zig-Zag Bridge (1988) pre-empt the fall of the Berlin Wall and the possibility of speaking out.

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But Braun’s visions of the fulfilled life were hardly advanced with the advent of capitalism. The changes of 1989 are repeatedly portrayed as a false dawn. The magnificent sequence, ‘West Shore’, roars with hopes and disappointments in the embrace of the new ideology:

the abrupt come-down

Of the roped-together

From the north face of the Eager

Into nothing—

As above, ‘Property’ sees the old GDR “going West” yet the poet is bewildered even by his own “text” as everything gets “flog[ged] from stall to stall”. Braun pursues intertextual effects with Eliot-like allusions as in ‘O Chicago! O Contradiction’ where he draws on Brecht’s 1927 poem ‘Vom armen B.B.’ (see my earlier blog and translation of this poem) and Hamlet to evoke “the chilly byways / Of market economics”. But after 1989, such allusions are more frequently to brand names and consumer goods as here in the mock-jaunty optimism of “Socialism’s out the door, but here comes Johnnie Walker”.

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Neither communism nor capitalism nurtures the life Braun seeks and he turns his vitriol on the new world where “King Customer” rules (‘Common Ownership’), where the “supercontinent [. . . ] COCA COLA” rises from the ocean (‘West Shore’) and fashion shows in ‘Lagerfeld’ show capitalism making people “more beautiful but not better”. It’s Helena Christensen who stalks the catwalks of this poem only to arrive at:

the throwaway society

The arena full of the last screams Ideas

Rome’s last era, unseriousness

Now watch the finale ME OR ME

Greetings, barbarians.

If Braun still finds pleasure in the world it is despite political change not because of it. ‘Art’ asks torturedly, rhetorically, “How / Is it possible that things the way they are / Are dancing?” Rubble Flora concludes with work since 2005 and there is more Rilkean “praise [of] the world as it appears” (‘When He Could See Again’) and this affords some relief from the “stifling  / Of [the] ability to be human” (‘Conversation About the Trees in Gezi Park’). One of the “things” still dancing for Braun is the erotic. The loss of desire is the sole subject of ‘My Fear’ and the hope that “some gentle breast might fasten for a while / And quicken my blood” (‘Findings’) offers some counterbalance to the almost deafening, continuing “twitter-storm” (‘Wilderness’) of injustice, greed, poverty and violence in the world generally, more specifically in his own “re-disunited Germany” (‘De Vita Beata’).

This review originally published in Poetry London (March 2015)