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HENRI MESCHONNIC | Six Poems | Translated by Don Boes and Gabriella Bedetti

With us the tree also chooses the bird

the water looks like the fish

I spill over with comparisons.

Chez nous l'arbre choisit aussi l'oiseau

l'eau ressemble au poisson

je déborde tous les comme.

—from Dans nos recommencements (In Our New Beginnings), Gallimard, 1976

I did not hear all of it

the story continues and puts me

to sleep day watches over night

it's a strange language it

secretly owns me I begin

to write it we even speak

in this language

different every day

we are the words

in this language we learn again

to laugh

je n’ai pas tout entendu

l’histoire continue elle m’en

dort le jour veille la nuit

c’est une langue étrange elle me

prend en secret je commence

à l’écrire on se parle même

dans cette langue chaque jour


dont nous sommes les mots

dans cette langue nous rapprenons

à rire

—from Je n’ai pas tout entendu (I Did Not Hear the Whole Story), Dumerchez, 2000

they follow death like a street

the old men the old women

without meeting each other

they trail behind their years

faces covered by a fabric

of wrinkles

close to each other

they have only one eye and only one lip

to love

indifference is their bond

in the habit of dying

on prend la mort comme une rue

les vieux les vieilles

sans se voir

marchent derrière leurs années

visages sous le linge

des rides

l’un près de l’autre

ils n’ont qu’un œil et qu’une lèvre

pour aimer

l’indifférence est leur lien

dans la routine de mourir

—from Parole rencontre (Word Meeting), Atelier du grand tétras, 2008

with every person

I begin again

a passing arm

amplifies me

I fall asleep in the sun

the view is lush

with all these lives

that pass though me

the near the far cancel each other out

in my passion

every encounter

becomes a part of me

worlds pass each other

into the arms of my gaze

the eyes are also caresses

the eyes never grow weary

of touching of holding

chaque autre

je me recommence

un bras qui passe

me multiplie

je m’endors soleil

la vue est enceinte

de toutes ces vies

qui me traversent

le près le loin s’annulent

dans ma chaleur

chaque rencontre

devient une part de moi

des mondes passent

dans les bras de mes regards

les yeux aussi sont des caresses

les yeux ne se lassent pas

de toucher de tenir

—from De monde en monde (From World to World), Arfuyen, 2009

you are there

eyes closed with happiness

to see the life

that overtakes us

tomorrow above tomorrow below

without knowing where we go

holding hands

laughing together

we silence all we know

the words slip

between us

and we walk

each step

we begin again

to live

tu es là

les yeux fermés du bonheur

pour voir la vie

qui nous passe

demain dessus demain dessous

sans savoir où nous allons

les mains ensemble

les rires ensemble

on se tait tout ce qu’on sait

les mots se serrent

entre nous

et nous marchons

chaque pas

on recommence

à vivre

—from Demain Dessus Demain Dessous (Tomorrow Above Tomorrow Below), Arfuyen, 2010

if I say I know

the past the present

but not the future

I don't know what I'm saying

because I don't know

what my past is preparing for

my future

and I don't know

what my present

rediscovers about my past

I only know what makes me

what makes me knows me

si je dis que je connais

le passé le présent

mais pas l’avenir

je ne sais pas ce que je dis

parce que je ne connais pas

ce que mon passé me prépare


et je ne connais pas

ce que mon présent

redécouvre de mon passé

je ne connais que ce qui me fait

ce qui me fait me connaît

—from Demain Dessus Demain Dessous (Tomorrow Above Tomorrow Below), Arfuyen, 2010


Translators’ statement

As a poet and as a translator of the Hebrew verse of the Bible, Henri Meschonnic contends that rhythm rules over meaning, flowing from the bottom up. For him, the revolution in the idea of language is the basis of a continuing change, not only in the poem but also in the idea of history and social life itself. The continuous movement of these poems, published over the last four decades, suggests the possibility of passing energy from subject to subject, of inventing within language new ways of being with oneself, others, and the world. As with the poems of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Réda, the rhythm of Meschonnic’s poems exposes the subject. He follows Montaigne’s practice--'I do not describe being. I describe the passage… from minute to minute.” Untitled and unpunctuated, the poems are kin to W. S. Merwin 'climbing out of myself/ all my life.' Meschonnic writes, “I am not in what/ I seek but in what escapes me.” Our translations attempt to honor the poem’s movement.

Author and Translators' biography

A core figure of the French literary scene of the last half-century Henri Meschonnic (1932-2009) is known worldwide for his translations from the Old Testament and Critique du rhythme. During his long career, Meschonnic generated controversy in the literary community. To date Ethics and Politics of Translating is his only book translated into English. His poetry has received prestigious awards, including the Max Jacob International Poetry Prize, the Mallarmé Prize, the Jean Arp Francophone Literature Prize, and the Guillevic-Ville de Saint-Malo Grand Prize for Poetry. His poems appear in more than a dozen languages. However, even now, almost no Meschonnic poems have been translated into English. Selected from his nineteen collections, the accompanying works only suggest the richness, range, and intensity of his poetic output.

Don Boes is the author of Good Luck With That, Railroad Crossing, and The Eighth Continent, selected by A. R. Ammons for the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in Louisville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, Cutbank, Zone 3, Southern Indiana Review, and Cincinnati Review.

Gabriella Bedetti’s translations of Meschonnic’s essays have appeared in New Literary History and Critical Inquiry, an interview in Diacritics, an article in New Literary History. Meschonnic was a guest of the MLA at her roundtable with Ralph Cohen and Susan Stewart. She studied translation at the University of Iowa and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference.

Our translations of Meschonnic have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote and In Translation. We would be delighted to have more readers discover his stripped-down voice.


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