Sunday, August 12, 2007

la chascona #5: robert desnos

[la chascona was the santiago home of chilean poet pablo neruda—a home in which portraits of walt whitman adorn the study]

this year marks the 35th anniversary of the first publication of robert desnos’ poetry in english translation. desnos’ “selected poems”—translated by carole frankel and william kulik—was published in 1972. (translated by carolyn forché and william kulik, the definitive “selected poems” was reissued in 1991.) it also marks the 80th anniversary of the 1927 publication of the collection “la liberté ou l’amour!” in which he included several poems for singer yvonne george.

born on july 4, 1900 in paris—the son of a café owner—desnos became a literary columnist for the newspaper “paris-soir” after attending business college. his poems first found homes in the dadaist magazine “littérature” in the period immediately following wwi. his first book—a collection of surrealistic aphorisms—was published in 1922. these were followed by “language cuit” (1923), “deuil pour deuil” (1924), “journal d'une apparition” and “la liberté ou l’amour!” (1927), “the night of loveless nights” (1930), “corps et biens” (1930), “état de veille” (1943), and “le vin est tiré” (1943).

while at “paris-soir,” desnos met fellow poet benjamin péret who introduced desnos to the dada group in paris and andré breton. desnos became an active member of the surrealist group and developed a particular talent for “automatic writing.” this involved drifting into a trance and then recording the associations and leaps of the subconscious mind. desnos' poems from this time are playful (by utilizing puns and homonyms), sensual, and serious. in the 1930s his poems became more direct and musical while retaining his earlier playfulness. during that decade, desnos branched out into extensive work on french radio and writing reviews of cinema and jazz. his break with surrealism can be seen in his lyric poem about solitude, “the night of loveless nights,” which was written in quatrains and more similar to baudelaire than andré breton.

upon france’s state of war against germany in 1939, desnos returned to the french army. in paris during the german occupation (with its rampant collaboration), desnos used pseudonyms such as lucien gallois and pierre andier and published a series of essays that undercut and mocked the nazis. such articles—in combination with his work for the french resistance—led to his arrest. sadly, desnos’ arrest by the gestapo that february morning in 1944 cut short the work of a writer whose craft had evolved over myriad twists and turns. as his biographer william kulik points out, “contreé” (the last book published before his arrest) was a culmination of that evolution: it consists of of 25 poems written in alexandrines or syllabics, many of which are sonnets or resemble them.

from “contreé,” we have the poem “cascade,” translated in “the selected poems of robert desnos” (ecco press):

What sort of arrow split the sky and this rock?
It quivers, spreading like a peacock’s fan
Like the mist around the shaft and knotless feathers
Of a comet come to next at midnight.

How blood surges from the gaping wound,
Lips already silencing the murmur and the cry,
One solemn finger holds back time, confusing
The witness of the eyes where the deed is written.

Silence? We still know the passwords.
Lost sentinels far from the watch fires
We smell the odor of honeysuckle and surf
Rising the dark shadows.

Distance, let dawn leap the void at last,
And a single beam of light make a rainbow on the water
Its quiver full of reeds,
Sign of the return of archers and patriotic songs.

desnos was sent to first to the auschwitz/birkenau death factory, but—as the soviet forces approached—he was transferred to térézin/theresienstadt concentration camp in czechoslovakia. weakened by typhoid, he died on june 8, 1945, just after the camp’s liberation by allied forces (and is buried in paris’ montparnasse cemetery).

desnos's poetry has been set to music by a number of composers, including witold lutosławski with “les espaces du sommeil” (1975) and “chantefleurs et chantefables” (1991), and francis poulenc (“dernier poème,” 1956). desnos translator forché names him as a significant influence on her own work. to access the wonder, complexity, and texture of desnos’ poems, check out the following web sources:

(the last three poems on this website of surrealist poems are those of desnos.)

witold lutoslawski’s “les espaces du sommeil” and “chantefleurs et chantefables” can respectively be played at:

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