Kenneth Rexroth:

Translations from French


Anonymous Provençal
Charles Cros (2)
O.V. de Lubicz-Milosz
Pierre Reverdy (5)
Francis Carco
Léon-Paul Fargue
Antonin Artaud
Robert Desnos (2)
Jacques Prévert
Raymond Queneau
Jules Supervielle





In an orchard under the leaves of the hawthorn
My lady holds her lover close
Till the watchman cries and the dawn comes.
      Oh God, oh God, the dawn, that came so soon!

God damn the night that it comes to an end,
And makes my lover go from me,
And the watchman cry that he sees the dawn!
      Oh God, oh God, the dawn, that came so soon!

Lovely sweet lover, kiss me. You and me,
Here deep in the grass under the singing birds,
Let us do everything again, in spite of jealousy.
      Oh God, oh God, the dawn, that came so soon!

Lovely sweet lover, do it once more
Here in the garden where the bird sings
While the watchman sounds his horn.
      Oh God, oh God, the dawn, that came so soon!

While the soft dawn wind blows over us,
My lover, lovely and gallant and gay,
Let me drink your sweet breath once again.
      Oh God, oh God, the dawn, that came so soon!

My lady is willing and pleasant,
Her beauty amazes all men,
And her heart is filled with faithful love.
      Oh God, oh God, the dawn that came so soon!

Anonymous Provençal (late Middle Ages)




Black poppies and the fading cornflowers
In the ripe hay by the stable,
Yellowed letters of my respectable grandfather,
Full of old fashioned vows to my grandmother,

Snuff box of my great uncle,
Backgammon board inlaid on the little table,
Carry me away, so I can imagine a time
When my verses will carry you away, you who are not yet born.

For I was very much alive. Every wind which blew brought
The odor of hawthorn blossoms and lilacs.
The sound of kisses drowned out the tolling of bells.

O readers to come, who will live in the joy
Of sixteen, of lilacs and first kisses,
Your loves will rejoice my rotting bones.

CHARLES CROS (1842-1888)


Once upon a time there was a big white wall — bare, bare, bare,
Against the wall there stood a ladder — high, high, high,
And on the ground a smoked herring — dry, dry, dry,

He comes, holding in his hands — dirty, dirty, dirty,
A heavy hammer and a big nail — sharp, sharp, sharp,
A ball of string — big, big, big,

Then he climbs the ladder — high, high, high,
And drives the sharp nail — tock, tock, tock,
Way up on the big white wall — bare, bare, bare,

He drops the hammer — down, down, down,
To the nail he fastens a string — long, long, long,
And, at the end, the smoked herring — dry, dry, dry,

He comes down the ladder — high, high, high,
He picks up the hammer — heavy, heavy, heavy,
And goes off somewhere — far, far, far,

And ever afterwards the smoked herring — dry, dry, dry,
At the end of that string — long, long, long,
Very slowly sways — forever and ever and ever.

I made up this story — silly, silly, silly,
To infuriate the squares — solemn, solemn, solemn,
And to amuse the children — little, little, little.





It will be exactly like this life. The same room.
Yes, my child, the same. At dawn the bird of time in the foliage
Pale as a corpse. Then the servants will get up,
And you will hear the frozen noises, in the hollow basins

Of the fountains. O terrible, terrible youth! O empty heart!
It will be exactly like this life. There will be
The poor voices, the voices of winter in old slums,
The glass mender singing his own duet,

The broken grandmother under a dirty bonnet
Crying out the names of fish, the man with the blue apron
Who spits into a hand worn by the wheelbarrow
And yells nobody knows what, like the Angel of Judgment.

It will be exactly like this life. The same table.
The Bible, Goethe, the ink and the smell of time,
The paper, white woman who reads thoughts,
The pen, the portrait. My child, my child!

It will be exactly like this life! — The same garden,
Deep, deep, thick, dim. And towards noon
People will enjoy themselves at being reunited there
Who never met and who do not know

One from another. You will have to dress
As if for a party and go in the night
Of the lost, all alone, without love and without lamp.
It will be exactly like this life. The same parkway:

And (in the autumn afternoon), at the turn of the parkway,
There where the beautiful road goes down shyly, like the woman
Who goes to pick the flowers of convalescence — listen, my child,
We shall meet again, here as of old,

And you have forgotten, the color your dress was then,
But I, I have known only little moments of happiness.
You will be garbed in pale violet, beautiful sorrow!
And the flowers of your hat will be small and sad,

And I will not know their names, for in this life I have known
Only the name of one sad small flower, the forget-me-not,
The old sleeper in the ravines of the land of hide and seek,
The orphan flower. Yes, yes, deep heart, like this life.

And the dim path will be there, all damp
In the echo of waterfalls. And I will tell you
About the city upon the water, and about Rabbi Bacharach,
And about the nights of Florence. There will also be

The sinking wall and down there where the smells
Of the old, old rain and the leprous weeds drowse,
Cold and fat, the hollow flowers shake there
In the dumb stream.

O.V. de LUBICZ-MILOSZ (1877-1939)




      The empty bell
      The dead birds
In the house where everyone is falling asleep
            Nine o’clock

The earth holds itself still
            You would say somebody sighed
The trees look like they were smiling
      Water trembles at the tip of each leaf
            A cloud crosses the night

In front of the door a man is singing

            The window opens noiselessly

PIERRE REVERDY (1889-1960)



Hanging head
               Eyelashes curled
Mouth silent
The lights go on
There is nothing there but a name
                    Which has been forgotten
If the door opens
I won’t dare go in
               Everything happens back there

They talk
          And I listen

My fate is at stake in the next room




The hardly open eyes
                    The hand on the other shore
The sky
          And everything that happens there
The leaning door
               A head sticks out
From the frame
And through the shutters
You can see out
The sun fills everything
But the trees are still green
                         The falling hour
                         It gets warmer
And the houses are smaller
The passersby go less quickly
And always look up
                    The lamp shines on us now
Looking far away
We could see the light
We were happy
                         That evening

At the other house where somebody waits for us




The color which night decomposes
The table where they sit
In its glass chimney
            The lamp is a heart emptying itself
It is another year
      A new wrinkle
Would you have thought of it
            The window throws a blue square
The door is more familiar
      A separation
            Remorse and crime
Goodbye I am falling
Gently bending arms take me
Out of the corner of my eye I can see them all drinking
            I don’t dare move
They sit there
                  The table is round
And so is my memory
I remember everybody
Even those who are gone




       The lights are all out
The wind passes singing
                     And the trees shiver
The animals are dead
Nobody is left
The stars have stopped sparkling
                     The earth turns no more
A head nods
                     The hair sweeps the night
The last steeple still standing
                     Rings midnight





When I waited for you in the bar
That night amongst the drunks
Who snickered when they tried to laugh,
It seemed to me that you came late,
And that somebody followed you in the street.
I saw you look around before you came in.
You were afraid. You closed the door.
And your shadow stayed outside.
It was that which had followed you.

Your shadow is always in the street,
Near the bar where I waited for you so often.
But you are dead.
And your shadow ever since is in the doorway.
And wherever I go now, it follows me,
Fearfully, like a beast.
If I stop, it stops.
If I speak to it, it runs away.

* * *

Your shadow is the color of rain,
Of my regrets, of time which passes.
It may disappear and hide itself,
But when night comes, it is everywhere.

At the subway station La Chapelle,
In the poor and clamorous slums,
It waits for me behind the black pillars,
Where other fraternal shadows
Wave to passersby and call
With great gestures of hopelessness.

But the passersby never turn around.
Not one has ever known why,
In the wind which makes the street lamps blink,
In the cold wind, full of mystery,
Suddenly they quicken their steps.

And I, who seek you where you might be,
I, who know that you wait for me there,
I pass without recognizing you,
I come and go all night,
I walk alone, just like in the old days,
And your shadow, the color of rain,
Driven at each step by the wind,
Your shadow is lost in the night,
But I feel it all about me.

* * *

When you were just a streetwalker,
Just an innocent prostitute,
Like the girl who appeared
In Whitechapel
One night, to Thomas De Quincey,
And whom he sought, too late, and never found,
From doorway to doorway and hotel to hotel —

As he tells in a book.

It was there, for the first time, that I met you.
You were tired and sad, like the tarts of London.
Your hair still held an odor of fog.
And while they stood you drinks,
The drunken longshoremen insulted you,
Or went home with you in the sombre street.

I never forgot the effect which you had on me,
In that hopeless book.
Nor the wind, nor the rain, nor the gleaming pavement,
Nor the murderers of the night,
Nor the flares of the coffee stalls,
Nor the eddies of the Thames,
Between its dismal embankments.
Now, after all those years,
Another who resembles you
Comes, along the grey buildings,
Beckons to me and accosts me.

* * *

It is not you. It is everything which you call back to me.
As I was sad before I knew you,
As I sank down with pleasure in my sorrow,
Walking the streets, going into the bars,
Begging the shadows of the night to speak to me,
Wandering on and on without stopping —

But everywhere it was too late.

The music of an accordion breaks off with a cough.
They take down the lights one after another.
A passerby from whom I ask a light
Holds out to me a dead cigar.

Wherever I turn my steps it is the same story,
I am always going toward the train whistles,
On a great boulevard troubled and peopled with ghosts.
There I wait for I do not know who, I do not know why —
But the trains pass screaming,
And this waiting is more like leaving.

You have come to go away,
I have brought you to these desolate places,
And you have said to me, “Whatever you do,
It is me, from now on, you will see among all these ghosts.

You will feel me near you.
You will think that I am dead.
And you will never forget me.”

* * *

I listened to you and followed you under the streetlights.
There was no one but us alive where we went.
Only us, but I knew that of the two of us, the first
To say goodbye would be you.
There is no use trying to
Hold you by your little hand.
The cries, the rumbling, the smoke of the trains,
The rails and their signal lights,
The black bridge all resounding,
The noise of the heavy boxcars bumping each other,
By an obscure foreboding have already separated us.

* * *

Another time, in the same sinister district,
We seat ourselves on a bench in the night.
And the wind which drives the rain,
The lamps of the rooming houses,
The pimps in their damp sweaters,
The girls who stare at us,
Gather around us, their witches’
Circle draws in on us.
Then you are put to tears,

Trying to explain to me, without raising your voice,
That one day you will deliver me
From these ghosts who are in me —
You talk and the rain falls.
It is the rain which makes you weep,
With a grief which nothing can appease,
With an inconsolable pain.

And the round of shadows and of the lights of houses
Revolves tirelessly
With the guys and their girls,
The bars where the jukeboxes grind,
Flinging to us sometimes through the door
The call of a dead voice —

The round which nothing can stop,
Turns and carries me with it, with you who are dead,
Turns and will carry me always, with all my past,
Out of time, out of the world, out of all that is
Or is not, as you, in the shadow, you know —

FRANCIS CARCO (1886-1958)




I love to go down into the town at the hour when the sky lies close against the horizon like a vast whale. It sinks down into the heart of the street like a worker into his ditch. The bell has swung before the windows and the panes are lit up. It is as though all the eyes of the evening were filled with tears. In an opal the lamps and the day wrestle gently with each other. The advertising signs write to each other, spreading themselves in letters of lava across the face of the buildings. The rope dancers stride over the abyss. A great long legged spider spins its web from the hooks of a bush full of flowers. An acrobat climbs up and throws himself down. Shipwrecked sailors signal foreign vessels. The houses advance like the prows of galleys with all their portholes blazing. Man runs between their golden flames like a waif in a harbor.

Dark and streaming the autos arrive from everywhere, like sharks to the quarry of a great shipwreck, blind to the fulgurant signals of men.

LÉON-PAUL FARGUE (1876-1947)





Do evil
        do evil
        commit many sins
        but do no evil to me
        do not touch me
        do not make me do evil
        to myself
        I shall revenge myself cruelly
        you soil and you injure
        there is nothing left for him to do but lose
        he has already committed every filthiness
                no evil to me
                no evil around me
                no evil where I am myself
        let me live
                in a world
        let me have around
                        the pure
                the pure heroes


it is me
who will be the judge
at the last accounting
it is to me
that all the elements
of bodies and things
will come to be referred
it is the state of my
body that shall make
the Last Judgment


The place where you suffer
where you know you suffer
where you feel it
and where
and voluntarily
you maintain the things which you do
and which you eat
in the breast of eternal sadness
without letting them go under cover
in an organ forever useless
where a being waits for them


the beings do not come out in the exterior day
they have no other power than to burst forth in the subterranean night where they are made
but for eternity
they pass their time
and the time
it takes them to make
such step has never been produced
they have to wait for the hand of Man to take and make them
for only
innate and predestined
that redoubtable

to leave the human body
to the light of nature
to plunge it alive into the gleam of nature
where the sun will wed it at last


Thus there is nothing made more ignobly useless and superfluous than the organ called heart
which is the dirtiest means which the beings have been able
to invent to pump life into me
the movements of the heart are nothing else than a maneuver
by which the being relieves himself on me for me to take
that which I ceaselessly refuse to take from him
that is to say that is how I live

The beings are that virtually parasitic life which is created
on the margin of the true life
and which ends by having the pretension to replace it
the actual life taken by itself
constitutes exactly one of the bifurcations of being
beside the real life
and which ends by forgetting it is false
and ends by pretending to see the real life follow
its ignoble movement


disguised as
a choice of a
I say shit
to everything
                        go to sleep


it is very cold
as though
it was

ANTONIN ARTAUD (1896-1948)




I lived in those times. For a thousand years
I have been dead. Not fallen, but hunted;
When all human decency was imprisoned,
I was free amongst the masked slaves.

I lived in those times, yet I was free.
I watched the river, the earth, the sky,
Turning around me, keeping their balance
The seasons provided their birds and their honey.

You who live, what have you made of your luck?
Do you regret the time when I struggled?
Have you cultivated for the common harvest?
Have you enriched the town I lived in?

Living men, think nothing of me. I am dead.
Nothing survives of my spirit or my body.

ROBERT DESNOS (1900-1945)


Terezina Concentration Camp, May 1945

I have dreamed so much of you,
Walked so often, talked so often with you,
Loved your shadow so much.
Nothing is left me of you.
Nothing is left of me but a shadow among shadows,
A being a hundred times more shadowy than a shadow,
A shadowy being who comes, and comes again, in your sunlit life.





          Demons and wonders
                    Winds and tides
The sea has gone far away
                    And you
Like seaweed softly stroked by the wind
          Stir dreaming in the sands of our bed —
          Demons and wonders
                    Winds and tides
The sea has gone far away
But in your half open eyes
Two small waves wait
          Demons and wonders
                    Winds and tides
Two small waves to drown me





You ran away from the hospital
They told you you weren’t sick
You were just an animal
You didn’t know

They told you you were phthisick
Leprous, chorean, cholerick
You were enigmatick
They didn’t know

Everybody ran after you
They found you in the rue d’Bellechasse
Where you didn’t need to go
You didn’t know

You’ve got a kidney in your neck
Your aorta is full of holes
Incisions all over you
You didn’t know

You were really a man
Just like all of us
The pancreas in the gum
The stomach in the rum
Some brains in the heart
The lungs coming out of the fingers
The intestines coming out of the nose
An ear in the liver
Just like all of us
And just like you
Nobody knows.





It’s good to have chosen
A living home
And housed time
In a ceaseless heart
And seen my hands
Alight on the world,
As on an apple
In a little garden,
To have loved the earth,
The moon and the sun
Like old friends
Who have no equals,
And to have committed
The world to memory
Like a bright horseman
To his black steed,
To have given a face
To these words — woman, children,
And to have been a shore
For the wandering continents
And to have come upon the soul
With tiny strokes of the oars,
For it is scared away
By a brusque approach.
It is beautiful to have known
The shade under the leaves,
And to have felt age
Creep over the naked body,
And have accompanied pain
Of black blood in our veins,
And gilded its silence
With the star, Patience,
And to have all these words
Moving around in the head,
To choose the least beautiful of them
And let them have a ball,
To have felt life,
Hurried and ill loved,
And locked it up
In this poetry.



These translations are from the following books: 100 Poems from the French (Jargon, 1955; Pym-Randall, 1972). Copyright 1972 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust. 14 Poems by O.V. de Lubicz-Milosz (Peregrine, 1952; Copper Canyon, 1983). Copyright 1983 Kenneth Rexroth Trust. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press. Selected Poems of Pierre Reverdy (New Directions, 1969). Copyright 1969 Kenneth Rexroth. Reproduced by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.

Other Rexroth Translations
Rexroth essay on Pierre Reverdy