In the opening poem of the 1926 sequence À La Mystérieuse (To the Woman of Mystery) Robert Desnos wrote
J’ai rêvé cette nuit de paysages insensés et d’aventures
dangereuses aussi bien du point de vue de la mort que du
point de vue de la vie qui sont aussi le point de vue de l’amour.
In this ambitious new translation of Desnos, one which will I suspect remain the standard text for some years to come, Timothy Adès suggests the following as a bridge crossing two different languages:
I dreamed last night of unhinged landscapes and dangerous
adventures, as much from death’s viewpoint as from life’s,
and they are both the viewpoint of love.
The word ‘unhinged’ conveys a colloquial awareness of how one might refer to madness and indeed Martin Bell’s translation of the same line offered support for this when he rendered the line into English as ‘Tonight I dreamed of insane landscapes’. However, Adès’s use of the word ‘unhinged’ also prompts us to contemplate an idea concerning the possibility of an opening, a taking down of shutters, and this idea is taken further in the last poem of the sequence, ‘À la Faveur de la Nuit’:
Mais la fenêtre s’ouvre et le vent, le vent qui balance bizarrement
La flame et le drapeau entoure ma fuite de son manteau.
(But the window is opening and the breeze, the breeze weirdly
juggling flame and flag, wraps my retreat in its cloak.)
When the hinges of the window open in this fifth poem of the sequence the poet is compelled to recognise that the space now exposed offers no entrance to his desired lover, the night-club singer Yvonne George. Whereas only a few lines earlier Desnos had become aware of a shadow outside his window, ‘Cette ombre à la fenêtre’, and felt that the ghostly image was that of the woman whose eyes he would wish to close with his lips he is now compelled to recognise that ‘it isn’t you’ and that ‘I knew that’. The siren-like attraction of Yvonne George for the young Desnos offers an echo of a poetic heritage which must include the knight of Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ who is ensnared by the lady’s ‘wild wild eyes’ as he closes them ‘with kisses four’.
Adès uses this word ‘unhinged’ in an equally intriguing way when translating a much later poem from Desnos’s 1944 sequence Contrée (Against the Grain). Timothy Adès tells us that ‘Le Paysage’ (‘The Countryside’) was the first poem by Desnos that he had ever discovered and translated; it was to be found in The Penguin Book of French Verse. The sonnet casts a backward glance at love from a different perspective and the poet is compelled to recognise that for him
Love’s not that storm whose lightning kindled high
Towers, unhorsed, unhinged, and fleetingly
Would set the parting of the ways aglow.
This later concept of love becomes something more concrete altogether, a ‘flint’ that his ‘footstep sparks at night’, a word that ‘no lexicon can render right’.
If poetry possesses the power to make the invisible visible then the earlier poem had made every attempt to give the muse form:
My laughter and joy crystallise around you, It’s your make-
up, your powder, your rouge, your snakeskin bag, your
silk stocking…it’s also that little fold between ear and
nape, where the neck is born.
Clearly the poet’s understanding of love was inextricably bound up with the language of the visual and echoed perhaps the suggestive words of André Breton: ‘les mots font l’amour’. But the later use of ‘unhinged’ suggests, however, a different awareness of love’s power and that despite not being ‘that storm’ it can remain enduring as ‘Still I love’ and the words become contained within the more defined structure of a sonnet: a more formal approach to language seems like a recognition of ‘Old age’ making ‘all things fixed and luminous.’
In March 1933 Pierre Jean Jouve wrote an astonishing essay ‘The Unconscious, Spirituality, Catastrophe’ in which ‘poetry is in possession of a number of ways of attaining to the symbol – which, no longer controlled by the intellect, rises up by itself, redoubtable and wholly real. It is like a substance discharging force. And as the sensibility becomes accustomed, through training, to proceed from the phrase to the line of verse, from the commonplace word to that of magic, the quest for formal adequacy becomes inseparable from the quest for buried treasure.’ Jouve’s own 1938 poem about interior landscapes pursued that search for what could be uncovered within the formalities of language by suggesting that ‘The mighty pillars of poetry form towns’ and that ‘Evening sinks and solidifies about men’s mortal limbs’ as ‘A mourning girl goes gathering into her aproned gown / The scattered ashes of the man she loved.’
The interweaving connection between Desnos and Jouve, those two pioneering French poets of the mid-twentieth century, might perhaps also be illustrated by the break Desnos made with the Surrealist movement in 1929. As Adès puts it in the notes he has added to his monumental edition of the poems Desnos had realised that love for Yvonne was a hopeless case and in a poem from 16th November, ‘The Poem to Florence’, he asserted that ‘The gates have been bolted on Wonderland’. As Desnos went on to proclaim in his ‘offensive and sarcastic’ Third Manifesto of Surrealism (1st March 1930): ‘Surrealism has now fallen into the public domain’.
Arc’s excellent publication of these Collected Poems, subtitled ‘Surrealist, Lover, Resistant’, goes a long way towards making that exclamatory statement an evident reality just as Enitharmon’s re-issuing of the Gascoyne translations of Jouve’s Selected Poems offers an opening, an unhinging, a suggestion that, as its subtitle affirms, ‘Despair Has Wings’.
Ian Brinton 20th January 2020