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Max Jacob:

Prose Poems

from The Dice Cup

translations from Le cornet a des
by E. Mader and S. Levy

--------------

Uncritical Introduction: Various Revealing Fragments
Concerning Max Jacob

--Max already had his sadness from birth. Often he was beaten. At the age of 24 he received his last slap from his mother for having made a spelling error. --biographer Robert Guiette

***

--The inefficiency of my efforts to collaborate in the exercises of the barracks exhausted the patience of those who were directing them and when the benevolent vigilance of the military authorities interrupted my tasks at the end of six weeks in order to spare me further trouble, I better dissimulated my embarrassment at having been relieved of my responsibilities than my chiefs their joy at having acquitted themselves of theirs. --Max, Le Roi de Beotie, Nouvelles (1922)

***

--He relates that he supported himself by giving piano lessons, supported himself to the extent of "four sous of bread per day," slept in a hammock offered him by another Breton as poor as he, and attended courses at the Academie Jullian where the other students, hardly a prosperous lot, thought he had come to sell pencils. --Gerald Kamber: Max Jacob and the Poetics of Cubism (1971)

***

--I returned from the Bibliotheque Nationale. I set down my briefcase. I glanced down for my slippers and when I raised my head again there was somebody on the wall. There was someone on the red wallpaper! My flesh fell to the floor. I was stripped by lightning! Oh, imperishable second! Oh verity, verity! Tears of verity, joy of verity, unforgettable verity. The celestial body is on the wall of my poor room. Why Lord? Oh forgive me! He is in a landscape, a landscape I drew long ago, but Him! What beauty, elegance and sweetness. His shoulders, his bearing. He is wearing a robe of yellow silk with blue cuffs. He turns and I see that peaceful shining face. --Max's vision, October 7, 1909

***

--Derision and parody have always constituted an essential element of Max's inspiration. Whence the difficulty that certain persons had in taking his conversion seriously. "The parody of a conversion," they were saying and with good reason. It was a calumny to which Max's attitude and his writings lent themselves. His use of ether as an intoxicant, posterior, he claimed, to his vision of 1909 kept his faith from being recognized as absolutely sincere. And finally his morals were not good; that's the least that one can say. --Andre Billy, Max Jacob (1946)

***

--There is no doubt that he fervently believed in his new faith, but it did not affect his personality or his art. The result was that Christianity tolerated his presence in its midst with difficulty: numerous are the testimonies that cast doubts on his conversion. --Sydney Levy, The Play of the Text (1981)

***

--Another vision that he had at the Sacre Coeur of Montmartre was told a few years later among his friends. The Virgin appeared to him and said: "How crummy you are, my poor Max!" "Not as crummy as all that, my good Holy Virgin!" Max replied, and left the church, upsetting the communicants and annoying the Swiss Guard. --Andre Billy

***

--That part of Montmartre is the least agreeable. A pervasive humidity slimes over the cobblestones and the walls, insinuates itself, spreads itself everywhere. In such a street where not three cars a day roll through and where the housewives, like nuns, slink along the walls, one could easily enough admit that a special atmosphere favored conversions. When, a little later, I learned that Leprin was undergoing in his turn the same crisis, I was hardly surprised since I knew the neighborhood. --Francis Carco, Montmartre vingt ans (1938)

***

--Even a detailed study of a single period of his life would yield evidence of his marginality: during his Montmartre phase, penniless, he worked at a variety of jobs--journalist, piano teacher, tutor, salesman, janitor, expert in horoscopy, art critic, and others. --Sydney Levy

***

--If I had sinned terribly the night before, next morning, well before dawn, you would see me crawling on my knees through the Stations of the Cross. I choke, I weep, I strike my face, my breast, my arms and legs, my hands. I bleed, I make the Sign of the Cross with my tears. At the end, God is taken in. --Max, in a letter to Marcel Jouhandeau

***

--We must believe in Hell because it has been seen and described by seers and saints. There is an herb that makes us see demons. I drank an infusion of that herb and I saw demons. I must believe what I saw. I have described them and my description tallies with other descriptions. --Max

***

--You allow your imagination to wander far concerning my Saintliness, and concerning the relations between old rocks and said Saintliness. I would suggest that in principle Saintliness is a very difficult "art". The base of Saintliness is the mastery of self. "The religion of he who is not master of his language is vain," says St. Paul or St. Jacques or St. Jude, or St. John. The letter is less important than wise and dogmatic thought. Who among us can call himself master of his language? In any case, not myself. I question what it is to be a "master of one's language". In order to be a master, one needs long exercise, and I myself have but thirty years of Catholicism, which supposes inveterate bad habits from the past. But I stop before "His language". It would still be necessary for my language to belong to me for me to know that I have a language. And this is the formidable problem of the Me. The Me! The Me! The Me! All of holiness is in these two letters. Where begins your Me, our Me? Where does it end? How is it, this Me? What separates it from the Me of others? From nature? Imagine that a giant iron nail holds you on a chaise or armchair, and that the rest of the world gravitates around you. Even God himself! You gaze upon him on the outside of yourself. You gaze upon the rest of the world. This is not all. You listen to your inspiration and the words that it breathes to you do not belong to you, your ideas of angels and demons don't belong to you. Your reason itself, does it belong to you? Or to God? I ask you: where is your Me? You are traversed by the emanations of all nature, of your heredity, of your digestions of all kinds. Where is your Me? Because the base of Saintliness is to be master of one's Me--without doubt in order that one may renounce it and offer it to God. Though it is necessary that it exists, yet you know not where it is. --Max Jacob, in a letter from Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire to Clotilde Bauguion, 20 July 1942 (tr. E.M.)

***

--I will not go to Quimper, alas!

The yellow star annoys me:

--If I wear it, I could become the prey of the first policeman that comes upon me. And even more important: I scandalize the children.

--If I don't wear it, I am considered at fault.

At Saint-Benoit, I am well protected--it's been proven several times now. On the road, however, I am the humble wandering Jew. But you must believe that I will never again go to Quimper without making an effort to see Locronan [a friend]--if such is permitted.

Pray for me! It seems that I have a dossier at the Prefecture of Police in which my relations and numerous visitors constitute a "Jewish plot". I have conveyed this fact to my protector. --letter to Clotilde, 28 August 1942 (tr. E. M.)

***

--Between 1930 and 1940 we were reunited during the summer vacations, among regional and Parisian artists, at an address on the Rue Saint-Franois, in Quimper.

Present among us, giving tone to the little group, was Max Jacob, pessimistic and full of verve simultaneously, the Italian ceramist and sculptor Giovanni Leonardi, the painter and conservator at the Museum of Brest, Jean Lachaud, the writer and doctor Pierre Minet, my sister Henriette Bauguion, and myself, poet.

Now and then, Max Jacob, bitter, glancing back at his past and pining for his youthfulness of those years, would take from his breastpocket a worn daguerreotype photograph. Exhibiting it with emotion, he would say: "And here's the young man I was at 20!" He wasn't far from shedding tears, and ours as well were on the verge of overflowing our eyelids, knowing to what an extent life effaces all innocence.

Max Jacob had the fine head of a monastic bishop, and yet there nonetheless flashed forth at times, from behind his lorgnon, an incisive gaze, searching always for the fault in his interlocutor's speech. He was not at all only a little proud of his hands, saying that an artist must ostentatiously display these noble parts of himself. If for Dr. G. Desse the hand is a claw, for Max Jacob it was a kind of scepter, able to bless, create beauty, direct, command--a kind of device to uplift the soul toward God, in an offertory gesture.

One problem Max Jacob did not like to enter upon was the problem of Love. At those times he became silent, as if folded into himself, withdrawn. However he resolved this problem, it is certain that he never loved anyone absolutely, passionately and decisively. The Love of God was for him the only basis for the problem, human love being but an accident--and perhaps unfortunately for him, deviating from its normal course. Women had nothing to fear from him in this area--he treated them always as comrades, amiably.

This curious man, whose fashion of moving about through life was so original (and I am not only speaking of his physical comportment--which was the butt of laughter for the Quimper bourgeois, when they saw him strolling about on the city quays in a silk shirt and ragged shoes, for example--but also of his moral, intellectual and spiritual bearing), this man whom Paris was not far from considering a buffoon--for he put so much of the fantastic and occasionally such cynicism into his speech in order to ward off questions, in order to demonstrate the inanity of everything--was in the last analysis a very serious man, profound, mystical, and almost in despair because he could not demonstrate the proof of God before the skeptics, which proof was nevertheless demonstrated in his unquiet and tormented life. --Clotilde Bauguion on Max

***

--I've unearthed a letter to the Chinese poet Lo-Ching explaining my early readings of the French prose poet Max Jacob. After seeing some of Lo-Ching's paintings in Taiwan and reading some of his poems, upon my return to Madison I sent him some of the translations of Max Jacob I did with Sydney Levy, previously in the French department here. Part of the letter reads:

. . . I don't know how to define the quality that first attracted me to Jacob, but it had something to do with his knack for setting out on the first few steps of a narrative development and then, when a certain critical mass had been reached, dissolving the narrative suspense into a kind of absurd liberation....

It occurred to me early in my reading of Jacob that his prose poems were structured like jokes: a certain number of suggestive elements are brought into play, then suddenly comes the punchline. One doesn't usually laugh with Jacob's "punchlines" however: one is rather left with a mixture of perplexity and liberation, a rare combination in the range of aesthetic experiences....

I was convinced of the importance of this particular reaction, and started translating Jacob with Sydney Levy. A few weeks into the project, I realized that Jacob's poems were perhaps more like Zen koans than jokes, that a certain amount of mystification was always present....

I think of Jacob as a master narrative technician, a great Jewish humorist in miniature, a Faberge of narrative irony. That he's not recognized as one of the central modern French writers is incomprehensible to me....

--E.M.

***

--Far from wanting to repress [Max's] marginality in order to tip the balance in favor of his participation in some group or other...far from wanting to shelve him somewhere, I propose to take the case of Max Jacob literally: to exploit this very marginality, to confront it and multiply it. In other words, rather than considering Max Jacob a failed cubist, a failed surrealist, a failed Jew, or a failure of any sort, I propose to view his marginality as a front, a narrow boundary that belongs to none of the systems it separates yet incorporates them all, something which contains signs of each system, which announces the new yet retains traces of the old. --S. Levy

***

--Art is a game. Too bad for him who makes a duty of it. --Max, La Defense de Tartuffe

***

--This complex space is also the space of play. Neither serious nor nonserious, neither real nor imaginary, yet produced by theses pairs.... --S. Levy

***

--Monsieur de Max showed each of the two sides all of his profiles in turn, like so many giant prisms. --Max

***

--The Random House [Dice House?] Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry gives the following in the "Notes on the Poets" section, p. 612. I quote it in the way of a brief biography.

MAX JACOB

1876-1944. Met Picasso in 1901 and for some time shared a studio with him. Afterward, and for many years to follow, he lived three doors away from the artist on the Rue Ravignan. One of the key members of the group that formed around Apollinaire. A painter as well as poet, Jacob lived in extreme poverty, working at all manner of jobs throughout his life. Although born a Jew, he converted to Catholicism in 1915, six years after having a vision of Christ. In 1921 he moved from Paris to the small village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, close to a Benedictine church, where he remained until his arrest by the Nazis in February 1944. He died the following month in the concentration camp at Drancy.

Principle collections of poetry: Les Oeuvres Burlesques et Mystiques de Frere Matorel (1912), Le cornet des (1917), La Defense de Tartuffe (1919), Le Laboratoire Central (1921), Les Penitants en maillots roses (1925), Morceaux choisis (1937), Derniers Poemes (1945).

***

--To understand me well, compare the familiarities of Montaigne with those of Aristide Bruant or the elbowings of a sensationalist newspaper with the brutalities of Bossuet jostling the Protestants. --Max, 1916 Preface to Le cornet a des

***

--Rimbaud extended the scope of our sensibility and every literary man must be grateful to him for that, but authors of prose poems cannot take him as their model, for the prose poem in order to exist must submit to the laws of all art, which are style or will and situation or emotion, and Rimbaud leads only to disorder and exasperation. The prose poem must also avoid Baudelairean and Mallarmean parables, if it would distinguish itself from the fable. It is probably clear that I do not regard as prose poems those notebooks containing more or less quaint impressions published from time to time by my colleagues who have a surplus of material. A page of prose it not a prose poem, even if it encloses two or three lucky finds. I would consider as such those so-called finds presented with the necessary spiritual margin. In connection with this point, I warn the authors of prose poems to avoid excessively brilliant gems that attract the eye at the expense of the ensemble. The poem is a constructed object and not a jeweler's window. Rimbaud is the jeweler's window, not the jewel: the prose poem is a jewel. --Max, 1916 Preface

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Poems from
Le cornet a des
(The Dice Cup)

 

FALSE NEWS! NEW TRENCHES!
--[FAUSSES NOUVELLES! FOSSES NOUVELLES!
]

At a performance of For the Crown, at the Opera, while Desdemona was singing "My father is in Goritz and my heart in Paris," a shot was heard in a loge in the fifth gallery, then a second in the regular seats, and suddenly rope ladders rolled down. A man was attempting to descent from the ceiling. A bullet stopped him at the level of the balcony. All the spectators were armed and it appeared that the room was full of nothing but... and... Then there were neighbors assassinated, flaming gas jets. The booths were besieged, as was the stage, and there was the siege of a fold-up chair. The battle continued for eighteen days. The two armies may have been provisioned, I don't know, but one thing I do know for sure is that the journalists had come for such a horrible spectacle that one of them, being ill, had sent in his mother, and she was much interested in the self-control of a young French gentleman who had held out eighteen days in a front row without eating anything but a bit of broth. This particular episode from the Balcony War did much for voluntary enlistment in the provinces. And, on the bank of my river, under my trees, I know of three brothers in brand new uniforms who embraced each other with dry eyes while their families searched for jerseys in the armoires in the attic.

***

POEM

"What do you want from me?" said Mercury.

"Your smile and your teeth," said Venus.

"They're false. What do you want from me?"

"Your scepter."

"I never part with it."

"Bring it here, divine postman."

It is necessary to read this in the Greek: it's called an Idyll. In school, a friend who often failed his exams said to me: "If we translated a Daudet novel into Greek, we'd be tough enough afterwards for the exam! But I can't work at night. It makes my mother cry!" It is necessary to read this in the Greek also, messieurs, it's an idyll, eidullos, little picture.

***

POEM OF THE MOON

There are upon the night three mushrooms that are the moon. As brusquely as the cuckoo sings from a clock, they rearrange themselves at midnight each month. There are in the garden rare flowers that are small sleeping men, one-hundred of them. They are reflections from a mirror. There is in my dark room a luminous censer that swings, then two... phosphorescent aerostats. They are reflections from a mirror. There is in my head a bumblebee speaking.

***

A POEM FROM JAVA BY M. RENE GHIL
CALLED LES KSOURS

With a stroke of the fingernail, they enter the fold of their eyelids to give to their eyes the look of statues. You can't sleep here anymore. Those who have eyes like their stags cafe au lait. . . Oh! your diadem phallus of corral, Tao-Phen-Tsu!... One will forget them no more. Three dwarves, officers in the navy, descended in the champagne-colored precipice to do the boulalaika with some hetaerae from Champagne, and, that night, two students from a school left their... (here some straying from the path that doesn't at all become me) to play a painted bigophone duet under the yards of these... electric. With a stroke of the fingernail, they enter the fold of their eyelids to give to their eyes the look of statues, but those who have eyes like virgins of sugar never want anyone to touch them there. One sings this cicada language and the godprinces eat jamtoast off the tips of their fingernails.

***

INCONVENIENCE OF SLIPPING

The head was nothing but a little old ball in the big white bed. The eiderdown of puce-colored silk, adorned with fine lace, resting perfectly on the seam, was facing the lamp. The mother in this white valley was caught up in big things, her dentures removed; and the son, near the night table with the scruff of a seventeen-year-old that couldn't be shaved because of pimples, was amazed that from this big old bed, from this hollow valley of a bed, from this little toothless ball, could come a marvelous, winning personality, and one as clearly congenial as his own. Nevertheless, the little old ball didn't want him to leave the lamp by the white valley. It would have been better for him not to leave it, because this lamp had always kept him from living anywhere else when he was no longer living near it.

***

A LITTLE ART CRITICISM

Jacques Claes really is the name of a Dutch painter. Let's take a brief look, if you will, at his origins. When Jacques was little his mother used to pale her face with vinegar, as she herself has admitted. Thus we can explain why the master's paintings have a varnished look. In Jacques' village, on Roofer Saint's Day, it used to be the custom that the roofers would let themselves fall from the rooftops without crushing the passersby. They also had to throw their ropes up from the sidewalk to the chimneys. A very picturesque setting, which certainly must have given our painter his taste for the picturesque.

 

***

CUBISM AND SUN, DROWNED

L'eglisiglia del Amore, l'odore del Tarquino, in short, all the monuments of Rome on a bouteglia of wine and the corresponding register to demonstrate that we have drunk from it copiously, but that we will abstain: the taste of water in the gullet at the pucker of the bottleneck. If you must repent, you might as well abstain. The volatile rainbow is no more than volcanic bauble at the angle of the label. Mum's the word! And lets compare one liter with the other: el spatio del Baccio and the Bacco nel cor.

***

M. LE PRESIDENT OF THE REPUBLIC
VISITS THE HORTICULTURE EXHIBITION

Lofty palms so gracious that one would think one were in Algeria as much by their attitude as by their altitude! Lofty palms! Alas, if only they were or will turn out to be made of plaster! Underneath is an enormous head like the Ogre from a Tom Thumb tale! Is he asleep? No, he's smiling, and his hand that hides the sky, the enormous Algerian sky, his hand that flies to make the night believable, passing one nimble finger over the dense foliage, comes back with a bit of dust on the index finger. Ah! Ah! Madame the housemaid? Ah! Ah! The scene changes: these are giant dahlias: red, white, arranged as if for a chromolithograph, and Monsieur le President, Tom Thumb, is now rich enough to relieve some of his relatives, the palm cutters.

***

NON-AMBULANT PAUPERS AND OTHERS

Municipalities don't look after ambulant paupers, it's fairies who look after them. A clown from a traveling circus who had his legs broken and who was following the troupe as a scullion got from a fairy an iron chair much like those in the front row, and he had the ability to make a gold louis appear in his pocket, just as the Wandering Jew would find five sous in his. The circus staff contended for the chair and wouldn't think of anything else: the gold louis disappeared in orgies and the circus found itself on the rocks. The chair, one day, was broken by a bunch of drunks. The circus was sold and all the poor devils had to hit the road. The fairy should have intervened, because municipalities don't look after ambulant paupers, but the fairy wasn't around. The saltimbanques had the idea of becoming themselves non-ambulant paupers so as to touch the heart of some municipality.

***

TRUE ANECDOTE

The success of Mlle Ratkine at the Franklin Theater in St. Petersberg was interrupted by screams. The unfortunate singer had fallen into the pit and broken her arm. Being a doctor, it was I who went to the beautiful, unconscious woman and had her moved to her dressing room. I noticed that the director was in love with her: he paced around outside the room without daring to enter or knock. Finally, he knocks. No answer! "She's with that little French lover of hers, no doubt!" he said to me. Her lover, alas! The woman was in the hands of the old stage manager who was taking advantage of the fact that only one of Mlle Ratkine's hands was free, kissing it in a frenzy, without fear of getting slapped.

***

UNSENTIMENTAL EDUCATION

The ladder doesn't cling as much as the virgin vine. My old Greek professor resides here. I come to bid farewell to the salon where the carpet is half worn-out and the lady, who is a practical lady, says to me: "In life, one should earn five francs a minute . . . No, that would be too much, but every three minutes, at least!" "My wife is a practical woman," says the Greek professor.

***

THE CONCARNEAU REGATTAS

Drowned people don't always sink to the bottom. And in fact it's enough for someone stranded in the water to remember that they can swim, and they'll see their pants start to move like jumping-jacks' legs. That's what happened to me at the Concarneau regattas. I was perfectly calm before sinking, or maybe those gentlemen going by in the yawls will notice my efforts, or maybe... in short, a certain optimism. The shore is right there! With life-sized Israeli personages of the most gracious sort. What surprised me upon getting out of the water was how little wet I was, and that I was being looked upon not as a poodle, but as a man.

***

PARISIAN LITERATURE

The memoirs of Mme Sarah Bernhardt or of any of her female comrades. It starts with the description of the country with words in Patois. The heath is called la chigne, as in the Franche-Comte, and the brushwood le chignon.

***

THE PRESS

I entered timidly. There was an ostrich that was losing its feathers and, on a pedestal of white stucco, a bronze bird whose feathers were formed by a series of engraved shells. It was M. Abel Hermant, or someone just like M. Abel Hermant, who appeared when the vestibule door opened: "Ah, young man!" he said, "Surely you've come for the hundred sous!" I learned later on that they gave a hundred sous to everyone who showed up there. At the mention of the hundred sous, the ostrich let fall a feather and the bronze bird flew away. Otherwise the vestibule was deserted and dusty. They kept pins there in iron boxes painted with the portraits of great men--Cuvier, Buffon, etc. "Ah, young man!" repeated M. Abel Hermant or the person just like him, "Surely you've come for the hundred sous!" And the birds started going through their movement again. "No, Monsieur! It's free. It's a free deposit." My future director of conscience heard no more: "free deposit" had enlightened him. He turned his back on me. The ostrich put on his policeman's hat and looked at me with nervous curiosity. The bronze bird became even more bronze yet.

***

THE SACRIFICE OF ABRAHAM

During the time of the famine in Ireland, an admirer said with ardor to a widow: "A cutlet of ewe, my divine!" "No!" said the widow, "I don't want to damage this body that you do me the honor of admiring." But she called her child to her and cut a nice bloody chunk from the area of his cutlet. Did the child's scar remain? I don't know; he used to howl biblically when one cut him in the cutlet.

***

1889-1916

In 1889, the trenches would have been put under glass and in wax. Two-thousand meters under ground, two-thousand Poles in chains didn't know what they were doing there. Nearby the French discovered an Egyptian shield. They showed it to the greatest doctor in the world, the one who invented the ovariotomy. The greatest tenor in the world sang two-thousand notes in the theater that is two-thousand meters round. He earned two million and gave it to the Pasteur Institute. The French were under glass.

***

IN THE SILENT FOREST

In the silent forest, night has not yet fallen and the storm of sadness has not yet harmed the leaves. In the silent forest from which the Dryads have fled, the Dryads will return no more.

In the silent forest, the brook no longer has waves, because the torrent flows almost without water and turns. In the silent forest, there is a tree as black as black, and behind the tree there is a bush which has the form of a head and which is inflamed, and which is inflamed with flames of blood and gold.

In the silent forest where the Dryads will return no more, there are three black horses, the three black horses of the Magi, and the Magi are no longer on their horses or anywhere else and the horses speak like men.

***

A GREAT MAN HAS NO VALET

In a meadow, under the trees, in a cloth skirt, sits the king, while a feast of lobsters is being prepared. His maid, Mme Casimir, illegitimate child of a noble and of noble bearing herself, salutes him in her usual manner, with her hunchback and her eighty years: "So all's well, then, Mme Casimir?" "Oh, you know me, Sir," says the old Parisian, "As long as I have forty sous, I'm a young woman again." Meanwhile the lobster feast occasioned sneaking from roof to roof, conversations with legs hanging through skylights, and grease fires from the frying pans.

***

THE FEMINIST QUESTION

Without admitting it to himself, he was afraid that one day she would get her animals mixed up. When she was at the foot of the tower, frail romantic amazon, she reined in her horse, massaged her fiance, and then whistled for her mount, which returned to her from quite a ways off. That Mlle de Valombreuse was a masseuse he fiance could pardon. But that she was a trainer was just too much.

***

IT'S THE GROUND THAT LACKS THE LEAST

Can one plant a beech tree in such a small garden? The doors and windows of the seven neighboring workshops come together on the little courtyard where my brother and I are. The seed of the beech tree is a slightly rotten banana or a potato. There are some old ladies who are not pleased with you. But if the beech tree grows up, won't it be too big? And if it doesn't grow up, what's the sense of planting it? Yet while planting it, my friends found my precious gems that I had lost.

***

CERTAIN DISDAINS AND NOT OTHERS

The swan from the Andersen tale headed into the river harbor. Our quincunxes were full of nobility, and under the verdant mountain the workers were nestled in their old neighborhoods. My friend the Romantic poet and I, on the dock by the washerwomen, were throwing bread to the swan from the Andersen tale. The disdainful swan didn't see the bread, but neither was it taken aback by the noise of your clothes beaters, oh washerwomen, or the faraway sound of your quarrels, you workers at the doorways after the repast.

***

MY LIFE

The city to take is in a room. The enemy's plunder is not heavy and the enemy won't take it away because he doesn't need money since it's a story and only a story. The city has ramparts of painted wood: we will cut them out so we can glue them to our book. There are two chapters or parts. Here is a red king with a gold crown mounting a saw: that's chapter II. I don't remember chapter I anymore.

***

SUPERIOR DEGENERACY

The balloon rises. It is bright and has a point that is even brighter. Neither the oblique sun which casts its bolt like a wicked monster casts a spell, nor the cries of the crowd--nothing will stop it from rising. No! The sky and the balloon are but one soul: for it alone does the sky open. But, oh, balloon, be careful! Shadows are stirring in your gondola, oh unlucky balloon! The aeronauts are drunk.

***

MYSTERY OF THE SKY

Returning from the bal, I sat at the window contemplating the sky. It seemed that the clouds were immense heads of old men sitting at a table, and that someone was bringing them a white bird adorned with its feathers. A huge river traversed the sky. One of the old men lowered his eyes towards me. He was even going to speak to me when the enchantment dissipated, leaving the pure twinkling stars.

***

[After we had gotten off to a modest start, Sydney left Madison to become chairman of the French department at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Our translation project necessarily foundered under the weight of his new workload.

Our process of translation was the following: I would do the initial translation from the French, Sydney would read this and check it against the original, making notes or possible changes in the text, and finally the two of us together would discuss the poem and make the decisions for the final draft. This process didn't work as well through the mail, of course, which was an added incentive to stop where we were.

The following poems are worked up from rough drafts of mine that were never studied by Sydney. After a month of sending drafts to California and receiving letters that Sydney was too busy still reorganizing the French department there, I had a handful of drafts that remained unperused by his more fluent and experienced eye.]

***

MOURNFUL LAST CALL TO THE INSPIRING
PHANTOMS OF THE PAST

I was born by a hippodrome where I saw horses running under the trees. Oh, my trees! Oh, my horses! Because all of it was for me. I was born by a hippodrome! My childhood traced my name in the bark of chestnut and beech trees! Alas! My trees are nothing more than the white feathers of the bird that calls: "Leon! Leon!" Oh! Diffuse memories of magnificent chestnut trees where I, a child, inscribed my grandfather's name! Diffuse memories of races! Jockeys! They are no longer but shabby toys seen from a distance! The horses have lost their nobility, and my jockeys are all in black helmets. C'mon! Turn! Turn! Old imprisoned thoughts that will never take flight! The symbol that holds you back is not the jockeys' supple gallop in the verdure, but some dusty bas-relief that would hide from my mournfulness the autumn beeches where my grandfather's name is written.

***

ON THE TRAIL OF THE TRAITOR

Once again the hotel! The Germans are holding my friend Paul prisoner. My God, where is he? Lautenbourg, it's a furnished hotel, Rue Saint-Sulpice, but I don't know the room number! The front desk of the hotel is a pulpit that's too high for my eyes. I would like--do you have a Mlle Cypriani. . . It must be 21 or 26 or 28, and me, I'm thinking about the kabbalistic meaning of these numbers. It's Paul who's a prisoner of the Germans for betraying his colonel. In what epoch do we live? The 21, 26, and 28 are numbers painted in white on a black background with three keys. Who is Mlle Cypriani? Yet another spy.

***

POEM IN A STYLE NOT MY OWN

To you, Rimbaud. My horse stumbled in the semi-quavers! The notes spatter all the way to the green sky of my soul, the eighth sky!

Apollo was the doctor, and myself, I am the heart's pianist. One would have to, with flats and groups of bars, unload the scribbled steamers, collect the tiny standards, to compose canticles.

The miniscule is the enormous! He who conceived of Napoleon as an insect between two treebranches, who painted him a nose too large in watercolors, who represented his court in colors that were too soft--is he not larger than Napoleon himself, oh Ataman Prajapati!

The miniscule is the note!

Man bears upon himself photographs of his ancestors like God did Napoleon, oh Spinoza! Me, my ancestors, we are harp notes. God had conceived Sainte-Helene and the ocean between two treebranches. My black horse looks good, although he is albino, but he has watered in harp notes.

***

ANOTHER POINT OF THE LAW

On the Quay of Flames, the halt man pointed out the counterdeed to me, which was in tiny Chinese characters. My correspondent, who announced he was sending me five-thousand francs, added that he was going to pick up from one of my contractors a certain number of meters of rough silk of a cream color or crime. Why did he write it so small and in Chinese, unless to escape the law or my law? The law of the jungle! I continued my rounds on the Quay. My mother lit the lamp with some cork. My aunt had a constrained look and didn't say a thing. "My aunt's got a healthy color to her!" "No," said my mother, "that's her natural color." I didn't say a thing about the counterdeed in Chinese. And is the counterdeed in Chinese the natural color of commerce, or is it the color of health? It is the natural color of the obligatory malady.

 

***

THE POET'S HOUSE

He's dead, and behold his widow and two sons. "It's at this window that you'd see his old man's profile. Alas," says the widow, "a marriage for love! So much courage and talent! Our parents consented to everything!" The house changed tenants. A woman hung her linen in the attic. I confronted her on it, and she responded with fishwivery. A wolfdog fixed its eye on me. There were roses in the garden: they were withered. The tenants changed again. There was a tiled roof above the front steps and one drank iced drinks in the garden. What will there be in the poet's house? Maybe a crime... And you, poor thing, what do you expect from your house, except treason from your very best friends?

***

TWO LIVES

I knew Dumoulin back when I was a science student at the Ecole Normale Superieure. An ineffectual man for whom appearances were all that mattered, he had a big heart but was rather stiff in his demeanor. Back then I used to enjoy lying in bed in the morning imagining my friends in different roles. The following is what I came up with for Dumoulin.

Dumoulin would frequent an ex-sea captain who had become an autograph collector and who had a sick child. There's Dumoulin on tenterhooks in front of Mikhlova Anastasia Verounoff who's on stopover in Paris. The Russian woman knows literature well, which fact exasperates Dumoulin. Being that she is young and beautiful, he turns the conversation to dance in the hopes of impressing her. In comes Mme Michel (the sailor's wife) holding the sick child.

"It's like looking at a Millet! Truly!" says Anastasia. Dumoulin leaves and then the other life begins.

"None of you earns a thing!" the mother would say at home. "I was delighted when you entered the Ecole Normale, but you don't earn a sou. We've lost the case, and your brother's not good for anything. It's not him who's going to feed us! The poor-house, that's where we'll all end up."

One could do nothing but listen and allow oneself to fall into despair.

Three months later Dumoulin moved into a factory in Brittany. He was beloved of the employees, consulted by the owner, and his mother was allowed to take baths. One day he falls asleep on the point of forgetting. Forgetting....

***

KALEIDOSCOPE

Everything seemed to be in mosaic. The animals were walking with their paws toward the sky, except for the donkey that is, whose belly was covered with written words that changed constantly. The tower was an opera glass, and there were gold-embroidered tapestries featuring black cows. As for the little princess in the black dress, one couldn't really tell if her dress had green suns on it, or if one were just looking at it through the gaping holes of some tattered rag.

***

WHEN PITY ERRS

I'd rather go to prison with him than let him escape. And that's just how it happened! There we are, locked in a big tower. One night, in my sleep, I reached out to hold him fast, but grasped nothing but a white foot ascending toward the ceiling. Then I'm alone in the tower. From the tops of huge hay wagons the eyes of peasants watch me through the windows with pity.

***

SURPRISES

On Murcie roads they use lingams for kilometer markers. In order "to know," the wandering redheaded man of letters peers closely at illustrated journals. All of them show the Moulin Rouge in Paris, women who seem to be actually alive in bed with men who likewise seem alive. And he just stepped in from the road where he had lost his way! And he just arrived from the laundress who sold him baked apples! And he just stepped off the Boulevard Saint-Martin where the stairs and the tablecloths preside over twenty revolutions per century and one mid-Lent festival per year!

***

THE DEPTHS OF THE PAINTING

It's a little outing in the country. A little outing around a pit. The little girl is alone on the beach, on the rocks that slant down the edge of the dune, and one would even say there's a halo hovering about her head. Oh, it will be me who saves her! Me, the useless fatso, I run! I run to her! Down there, around the pit, they're playing the Marseillaise. But me, I run to save her! I haven't yet mentioned the color of the sky because I wasn't quite sure that it didn't form along with the sea one vast smooth painting of the color of slate chalkboards dirtied with chalk--yes, that's it--with one long diagonal trailer of chalk like the blade of a guillotine.

***

THAT

It was a sordid scene! Very stuffy, everything done over in thick, dark fabrics. I was reclined and daydreaming on the divan; he was writing at his low, heavy table. Then the goddess appeared before us: her helmet was green and she herself was transparent. And the goddess stayed there, there with us, until the servant came in--alas--with that odor of hers!

***

THEY'LL NEVER RETURN

When will the gravediggers return to us here before Ophelia's tomb? Ophelia is not in her immortal tomb yet. It's the gravediggers who'll be put there if the white horse wants it so. And the white horse? He comes every day to graze among the pebbles. He's the white horse from the White Horse Tavern, here in front of the tomb. He has thirty-six ribs. The tomb is a window opening upon mystery.

***

SPANISH GENEROSITY

Through a Spanish friend of mine, the King of Spain has offered me a shirt with three large diamonds, a lace collar on a toreador's jacket, and a manuscript containing recommendations on the proper conduct of life. Carriages! Boulevards! Calling on friends! You think the maid will sleep with me? M.S.L. offered his hand to G.A. who refused it for no reason. I am back in the graces of the Y... family. Here I am at the National Library, and I notice I'm being watched. Every time I try to read certain books, four of the employees come at me with a doll-sized sword. Finally a very young page steps up to me. "Come with me," he says. He shows me a pit hidden behind the books. He shows me a wheel made of wood that seems to be some kind of torture instrument. "You've been reading books on the Inquisition," he says. "You are hereby condemned to death!" I look and see they've had a death's head embroidered on my sleeve. "How much?" I ask. "How much can you afford?" "Fifteen francs." "That's too much," says the page boy. "I'll bring it for you Monday."

Finally the eye of the Inquisition falls upon the generosity of the King of Spain.

***

IS THE SUN PAGAN?

The woodcutter (near the church entrance at the place where the vine and the grazing stag are sculpted) the woodcutter was sending the split wood to the ray of sunlight and the ray of sunlight was parrying by sending him split wood in return. The fight sped up so much that finally the woodcutter stood up straight and said: "I can't take this any more!" He went into the church and began taking off his vest. The sun chased him as far as he could with a long stick, but the Sun is a pagan who hasn't the right to enter the nave.

***

ONE SMILE FOR A HUNDRED TEARS

The horse is breathing with difficulty. The drug he was given to increase his zeal has dashed the whole plan. The idols from the mountaintops haven't appeared yet. The idiot kept digging his heels into the horse's side, and the universe was no bigger than a gourd. The homeland was marked by a standard of smoke. Retreat? We've never left this place. Advance? The horse--alas!--is dying as we speak! But suddenly one can hear musics in the air! It's as if they were just itching for the ideal! Spring plays petanque with some green trees, and the valley vomits up forty colts.

***

THE TWO PUBLICS OF THE ELITE

One the day of the Grand Steeplechase, the Queen Mother was wearing blue velours stockings. Near one of the guard fences, the King's mistress came towards him. "Prince," she said, "that woman is not your mother! She's usurping the prerogatives of a throne on which she has no rights." In a long discourse, the King extolled prostitution, then married his mistress, a prostitute. A bespectacled servant sleeping in the kitchen on a decorated porcelain stove was delighted to hear of the marriage. And what does the elite public think? The upper aristocracy found the discourse on prostitution a bit long, but the other elite public had much applause for it.

***

ONE OF MY DAYS

To have brought two blue jugs to the pump, wanting to draw water. To have been struck with vertigo because of the height of the ladder. To have come back because I had one jug too many, and not to have returned to the pump because of the vertigo. To have gone out in order to buy a tray for my lamp because it leaks oil. To have found nothing but trays for tea service, square trays, of no use for lamps, and to have left without a tray. To have headed toward the public library and to have noticed on the way that I had two false collars on but no tie. To have returned home. To have gone to M. Vildrac's to request a Review, and not to have taken the Review because therein M. Jules Romains says bad things about me. Not to have slept because of remorse, because of remorse and despair.

***

METEMPSYCHOSIS

Shadows and silence here. Pools of blood have the form of clouds. Blue Beard's seven wives are no longer in the placard. There's nothing left of them but this organdie [cap, cavalry pennant]. But down there! Down there on the Ocean! Look! Seven galleys! Seven galleys whose riggings hang from the topsails into the sea like braids on womens' shoulders! They're coming! They're coming! They're here!

***

SCENE FROM THE FAIR

A holiday in Quimper. The chestnut trees shade the banks in the evening. And from so high! The banks are full of people. The hawkers are in the public square. There was a captain who was soused. I led him to the coffee house on Chestnut Quay, where, far from the noise, I comforted him. A little coffee to get him straightened out...

My dear child, my sister, today you cry. You miss the Quimper fair! Alas! They pampered you, to be sure! You're reminded of the night when they opened a menagerie door just for you. In the evening light, we searched from trailer to trailer, just for you, dear sister, we searched for the cat sick from being a tiger's son. The hawkers were at their dinner, the cat limped along: it was said he was consumptive. His father the tiger was dull as a swallow. A married woman, today you cry, my sister! The hawkers are in Marseille now. Down there the sea is blue-painted wood, almost grey actually, there's a hinge for the coast, and there's a boat sketched in the dim, oh-so-dim background! The woman has a handkerchief of the color of ripened oranges. Her husband wants to shoot her. My dear child, my sister, think sweet thoughts...

***

THE REAL RUIN

When I was young, I believed that genies and fairies went out of their way to guide me, and whatever insults were addressed to me, I believed that others were being magically inspired with words that were only for my own good and for mine alone. The reality and the disaster that have made of me a singer in this public square teach me that I have always been abandoned by the gods. Oh, genies! Oh, fairies! Bring me back my illusion this very day!

***

GLORY, PILFERING OR REVOLUTION

We arrived at the top in an open carriage. The setting sun was visible through the trees, and the castle, mounted on columns, supported geraniums. It was there that they would stage the synthetic play embodying all of Shakespeare. For me, up to that point, how many bridges I had crossed! How many ramparts! How many turrets! All those people in pince-nez I ran into at the top of a tower. Those rivers of jewels! Those ladies! (They dress better here than in Paris!) Finally the evening is upon us. The main hall of Lancashire Castle is a sort of Versailles. The room is full. The ladies are half Ophelia, half bourgeois. There's a gentleman going about with the air of a crusted Strassbourg pate trying to pass itself off as Romeo. It's me! There were Mounet-Sullys in rumpled bed-sheets. The next day an army of friends stormed through the glass doors of the dining room: they ate all day. The servants were in charge of making sure no one broke through the doors. Was this glory, pilfering or revolution?

***

HISTORY

The shop had its shudders open like a poorly folded fan. It's there that the musketeers lived. One was spitting in the ashes, the other was reading the evening papers, and the third (that's me) was still in bed when the King entered. One can only see his silhouette. The King was bringing me my commission as captain. It was a launderer's notebook on which were written the names of the men, and the objects one needed to be a captain. What's more, from then on I was to be called Charles de France, and this fact set my mind going on more than one point. The following day two charming four-year-olds arrived carrying rifles. These were the sentinels. I took them up onto my lap.

***

LIFE AND TIDE

Sometimes I don't know what light it was that allowed us to glimpse the summit of a passing wave, and also on occasion the sound of our instruments could not cover the roar of the approaching Ocean. Night at the villa was surrounded by the sea. Your voice had the inflection of one of the damned, and the piano by then was no more than a sonorous shade. Then you, calm, in your red smock, you touched my shoulder with the end of your bow just as the emotion of the flood was bringing me to a halt. "Start again," you said. O life! O misery! O the pain of having forever to start again! How many times, just when the Ocean of necessities me in! How many times have I said--holding back sorrows that had become too real--: "Start again." And on that night, my will itself was as terrible as the villa. Nights hold nothing for me but equinoctial tides.

***

M. GILQUIN AND ORIENTAL POETRY

The city is on a hill. Only the minarets are visible. The chariots are descending: they are in the form of minarets pulled by galloping horses. There's the carpenter's chariot with its turrets, and the others. In setting free the cat, Mme Gilquin discovered the key to the temple. Nurses lead a thousand children to piss in the lake, and we consider the art objects on display behind glass. What interests me especially is M. et Mme Gilquin's history album in Chinese ink. Why is M. Gilquin in the nude? He's pissed in his top-hat just like the children pissed in the lake. As for me, I won't be entering the city.

***

TO SAY NOTHING

The wheelbarrow of thunder comes to a head in Spain as a rainbow. I saw it on a horse's tail in a country where the churches are surrounded by every color of geranium.

***

DAYBREAK OR TWILIGHT

The light falls from an angle of the stark white vault. The light falls before me, and the stairway descends facing the light, but one doesn't see it. And one will not see it! One will see nothing but my back against the edge of a step, nothing but my back at the edge of a landing. One won't see the walls that remain in the night. One will see nothing but the men who remain in their nooks. The first is decked out in shadow: he's decked out in night. As for the second, I haven't seen him. I've hardly noticed him. The third has come down, he's made it all the way to me. None of the others have moved. The one who's come down hs pants of a square pattern. He has hairs in his eyebrows, and his hair is black. He placed my hand upon his cheek because his cheeks hung slack. He had the air of a man with no means, and he climbed back up into his night, back to his nook. The light falls from an angle of the stark white vault, before me, before me. And I understood that these men were the men in my future books.

***

OLD SAXONY PORCELAIN

I don't know if it's a marionette theater or reality. The lady pretends to be nude because she's eighty but still lovely as a child. She speaks with some pride about 1720 because we are now in 1780. The door is adorned with artificial flowers and she is crowned with roses. A coachman insulted his coach by humming the Sixties anthem. Stretched out on a sofa, she inquires about my manuscripts, which are illegible. The horses themselves are tiny and the trees are illegible.

***

LETS BRING BACK ALL THE OLD THEMES

In a country where paintings were put up for sale in a public square, the higher-ups stood at ground level and more than three-hundred windows rented out for the purpose were full of butchers. It was like for the guillotine! They came to see art and happiness killed. Several of the butchers in the windows had binoculars.

***

RIGMAROLE

The Japanese general passes in review before the armies of Europe. His pants are so long they crumple into a corkscrew at the top of his shoes. In the midst of the armies is a bishop in a lace surplice seated before a dining table. The bishop is fat, several hairs protrude from his chin, and his eyes are watery. The Japanese certainly would have anathematized the bishop, but he remarks that he has met him in society, and so he looks at him, salutes and moves on.

***

SENTIMENTAL POEM

Oh, river port dark with foliage! He moved along the stone quay, his barque loaded with my friends. Only one of them warmly offered me his hand. I have enough friends to populate this mountain with ants, enough to populate an ocean with triremes and rowers too. Oh, river port dark with foliage! The barque only carried ten of them, they were hidden under the sail that protects the more delicate ones. They were being protected from me. Only one of them warmly offered me his hand, and he's not the one I preferred. In fact, he's the one I'd willingly forget.

***

COSMOGONY

God (there is a God) observes the earth from his cask. He will see it as an assortment of rotted teeth. My eye is God! My eye is God! The rotted teeth are classified on the basis of only the tiniest differences. My heart is God's cask! My heart is God's cask! The universe is the same for me as for God.

***

ELIZABETH'S PIGS

Such terror in Moscow before dawn! The servants didn't have their livery on yet. The gas glowed in the kitchen. Why had I gotten up when it was still night? Perhaps I found doing so poetic, or perhaps I wanted to see the sun rise over Moscow at least once. The servants were standing around the kitchen table. There was also a square peasants' bonnet among them, and I recognized Isabelle the beggar. She was given almost a whole loaf of bread, for which she offered no thanks. Walking through the dark suburb, where the lights burned in only a single shop, I came across Isabelle carrying a heavy sack, and I said to her:

"Poor Isabelle, you have so many children. You suffer so much for your children."

"Oh, no, Monsieur Max, it's for my pigs."

So I walked back. My little moujik stood near the sink considering Moscow freshly bathed by the night. I ordered my eggs, and we were careful to test them in water so as to get only the freshest. "The heavy ones will be for my breakfast, the lighter ones will be for Isabelle's pigs."

***

TRUE POEM

We were separating, my older brothers and I, near the moats. "Here, take the knife."

We were beneath the pines. It was all grass and flowers. "Hey! watch out for the water!"

Occasionally we'd come together, a plant in hand. "It's pink hemlock."

But getting a jar at the house to carry our harvest in, that was another matter altogether.

The navy officer was asleep in his bed, his back toward the door.

The cousin was busy with housework, and sheets were on the chairs. My sisters were singing in the shade, and as for me, I was sitting there like a child with my flowers in my hands on the steps of the stairway that leads off into nothing.

***

ALLUSION TO A SCENE FROM THE CIRCUS

Green thorn! Green thorn! The Marquise is a cowboy! The towering pines resemble ruins. Every bird in the sky (there is no sky) comes to her musketeer's hat as if to the sea. And all this was happening in New England! A young blond man, too well dressed in a hunter's get-up, complains of not having eaten a thing for sixteen hours. But the Marquise won't give him the little island birds. Instead she'll lead him to a grotto where he can remove her boots.

***

TO FEAR THE WORST

He was one of those people who think with the back of their head, and he lived in the second courtyard of a house that didn't have a third, on a ground floor with no floor above it. Before allowing these empty depths to be occupied for free, the proprietor wanted to visit them himself. He entered from the rear courtyard. His curiosity turned to hatred. He considered the mysterious alcove with its green curtains nothing but a flea's nest and a caricature and a playbill. In short, some overblown elliptical design.

His hatred turned to anger when he met our hero on the other side of the street. He followed him to the lodging of a sick young woman cared for by an old lady in white bandages whose eyes gleamed with fear. A rough-mannered financier, he called him "Monsieur Foreskin" because he himself was a Jew. Oh, what a terrible life began then! One night, he was woken up by four vulgar and shady persons who claimed to be occupants of his own room and wanted to kick him out. At other times they'd set up frightening pranks against him. All of this drove him to the brink. He took up a revolver.

The proprietor lived in one of the wings where there was enough room for his daughter to house a coterie of musician friends. One Sunday he leaned a ladder against the rose trellises with the intention of killing his enemy. But it was he himself who ended up writhing in the flowerbed with a hole in his face.

***

THE WALLPAPER OF MR. R.K.

The ceiling of hell is attached with big gold nails. Above that is the earth. Hell is a huge, luminous, twisted fountain. As for the earth, there's a bit of hillside: a wheat field mowed close and a little sky in onion peels under which passes a cavalcade of raving dwarves. On one and the other side there's a stand of pine and a stand of aloes. You have been called before the Revolutionary Tribunal, Mademoiselle Suzanne, for having found one white hair among your many black ones.

***

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Check also Selected Poems of Max Jacob at Amazon.com. William Kulik translates poems from a number of Jacob's works.

Check Sydney Levy's The Play of the Text at Amazon.com

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