Two Poems by Yves Bonnefoy: “From Wind and Smoke”
and “The Painter Named Snow”

Yves Bonnefoy: Le Temps Qu'il Fait Cahier Onze

Yves Bonnefoy - Cahier
BY Yves Bonnefoy
(Le temps qu'il fait, 1997)

La vie errante

La vie errante
BY Yves Bonnefoy
(Gallimard, 1997)

Les planches courbes

Les planches courbes
BY Yves Bonnefoy
(Gallimard, 2003)

The Curved Planks

The Curved Planks
BY Yves Bonnefoy
TRANSLATED FROM THE FRENCH
BY Hoyt Rogers
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007)


Translator’s Note

Yves Bonnefoy, who celebrated his 87th birthday in June 2010, is known in the English-speaking world mainly as a poet, though some of his essays on literature and art have also appeared in translation. But the Anglo-American public still remains unfamiliar with his more playful pieces in prose: aphorisms, oblique memoirs, chains of lyric sentences, and “tales within dreams.” In several major works over the last twenty years, the author has alternated traditional verse with such freer forms. The first of his books to adopt this hybrid approach was The Wandering Life (1993, revised in 1997) — a collection composed mostly of prose. “From Wind and Smoke,” the longest verse-sequence in the work, provocatively compares Helen to a “great reddish boulder” lifted onto the ramparts of Troy, an impervious object of desire. The poem has an unusual provenance, which intimately concerns the art of translation.

‘From Wind and Smoke,’ the longest verse-sequence in the work… has an unusual provenance, which intimately concerns the art of translation.

As a vital offshoot of his other writings, Bonnefoy is the leading translator of Shakespeare in France; he has also published masterly versions of Yeats. In his essay “The Translation of Poetry” (1976), he recounts that in translating Yeats’s poem “The Sorrow of Love,” he rendered “labouring ships” as “vaisseaux qui boitent/ Au loin.” In his opinion, that solution failed to retrieve the ambiguities of the original, and yet it imposed itself on his mind with a strange insistency. Eventually, the phrase would resonate in his own poetry. First he wrote some verses directly inspired by the metaphor, but soon he felt compelled to destroy them “so [his] translation could live.”

The fruitful symbiosis between translation and creation did not end there. In the Threshold’s Lure (1975) and many of Bonnefoy’s subsequent poems refer to Odysseus leaving Troy and his divagations on the way to Ithaca. The defeated city represents both a scene of destruction and a point of departure. To take an example from The Curved Planks (2001), its pivotal poem “In the Lure of Words” begins with an extended allusion to Odysseus and closes with a related metaphor: a perilous voyage of discovery that is also a journey home. In The Wandering Life — a title that speaks for itself — “From Wind and Smoke” develops the Trojan motif at length, only to culminate in a terse and somber envoi: “These pages are translations. From a tongue /That haunts the memory I’ve become.” The full stop in the first line mimics the French: Bonnefoy stresses the identity of creative work and translation, though in this coda they both bespeak a tragic hollowness.

“The Painter Named Snow” strikes a more whimsical note. Though the snow motif entered Bonnefoy’s œuvre later than the Homeric theme, it has vigorously persisted over the last two decades. The verse-cycle Beginning and End of the Snow (1991) stands as a watershed in his poetry. From here on, he converts to a plainer and more limpid style, coupled with a notable shift in imagery: changes that correspond to an autumn and winter spent in the New England woods. “The Painter Named Snow,” which appeared in The Anchor’s Long Chain (2008), clearly harks back to the childlike wonder and stylistic transparence of the earlier book. As to form, its pithy sentences hover between the prose-poem and long-lined verse. By evoking Adam and Eve, Bonnefoy links the piece to a pair of darker works in The Anchor’s Long Chain, prose meditations on the expulsion from Eden: broodingly, they also draw on painterly metaphors. In this lighthearted poem, by contrast, the “painter named snow” sketches not a paradise lost, but a world regained.

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