Two Translations from Yves Bonnefoy’s Le Digamma

Translator’s Note

Hoyt Rogers AND Yves Bonnefoy
© Lucy Vines

Yves Bonnefoy will be celebrating his ninetieth birthday in June, and his admirable creative energies continue unabated; arguably, these last two decades constitute the most fertile period of his splendid lifework. The pieces presented here derive from his latest collection of poetry in prose, Le Digamma, published by Galilée in 2012. Along with the translations, they will be included in a bilingual edition of the work I am currently preparing for Seagull Books, slated to appear later this year.

Readers of Bonnefoy’s oeuvre will recognize immediately that “Leaving the Garden, in the Snow” fuses two themes that have come to the fore in the later phase of his poetry: the banishment of Adam and Eve from Paradise, and the enigmatic message relayed by the snow. The biblical motif is linked to the author’s lifelong interest in Italian art, expressed most often in his essays on aesthetics — for example, the book-length excursus Rome 1630: The Horizon of the Early Baroque, published in 1970. But he does not fully develop the topos in his lyric production until 2008, in the prose poem “Leaving the Garden: A Variant,” which harks back to a landscape painter of that era, Poussin’s son-in-law, Gaspard Dughet. In the same collection, The Anchor’s Long Chain, “Another Variant” proposes a more searing vision of the expulsion from Eden, this time inspired by the fifteenth-century artist, Masaccio. Both these treatments had been briefly adumbrated in The Anchor’s Long Chain by a lighthearted poem, “The Painter Named Snow”; wryly, in a passing allusion, it depicts Adam and Eve in cold-weather togs, strolling through the snow.

This new version of the legend from Genesis, “Leaving the Garden, in the Snow,” elaborates on that earlier vignette, while investing it with the weightier tone of the two longer “Variants.” Like “The Painter Named Snow” as a whole, Bonnefoy’s latest winter meditation explores the mysterious language of the snow, which almost seems to unify and heal a fallen world. Though it has recurred fairly often since then, the theme is most fully expressed in the collection Beginning and End of the Snow (1991), sparked by the novel surroundings of a six-month stay in New England. In these and other works of the last two decades, the snow becomes an emblem of the poet’s words, swirling and ephemeral. A transitory whiteness seems to purify the earth; but redemption, like the weather, comes and goes. As Dickinson describes its essential ambivalence, the snow “traverses yet halts – / Disperses as it stays.”

Le Digamma
BY Yves Bonnefoy
(Galilée, 2012)

Like “Leaving the Garden, in the Snow,” “The Works of the Unconscious” joins two frequent themes of Bonnefoy’s recent poetry: in this case, the persistence into the present of civilizations long extinct, and the role of children in defining the lyric self. The former motif has been a constant of virtually all his books, but in his current phase it has taken on an added dimension: rather than interrogating cultures that existed historically, as in his previous writings, he has started to generate them more and more out of his own sensibility. In “The Works of the Unconscious,” he goes one step further, and floods his already extant books with pages from vanished languages, part of the submerged but lingering awareness we have accumulated over our many millennia on earth. Significantly, both the author of these nocturnal works and the single sentences within them are portrayed as children. Children range through Bonnefoy’s texts of the past twenty years with gathering insistence, as though the poet were reliving his earliest youth. Archetypal but never abstract, they may best be understood as symbols of poetic clarity, the wide-eyed wonder of a simple gaze. But for that very reason, they are powerless to unravel the conundrum of what our unconscious mind may “write,” individually or collectively — whether in our dreams or in the “dark backward and abysm of time.”

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