BARBARA (by Jacques Prévert)

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

Remember Barbara
The rain teeming down in Brest that day
And you striding smiling
Beaming streaming with water
Through the rain
Remember Barbara
The rain teeming down in Brest
And I passed you in rue de Siam
You smiled
And me I smiled too
Remember Barbara
I who didn’t know you
You who didn’t know me
Remember
Remember at least that day
Never forget
A man taking shelter in a doorway
And he called your name
Barbara
And you ran across to him in the rain
Streaming with water beaming delighted
And threw yourself into his arms
Remember that Barbara
And don’t mind me if I address you in this familiar way
I talk like this to all those I love
Even if I only ever saw them once
I talk like this to all those who love each other
Even strangers
Remember Barbara
Never forget
That right and happy rain
On your happy face
On that happy town
That rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the Ouessant boat
Oh Barbara
What stupidity the war
What has become of you now
In that rain of iron
Of fire of steel of blood
And he who hugged you in his arms
With so much love
Is he dead disappeared or still alive
Oh Barbara
The rain is teeming down in Brest
As it did before
But it is not the same and all is ruined
It is a rain of terrible grief and desolation
It is not even any longer
That storm of steel of blood
Merely clouds
Starving like dogs
Dogs washed away
In the river of water falling on Brest
To decay far away
Far far away from Brest
Of which nothing is left.

AND WHILE WE’RE IN BREST IN THE 1940s, how about this abomination?

German soldiers entering a Soldatenbordell in Brest, France (1940). The building is a former synagogue.
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DANSE MACABRE by Aubrey Burl (Review)

The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.
[…]
But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. 

BREAKFAST (by Jacques Prévert)

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

He put the coffee
In the cup
He put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the milk coffee
With the little spoon
He stirred
He drank the milk coffee
He put down the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit
A cigarette
He blew smoke-rings
With the smoke
He put the ash
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He got up
He put
His hat on his head
He put
His raincoat on
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And me I took
My head in my hands
And I wept.

THE WΑΥ (by Antonio Machado)

(from the Spanish of Antonio Machado)

The clock struck twelve … and they
were twelve blows of the spade
upon the earth … ‘My time!’ I cried …
Silence answered: ‘Do not be afraid;
you will not see fall that last drop
which trembles in the water-clock.

‘You will have time a-plenty
to sleep upon the old, familiar shore,
ere one cloudless morning you awake
to find your boat moored on the other side.’

CITY CEMETERY (by Luis Cernuda)

(from the Spanish of Luis Cernuda)

[composed, apparently, in Glasgow, Scotland]

 

Behind the open railings and the walls
Black earth with neither trees nor grass;
Some wooden benches. There, in the afternoon,
Old folk sit in silence.
Houses stand all about and shops nearby,
Streets where children play. Trains
Run past the graves. A poor neighbourhood.

Like patches in the grey façades
Rags damp from the rain hang in the windows.
Inscriptions are eroded
From the stones of the dead of two centuries;
They have no friends to forget them, the faceless dead.
But when the sun comes out for a day or two in June
Those old bones down there must feel something.

Not a leaf, not a bird. Nothing but stone. Earth.
Is Hell like this? Pain without forgetting,
Noise and destitution and hopeless endless cold.
Here the silent sleep of the dead
Is unknown, for always
Life stirs among the tombstones, like a prostitute
Pursuing her business beneath the unchanging night.

When dusk falls from the cloudy sky
And the smoke from the factories settles
In grey dust, voices come from the pub,
Then a passing train
Stirs longering echoes like a trumpet of wrath.

It is not the Day of Judgement yet, O nameless dead.
Stay quiet, and sleep; sleep if you can.
Maybe God, too, has forgotten you.