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. 

THEY WILL RETURN, THE DARK SWALLOWS (by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)

(from the Spanish of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer)

They will return, the dark swallows,
to hang their nests on your balcony,
and tap on your window-pane with their wings
once more as they play;

but those that paused in their flight
to contemplate your beauty and my good fortune,
those that learnt our names …
they will not return!

You will see once more the honeysuckle
climb the walls of your garden,
and the flowers open, even more beautiful,
as the sun goes down;

but those we saw beaded with dew,
the drops trembling and falling
like the tears of the day …
those you will never see again!

Passionate words of love will
thrum once more in your ear,
and your heart, it may be, will awake
from its deep sleep;

but kneeling, silent and absorbed,
as men worship God at his altar,
as I have loved you … do not be deceived:
you will never be loved like that again!

THIS LOVE (by Jacques Prévert)

(from the French of Jacques Prévert)

This love
So violent
So fragile
So tender
So desperate
This love
Beautiful as day
And bad as the weather
When the weather is bad
This love so true
This love so beautiful
So happy
So joyous
And so pathetic
Shaking with fear like a child in the dark
And so sure of itself
Like a man at peace in the middle of the night
This love that scares the others
Which makes them talk
Which makes them pale
This love watched out for
Because we watched out for it
Hunted wounded trampled finished off denied forgotten
Because we hunted wounded trampled finished it off denied and forgot it
This whole love
Still so alive
And all sunlit
It is yours
It is mine
That which has been
This thing always new
And which hasn’t changed
As real as a plant
As trembling as a bird
As hot as vibrant as summer
We can both of us
Leave and come back
We can forget
And then go back to sleep
We wake suffer grow old
We sleep again
We dream of death
We rise smile and laugh
And feel young again
Our love remains
Stubborn as a donkey
Vibrant as desire
Cruel as a reminder
Stupid as regrets
Tender as a memory
Cold as marble
Beautiful as day
Fragile as a baby
It watches us with a smile
And it speaks to us without saying anything
And me I listen to it and tremble
And I cry
I cry for you
I cry for me
I beg you
For you for me and for all those who love
And have made love
Yes I cry to it
For you for me and for all the others
That I don’t know
Stay there
There where you are
There where you were the other time
Stay there
Don’t move
Don’t go away
We who are loved
We forgot you
Don’t you forget us
We’ve had only you on this earth
Don’t let us become cold
Always more distant
And no matter where
Give us a sign of life
Much later in a corner of the wood
In the forest of memory
Appear suddenly
Give us your hand
And save us.

WITH THAT KISS … (by Juan Ramón Jiménez)

(from the Spanish of Juan Ramón Jiménez)

With that kiss, your mouth
to my mouth, a rose-tree
was sown whose roots
gnaw at my heart.

It was autumn, the vast, empty sky
filled with sunlight
that sucked up all the gold of life
in columns of splendour.

Now, dry summer-time
has come, and the rose-tree – everything passes! –
has opened, too late
a bud of pain in each of my eyes.