Yves Bonnefoy was a poet who worked in the french language in the second half of the twentieth century. He died last year. Here is my translation of the short series called “Anti-Plato” first published in 1947.
What it’s really about is this object: horse’s head bigger than nature, encrusted with a whole city, roads and defenses run between its eyes, hugging the twisting, turning, lengthening muzzle. Someone knew how to build this town out of wood and cardboard, how it should be lit by a real moon, It’s really about this object: the spinning wax head of a woman all tousled up on top of a phonograph.
All things from here, the willow country, frock country, stone country, that is: the country where the water runs over willow and stone, the country of dirtied frock-coats. All this laughter wrapped in blood, I tell you, traffickers of the timeless, you symmetrical faces you, forgetful of the gaze, weighs heavier in our minds than any of these perfect ideas which know only how to slowly bleed out in our mouths.
The horrendous weapon, a shadow-horned axe carried over the stones,
Weapon of the pallor and scream when you turn, wounded in your festival dress,
an axe because it’s time for time to draw away on the nape of your neck,
O heavy, with all the weight of a country in your hands the weapon falls.
What sense to give to that: a man form of wax and colours the sham-copy of a woman, the shield-guard of all resemblances, the necessity of living, given to it by a clever game of lights this doubt on the edge of the movement, the movement which expresses the smile.
Then arming itself with a torch, abandoning the entire body to the caprice of the flames, aiding the deformation, the bursting of the flesh, projecting at once a thousand possible figures, lighting-up in the process a horde of monsters, feeling like a knife the cut and thrust of this funereal dialectic where the blood statue is born again and divides itself in the infatuation of the wax, of the colours?
The blood country goes on under the frock in a perpetually black rush
When we speak, here begins the night-flesh and gets bogged down in sand, the wrong paths
And you, madame scholar, you dig for the light of the brightest lamps of the flock,
and end up tipping over backwards onto the threshold of death’s bland country.
Imprisoned in a room, in a noise, a person shuffles cards. On one: “Eternity, I despise you”, on another “Let this instant free me”
And on yet another, a third, they write “essential death”. So they walk on time’s rift, lit up by their wound.
We are in precisely one country on the mouth of the earth,
You, with one burst of melt-water thanks to the foliage,
And this one which we call “me”, when the day dims
and the gates open and we speak of death.
Nothing can tear him from this obsession with the black chamber. Perched on a cistern, he tries to still the face under the water’s surface: but as always the lip’s movement triumphs.
Dismasted face, distressed, sinking face, is it enough to just touch her teeth, will she then die? At the passage of my fingers she could smile, like sand collapsing under footsteps.
Imprisoned between two thieves with green scorched surfaces
And your stony head, open to the wind’s drapes and tapestries
I watch you enter into summer (like a funereal mantis into the canvas of black grass)
I hear you cry out from summer’s rear.
Someone said: dig this piece of loose earth until your teeth meet a stone.
Sensible only to the modulations, to transitions, the quiverings of balance, to the presence already given away by its explosions from everywhere, they look for the coolness of invasive death, they easily overcome a youthless eternity, a perfection without burning.
Time boils around this rock. O, to have touched this stone: the lamps of the world turn, the hidden light moves on.
Disclaimer: I am not fluent in french, I translate in order to learn. This is not a commercial translation, it has no aims or theory behind it. I just translate what sense I can see, the way I like, whilst being faithful to my limited view of what the poem is trying to say. If anything I aim for an interesting finished piece rather than an accurate one. That said, if you notice what you might call a ridiculous error, feel free to offer your corrected translation for my perusal.
As for my opinion of the poem? I think any poem called Anti-Plato has the right idea – whatever Platonism ends up being viable, if it does, it won’t be one of human objects and lives. Forms were outré before, during and after Plato’s death. It’s a nice and respectable hobby to intellectually beat on the phantom Platonists though. Could it be said that where they have existed, and as a general tendency in human thought, they have tended to bring difficulty and error? Maybe. The images in the poem benefit from being made a bit more concrete, ironically, but the way it combines a dialogue on ideas with a surreal conceptual fabrication and a kind of biography of a landscape, or a tale of an excursion, is very interesting and on point.