Three Surrealist Poems Translated from the French

(Image: René Magritte, Le Principe du Plaisir, 1937)

For the fun of it, I translated a few short poems from An Anthology of French Surrealist Poetry, published in 1966 by the University of Minnesota Press. The translations are my own; I put the French below.

The first poem is Portrait by Maurice Henry. Born in 1907 in Cambrai, in the north of France, Henry died in 1984 in Milan. He was a member of the Surrealist group from 1932 to 1951. In addition to poetry, he was also a noted cartoonist, wrote screenplays, and created stage sets.

Portrait
by Maurice Henry

Your eyes are not your eyes but the understudy of the night
your hands are not your hands but a collared comma
your thighs are propellers for dispelling tooth aches
and your teeth precisely are a tree whose roots hold
in their hands my ears
your hair rains down on my eyelids when the sun shines
your feet of fresh soot descend from the coat-hanger when
I hail a taxi
on your fingernails grow unfold multiply the
groans which are my cheeks
with your ribbons you tie our embraces
and with your knees it’s my nose that you nourish
your lips are not your lips but a herd of oxen
in the pasture of my blood

Portrait

Tes yeux ce sont pas tes yeux mais la doublure de la nuit
tes mains ce sont pas tes mains mais une virgule à collerette
tes cuisses ce sont des hélices pour chasser le mal de dents
et tes dents justement c’est une arbre dont les racines tiennent
dans leurs mains mes oreilles
ta chevelure pleut sur mes paupières quand il fait beau
tes pieds de suie fraîche descendent des cintres lorsque
j’appelle un taxi
sur tes ongles poussent se développent et se multiplient des
plaintes qui sont mes joues
avec tes rubans tu lies nos étreintes
et avec tes genoux c’est mon nez que tu nourris
tes lèvres ce ne sont pas tes lèvres mais un troupeau de bœufs
sur les pâturages de mon sang

Next up is a short poem by Alain Jouffroy. Jouffroy was born in Paris in 1928 and died there in 2015. He published his first verse in the Surrealist review NEON. He became involved with the surrealists in 1946, at the age of 18, when he met Surrealist leader André Breton by chance in a hotel in Brittany.

However, he was kicked out of the group two years later for supposed travail fractionnel, or work which caused division with the group (the Surrealists were famous for their churning internal politics due in part due to Breton’s leadership). In the sixties, he founded the Union des écrivains, or the Writer’s Union, and was associated with Les Lettres françaises, a literary journal. During the eighties he worked for the French embassy in Japan as a cultural attaché. Over his life, he published at least eight novels, more than a dozen books of poetry, and many essays. In 2006, he won the Prix Goncourt de la poésie.

THE LIGHTNING BRUSHES THE EARTH WITH MY MOUTH
by Alain Jouffroy

The lightning restarts me at any moment
the lightning is my tall mental tailor

The lightning at my feet
I throw my nudity on the boards like a spotlight

LA FOUDRE BROSSE LA TERRE AVEC MA BOUCHE

La foudre me recommence à tout instant
la foudre est ma haute couturière mentale

La foudre à mes pieds
Ja jette ma nudité sur les planches comme un projecteur

Finally, another short poem by Pierre Dhainaut. Also born in the north of France, in Lille, Dhainaut became involved with the Surrealists after meeting André Breton around 1960. He ended up leaving the group and was later associated with the writer Bernard Noël. In 2016, he was awarded the Prix Guillaume-Apollinaire for his work. This poem has no title in the book.

Untitled
by Pierre Dhainaut

The song of beaches the breath
of a kiss on your eyelid

utter incandescence

Sans Titre

Le chant des plages l’haleine
d’un baiser sur ta paupière

toute incandescence


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