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Review: Surrealist, Lover, Resistant, by Robert Desnos

In the opening poem of the 1926 sequence À La Mystérieuse (To the Woman of Mystery) Robert Desnos wrote

J'ai rêvé cette nuit de paysages insensés et d'aventures
dangereuses aussi bien du point de vue de la mort que du
point de vue de la vie qui sont aussi le point de vue de l'amour.

In this ambitious new translation of Desnos, one which will I suspect remain the standard text for some years to come, Timothy Adès suggests the following as a bridge crossing two different languages:

I dreamed last night of unhinged landscapes and dangerous
adventures, as much from death's viewpoint as from life's,
and they are both the viewpoint of love.

The word 'unhinged' conveys a colloquial awareness of how one might refer to madness and indeed Martin Bell's translation of the same line offered support for this when he rendered the line into English as 'Tonight I dreamed of insane landscapes'. However, Adès's use of the word 'unhinged' also prompts us to contemplate an idea concerning the possibility of an opening, a taking down of shutters, and this idea is taken further in the last poem of the sequence, 'À la Faveur de la Nuit':

Mais la fenêtre s'ouvre et le vent, le vent qui balance bizarrement
La flame et le drapeau entoure ma fuite de son manteau.

(But the window is opening and the breeze, the breeze weirdly
juggling flame and flag, wraps my retreat in its cloak.)

When the hinges of the window open in this fifth poem of the sequence the poet is compelled to recognise that the space now exposed offers no entrance to his desired lover, the night-club singer Yvonne George. Whereas only a few lines earlier Desnos had become aware of a shadow outside his window, 'Cette ombre à la fenêtre', and felt that the ghostly image was that of the woman whose eyes he would wish to close with his lips he is now compelled to recognise that 'it isn't you' and that 'I knew that'. The siren-like attraction of Yvonne George for the young Desnos offers an echo of a poetic heritage which must include the knight of Keats's 'La Belle Dame sans Merci' who is ensnared by the lady's 'wild wild eyes' as he closes them 'with kisses four'.

Tears in the Fence