Tuesday, October 14, 2014

O’Hara’s Reverdy

Pierre Reverdy, 1889-1960
(Portrait by Pablo Picasso)

Usual sleeplessness of four o’clock. Up to read “at” the Reverdy translations in the Mary Ann Caws-edited Pierre Reverdy (NYRB, 2013). Some of the translators: John Ashbery, Lydia Davis, Richard Howard, Ron Padgett, Kenneth Rexroth, Richard Sieburth. Funny how Frank O’Hara—represented by a single previously unpublished translation (another is partially quoted in Caws’s prefatory note “Why Reverdy?”)—comes to preside over the book. Caws, in “Why Reverdy?” :
      A single moment has a singular potential. “Just for Now,” in Frank O’Hara’s translation,* lays the stress on that:
Life it’s simple it’s great
The clear sun rings a sweet noise

[. . .]

Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the espaliered sunshine
And my arms are stretched towards you
This day that I love you
It’s today that I love you
Later, assessing “the impact of Reverdy on American poets,” Caws points to Rexroth’s New Directions Selected Poems (1969) and Ashbery’s “A Note on Pierre Reverdy” and translations in the Evergreen Review (1960) and writes:
O’Hara memorably refers to him in his 1964 Lunch Poems
                                My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy
—and then goes on, in the same upbeat tone, to link his name to two other avant-garde writers:
                                everything continues to be possible
René Char, Pierre Reverdy, Samuel Beckett it is possible isn’t it
I love Reverdy for saying yes, though I don’t believe it
(Isn’t the effect here to elide lines out of “A Step Away from Them” with lines out of “Adieu to Norman, Bonjour to Joan and Jean-Paul”?) The unpublished O’Hara translation (provided by Bill Berkson) is of Reverdy’s “Chair vive”**:
Live Flesh

Carcass my dear get up and walk
There’s nothing new under the yellow sun
Absolutely the last of the golden Louis
Light which is so detached
Under time’s little scales
Lock on the heart that’s breaking
A silk thread
A plumb-line
A thread of blood
After waves of silence
Those kinky black signs of love
Heaven smoother than your dear life
Neck twisted with pride
My backstage life
From there I see death’s harvests swaying
All the greedy hands that make smokeballs
Heavier than pillars of the universe
Empty heads
Naked hearts
Perfumed hands
Tentacles of the monkeys who claw the clouds
In the furrows of those grimaces
A straight line tightens
A nerve twitches
The full sea
Bitter smile of death
I like some of the swerves and refusals: “kinky” for crin, meaning horsehair, “time’s little scales” for les pellicules du temps, meaning time’s scurf or dandruff—that sort of thing. Meeting the French text with a vigorous sense of play. For comparison, here’s Lydia Davis’s more literal version, blunter, more somber, attending more to the prosody of the original (Caws includes, too, a Rexroth version):
Live Flesh

Stand up carcass and walk
Nothing new under the yellow sun
The last of the last of the louis d’or
The light that separates
under the skins of time
The lock in the heart that shatters
A thread of silk
A thread of lead
A thread of blood
After these waves of silence
These tokens of love in black horsehair
The sky smoother than your eye
The neck twisted with pride
My life in the corridor
From which I see the undulating harvests of death
All those greedy hands kneading loaves of smoke
Heavier than the pillars of the universe
Heads empty
Hearts bare
Hands scented
Tentacles of the monkeys who aim at the clouds
Among the wrinkles of these grimaces
A straight line tightens
A nerve twists
The sea sated
The bitter smile of death
* See “Just for Now” complete in O’Hara’s rendering here—out of the Bill Berkson-edited Best & Company (1969). Rather mysteriously, the O’Hara version quoted by Caws differs in its final four lines, with one word changed (the too poetic “espaliered” replacing the imprecise “squandered”—for éparpillé, meaning scattered, dispersed), a line missing (“At the wall midst the vines the greens”), and a line added—the somewhat limp “This day that I love you.”) The ending in Best & Company reads:
Listen I’m not crazy
I’m laughing at the foot of the stairway
Before the great wide open door
In the squandered sunshine
At the wall midst the vines the greens
And my arms are stretched towards you

It’s today that I love you

** The original:
Chair vive

Lève-toi carcasse et marche
Rien de neuf sous le soleil jaune
Le der des der des louis d’or
La lumière qui se détache
sous les pellicules du temps
La serrure du cœur qui éclate
Un fil de soie
Un fil de plomb
Un fil de sang
Après ces vagues de silence
Ces signes d’amour au crin noir
Le ciel plus lisse que ton œil
Le cou tordu d’orgueil
Ma vie dans la coulisse
D’où je vois onduler les moissons de la mort
Toutes ces mains avides qui pétrissent des boules de fumée
Plus lourdes que les piliers de l’univers
Têtes vides
Cœurs nus
Mains parfumées
Tentacules des singes qui visent les nuées
Dans les rides de ces grimaces
Une ligne droite se tend
Un nerf se tord
La mer repue
L’amer sourire de la mort