Jean Portante: What does and what doesn’t come to pass

Translation from French by Zoë Skoulding

From: Ce qui advient et ce qui n’advient pas


Je suis devenue immatérielle,
ombre qui se déplace dans la flamme
de la mort perpétuelle.
                                    Mario Luzi


Of what does or doesn't come to pass the shadow is

it seems to me the least experienced ghost. Not

that between the two the double witness like someone

who’d decided to incline one ear or freeze his

breath would remember what had happened. I'm not

sure that that anything did happen when snow

not usually given to ascent rose again despite

the obstacle of clouds. Rose again to where

one might ask.

               Or what's snow doing

when instead of falling it rises. Or why

wouldn't another ghost well up from what

does or doesn't come to pass and slide down

there into winter and here into words. And why

would this ghost slide into words here. 

In the dust of what's been when what sticks is
not flour but a thickness of days that neither
rain nor shadow knows how to decipher – in this
dust it survives at two steps from itself the village
that the mountain overhangs. Far much too far away
at the centre of a kitchen where wheat has long since been
replaced by steel and steel by memory the meal
prepared is the only cure for the loss of
         There’s an unseen crack in the side of the
mountain. On the hill opposite the ruin and the distant
castle know the story. They’re also up there in the sky
the ruin and the crack. And there even in the side
of your skin. You could say a scarred lake. You could say
nothing had been sewn up after the operation. 

The shadow not the one that wind blowing in the embers

paints on the wall nor the other you can see along the

housesor inside – the shadow I say shifts

further and further from my idea of shadow. And even

without it and without all the other

shadows whether living or dead the idea I have


   And the idea also shifts from the

wind and from the embers not to speak of the wall or

the houses. So much so that I wonder whether

the idea I have of things is any use at all.

What are you hoping for I ask it. What is it that you

really want. As if the question was only for the embers

that make the shadows dance. Or the wind that when

it isn’t painting gives up and rekindles the mystery.


 Surprised by day not breaking any more the moon

and the sun like two old underground thieves

relit the torch and set off. I'm sure that

anyone who'd seen their feeble glimmer from a

distance would have felt sorry for them.

                                                                What is

certain here is that night fell. And that a night

falling is a howling thing. And that when

something howls the underground thieves

take the torch. The torch that weakly

lights the underside of things and makes the elements

sneeze. O howling of elements that sneeze.

O fire that escapes from the belly of things. And you

old thieves do you know now to whom you can

address your underground apologies.


 Nearly an image this dark attraction that makes things

stream towards what escapes the eternal.

How much sleep does it take before the succession

of nights is erased. And how much

does it take to bring back order to the law

of innocences.

               Because sleep you see is the innocent

tunnel of time. And it’s in blows of picks and

spades that descent is dug out. When you slide

down in the evening it’s a long time that

night’s been waiting for working hands. Darkness

shows the way. This is the tunnel. It’s through

this that things stream. Useless to speak of continuity.

When the blows of tools ring out what escapes

the eternal neither manufactures itself nor ever sleeps.


 In front of the closed gate of the cemetery how not

to say to myself that there’s at least one justice

when the earth is turned over. Those who live will stay

outside this time. And inside – the dead.

Visible at last the frontier separating one from the other.

Such an exclusion however nearly makes you want

to die.

   We’d offer our deaths to cross the threshold.

We’d fiercely wish that a mythical ferryman

would take us to the other side to show us what will be

forgotten there. I’m sure you hear me call him. But the

gate won’t open. Has the time passed when you

could enter the land of the dead just like that.

Does this mean that return is impossible from now on.

Does this mean tell me that you’ll never come back.


 Sometimes in April as if it had forgotten

its roots the earth shuts its eyes and sets off.

Where it's going no-one knows. You don’t even

see it move. And yet the shuddering

before the journey cannot pass unnoticed.

Rivers overflow lakes dry up churches

are swallowed.

               It trembles the earth before

leaving. It trembles with fear. It's like this

that the core of time disappears. You could say

it's the stone of a dead cherry spat in an empty basin. But

where does the  core of time go when the earth spits it out.

Will it rebound against church clocks to give

the signal. And where does the earth go in April. What

road does it take having spat out the core.


Here it is the boundary with its unfindable

sadnesses returning like a river with no bed towards

its clouds. From up there just before sleeping and

thinking of what to say to those who are missing –

from up there the stretch it embraces will now be a

vast fog with its workers and machines

mixing the air’s shadow.

                                    Those digging over there are

the architects of an abandoned universe. Their hands are

mimicking the spades of destiny. They need a bird of white

augury to finish their work. An arrow not

returning from the sun but from a system in which

no-one has yet set foot. They need a steeper slope

than the one from which the stone keeps rolling back.

And a mist to draw the contours for those who are lost.


When nothing stays on the ground but shadow and

in the sky the sun and no bodies nor houses nor trees as far as

the eye can see – when it comes to allthis the cosmic sadness

loses its purpose. The sadness that lived in the coming and

going of things tells time and those who manage it

to stop counting.

               Stop counting it says

or count quietly. Or go and count somewhere else.

There where strangeness is a thread and the body a woman

and the house a birth. It’s there that you have to

start counting again. It’s there that a tree is

the first tree and another the second and time

that passes an easy sum. Because whatever lives in its

birth doesn’t need shadow.

                           And whoever has a woman’s

body holds one end of the thread of strangeness.


What did that night say to you while the axis of things

shifted imperceptibly towards fracas – what did

the smoke say to you as it slid from the kitchen

through the half-open window. You had do you remember your

back against the opposite wall. Someone had asked you to

leave. And now the smoke it was leaving too and it

spoke to you the smoke and you keep silent.

                                                               You are

the guardian of silence now. And your back is against

the wall.And towards fracas the axis of things

imperceptibly shifts. It is magnificent that night

but it has no more words. And because the smoke

speaks and speaks to you and only to you and as you are

the guardian of silence who will tell me my love

for how many burnings that smoke was the speaker.


If at the bottom of the lake the swallowed church

didn’t tremble it’s because the legends are old

shells with solid walls. Its bells made no

sound at the signal given above. No swimmer’s

body was reclaimed that summer.

                                       Those who

despite everything ventured beyond the crack

knew how to resist the tales told by the side of

any fire. It’s said the water would have been drawn

into itself an unbridled spiral drilling towards its

disappearance. But what can such swallowed water

still moisten if not the return of moisture. What was he

looking for long ago the swimmer when August after August

the sacrifice of his drowned body brought to life

the old tales that no-one tells now by the side of any fire.


What’s left of the shadow when nothing

is left in its place. Does it fight with itself like

an inexperienced sea on which no ship

moves. Where will the waves break at the moment

of coming to rest.

   Or is it like an Icarus the shadow – up close

to a sun using its momentum not to fall but to

write the last page of happiness that no destiny

has promised it. Up there climbing endlessly

and what falls is only its shadow which leaves

and in leaving leaves the sea as well – the sea on which

no ship moves. And nothing is left in its place any more.

And from the promised happiness some petals are already

burning. And there’s no Icarus on his way any more. There’s

only a migrant up there fighting with himself.


[NOTE.  The sequence of poems presented here is from the recently published In Reality: Selected Poems (Seren Books, Wales, 2013), which brings a first glimpse in English of the poetry of Jean Portante.  Although born in Luxembourg to immigrant Italian parents and with Italian as his mother tongue, his poetry and fictions in French have been at the center of a prolific & internationally recognized life & career as a poet.  Of that life between languages (much of which comes through as well in Zoë Skoulding’s English), he writes: “[…] there isn’t ONE language in my writing.  What you see is the French language, a little disordered but on the whole correct, I mean orthographically, morphologically and syntactically speaking.  What isn’t seen, what only exists inside, ‘lungs’ (poumonne) the plurality of languages, the mother tongue and others, without revealing itself.”  And Pierre Joris, from a betweenness not so different from Portante’s: “In reality, reality is ghosted by a multiplicity of forms of energy and energies of form it is the poet’s job to reveal & hide in the double play of his language’s hide & seek.  Jean Portante is a master at just that chasse-croisé of language & meaning, of real ghosts & ghostly realities.  One ‘In Reality’ can (& does) hide another.  Read on & in.”]