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.
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at the centre of a kitchen where wheat has long since been
replaced by steel and steel by memory the meal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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.”]