Translating André Breton: Robert Duncan & David Antin

[Going through some old files recently I came across two translations by Robert Duncan of poems by the Surrealist overlord & master-poet André Breton.  That brought me back too to a series of translations from Breton that David Antin composed & that I published sometime in the 1960s.  An old theme of mine – & ours – that I still cherish is the relation of the second great wave of American experimental poetry to antecedents not only “in the American grain” – as then widely promulgated – but in a direct line from forerunners in other languages & cultures. For myself, writing & living in the same late-twentieth-century America, there was a sense that all of us, as poets, shared a past & future with forerunners & contemporaries across a startling range of times & places. This came at a time when we were discovering ourselves also as American poets with a new language in which to write & a new perspective – a series of new perspectives – that we could write from.  As I look at Duncan & Antin then, both of them taking pleasure in the work of our great French predecessor, I feel again the sense of what I’ve written of elsewhere as our French connection, & that connection & others I take to be as vital for us as any rooted solely on our native shore. (J.R.)]



 translated by Robert Duncan 


But the light returns

the pleasure of smoking

The spider-fairy of the cinders in points of blue and red

is never content with her mansions of Mozart.

The wound heals everything uses its ingenuity to make itself

recognized I speak and beneath your face the cone of shadow

turns which from the depths of the sea has calld the pearls

the eyelids, the lips, inhale the day

the arena empties itself

one of the birds in flying away

did not think to forget the straw and the thread

hardly has a crowd thought it fit to stir

when the arrow flies

a star nothing but a star lost in the fur of the night


New York, October 1943



 translated by David Antin                                                                                                                   


In Paris the tower of Saint Jacques careening 

Like a sunflower

Nearly collides with the Seine

Its shadow slides imperceptibly among the tugs

At this moment in my sleep

I steer silent toward my couch

I rise and set the fire

That will destroy the remains of my extorted consent

The furniture gives place to animals of the same size

With friendly faces

Lions whose manes consume the chairs

Dogfish whose white bellies absorb the last shudder of the sheets

I see myself in the hour of love of blue eyelids

Burning in my turn I see the solemn receptacle of nothing

That was my body

Excavated by the patient beaks of the fire-ibises

And at the end I pass into the ark

Indifferent to the dragging steps of life’s remote pedestrians

The spines of the sun fall golden

Across the white pines of the rain

I hear the tearing of human underwear like a great leaf

Under the nail of absence and presence who connive together

All of the ways are exhausted there remains only a scrap of perfumed lace

The husk of a lace perfectly shaped like a breast

I touch nothing now but the heart of things I hold the thread in my hands



 translated by Robert Duncan 


Jersey Guernsey by times somber and illustrious

restore to the flood two cups overflowing with melody,

the one whose name is on all lips,

the other which has been in no way profaned,

and this one discloses the imprint of a scene, familial and anodyne

beneath the lamp an adolescent reads aloud to an aged dame

but what fervor on the part of each and in him what transports

however little she had been the friend of Fabre d'Olivet

and he had been calld to exalt himself with the name of Saint-Yves d'Alveydre

and the octopus in his crystalline

retreat gives way in whorls and ringing sounds

to the Hebrew alphabet

I know what were the poetic directions yesterday,

they are no longer valid for today.

The little songs go on to die their natural death.

I persuade you to put on your hats before going.

It will be better no longer to be satisfied with your thin soup

brewd up in measure in blinking rooms

while justice is renderd by three quarters of beef,

once for all Poetry must rise again from the ruins

in the robes and the glory of Esclarmonde

and reclaim aloud the cause of Esclarmonde

for there can be no peace for the soul of Esclarmonde

in our hearts and the words die that are not

good nails for the hooves of the horse of Esclarmonde

before the precipice where the edelweiss keeps the breath of Esclarmonde

the night's vision has been something it is a question now

of extending from the physical to the moral

in which its empire will be without limits.

The images have pleased me, it was the art

wrongly decried for burning its candle at both ends,

but everything is much more wick, the complicities are otherwise 

     learned and dramatic.

As you will see I have just seen an eskimo mask

it's the head of a grey reindeer under the snow

realistic in conception except that between the right ear and eye lies

     in wait the tiny rose-colord hunter

just as he is supposed to appear in the distance to the animal.

But fitted with cedar and a metal without alloy

the marvelous blade

cut out in waves on an egyptian

back in the reflection of the fourteenth century of our era

alone will express it

by one of the animated figures of the tarot of the days to come,

the hand in the act of taking at the very moment of letting go

quicker than at the game of la mourre* and of l'amour   

*La mourre—a game of flashing the hand and asking "How many fingers do I hold up?" R.D.


translated by David Antin 

At the depths of the parasol I see the marvelous prostitutes

On the side near the street lamps their gowns are the color of polished wood

They are walking a great piece of wallpaper

At which one cannot look without that choking feeling about the heart of 

     ancient floors in buildings being demolished

Where a slab of marble lies fallen from the fireplace

And a skein of chains is tangled in the mirrors

A great instinct toward combustion rises from the street where they walk

Like scorched flowers

Their distant eyes raising a gale of stones

As they sink motionless to the center of the whirlpool

Nothing equals for me the sense of their useless thought

The freshness of the gutters where their little boots bathe the shadows of their


The reality of their wrists of fresh cut hay into which they disappear

I see their breasts which seize a point out of this profound night

Where the time for lying down and the time for getting up are the only

     precise measures of life

I see their breasts that are stars over waves

Their breasts in which the invisible blue milk cries as ever