Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Voice of Robert Desnos

  by Robert Desnos

Translated by William Kulik

So like a flower and a current of air
the flow of water fleeting shadows
the smile glimpsed at midnight this excellent evening
so like every joy and every sadness
it is the midnight past lifting its naked body above belfries and poplars
I call to me those lost in the fields
old skeletons young oaks cut down
scraps of cloth rotting on the ground and linen drying in farm country
I call tornadoes and hurricanes
storms typhoons cyclones
tidal waves
I call the smoke of volcanoes and the smoke of cigarettes
the rings of smoke from expensive cigars
I call lovers and loved ones
I call the living and the dead
I call gravediggers I call assassins
I call hangmen pilots bricklayers architects
I call the flesh
I call the one I love
I call the one I love
I call the one I love
the jubilant midnight unfolds its satin wings and perches on my bed
the belfries and the poplars bend to my wish
the former collapse the latter bow down
those lost in the fields are found in finding me
the old skeletons are revived by my voice
the young oaks cut down are covered with foliage
the scraps of cloth rotting on the ground and in the earth
               snap to at the sound of my voice like a flag of rebellion
the linen drying in farm country clothes adorable women
               whom I do not adore
who come to me
obeying my voice, adoring
tornadoes revolve in my mouth
hurricanes if it is possible redden my lips
storms roar at my feet
typhoons if it is possible ruffle me
I get drunken kisses from the cyclones
the tidal waves come to die at my feet
the earthquakes do not shake me but fade completely
               at my command
the smoke of volcanoes clothes me with its vapors
and the smoke of cigarettes perfumes me
and the rings of cigar smoke crown me
loves and love so long hunted find refuge in me
lovers listen to my voice
the living and the dead yield to me and salute me
               the former coldly the latter warmly
the gravediggers abandon the hardly-dug graves
               and declare that I alone may command their nightly work
the assassins greet me
the hangmen invoke the revolution
invoke my voice
invoke my name
the pilots are guided by my eyes
the bricklayers are dizzied listening to me
the architects leave for the desert
the assassins bless me
flesh trembles when I call

the one I love is not listening
the one I love does not hear
the one I love does not answer.

Robert Desnos (4 July 1900 – 8 June 1945), was a French surrealist poet who played a key role in the Surrealist movement of his day. He  joined André Breton in the early Surrealist movement, soon becoming one of its most valuable members because of his ability to fall into a hypnotic trance, under which he could recite his dreams, write, and draw. Desnos' poems were first published in 1917 in La Tribune des Jeunes (Youth's Tribune) and in 1919 in the review, Le Trait d'union (Hyphenated), and also the same year in the Dadaist magazine Littérature. In 1922 he published his first book, a collection of surrealistic aphorisms, with the title Rrose Selavy (upon the name (pseudonym) of the popular French artist Marcel Duchamp).

During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Résistance, often publishing under pseudonyms, and was arrested by the Gestapo on February 22,. He was first deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, Flossenburg and finally to (Theresienstadt) in Czechoslovakia in 1945, where he died from typhoid, only weeks after the camp's liberation. He wrote poems during his imprisonment which were accidentally destroyed following his death. He was married to Youki Desnos, formerly Lucie Badoul, nicknamed "Youki" ("snow") by her lover Tsuguharu Foujita before she left him for Desnos. Desnos wrote several poems about Youki. One of his most famous poems is "Letter to Youki," written after his arrest. He is buried at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris.

Susan Griffin relates a story that exemplifies Desnos' surrealist spirit:

" One day Desnos and others were taken away from their barracks. The prisoners rode on the back of a flatbed truck; they knew the truck was going to the gas chamber; no one spoke. Soon they arrived and the guards ordered them off the truck. When they began to move toward the gas chamber, suddenly Desnos jumped out of line and grabbed the hand of the woman in front of him. He was animated and he began to read her palm. The forecast was good: a long life, many grandchildren, abundant joy. A person nearby offered his palm to Desnos. Here, too, Desnos foresaw a long life filled with happiness and success. The other prisoners came to life, eagerly thrusting their palms toward Desnos and, in each case, he foresaw long and joyous lives.The guards became visibly disoriented. Minutes before they were on a routine mission the outcome of which seemed inevitable, but now they became tentative in their movements. Desnos was so effective in creating a new reality that the guards were unable to go through with the executions. They ordered the prisoners back onto the truck and took them back to the barracks. Desnos never was executed. Through the power of imagination, he saved his own life and the lives of others."

Desnos died in "Malá pevnost", which was an inner part of Terezín used only for political prisoners, from typhoid, only weeks after the camp's liberation. He wrote poems during his imprisonment which were accidentally destroyed following his death.

“The Voice of Robert Desnos”  is a hauntingly marvelous poem . The voice in Desnos's poem inscribes an unfathomable longing and desire for his darling. Here is a wonderful analysis of the poem by the American poet Edward Hirsch.

“Reading Desnos's poem I am reminded of Keats's touchstone declaration, "I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination. What the heart holds most sacred in Desnos's poem is the unattainable beloved, a woman who takes on near mythical proportions. What the imagination seizes as truth is a lost, dying, and murdered world apocalyptically summoned back and then persuasively transformed into a living realm of the poet's own devising. "The Imagination may be compared to Adam's dream," Keats goes on to say"he awoke and found it truth.' The imagination in Desnos's poem "speaks surrealistically," to use Breton's phrase, because Adam's dream is a poetic reverie of the night mind. He wakes not to the sunlit morning, but to the "jubilant midnight," triumphant hour of epiphany. He can only name and control what he discovers by recourse to an irrational or unconscious dream logic and language. Here Keats was again ahead of the Surrealists: "I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning.”

The Orphic voice of desire in Desnos's poem charms the sleeping world into responding to it. It summons the force of "yesterday's midnight lifting its naked torso above belfries [a religious emblem] and poplars [a natural one]." Everything moves and flows in this poem in response to the voice itself, which is compared to a flower (blooming open and blossoming outwards) and a current of air (the romantic breeze of inspiration that carries the breath into the universe). The Orphic voice is so ravenously driven by desire for the irretrievable beloved (Eurydice) that it defies space and time. It moves through a shadowy underworld ("the flow of water fleeting shadows") which it immediately claims and renames as an astonishing or excellent evening. It's noteworthy that the air is ghostly and filled with smoke ("I call the smoke of volcanoes and the smoke of cigarettes") that blots out the ordinary daylight world, and replaces it with a mythical present ("the jubilant midnight unfolds its satin wings and perches on my bed"). The visionary voice instigates a force - a libidinized music - that recreates the world to the heart's desire; it merges the miniature and the gigantic, subject and object, and it summons builders (bricklayers, architects) and destroyers (hangmen, assassins), lovers and loved ones, living and dead. Most of all, the voice defiantly sets itself against stasis, which is death, and creates a surplus of images, of meanings, that overflows writing .”

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