Thursday, January 3, 2019

Breakfast (Dejeuner du Matin)


by Jacques Prévert

Translated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

He put the coffee

In the cup

He put the milk

In the cup of coffee

He put the sugar

In the café au lait

With the coffee spoon

He stirred

He drank the café au lait

And he set down the cup

Without a word to me

He lit

A cigarette

He made smoke-rings

With the smoke

He put the ashes

In the ash-tray

Without a word to me

Without a look at me

He got up

He put

His hat upon his head

He put his raincoat on

Because it was raining

And he left

In the rain

Without a word

Without a look at me

And I  I took

My head in my hand

And I cried.

This poem by Jacques Prévert, a much loved French Poet (above all the man who wrote screenplay for “Children of Paradise”, one of the top ten films in World Cinema),  was written in 1946, one year after the end of World War II. It  reflects the nihilistic tone of many people after the war. Having suffered a humiliating invasion by the Nazis, French citizens felt disillusioned and displaced after their liberation by the United States in 1944 and at the end of the war in 1945.

Reflective of this disillusionment, the scene of this poem reveals an estranged husband and wife. They sit as one would with a stranger in a cafe at their breakfast table. In a series of clipped sentences all of which are described in past tense that often denotes a definite beginning and end—the wife describes her husband's clipped and impersonal actions, performed without any recognition of her. She describes in singsong fashion these mechanical motions of her husband, who sits across from her without appearing to take notice of her.

This poem does not contain a direct conflict. Rather, it contains a situation that obviously comes after some form of conflict, where the man who is eating his breakfast is choosing not to talk to the speaker of the poem. We watch with mesmerized attentiveness the man at breakfast time methodically pouring out a cup of coffee, drinking it, and then smoking a cigarette before leaving. Suddenly the angle is reversed, to reveal for a moment his companion, who bursts into tears. The psychological tension of their relationship is heartrendingly visible only at the end.

 Apparently nothing could be simpler, and no expert knowledge of the wider world of literature is needed for making sense of this scene. Closer analysis reveals, however, a precisely calculated pattern of repetition that creates tensions that are all the more unbearable because there is no punctuation and so the reader is forced at every stage to make impossible decisions about the way fraught situations are to be structured. At first glance, Prévert’s poetry can appear to be naive, but his verbal dexterity reveals that he knew the meaning of the old adage that the truest art is artistry concealed. 

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