A Translation of "Comme on change" by Pierre Revedy
by Brian Prugh
During our work on Kristin’s forthcoming Notebook of Forgetting, Kristin and I encountered the work of Pierre Reverdy, a French poet who converted to Catholicism relatively early in his career. He moved from Paris to Solesmes to be near the Benedictine monastery, and lived there for the rest of his life. His work has been influential in America most significantly among the New York School poets, including Frank O’Hara, Ron Padgett, John Ashbery and Kenneth Rexroth, who are also some of the more prominent translators of his work.
But even as we were excited about the encounter with the poems, we had the sense that there was something missing in the translations. I had difficulty squaring the evocativeness of the imagery, and the way that that imagery was suggestive of deep spiritual insights, with the scattered way that the images interacted in the translations. It seemed that a deeper unity was sitting behind the translated words on the page.
So I took a closer look at the French, and became more and more convinced that however elusive, the poems were tightly focused, that they coalesced over the course of the poem around a singular spiritual insight. His lines are, to be sure, ambiguous and fragmentary, capable of being read in different ways, and put together toward different ends. In the reading of a poem by Reverdy, the poet and the reader must walk together, trusting each other, to follow the poetry out into the spiritual space it opens. This makes the question of who Pierre Reverdy is significant, because a sense of who the poet is, and where he is going, animates the conversation that is the poem—it inflects the way the reader hears the words.
So it is not surprising that the translation of Reverdy’s poetry includes a question about his life, which divides conspicuously into two halves—marked by his conversion to Catholicism. Which half of his life do you trust? His younger years in Paris at the center of the avant-garde, friends with Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and André Breton, and Coco Chanel’s lover? Or his older years as a recluse, living with his wife in a small monastery town? It’s not a surprise that readers influenced by the New York School poets celebrate the former, suspecting that his later life was a great disappointment. I however am much more interested in the latter, and suspect it holds the key to understanding his work.
As a result, the principles behind this translation are less linguistic or poetic than spiritual. I translate as literally as I can, attend to the imagery as sensitively as possible, and try to arrive at a translation that makes spiritual sense to me, that seems to me to describe a true spiritual place. The translation of “Comme on change” was urgent because it was necessary for Notebook of Forgetting. I hope that more translations are forthcoming.