Are There Monkeys?

Are There Monkeys?

by Samuel E. Martin

The as if, the glimpse of what it would be like: this is the imaginative projection that a translator makes when feeling their way through a text.

Schehadé, Georges. Poetries, translated from the French by Austin Carder, with an introduction by Adonis. The Song Cave, 2021. ISBN 978-1734035193. 138 pages. Paperback $18.95.

Some time ago, my father mentioned to me that he’d been to the library and checked out a book by a contemporary poet. “I don’t always understand what he’s saying,” he told me, “but there are moments when I can kind of glimpse what it would be like if I did.” Though he didn’t intend this as a profound remark, it has always struck me as wonderfully apposite. How better to approach a poem than to read it as if you understood it? I like my father’s observation all the more when I reflect that he was describing not just a readerly gesture but a translational one. The as if, the glimpse of what it would be like: this is the imaginative projection that a translator makes when feeling their way through a text.

Austin Carder has made just such a leap of faith in bringing a selection of verses by the Lebanese-French poet and dramatist Georges Schehadé (1905-1989) into English for the first time. Wistful, often whimsical and ever wise, Schehadé’s Poetries spread their gentle melancholy across half a century, from the first installment published in French in 1938 to the last in 1985. Except “installment” is not quite right, since there is nothing fixed or settled about these poems. Schehadé counted many of the French Surrealists among his good friends, and while he never belonged to the movement officially, his work is its own movement, flowing from a spring where the absolutely modern blends with the immemorial. Carder’s crisp English versions convey the French poems’ restlessness, and do so precisely by departing from them in surprising ways: “[The Poetries] are no longer themselves; they may continue becoming more themselves for this reason” (121).  

Among the traveling figures, human and otherwise, who embody the flux of Schehadé’s poetry and theater, the occasional hunter wanders across the pages. Another peculiar choice of words, perhaps – for how does one wander if not aimlessly? and whose aim is truer than the hunter’s? – yet in such peculiarities lies so much of Schehadé’s charm. Take, for instance, the hunter Alexis, who in Act I, Scene 5 of La Soirée des proverbes (1954) enters the inn cloaked in black and announces, by way of explanation, “Je chasse la nuit.”[1] The obvious translation would be “I hunt at night” (a strange admission in itself), but in this world of mystery and paradox, he could equally mean “I am hunting the night.” A daunting task, to be sure, and one perhaps akin to translating Schehadé’s poetry, which, as Austin Carder writes, “will resonate as long as it eludes us” (120).

Quixotic pursuits of this order – hunting (in) the night, translating poetry – demand intuition and imagination as well as nerve. With “the world in his eye,”[2] Alexis appears to have mastered the art of speculative tracking, which the philosopher Baptiste Morizot describes in a way that reminds me of my father’s comment about reading poetry:

Speculative tracking involves following an imaginary route, sparing yourself the effort of examining each pawprint, visualizing the animal’s journey through the bush through his own eyes. The expert has his eyes pointed towards the horizon; he does not look at the ground, he dreams it. That is, he looks for signs on the ground only where he has projected them to be. ‘What would I do if I were you, animal?’ (but if I were you in depth, with your desires and aversions, your prompts, your rhythm and your world): this is the guiding question he examines as soon as he gets lost, to find his bearings again.[3]

(Morizot, incidentally, revisits the theme in his next book, Ways of Being Alive, and amends his analogy between tracking and reading: the former, he says, is actually more akin to translation. Though as to how Andrew Brown will have translated the passage in question, for the moment we can only speculate…)

Having come this far, it seems only right and proper to sketch a speculative track through the Poetries of Georges Schehadé and Austin Carder. What follows will consequently be several things at once, though on a modest scale. It will be a bestiary, an assortment of what the students in my zoopoetics course this spring have come to know as animoments, when animals may or may not be present but could loom up at any moment: they are instants of potency and anticipation. It will be an anthology in the spirit of the Anthologie du vers unique, the collection of remembered lines of verse that Schehadé assembled in the mid-1970s from his Paris apartment, cut off from his personal library in Beirut. And it may even be a game of hopscotch, bearing in mind that Schehadé’s friend and mentor, the great critic Gabriel Bounoure, entitled his definitive volume of essays (the last of which is devoted to Schehadé) Marelles sur le parvis, or Hopscotch on the Square (1957).

What would Austin Carder do if he were you, Georges Schehadé?

D’abord derrière les roses il n’y a pas de singes[4]

To begin at the beginning. D’abord. This is the threshold of Schehadé’s poetic universe, the full poem comprising only two lines, with a second, equally enigmatic image echoing the first. I love “D’abord”: it has none of the biblical solemnity of “Au commencement…,” nor the fairytale overtones of “Il était une fois…,” though one doesn’t have to look far to find both elements elsewhere in Schehadé. Rather, “D’abord” is prosaic, pragmatic, proverbial; in place of a narrative comes a clarification. First things first, the poem seems to say. Let’s get one thing straight. And the first thing, as it turns out, is to look behind the roses, bypassing the surface level of poetic cliché in order to get at what poetry tends to neglect.

Only what do we find? “Behind the roses there are no monkeys.” The image is a non-image, a node in what Jean-Pierre Richard calls Schehadé’s “constellation of absence” (119). We have been pointed to what isn’t there. Henceforth we shall have to tread more carefully. What has surprised us, after all, is not that there should be no monkeys behind the roses, but to realize that we must have been expecting monkeys all along, or else there would presumably have been no need to signal that they were missing.

Ah, but wait. “D’abord derrière les roses il n’y a pas de singes” is indeed the opening line of Les Poésies; however, it is nowhere to be found in the selection of Poetries translated by Austin Carder. There is no “there are no monkeys.” So… are there monkeys?

The moon charged through leaves
Singed by the wind (3)

This image is an image, and can be found in the first poem included in Poetries. The original French hangs on a simile – Schehadé is quite partial to similes – in which the moon is seen to have risen “comme un animal d’orage.” Carder has quietly poured the whole phrase into a single syllable: Schehadé’s elusive comparison gives way to the animal embodiment of a verb that even manages (just about) to rhyme with the storm of “orage.” “Charged” pulses with electricity. As for the lovely “leaves | Singed by the wind,” the translation softens the French verb “brûler” and allows us to hear the wind sing(e)ing in the branches.

Singe! There was a monkey there the whole time!

Your hands dry like roses
Bees smile at your path of thorns (9)

Another rosebush, another simile. There are not actually any roses here, of course, only hands – at least it would appear so. Yet by translating “calvaire” as “path of thorns,” Carder has turned a generic term of suffering into a much more tangible pain. The thorns have grown from the imaginary roses in the previous line. They yield a rhyme, not of sound, but of sensation: the prick of the thorns answers the sting of the bees, whose smile here is surely one of admiration at the translator’s cleverness.

“[Schehadé] doesn’t bite, he stings,” said his friend and longtime theater director Jean-Louis Barrault. “There is something insect-like about him.”[5]

When autumn sends a shiver
Down the mountain
Place the swan’s eye on your neck (19)

Schehadé’s world is marked by constant displacement; people, creatures, things, and (indeed) places find themselves exiled from where they would ordinarily be. (See “monkeys,” above.) Here, in a migration of forms, sight itself is displaced. Reading a line with the words “eye,” “swan,” and “neck,” we have seen a swan’s neck before we can help ourselves, yet all the time the poet is instructing us to take a different point of view (quite literally). The form and movement of the lines, too, have morphed between languages. Whereas in Schehadé’s French “autumn trembles on the mountain” across a single line of verse, Carder’s English stacks two shorter lines on top of one another and sends a shiver down the new poem itself, whose curving verticality reminds us further of the swan’s neck that is never mentioned.

Trees travel only by sound
The sublime silence of a thousand birds
Life’s crimson companions (37)

On the faint yet ever-musical wind of these lines, I think I can hear echoes and foretellings of other voices. I hear Schehadé’s friend the Uruguayan poet Jules Supervielle, one of whose own lines from the very same year (1948), “A thousand birds flown don’t make one that alights,” would later reappear as the first page of the Anthologie du vers unique.[6] I hear Marielle Macé, too, who has enjoined us much more recently to remain attuned to the deepening silence around us: “The birds are non-singing our battered world.”[7]

And what has Austin Carder heard and given us to hear? Schehadé’s first and third lines are linked by the verb “être” (to be) and a near-rhyme (“Les arbres qui ne voyagent que par leur bruit […] Sont les compagnons vermeils de la vie”), both of which have been discreetly effaced in the translation. The trees no longer have an exclusive claim to be “life’s crimson companions”; the latter could just as well be the birds in this realignment of affinities. The grammatical ambiguity puts me in mind of the “ambiguous friendship” that Georges Bataille imagined existing between hunter and prey;[8] mind you, that might not be a bad definition of translation, either…

If you come across a ring-dove (55)

More than just a line of verse, this is the subtitle of Poetries IV (1951), and a pure Schehadien animoment. Like “When autumn sends a shiver | Down the mountain” and other poems throughout his work, this one offers sage counsel. “Listen to what the bird tells you,” as Marielle Macé says. So we wait expectantly… and hear nothing. All that features of the poem beginning “If you come across a ring-dove” in Austin Carder’s selection is the opening line. The sublime silence of a single bird.

Oh look
A boat with a lion figurehead is dropping anchor (69)

No matter what we can or can’t hear, there’s always something to see in Schehadé. One of the rare instances when the English line ends up being slightly longer than the French is preceded here by the shortest line of Carder’s selection, yet this directive – all six letters of it – is arguably the crux of the book. “Oh look” can be heard with so many inflections: as an exclamation, a sigh, a whisper, and everything in between. And in the latest instance of relocation and exile, a lion has seemingly floated out to sea; the dropped anchor steadies the image and lets us look a little longer, lest we disbelieve our eyes at first.

At dawn when hunters dig
In the silence of open fields (71)

Failing to come across a ring-dove, I appear to have stumbled into a group of fellow hunters. Perhaps Alexis is among them, fresh (or fatigued) from a night’s work. A word-for-word approximation of Schehadé’s French here might read “when hunters are making holes”; somehow I had always imagined muffled detonations when reading these lines, hearing holes in the silence rather than seeing holes in the fields. It’s something of a relief to find that Austin Carder’s hunters have their eyes on the ground and are not aiming their rifles at me. I’ll tip-toe away and leave them to their work.

A limping crow portends disaster (79)

Here is an omen reminiscent of the flock of crows (or, to use the appropriate collective noun, the murder of crows) that gather in the very first scene of Schehadé’s 1957 play Histoire de Vasco, the tale of a hapless barber who is duped into joining the army and mistakes the battle for a duck hunt. The French poem conjures an unmistakable fairytale atmosphere with its “corbeau à béquilles” – a crow on crutches. “Béquilles,” furthermore, contains an echo of the word “bec” (beak) while phonetically anticipating the verb “prédit” (predicts): Schehadé’s crow speaks. Austin Carder kicks the crutches away and leaves us with a much starker, silent image. The disaster foretold has, in a sense, already occurred.

At daybreak
Pigeons pronounced their steps (109)

Unlike the crow on the page/branch above, these pigeons are fully audible. In translating the verb “articulaient,” Carder has opted for the alliterative “pronounced,” and there’s something very satisfying about hearing the three p’s pecking their way across the courtyard.

There was a breeze in the branches
Nothing else (111)

Unless that was the rustle of a monkey, or the flutter of a ring-dove’s wings. Oh look…


[1] Georges Schehadé, La Soirée des proverbes, Paris, Gallimard, 1954, p. 54.

[2] Ibid. My translation.

[3] Baptiste Morizot, On the Animal Trail, transl. Andrew Brown, Cambridge, Polity Press, 2021, p. 154.

[4] Georges Schehadé, Poésies I (1938), in Les Poésies, Paris, Gallimard, 2001, p. 13.

[5] “Il ne mord pas, il pique; il y a de l’insecte en lui” (“Avant-propos,” in Georges Schehadé, Œuvre complète, vol. 1, Beirut, Éditions Dar An-Nahar, 1998, p. xiii). My translation.

[6] “Mille oiseaux qui s’enfuient n’en font un qui se pose” (in Anthologie du vers unique (1977), Georges Schehadé, Paris, Éditions Bartillat, 2011, p. 1). My translation.

[7] “Les oiseaux […] non-chantent notre monde abîmé” (“Écoute ce que te dit l’oiseau,” Po&sie, 2019, Issue 167-168, p. 238). My translation.

[8] Georges Bataille, “The Passage from Animal to Man and the Birth of Art” (1953), The Cradle of Humanity: Prehistoric Art and Culture, transl. Stuart Kendall and Michelle Kendall, New York, Zone Books, 2005, p. 75.

Samuel Martin teaches French at the University of Pennsylvania. He has translated works by several contemporary writers including Jean-Christophe Bailly and Georges Didi-Huberman; his translation of Didi-Huberman’s Bark was a co-winner of the French-American Foundation Translation Prize and was longlisted for the PEN Translation Prize.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Success! You're on the list.

Comments are closed.

A Website.

Up ↑