Reading: Distances by Philippe Jaccottet

Today’s poem is by Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet, born in 1925 and a prominent figure in the post-war era. The French original can be found here. Without further ado, as usual (ado can be googled and regurgitated), I do my reading.

Swifts turn in the height of the air;
higher still turn the invisible stars.
When day withdraws to the ends of the earth
their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand.

We live in a world of motion and distance.
The heart flies from tree to bird,
from bird to distant star,
from star to love; and love grows,
in the quiet house, turning and working,
servant of thought, a lamp held in one hand.

A swift is a small bird resembling a swallow, who flies very fast. The translation opens up the association with Jonathan Swift. The stars are invisible during the day as they turn (the imagery is pre-Copernican). Night falls rather poetically: Day withdraws to the ends (plural, we remain in the subjective) of the earth. Now the stars become visible as ‘their fires shine on a dark expanse of sand’. In the original, the fires appear (apparaître) ‘sur l’étendue de sombre sable’. The alliteration is replaced by the rhyme expanse-sand. I see an empty beach and I’m lying on my back, star gazing.

Next comes a statement to take stock of what we have so far. Then the journey of our emotion is elaborated quite beautifully. In the French the heart goes ‘à son amour’, its lover, not just its love. After we have experienced what Pascal called . by observing the distant star, love becomes possible. It grows in the quiet house (‘maison fermée’; I don’t understand why the translator strayed from the source here. The closed house signifies the separation of the lovers and the world, the quiet house sounds more inviting). Now the lovers are ‘turning and working’: they are mimicking the movement of the swifts and the stars, enacting the ‘domaine de mouvements / Et de distances’ in which we live.

They serve thought (‘des soucieux’). Again, the translator wasn’t faithful to the source. Why not ‘worries’ or the pretty ‘inquietude’? The lovers are holding a lamp to break the natural rhythm of daylight the poem opened with. As servants of thought, in the translation, they might be using their other hand to turn the pages of a book. In the original it says ‘lampe à la main’, not in one hand, so I don’t think that’s what Philippe meant. The lovers light (enlighten) themselves and their love grows as dedication to their shared worries, the reality that ceased to be motion and distance, and became quiet stillness and closeness for them.


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