The French poet Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016) published major collections of poetry throughout his livetime. He lived, and died, in Paris in 2016. Today, I read a poem headed ‘L’Orangerie’. I didn’t like the English translation by Galway Kinnell so I have improved it. As usual, here’s the poem:
Thus we walk on the ruins of a vast sky,
The distant landscape will come into fullness
Like a destiny in the vivid light.
The most beautiful country, long-sought
lies before us land of the salamanders.
Look, you say, at this stone:
it carries within it the presence of death.
secret lamp that burns under our gestures
Thus we walk, enlightened.
Since I changed the translation, let’s quote the original as well so you can see for yourself:
Ainsi marcherons-nous sur les ruines d’un ciel immense,
Le site au loin s’accomplira
Comme un destin dans la vive lumière.
Le pays le plus beau longtemps cherché
S’étendra devant nous terre des salamandres.
Regarde, diras-tu, cette pierre :
Elle porte la présence de la mort.
Lampe secrète c’est elle qui brûle sous nos gestes,
Ainsi marchons-nous éclairés.
It’s a dense poem. Originally I wanted to do a poem called ‘The tree, the lamp’ that ends with the lines ” You know it’s the darkness of your own heart healing / The boat that reaches shore and falls.” The metaphor of the fading light, a lamp of darkness, seems to be common in Bonnefoy’s poetry. So, what do we have here? The first line paints the picture of a wasteland where the vast skies are ruined. What are the ruins of the sky other than memories of the ruins of the land? The land of salamanders is a dry, empty desert. The land of Mad Max, who eats salamanders. The land of North African tribes. Being a French poem written in July 1962, does this have something to do with Algeria?
Then the woman (I gender this poem according to the sex of the author, of course) the stone carrying death. Is it a fossil? And how do we understand the enigma of the secret lamp burning under our gestures? The most straight-forward interpretation is the Freudian death-drive. There is light happening and we know it is shining on our subconscious (‘under our gestures’). This knowledge makes us ‘éclairés’. Galway wanted to avoid the connotation of spiritual enlightenment, so he put ‘lighted’ taking the lamp at face value. However, a secret lamp of death, burning under our gestures doesn’t work like a household lamp you plug in at night.
What’s going on here is that the couple is illuminated or ‘enlightened’ as I prefer. The secret lamp means coming to terms with death, the final term. It signifies a kind of enlightenment that ‘burns’, coincides with our existential drive. Or, the light comes from the inside, where the full awareness of our finitude and wisdom has replaced bad and boundless infinity.