Translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker

 

Translator’s Note

‘Opening Invocation’ grew from a short text in prose written and broadcast by Jean Paul de-Dadelsen for the BBC French Service on 11 November, 1950, in which he began by questioning why on that date the dead of World War I were memorialized, but not those of World War II. He then went on to remember his own comrades who had died, not in the war, but soon afterwards, of illness, or suicide. It was transformed into a poem of contrapuntal despair and spiritual questioning, whose movements are extravagant and musical. It shocks the reader that Maurice, the painter, identified as Jewish, ‘turned on the gas’ himself one night. The horrors of war do not end when the war ends.

The Invocation led the poet into his Jonah sequence, written in 1954-5: the poet-Jonah is in the belly of war, of sexual hypocrisy, of profound religious doubt, of death’s certainty. It was one of the few poems published in a literary magazine during Dadelsen’s lifetime.

 

 

They lived with us in the belly of the whale.
The whale spit them out on the other shore :
The shy ones.
The left-handed.
The one who was albino and stammered.
The nearsighted. The distrustful, the cunning.
And that tall boy who was always hungry,
always sleepy.

Do they sometimes look over our shoulders?
Since they’ve gone, we’ve seen no one.
Are we blind? Or
‘spiritualism, that negro religion’, writes,
in some delightful periodical, a Reverend Father.
And yet
if they were looking, sometimes, over our shoulders?

Or otherwise, leaving the shore of the intermediate sea,
has it been a while since they’ve gone ahead
into the interior of lands of the spirit?
The black sorcerer knows how to call, knows, even when they want
to depart, how to call back shadows, souls.
Who among us would know how to call,
know how to bring back
the shadow of John,
of Bernard,
of Maurice?

In honour of Monseigneur Saint Maurice
Roman colonel who commanded the Theban legion,
martyr, his feast on September 22,
the abbot of St-Maurice-en-Valais, bishop of Bethlehem
wears a ribbon of scarlet moiré.
But Maurice,
who no longer went to the synagogue, no longer painted flowers,
painted only a patch of wall, an open door, a bit
of the studio’s light through a half-open door,
verticals, the floor’s horizon line,
Maurice, who deprived himself of green, of blue,
who among our dead will serve as guide for Maurice?
Who among our living will know to light a flame for Maurice ?
What will we burn of ourselves
to feed the spiritual flame that will be able
to warm, to deliver Maurice?

(A tradition, do you remember, claims that suicides,
imprisoned in mental mirrors, suffer at length
from seeing everything, never able to act, avert, aid.)

Shadow,
looking over my shoulder
what can I do for you?
There is no shadow here, only
the effort and the work of living men
time’s length, the resistance of mere matter.
But who will say
if the shadows among us
are not bent in their turn
over the same inexhaustible task?

Shadow, what can I do for you?
With my short-sighted eyes, my living eyes
with my stubborn, living hands
with this body, the time left to me.
Shadow, do you want me to look
in your place
at these faces, these fields?
do you want me to touch
in your place
these flowers, this hair, these things?
do you want me to try
with you
to lift this heavy burden even a little?

What have you done with your brother Maurice?

I was somewhere else. I heard nothing.
I wasn’t listening. I was looking in the mirror.
I wasn’t the one who turned on the gas.
I did nothing for my brother Maurice.

Shadow, what can I offer you?
What bread?
I did not prepare the ground, did not plough, did not sow,
I marked out only paths of dust and
sometimes my wake on the sea that forgets all passings.
What bread, but that of darkness and separation?
What water?
I did not walk toward refreshing waters,
I have nothing to offer you to drink.

And Bernard
who always slept stretched out full length
on his belly, one arm extended like a
swimmer doing the crawl in sleep’s deep waters,
what have you done with your brother Bernard?

He did not call out to me.
When I cannot keep myself
how can I be my brother’s keeper?
To what shall I bear witness
if not my own unjust reprieve?

Shadow, do you remember? There was a time
when, like women in labour
we looked at life and death with the same gaze.

What does it matter to me if
the universe is shaped like an egg or
like a boomerang? Our only country is
this sparse shore where we’ve been thrown up,
our only journey is
the journey in the belly of the whale.

Late in Life
Zone of Absolute Discomfort