JOHN GOODBY: Translations from Pierre Reverdy



Freedom of the seas

Murmurings between the four walls from the blood-drops on the thorns, like going off to gather blackberries along paths worn away by remorse and hope, and risking the teetering slopes.

What! It astonishes you, does it, so much wastage from so many wounds?

Haven’t you leaked enough of those death’s heads through the gashes in your own lining to understand?

Good grief, this wind’s strong!

Between the lines of the rain, between everything that isn’t the false coin of life—that is, all that stuff that quenches the thirst of the tough-headed.

Over to you.

—What do you want? To win the game, or to lose it—the kind of time that reigns supreme, or the kind that drags itself out for an eternity? It’s all the same to me, I don’t care any more about the glint of metal than I do about the night. But I’m sizing up … —well, the infinite distance that separates everything that hasn’t been uttered from the very little that has been squeezed through the rolling-mills of literature—which isn’t to forget the sheer amount of blood, sweat and genius it took to raise just one spreading silhouette above the level of the desert, in that shooting-gallery where the air-rifles always fall short—which is to say, a real, solid man, one of those slew rounds that restores your faith in existence, one who doesn’t even try to make an effort to nose out the burnt sheep from the well-done goats. Provided it all holds up.

Yet it would certainly make me more unhappy than choking those I love merely because I stink more than I think.

Perhaps I do smell something wicked, and—because of that, undoubtedly—think in the same way; that is, in an evil way. Although it concerns different issues, that kind of thing can produce the same effect, and induce vertigo. My thought, though, over and above everything else, has to do with what might actually be left of a man who was too inclined to gamble the entire weight of his destiny on the always chancy outcome of what he could paint or write. I think about those who lost their sense of the ethical and aesthetic value of anguishing uncertainty when they felt a peremptory tug from the golden reins.

I once knew a man who was exceedingly average in appearance, but gifted with a sensibility so acute, and with such celerity of spirit, that he could never find his face in the same mirror twice in succession—he only had to blink, and there was different image of himself in front of him.

He told me: I’m sure you’ll understand me if I swear I absolutely don’t know myself. And since I don’t know anyone else either—because they all change in front of my eyes just as quickly as my own image does—I’ve started to believe that there never is anyone, or anything, in the world. And so I’ve begun to wonder what would change, for me and the others, if we all simply decided to start encroaching on this fade-out of the world; that is, to wear down whatever it is that delivers mankind up to the whims of time with such utter indifference.

And men—detached from humanity by death, like grains of sand from rocks by the equally tireless surf—fall away, one by one, to make up the anonymous matter of the vast stretches of eternal oblivion.

Just as there is a narrow, sun-bright border along the edge of seas which makes us forget its limitless expanses and its unplumbed, abyssal depths—in the same way, with men, there is, all around them, the unechoing, impenetrable vastness which enshrouds the dead, the golden beaches of glory.

Which is undoubtedly why they paint and write.

But what I want to say is that it’s wrong to have too blind a faith in the gilt—for example, to confuse the gold of the picture-frame with the invisible kind which sleeps between the weave of the canvas and the paint—that’s where the true ore is—the ore for later on—and everyone knows that this true ore—for later on—hasn’t always existed; that nowadays it’s increasingly less well disguised under the deafening wave of huge print runs. There are, in the shifting sands, so many glitterings, so many sombre chapters of history.

As for me, having noted, quite by chance that, whatever the small print in the contract might say, it’s always the living, when we reckon it up, who are obliged to take care of the dead, and never the dead of the living, I think of this fairy with breasts of filth who promised me, on that evening when my ear was opened for the first time to the lies of the wind, that she would come down and place under the stiff nape of my neck a cushion stuffed with as many million stars as it would take to soften the hardness of the angles of the coffin and keep my heart from the rigours of the night.


False Site

Close by, the purple and gold tableau in which the sailor, ready to ship out, kept himself to himself, his head happily oriented towards the East.

By evening the drawn curtain shuts out the scenery again. The dreams have disembarked. Ships, clapping on all sail, slide past on the horizon.

And everyone waits on the moody, foam-fringed crags. The air. The song of the sea. And behind the wind, along the low, dirty walls, the night.

In the white sun, these peasants of the earth and water pass like shadows.

A whistle slices the air, fainter somewhere.

While a little further off, over and above the surging forests, bloated clouds, slumbering mountains, pile up.



The rain falls, but only on the trees and on my head. The road is brighter than a sheet, more blinding than a mirror, and soldiers pass by in a cloud.

But I shiver, either from cold or from fear, between the lines that have been entangled by too-strict orders. My one remaining hope is a few steps lower down, and the coolness of evening coming on to quench my thirst.

Yet, over and above the choruses and fields, in the unshot bolt of this infernal circle, where everything has to be done again, forever, where my best sketches always turn out badly, the rain falls, but only on my head and on the trees.


Always the Way

Torment wandered off too far, into the gulfs of light, to the cornices of time bordering the roof—the sunless wave of a Midi deep in snow.

Against the useless, grey ground, the sketches of a whistle-stop for the eye seeking the word. A purple stem-post raised itself to the hollow of the sky and intersected the horizon. The broken thread let fall all the burdens of misfortune, which collapsed soundlessly. On the blanched heads, on the shoots put out by dreams, the treacherous snares of disaster are swirling. On the ground are nothing more than shattered passions, worm-eaten plans and, in a darker corner, where disordered masses of froth or hardened lava pile up—petrified flesh, the mind frozen by horror, a glimmering of hope which trembles, uncertain and tentative as a trap.



It snows on my roof and on the trees. The wall and the garden are white, the black path and the house soundlessly toppled. It snows.


The Weave

A hand, with a rhythmic and unthinking movement, cast its five fingers up to the ceiling where fantastical shadows were dancing.

A hand detached from its arm, a free hand, lit up by the glow of the hearth which had just sunk lower down—and this innocent, vacant head which smiled at the spider as it pressed ahead in the night with its useless masterpiece.


Black Riverbank

The world streams beneath its old architecture. There are banqueting chambers, ballrooms, and torture chambers too. Deafening sounds, great clouds of black smoke in all the corners and the closed faces which turn, like the tails of peacocks under shafts of light, towards the current boosted by glory. Through the windows opened to the night like pierced eyes, not a single ray of light, neither sign nor glance, cries rising and falling back—frozen, extinguished like sparks discharged in the ears of the worse than naked children who beg for death on the streets. Currently there are dogs snarling as they run, flayed women, and the bitter song which rises from the gutter under the feet of busy passers-by. Wealth is in the air, while down on the ground the crowd flaunts its rags in the rain. A car passes by like a shaft of happiness through this sombre mass, its gleaming wake lingering like a ripped silk curtain. Not so much a wound as a brief respite from the succession of footsteps which the pavement carries off into the fly-trap of the night.


The Happiness of Words

Just when I was no longer expecting anything, everything returned, the coolness of the responses, the angels of the cortège, the shadows of the past, the bridges of the future and above all the joy of viewing the distance as it stretched out ahead. I would always have wanted to get further away, higher and deeper, and to rid myself of the nets which wound me in their toils. But always, after all my thrashings about, time brought me back before the same door. Under the leaves of the forest, under the gutters of the town, in the mirages of the desert or in the still countryside, always this same closed door—this portrait of a man in a mask moulded by death, the dead-end of all enterprise. It was at that moment that the magic song rose above the meanderings of the alleyways.

The men are talking. The men are beginning to talk, and happiness blossoms, in the armpit of each leaf, in the hollow of each hand loaded with gifts and a crazy hope. If these men talk of love, then across the face of the heavens we must surely glimpse the movement of features in the likeness of a smile.

The chains fall away, everything is clear, everything is white—the weight of heavy nights is relieved by embalmed breathing, scoured by immense billows of light.

The future is almost upon us, more yielding, more alluring.

And, on the boulevard which binds it to the present moment, a long, a heavy necklace of passionate hearts like these fruits of fear which glowingly buoy the night up to the streetlamps’ summit.


At the End

The disc which was burning up the countryside just plummeted onto a pikestaff. Was it the dead sun or a circle of iron?

The wings of the windmill tossed it between two trees where the firework died away. And the horizon that I had taken for a charcoal sketch was fading fast.



Harsh day, the air a slipknot through which I strain my gaze. What corner are you standing in? In which eddy of the wind, of the blood of our too-slow life—which stream of venom or dancing foam? But the distance is short and I’m already losing you. No longer, under the brazen vault, does a single sound come that would disentangle victory from defeat. All cries merge into one, and for a long time the same refrains have served to signify both shame and glory.

In this pitch-black night, in the press of the masses that crowd at my chest, whose current carries me in an unknown direction, I can no longer distinguish between walls which crumble in a shiver of fear and the scattering of the most solid foundations. At the summit, the grotesque rigour of too-fragile attitudes. Yet, at the ambiguous crossroads of gloomy towns, a secret current passes between the lines.

Not a single offer of help, all the blood held back in reserve surges out, drowns itself in the empty countryside—where the bleeding dew evaporates. Bound to the deathbed, time holds its breath, unspeaking. One step more, one more beat of the heart towards the light. Not even, in the hollow of the stunned head, the faintest memory of the eternal blow-back of sunrise.



In this becalmed evening, the lit-up windows smile like false faces. Cheerful grimaces overwriting the wrinkles of misery.

A noise, cut short in the wrong sense, under the grey awnings which undulate and rattle in the wind. The doors are closed, the walls heavy with sweat in the tighter corners of the weeping facades. It’s like a current of stale air which pushes towards the cypress hedge, whetted on the stone of the weather, which frames the cemetery where a flawless silence is wandering. All eyes are extinguished, everything broods in the heart of cities under the earth.

On the screen of black sky, on the flip-side of night, luminous signs, in a secret language, are weaving the slackened veil of the endless mystery.


Time’s Gold

A hand closed on the wind. The five fingers pleating the light—she grips the fiery piece of gold which lights it up.

You seek destiny in the sense of reason. The rest is better hidden in corners of the house and in the folds of the brain, of the mouth which used to smile behind the bars which protect the window.

Empty masterpiece which bowls along, active in the infinite and an arrested time.

A ray of sunlight rips through the cloud—but the shadow of forgetfulness already fits perfectly.


Celestial Profile

The shadow descends all of a sudden on the rays of the branches. The rooves slide soundlessly under the same freshness. Happy laughter flows from the window and the clarity reawakened, from the wall to the brow of the head and of the trees, in the corner where the lines of colour cross.

In the tender light where the future conceals itself, a memory turns around, halts and threatens me. Then the profile cast down upon the horizon from above, annihilates my desire and takes its place. And despite that, I have to leave.


The Spirit Abroad

Hands stretch out under the lamp where white paper unfolds itself, where the cut of the light-shade slices across heads. In the only corner of this room in which light stirs the ticking of the clock is occasionally heard. No one would have dared to enter this silence.

Yet you fear the sound of the searching finger, in the secret, the lines of the door. With the funereal influx of night, someone passes by, crying out in the street which is in the process of disappearing in the gloom.

Unechoing murmurs, unbearable chagrin, the quill scratches slowly, late now, against the page of the book, like the intermittent beating of the wind against the slope of the roof.


The Name of the Shadow

The window pane, where several dewdrops still glisten, is broken. Beneath the lamp the book opens itself at a white page and the shadow cast by the roof halts. It’s far bigger than a man. And in the lower room, from which light has disappeared, an unpetalled glow still trembles a little on its stem.


Without Entering

At the rear, the unglazed door, two remorseful heads locked in a sinister game of amicable grimacing. And by the other, half-open, door—the one which makes such a bad fist of keeping the night out—one can glimpse the shelf on which books line up, where all the laughter and words of evenings spent under the lamp sought refuge, beneath the gaze of an ancient portrait—menacing with its eternal, ambiguous smile.

And everything is stifled and drowsed in the waiting for dawn, light and life and, above all, the end of the frightful dream.


Clear Mystery

Above, the portico wound around by the trellis where birds are singing—At the window where an immobile head and a bust stand erect. Behind the leaning wall and the dazzled air, a half-closed day’s eye awaiting the signal.


Last Marque

These hands, though making neither sign nor gesture, were—without it being apparent why—about to open themselves on the terrace.

These white hands, whose fingers spoke in touching you—like a badly-placed kiss, one which flew away. They kept a rosy imprint received at some earlier time, still burning and unforgettable.

The hands were buried in the unpinned hair which half-covered the shoulders. And tears of pride, remorse and perhaps even of blood slowly trickled onto the pointed shoes of the woman who watched.


Good Judge

Behind the pointed roof where you dance, throwing your arms and legs into the air by turns, an invisible judge follows your every move. He has no ears and his triangular eyes don’t see there.

However, mute and immobile though he is, at each turn of this grotesque dance, with a shrug of his shoulders or a twitch of his eyelids, he judges your efforts. And his mocking laughter when you finally catch your breath is vain recompense.




Coffee mill

On the tablecloth lay several grains of powder or coffee. The struggle or repose on many brows furrowed together. The odour blent with the cries of evening, everyone closing their eyes, the mill crushing the blackness as if it were our heads. In the circle of voices a cloud floats free. A glass at the lips which fogs our thoughts.



Against the wall, empty squares. There is a danger of slipping up on the shifting map. The shadow bears the weights, the fingers piercing the number. One time matches another, to the end of the world. You think of someone else and, on the marble, leave a bare name, one without preamble or point. The story of his life. Memory. He is happy—in the meantime, everything which has been left behind has yet to be accomplished.


The pipe

Beneath the thick cloud the voice climbs towards the ceiling in a smoke ring—like his halo. Voice and smoke which leave the pipe, or the thin, burning lips. The tune of the song in the night. The intervals of silence—and the coal extinguished just as, once more, the sound climbs the mouth’s fresh cascades of smoke.



The shadow, the musician, the immense blue curtain dividing space. It’s his name the clapper in the bell beats out, the melody that flows most sweetly. Sitting in the deep declivity of a hill, between hollowed walls, I can hear the signs outdistancing my sight. Between the walls, before the sky, the window in the middle, feet on the carpet where sparks, or stars, or some other luminous signs were extinguished.


The book

The leaf of white paper, new upon the palings. You climb up and down it.

The mountain is a book whose heroes are wound on the wind. Pages turn, words fall often.

A peal of thunder rumbles over paving-slabs. It’s where accident happens. The book is made. Men clamber up, a chapter under each arm.

Against the wall the worried author, who watches the world at its business and fails to follow suit.


Manuscript and song

The musical stave and the instrument of words.

The brief title between the right hand side and the angle. The lines run over the white levels, and this is the space to cleave to within the house of the performance. But if the sound flows outwith, then that beyond becomes another song. A new note, and the sky’s rays modify the escutcheon. The wall, from tree to roof, from door to balcony. The voice, pitched a little higher.



Everything in the air is calm—and yet still swollen with sound. The waves of yesterday’s song are always breaking in our heads—and so are the airs yet to come. A wing-tip sinks into the hollow of the lampshade and its shadow caresses a mute instrument reclining on the table—Deaf notes of memory.


Seated man

The green carpet laid beneath the hearth is a trap.

The man with the disappeared profile moves away from the white wall—Is it the sky weighing down on the arms of the armchair, or a wing? Every space is a blackout. The walls send forth lines, slicing the horizon. After the expedition to the summit of the houses. After all the hopes of returning to a sign, one collapses into the fissure which runs across the ceiling. The hands move forward into the air. The face is refined and everything comes home again within the order, the setting, and the repose of reflections of ink and gold.



The drawer once pushed back in, the door closed again, hands used to linger, alone in space—eyes open, always, an echo still trembling in our ears. The violin had already fallen silent, while the feet, unseen beneath the table, continued to beat time. Frontiers crossed, notes lost in the air, all threads unknotted beyond the seasons resuming their course and their pitch from the dark foundation of silence.



Against the wall, rows of heads, hunched shoulders, eyes staring down at the cracks, and feet beating out the measure against the parquet floor. The same footsteps within the same round. They await the signal, the tired wrinkles and tiring-curtains let down too far.

Somebody is walzing in the neighbouring room and there’s no dance in progress. But against the tapestries a blank countenance—and a hand which passes across a mouth—a disquieted fan.



The black wind which twists the curtains cannot lift the paper or put out the lamp.

A surge of fear; it seems as if someone must have entered. Between the open door and the banging shutter—nobody! And yet, on the disordered table, a restless clarity in this empty room.



Under the ordering power of a single glance that takes in the too-keen edges of the mouldings of the black and white pieces over which fingers are poised, the fingernail-ends. It’s a path traced between this narrow framework and me, losing my head. A thicket which conceals the place thronged by murmurings. In the summer room with an extinguished fire the compact ceiling and two squat figures with eyes downcast.



The world of hunger, the end of the world. The tureen is like a terrestial globe set on the table. And from the cracked globe, the lid having been lifted, the odour swirls up, and a head and white arms in a cloud.

And the head grinned—the head grinned; and it floats from one end of the table to the other.

By a longer route than the one which runs from scent to hunger, the passionate heart of another dream is restored.



Time deferred guides the appearance of the onward march of the refrain.

As for night, it is the circle of bare faces under the lamp’s power of enchantment. Profiles released from the long stone embankments where shadows thicken on the lethargic river. Under the arch, like a belated memory, a bird passes, gestures outstripped and detached from number at the moment of departure. I note the proper name on the flip-side of destiny, of the dark envelope around the wing of chance.



One hand, the one nearest to the peeled fruit, stretches out and, like a bee, hovers over it. The circle where the fingers slide extends beneath like a trap—then they resume their flight, leaving a bright red scar at the base of the dish. A drop of blood, of honey at the ends of fingernails.

Between the light and the teeth, desire’s contrivances weave the blow to the lips.



Turned about, the beaked silhouette scissors a pair of long coat-tails against the wall. All the sky in the drinking glass, happening overhead. The spaces stay blue. On the piece of furniture, a livid wound and powdery squares. The fountain creases the air, the vapour issues from the lines, and, little by little, the murmur of the sea dies away.



The billowing of curtains behind the balcony over which nobody ever leans.

Day’s silhouettes, their mass thickened by night, leaden theatricals framed by the window. Then, in a burst of sunlight, a rocket of laughter and, in the empty street, between its two pavements, a rain of colours, an avalanche of petals, drops which evaporate to perfume the wind.



In the depths of the glass, the settled gaze, the ribbon, the drop of gold and a glance that trembles.   Everybody’s gone. This sad carnival between winter and the hearth, the sun heating itself up again. The rain falls more softly, the sea is discoloured and the hard countenance becomes transparent again. Below the discovered traits the head is fashionable. And even in the mirror over against the folding-sceen. My memory in disorder.



The bottle at the heart of fire, at arm’s length or on the table. Taking the shape of hands, in the spring which flows out of the pockets—its gold or silver—it keeps its nature hidden up its sleeve. When the colour flows and fills the channel—when the air is embroiled in the branches. The heart travels further than the eyes, the flame is rekindled from the cinders. Between the flowing thread and the glowing trait words have no more meaning.

No more words are needed for understanding.



In the warm air of the ceiling the slope that leads to dreams lights up.

The white walls are rounded up. The troubled breast exhales a few confused words. In the mirror, thick with leaves and feathers, the south wind shifts. The window has a mouthful. The heart is almost extinguished among the cinders, which are already as cold as the moon—the hands are homeless—all the trees laid low. In the wind of the desert the needles incline, and my hour has passed.


John Goodby teaches at the University of Swansea. He is the author of Irish poetry since 1950: from stillness into history (2000) and The Poetry of Dylan Thomas: Under the Spelling Wall (2013), and editor of the new annotated centenary edition of Dylan Thomas’s Collected Poems (2014). He has published five collections of his own poetry, the last being A True Prize (2012), and translations of Heine, Adel Guemar, and Pasolini.



From the Junction Box

Junction Box Categories

Glasfryn Project

+44(0)1873 810456 | LYN@GLASFRYNPROJECT.ORG.UK