Raymond Queneau

Six Poems, translated by Anne Atik

From Chêne et Chien II

Grass: about grass I have nothing to say
but what are those noises, then
those day-sounds and night-sounds, then
wind: about wind I have nothing to say

oak: about oak I have nothing to say
but who’s humming at midnight, then
who’s gnawing the bedpost down
rat: about the rat I have nothing to say

sand: about sand I have nothing to say
but what’s creaking then? it’s the door
who’s panting then? that or
the rock: about rock I have nothing to say

star: about the star I have nothing to say
a sound that’s as sharp as fruit
a murmur one pursues
moon: about the moon I have nothing to say

dog: about the dog I have nothing to say
it’s a sigh and it’s a groan
a spasm, a harrowing din
town: about the town I have nothing to say

heart: about the heart I have nothing to say
silence forever undone
the deaf one sweeps up the ruin
sun: oh Gorgon oh monster oh Medusa
oh sun

1937

    

From Le chien à la mandoline

Some Useless Information
About a Certain Kind of Poetry

It’s quite true that you have to say it’s snowing when it’s snowing
it’s how you make yourself understood
it’s in saying that it’s snowing when it’s snowing that
it’s pleasant to make conversation with people who say that
it’s the weather that makes it so that it’s snowing when it’s snowing
it’s the way you can live in society without any difficulties and
it’s the way you make friends and
it’s so easy to say that it’s snowing when it’s snowing and
rather than to say it’s raining

sure enough

it’s pretentious to say that it’s raining when it’s snowing
but where’s poetry going to hang out with all that?
in a flake
in a snowflake
laced with Marsala
one summer’s day on the strand
of a shore in the Sahara
where if one says “bless my soul . . . but it’s snowing . . .”
it’s a bit at random . . .
         like that . . .

1958

In an interview with G. Charbonnier (Gallimard, 1962), Queneau developed the idea that poetry, contrary to current language, begins with information: “To know how to say it’s raining when it’s nice outside and that it’s nice outside when it’s raining . . . but that’s a bit what poetry is, after all, to pronounce on phenomena that aren’t immediately perceptible.”

    

For an Art of Poetry (suite)

Take a word take even two
cook them as you would a stew
take a small amount of sense
then a chunk of innocence
lower the flame heat them through
on technique’s low flaming force
pour an enigmatic sauce
sprinkle over several stars
a bit of pepper and fill the sails

but why are you taking flight?
To write
         Really? To write?

First edition 1958

    

Grave Song

Keep away from the clock
it bites it bites
Keep away from the clock
where death abides

The hands that turn
will engrave your cares
The hands that turn
will engrave your fears

All these fair faces
that smile unaware
All these fair faces
are etched with despair

Keep away from the clock
it bites it bites
Keep away from the clock
where death abides

1965

    

From Battre la campagne

The Storm

Suddenly the storm comes running
with his great mauve boots
trampling the begonias the fields meadows
walking on the oak
fills the street with his urine
spitting mud
grinds the air between his arms
and then goes away
full of himself

1968

    

From Cahiers des Saisons

Running Soil

All I ask is to put a bit of earth in the hollow of my hand
Just a bit of earth where I can hide and disappear
Look how I spread this palm wide you’d think I want
to shake everyone’s hand
and yet my only desire sole aim and most cherished wish
is to disappear

I wrote in small notebooks things in pencil things destined
to disappear
as would the green of the grass and the dust of the roads—
yes tomorrow all that would end
I followed the same curve as the tramway rail which already seemed
about to disappear
and I already knew yes I knew that I’d think of nothing but to
end all that, all that, tomorrow, end

Painters scaffolded along the Sistine Chapel’s walls!
Sculptors gripping tight marmoreal apogees!
Know then your art I don’t take it for small beer oh not at all

Poets who sound Heraclitean mysteries!
Writers! Dramatists! Essayists! Don’t feel the slightest regret!
I expect nothing from my friends but a bit of earth in my hands—
and from others death

1964

    

RAYMOND QUENEAU (1903–1976), French writer, poet, encyclopedist, and critic, wrote seventeen novels, including Zazie dans le Métro (made into a film which was a singular success) and Le Chiendent. Many of his books were adapted for theatre as well. He collaborated with filmmakers Buñuel, Chabrol, Clément, and Resnais, and wrote on painters such as Dubuffet and Vlaminck. He was the co-founder of Oulipo and Director of the Encyclopedia at Editions Gallimard.

ANNE ATIK is the author of three books of poetry, Words in Hock (1974), Offshore (1991) and In and Out of Season (forthcoming); Drancy, a special edition with the painter Kitaj (1989); and How It Was: A Memoir of Samuel Beckett (2001). Her poems have appeared in PoetryLiterary ImaginationPequodNew World Writing, The Nation, London Jewish Quarterly, American Poetry Review, Partisan Review, Ploughshares, and Fulcrum, among others. In addition to Raymond Queneau, she has translated Aimé Césaire, Apollinaire, Jules Supervielle, Gérard d’Houville and others. From the Hebrew, she has translated the poems of T. Carmi. With her husband, the late painter Avigdor Arikha, she has been the subject of articles in The New York Times, The Guardian, and other newspapers. She lives in Paris.

The above poems were translated during Queneau’s lifetime and met with his approval. They are reprinted here with the kind permission of the American Poetry Review.