Pierre Reverdy

Translations from Le Chant des morts, by Gary Roberts

The Highest Degrees of Famine

Thermometer for the rising blood
Thermometer for the frozen dreams
Forgotten in the white desert
Regarded in the mirror array
The suppressed desires
All the girdles worn out
All the fervors worn through
All the loves
All the hatreds unwound
The naked breast empty
And the head smashed in
The fair shoulders curved
The stomach ravaged by underground voyages
The darkened intentions of the ages
Interring us with the weight of obscure feelings
What is it in the end
Hunger and all the cares it gives me


The Line of Fire

The earth spins into decline
The earth is covered in dust
From the blue lights of morning
To the sparks from the crater
The keen blackthorn unwinding its sting
The painted eyelids of dreams that come to nothing
Mud of illusions overflowing the sidewalk
Within the hands’ distress
The empty word is suspended
The hollow vase in which the heart is steeped
In the vinegar of my blood
On the cord of the knots of misfortune
I had taken all of my measures
And I sleep now until the next signal
In the tunnel cut with false openings
In the night heavy and full of cruelties
The slackened pains that await me


The Meaning of Emptiness

These boundary lines I cannot read
These uncanny forms refusing to speak
Of anything but death
Death being the most just price
The weight of the body in the balance
And the strange path into the distance
Where the ends of threads rejoin in port
Departure tomorrow over yet more vain swells
Return ever expectant to the cold hearth
A sorrow never extinguished under the ashes
And no embers coals flames
We do not think of the real
No more earth than sky
No more echo than silence
Not even the arrow of a look
They are worn out slack undone
The knots of hope


No Fire No Flame

An infinite grief binds me in your curls
The locks of your heart
The ringlets of your brow
I can never again catch my breath
Running against the flow
Of the veins in endless circuit
On the flight without reprieve in your winged hands
I go on and on telling you of
A chamber apart its closed windows
Scentless air of the cellar
A noise cascading down the steps
And never a shadow across the threshold
Unlovely earthen home forever sunless
If I see you
If I hear you inside my thick skull
It is not your voice that resounds
It is not your profile in the depth of my eyes
But a fire farther away laying out its branches
A glacier at night pouring out its diamonds
The creaseless night that separates us
Patient night rising over the cinders of sundown


Night Owl

Disillusioned slaves in the mines of dawn
Divers for pearls or coral
Exploiters of the soft veins of matter
Of the blood of beasts returning to their fold
Or the slow sweating that animates your fever
Rowers of the absolute yoked to the renewal
Work of the night
When the sleeper beds down between two shadows
Prunes the tree of sleep
Your hand turns over the shuttle of silence
Frames out the pain that attends your awakening
The sea of memories
The dreams that cave in
The beautiful nights in which the avowals blossom
And the end of the desires that have woven our chains
Phantom of liberty


The Love of the World

I travel pierced through the surface
To the earth full of sounds
At a signal flying in the wake
Of the rigorless signs of presence
From one thread to another
From a flash without voice
On a trip of great promise
Everything sings and everything dazzles
In the plans in the dewdrops
The wrought iron fences bathed in buttercups
The façades rinsed off
The rooftops still just barely recovering from the night
And all the rumors that rise up in my head
In tatters on the thorns of morning
Cool of the distance without shadow
Upon the new ground a light without a past
Before my appeal is plastered onto the dawn
Closed circuit of sources without echo
A gust of air glistening in a ribbon of water
Cascade in a ringing gorge
Everything is open for a few hours
Health of the fruits transparent without delusion
Flimsy rampart of trembling lips


One of the great French poets of the twentieth century, PIERRE REVERDY (1889-1960) explored cubist and surrealist approaches to composition and imagery in search of new modes of lyric expression that might carry out his strange and secret worldmaking. Le Chant des morts (1948), one of Reverdy’s last volumes of new poetry, is an austere record of loss and witness, intoning a corrosive despair and resolute renunciation in response to the global catastrophe of the Second World War.

GARY ROBERTS is a poet and independent scholar in Medford, Massachusetts. He recently completed a translation of Pierre Reverdy's Le chant des morts (1948). In addition to consulting for higher education and cultural institutions, he serves as chair of the Medford Arts Council, a public agency.

Pierre Reverdy, «Le Chant des morts» in Main d’oeuvre (1913–1949) © Mercure de France