Max Jacob

Three Poems, translated by Rosanna Warren

Mysterious Garden

Les Pénitents en maillots roses, 1925

Wings like shells! leaves dead and dry
russet insect lips, will you open wide,
it wasn't leaves at the doorstep side,
it was insects brown as mahogany
will they speak? will they rise from the ground
up the brick wall will they climb?
It's rained! at the parsonage, it rained,
I'm here! I hear the horsemen come.

I'm here! I hear the croaking frogs,
I'm here! I hear toads whistling
under pumpkin leaves, something creeps and shogs.
I'm here! I hear water fall, ping ping.

The dwarf palm tree guards with its spears
two pear trees from the too-bright day.
Who laughed as evening light held sway?
Someone sang. It must be the carpenters.
Oh life! Oh death! Oh mysterious earth
what do you hide that dusk shows forth?
What treasure do you keep under lock and key?
Oh life! Oh death! Where is your treasury?
Someone sang! At the organ bent
girls, cantors of Gregorian chant,
amidst barley fields, mingle their souls
to the Christian poem as evening falls.
One works the pedal, the other holds the score.
I'm here! I hear plants speaking to me.
I wait for a look from a dying flower.
Petal! I wait for an eye upon your pearl
the shadow will never darken more.


Le Coq parisien, n. 3, July, August, September 1920; Le Laboratoire central, 1921

Welcome, Goddess, to our barn
Behold the glorious ears of corn
You will not wake with quiet step
The tired laborers as they sleep.

Flowers murmur to the soil
For the dead the moon replies
Letting its silver light reveal
Four houses, a pair of trees.

I hear crooning toward the skies
A dream becoming melody
A woman, naked--oh! surprise!--
In the barn as on a balcony.

Serpents, slumbering, my initials twined
The concert of forest animals fell dumb
Each blade of grass thrust a shaft of madness up
And to their own beauty the distant trees were blind.


Boredom at Europa’s Bull

Les Pénitents en maillots roses, 1925


So many Spanish coins, the widows’ tummy purse!
So many dressers sporting doublets and plumes!
You ask why I don’t read Sainte-Beuve and converse?
I come from Pernambouc where kings visit my rooms
Ah! Why is polenta considered cuisine?
And why did Bellovèse take to founding Milan?
No! No! I abhor the weight of a golden crown
Theseus call your horse of Tamerlane.

           Is there a corner of solitude
           I’ll go seek it out by horse
           in the monastery too many men crowd
           too many women in the market place
           in my attic room, too many books
           too many clothes hanging from the hooks
           too many papers in the cabinet
           too much meat in the kitchenette!
Ah! I give up! Listen! Excuse my foolishness!
Narcissus clutched his head, gazing at his glass
Oh! Plagues! Oh land of the Rose and its attar
I’d go see you tomorrow if you weren’t so far.

            Lord Bolingbroke is travelling
           and loses his slipper, his satin slipper fine
           Page, go see! My page so kind
           it’s in the wood among the pines!
           it’s in the wood among the pines.

           Fear not, a fairy said to him,
           I’ll give you two others of golden ore
           —No! Those were the slippers I adore
           Thank you! Madame Belphégor.

           And the echo repeated across the plain
           the echo of the echoing wail of the horn
           and the echo repeated across the plain
           Thank you! Madame Belphégor
           Thank you! Madame Belphégor.


Published by courtesy of Les Éditions Gallimard.

ROSANNA PHELPS WARREN (born July 1953, Fairfield, Connecticut) is an American poet and scholar. She is currently the Hanna Holborn Gray Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.