Some years ago I was reading Philippe Jaccottet - for the first time, I think - in a Viking edition of 1987 with facing translation by Derek Mahon. It seemed to me then (I haven't been back to check on the judgement) that Mahon hadn't made all that good a job of L'Effraie, the title poem of Jaccottet's first regularly published collection (Gallimard 1953), and in particular of the last quatrain, so I set to having a go myself, translating those last four lines first, then, getting into the exercise, moving backwards up the poem.
It gradually occurred to me that with a minimum of adjustment (in particular the addition of a spurious 'that before, in the dark', around the halfway point), the poem, or rather a poem, could work that way up. The resulting version, or perversion, appears here under the title Renverse.
I recently acquired a nice first edition of L'Effraie which stimulated a further batch of more straightforward, non-Mahon-referenced versions.
Versions from Jaccottet
Already sharp bones harden through skin.
A last star fades at the road's turn.
Our bodies exhale a thin odour
of perishable things at first light.
Is it then only a barn-owl that hoots
against day from suburban woods
(and of such I'll speak further,
of cries in the summer night, of your eyes . . .)
that before, in the dark, had seemed a lament
of souls turning in torment, a pleading
now near, now receding, and torchlight
flitting through orchards? You slept,
I was far out on the rim. It was midnight
and June, the breeze that now bothers
the hazels a wind torn from the borders,
harried to the lee of this bed, the deep night
on its haunches a crouched city asleep.
The sea is dark again. You understand - don't you? -
it's our very last night. But who am I calling?
Beyond my own echo, I'm talking to no-one, to no-one.
Round the tumbled rocks the sea is black,
and tolls in its cloche of rain. A lone bat
bangs off the bars of air in its startled flight,
all our days are equally lost, shredded
by black wings; these waters, their predictable
grandeur, leave me cold, though I'm still here talking,
not to you, not to anything. Let them founder,
these 'fine days'. I'll go, I'll continue to age, who's counting?
The sea knows well enough to shut the door at our back.
A long time I've been trying to live a life here,
in this room I pretend to be fond of,
the table's unthreatening clutter, the window
that opens each dawn onto altered greenery,
a blackbird's heart ticking in the dark ivy,
light-splinters throwing quaint shadows everywhere.
I make myself believe it's a milder day than most,
I'm at home, and the morning bodes well.
There is just this spider, at the foot of the bed
(because of the garden), I can't have stamped
on her adequately, she seems busy still
setting her nets to enmesh my frail ghost . . .
I know now that nothing is mine, not even
this rare gold which is crumbling leaves,
still less the days beating on, from here to tomorrow,
with great slow wings, to some happy homeland.
She was with them once, that ethereal exile,
the fragile beauty, with her tricky secrets,
robed in fog. They will surely have taken her
elsewhere, through the rainsoaked woods. And again
I am here at the gate of an unreal winter
where a stubborn bullfinch insists on singing, a sole
dissenter who just won't stop, like the ivy. Who can translate
what he means? I can feel my health guttering
as now this brief fire before fog-banks the frigid
wind stokes and dissolves . . . And it's late.
It's not quite Beauty, with a capital B, that I find
here, having hired this tourist-class cabin
disembarked at Palermo, my cares to the wind,
but something more elusive, a beauty-of-this-world.
That other, I've seen Her perhaps in your face,
but our story must seem from above like those
waters that inscribe their grand hieroglyphics
on the sands south of Naples, and the sun laps up,
faint signs we retrace on our doorposts . . .
She's not given to those who would force her,
like travellers pushing at frontiers, like hoarders
dogged by their fear of extortions.
Still less does She flower in exotic locations,
She belongs if at all to the waiting, the patient,
the quiet ones ignored by the eulogists
who simply and secretly accrue their love.
L'Effraie et Autres Poésies (1979) is available from Gallimard