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Graveyard by the Sea by Paul Valéry

Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry (1871-1945)

Montreal-based writer and translator Donald McGrath offers a new, original translation of “Le Cimetière marin” by Paul Valéry, the French poet, essayist, philosopher and 12-time nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Above image: Ambroise Paul Toussaint Jules Valéry (1871-1945)


This quiet roof where doves stray and dip
Pulsates between the pines, the tombs.
Out of fire even-handed noon composes
The sea, the sea, ever recommencing.
O what recompense after thought’s travail
This long gazing on the gods’ repose!
 
What pure toil of shimmering light consumes
So many diamonds of gossamer foam,
And what peace seems to be conceived
When the sun reposes upon the Deep!
Pure works of an eternal cause,
Time sparkles and the Dream is knowledge.
 
Dependable treasure, simple temple to Minerva,
Mass of calm, visible reserve, vaulted
Brow of water, Eye that holds within yourself
Such depths of sleep beneath a veil of flame.
O my silence! … Edifice of the soul, Roof!
Attic resplendent with a thousand golden tiles!
 
Time’s Temple is condensed within a sigh.
From this pure point I climb and myself attune,
Surrounded wholly by my ocean view. And like
My supreme sacrifice to the gods on high
The serene scintillation sows
A sovereign disdain across the sky.
 
As fruit melts in joy upon the tongue
And transforms absence into delight
In a mouth where its form comes to die,
I breathe in the smoke I’ll one day be,
While the sky sings to the consumed soul
The change of the strand into sound.
 
O sky beautiful and true, see how I’m changing
After so much false pride, such strange
Idleness but replete with power now,
I give myself over to this bright space;
Over the houses of the dead my shade glides.
And I am compliant with its frail flow.
 
My soul laid bare to midsummer’s fires,
I bear you, admirable justice of the light
With your pitiless arsenal! I return you,
Unsullied, to your high room.
Look upon yourself! To give off light is to create
An equal aggregate of gloom.
 
O for myself, to myself alone, in my own self,
Close to a heart, to the sources of the poem,
Between the void and the pure event,
I await the echo of my inner magnitude,
Bitter, somber and sonorous cistern,
Sounding a hollow ever pending in the soul!
 
Do you know, false captive of this foliage,
Gulf eating through these paltry iron gates,
Dazzling secrets playing over closed lids,
What body drags me to its indolent end?
What brow draws it down to this bony earth?
A spark there is a thought for those I’ve lost.

Enclosed, sacred, full of immaterial fire,
An earthly fragment offered to the light, this place
Overhung with torches is my delight,
Composite of gold and stone and dark trees,
With so much trembling marble over so many shadows;
The faithful sea slumbers upon my tombs!
 
Drive off, splendid hound, idolatry
When I with my solitary shepherd’s smile
Let my enigmatic sheep linger her to graze.
From the white flock of my tranquil tombs
Keep away the prudent doves,
The vain dreams and curious angels!
 
The future, come this far, is indolence
The brittle insect scratches at the parched ground
Everything is burned, undone, taken up into air,
Subsumed into some severe essence …
Life, drunk on absence, is vast; bitterness
Is sweet and the mind clear.
 
The hidden dead lie at ease within this earth,
It warms them up, dries out their mystery.
Up there, Noon, immobile Noon
Reflects within itself, commensurate with itself,
Head complete unto itself—perfect diadem,
I am the secret change that rings in you.
 
I’m all you have to rein in your fears!
My regrets, my doubts, my limitations make
The flaw in your great diamond!
But in their marble-laden night, a vague
Band crowding around the tree roots
Has come over already to your side.
 
They have dissolved into a compact absence,
The red clay has drunk up the white,
The gift of life has passed into the flowers!
Where now are the dead’s familiar turns of phrase,
The art of the individual, the singular soul?
Where tears once formed, worms writhe.
 
The shrieks of tickled girls, the eyes,
The teeth, the eyelids moist with tears,
The charming breast that plays with fire,
The blood that flashes on yielding lips,
The ultimate gifts, the fingers that defend them,
All go under the earth, where the game begins again.
 
And you, great soul, are you still hoping for a dream
That will have no more of those lying colours
That waves and gold compose in eyes of flesh?
Will you sing when you’ve become a vapour?
Go! Everything flies away! My presence
Is full of holes, divine impatience is no more.
 
Mere immortality in black and gold,
Hideously crowned in laurel, that shapes
Death into the form of a maternal breast, into
The beautiful lie and the pious ruse!
Who does not know, who does not refuse
That hollow skull and eternal laughter!
 
Fathers deep beneath the ground, vacant heads
Beneath the weight of so much clay,
You are the earth, you confound our way.
The real rodent, the irrefutable worm
Is not for you who sleep below,
He feeds off life, he will not let go!
 
Is it love, perhaps, or self-hatred?
His secret tooth has drawn so close
Any name for him would be commodious!
It doesn’t matter! He sees, wants, touches, dreams!
He feeds on me and deems it good.
To him belongs the thin rind of my life.
 
Zeno! Cruel Zeno! Zeno of Elea!
Has your winged arrow pierced me through,
That shivers, flies and flies no more!
The sound gives birth to life, the arrow kills!
O the sun! … What tortoise shadow for the soul,
Achilles’s long striding in immobility!
 
No, no! Arise! In the era yet to come!
Break, my body, this pensive form!
Drink in, my breast, the rising wind!
A freshness imbibed from the open sea
Restores my soul to me… O salty potency!
To ride the wave and emerge from it alive.
 
Yes, majestic sea endowed with your deliria,
Your honeycombed chlamys and your panther hides
Of idols erected in thousands to the sun,
Absolute Hydra, drunk on your blue skin,
Biting your own glistening tail in turmoil
Akin to silence.
 
The wind rises! We must try to live!
The vast air opens my book and closes it again,
The powdery wave dares burst up from the rocks!
Fly off, away, bedazzled pages!
Break, waves! Break from delighted waters
This tranquil roof pecked by dove-white sails.


Donald McGrath is a Montreal-based writer and translator. He has published three poetry collections: At First Light (Wolsak and Wynn, 1995); The Port Inventory (Cormorant Books, 2012); and Montreal Before Spring (Biblioasis, 2015), a translation of L’Avant-printemps à Montréal by Québec poet Robert Melançon, who twice received the Governor General’s Poetry Award. McGrath’s poems have appeared in periodicals in Canada and abroad. His poem “Biarritz” was selected for the Web anthology of the 2012 Montreal International Poetry Prize. And his translation of Robert Melançon’s poem “Elégie écrite dans le parc Notre-Dame-de-Grâce” was the winner in the first installment of the Malahat Review’s translation competition, Les poésies francophones du Canada.

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