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Astonished at Everything

Peter Sirr

Homesick for the Earth, poems by Jules Supervielle with versions by Moniza Alvi, Bloodaxe, 112 pp, £9.95, ISBN: 978-1852249205

Jules Supervielle is in heaven; or, at least, in the heavens, sprawled in the depths of space, alone with his bones, when out of the blue a familiar street appears with all its earthly accoutrements:

Boulevard Lannes, que fais-tu si haut dans l’espace
Et les tombereaux que tirent des percherons l’un derrière l’autre,
Les naseaux dans l’éternité
Et la queue balayant l’aurore?
(“47 Boulevard Lannes”)

Boulevard Lannes, what are you doing so high up in space
with your horse-drawn dustcarts,
nostrils in eternity,
tails brushing against the dawn?
(Translated by Moniza Alvi)

The vast spaces, the realisation of the earthly, the sense of a world apprehended through a prism of nostalgia, the loose but restless prosody are all typical. Those spaces are often lonely, occupied by a solitary consciousness human or divine. God considers his creation from the vastness of a great inner silence; a voice cries from the depths of the ocean; the intense affection for the things and places of the world is expanded out from the reach of the particular.

In his life Supervielle, born in 1884 in Montevideo, veered from France to Uruguay and back again, from Spanish to French – he was undecided between the two languages and citizenships until his military service in France – but more than on particular places Supervielle’s affection falls onto the earth itself, and the apprehension of the earth is through a strange and keen nostalgia. Distance is always the thing – the considerable feeling in the poems is always attached to distance; we’re always a whisper away from the obliterations of oceans, night, and the greatest distance of all, death:

Je te donne la mort avec une espérance
Ne me demande pas de te la définir,
Je te donne la mort avec la différence
Entre un passé chétif et mieux que l’avenir,
Je te donne la mort pour sa grande clémence
Et tout son contenu qui ne peut pas finir.
Bientôt, petit, bientôt tu seras un mort libre,
Tu te reconnaîtras entier et fibre à fibre
Sans le secours des yeux qui pouvaient bien périr,
Bientôt tu parcourras les plus grandes distances
Dans l’immobilité du corps et le silence. . .
(from “Dieu parle à l’homme”)

I give you death with the hope
That you will not ask me to define it for you.
I give death to you with the distinction between
A stunted past and one better than the future,
I give death to you for its enormous mercy
And for all it contains, all that can never end.
Soon, little one, you’ll soon be a dead man and free,
You will see yourself whole and fiber by fiber
With no help from eyes that might perish any time,
Soon you will cross the most enormous distances
Through silence and the body’s immobility.
(from “God Speaks to Man”, Translated by Geoffrey Gardner, American Poetry Review, Vol 20, No 4, July August 1991, p 34)

This is from La Fable du Monde, his 1938 collection. The God of this book is a kind of poet, coming to creation in order that he can “cease to be a stranger to [himself]”. The compensations of creation include the bliss of delivering rivers, rocks, “Les coeurs battants, les yeux, les âmes prisonnières” (The beating hearts, the eyes, the captive souls), but solitariness, rather than the joys of creation are what endure from these poems – “… none is more alone than God / In his heart’s great pit”. The loneliness of God is inevitably a figure for the inconsolability of men. When he actually thinks of man he is aware how his creation is his own exact opposite: visible when he himself is invisible and subject to no control, articulate whereas he is silent, set down on a fixed spot whereas he is everywhere, and, of course, mortal:

Tu seras mortel, mon petit,
Je te coucherai dans le lit
De la terre où se font les arbres.

In “Tristesse de Dieu” (The Sadness of God) God wanders helplessly and inconsolably inside himself:

Dismayed equally
by prayers and blasphemy

I’m everywhere at once
and nowhere.
Unmoving, I move
from heaven to heaven

like a wanderer inside myself,
a distracted hermit.
Long used to distance
I grow farther away,

straying in my mind
like a child in the forest.
I call out to myself,
haul myself in to my centre.
(Translated by Peter Sirr)

Supevielle’s poet is always a restless and anxious world- and self-wanderer, about to be overwhelmed, “un vaisseau qui sombre / Pêle-mêle, les passagers et les marins” (a ship going down with everyone on board.). Even when dead a poet needs to be armed with slivers of earthly reality to stave off comprehension of “his own great emptiness”:

Donnez-lui vite une fourmi
Et si petite soit-elle,
Mais qu’elle soit bien à lui!
Il ne faut pas tromper un mort.
Donnez-la lui, ou bien le bec d’une hirondelle,
Un bout d’herbe, un bout de Paris …

Quick, give him an ant
No matter how tiny,
But let it be his very own!
You must not cheat the dead.
Let it be his own! Or else a swallow’s beak,
A blade of grass, a fraction of Paris …
(Translated by James Kirkup)

In exchange for these tokens of life, the poet offers, and even manages to sing, mysterious gifts:

Un reflet qui couche sous la neige,
Ou l’envers du plus haut des nuages,
Le silence au milieu du tapage,
Ou l’étoile que rien ne protège.
Tout cela il le nomme et le donne
Lui qui est sans un chien ni personne.
(“Pour un poète mort”)

A light reflected underneath the snow,
or the far side of the highest clouds,
Silence in the midst of noise,
Or the star that nothing shelters.
All these he calls by name and gives in song,
He who has no dog, or anyone.
(“For a Dead Poet”, translated by James Kirkup)

If Supervielle sometimes takes on the cosmic perspective by ventriloquising God, it’s when he writes as a mere mortal peering through the veils of time and distance that he is often most effective. One of his most striking poems, also from La Fable du monde, is “La Pluie des Tyrans”, given here both in the original and in David Gascoyne’s brilliant translation:

La pluie et les tyrans

Je vois tomber la pluie
Dont les flaques font luire
Notre grave planète,
La pluie qui tombe nette
Comme du temps d’Homère
Et du temps de Villon
Sur l’enfant et sa mère
Et le dos des moutons,
La pluie qui se répète
Mais ne peut attendrir
La dureté de tête
Ni le cœur des tyrans
Ni les favoriser
D’un juste étonnement,
Une petite pluie
Qui tombe sur l’Europe
Mettant tous les vivants
Dans la même enveloppe
Malgré l’infanterie
Qui charge ses fusils
Et malgré les journaux
Qui nous font des signaux,
Une petite pluie
Qui mouille les drapeaux.

Rain and the Tyrants

I stand and watch the rain
Falling in pools which make
Our grave old planet shine;
The clear rain falling, just the same
As that which fell in Homer’s time
And that which dropped in Villon’s day
Falling on mother and on child
As on the passive backs of sheep;
Rain saying all it has to say
Again and yet again, and yet
Without the power to make less hard
The wooden heads of tyrants or
To soften their stone hearts,
And powerless to make them feel
Amazement as they ought;
A drizzling rain which falls
Across all Europe’s map,
Wrapping all men alive
In the same moist envelope;
Despite the soldiers loading arms,
Despite the newspapers’ alarms,
Despite all this, all that,
A shower of drizzling rain
Making the flags hang wet.
(Translated by David Gascoyne, in The Random House Book of Twentieth Century Poetry, edited by Paul Auster, Random House, 1984)

There’s something extraordinarily attractive about the trajectory that goes from rain to shining planet and from epoch to epoch. Generosity, largeness of vision seem to meet happily in the poems; they cover great distances in short spaces, as in the single unfolding sentence of “La Pluie et les Tyrans”, which Gascoyne’s a version houses very naturally in an English tradition which hungers for specificity (“La pluie qui se répète” mutating into “Rain saying all it has to say/Again and yet again”, “Mais ne peut attendrir / La dureté de tête / Ni le cœur des tyrans” rendered as “Without the power to make less hard / The wooden heads of tyrants or / To soften their stone hearts’, “drizzling rain” for “petite pluie”, “Making the flags hang wet” for “Qui mouille les drapeaux.”) Gascoyne finds a compelling music in English for Supervielle.

A great part of the allure of a poem like this lies in its instinctive strategy to move from a small observation to grand perspectives of time and space: the shining planet, the rain falling from the present back through centuries into remotest history, eternally self-repeating and yet – and this is the poem’s big surprise – supremely ineffective in certain respects, all the more striking for being unexpected. No matter how repetitive or relentless, the rain still can’t cure tyranny or coax the tyrant into a fruitful “amazement”, a true apprehension of the world. The poem’s final movement modulates into a resigned tenderness – again brilliantly captured by Gascoigne’s addition, “Despite all this, all that” – and ends, back where it started, in the domain of the small observation, the wet flagstones.

Some of Supervielle’s most powerful poems imagine the absence of the world or his own removal from it:

One day we’ll look back on it … the time of the sun
when light fell on the smallest twig
on the old woman the astonished girl
when it washed with colour everything it touched
Followed the galloping horse and eased when he did

that unforgettable time on earth
when if we dropped something it made a noise
and like connoisseurs we took in the world
our ears caught every nuance of air
and we knew our friends by their footsteps

time we walked out to gather flowers or stones
that time we could never catch hold of a cloud

and it’s all our hands can master now.
(“Le regret de la terre”, version by Peter Sirr)

His sense of the unmissability of experience, his hyper-alertness to the astonishing fact of existence are typical – they’re the engines of the poetry. An early poem, written in 1919, “À moi-même quand je serais posthume / To Myself When Dead”, accuses his posthumous self of excessive sympathy – “pansympathie, / Une maligne maladie” – “too much sympathy” in Dwight Smith’s translation, “love of the world” in Moniza Alvi’s version. Smith’s translation was published in the TLS six months before the poet’s death and reprinted in 2012 in its “Poem of the Week” series (http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1013750.ece). Introducing the poem, Andrew McCulloch quotes Anthony Powell writing about Supervielle in 1950, saying that the poetry “transfigures everyday reality without going beyond reality … It extracts the exceptional from the ordinary and never thrusts up towards the angels but rather, as Rilke would say, invites the angels down to sit at our plain human tables.” This is an apt summary, and what Supervielle’s later work is content to do. The earth, and life, are often the subjects of homage – homage is one of the poetry’s primary modes. But it’s the elusiveness of things, the yawning abyss on the other side of presence, that haunts Supervielle. “Prophecy” is one of many which imagine that the world itself has vanished, leaving only residual traces of mountains, seas and buildings:

Des toutes les maisons du monde
Ne durera qu’un balcon
Et de l’humaine mappemonde
Une tristesse sans plafond.
De feu l’Océan Atlantique
Un petit goût salé dans l’air.

Only one balcony will remain
of all the world’s buildings
and of the human mappa mundi,
limitless sorrow.
In place of the Atlantic Ocean,
a little saltiness in the air …

That poem ends with an image which recurs in the work, of a solitary, saddened yet defiantly optimistic God:

À la place de la forêt
Un chant d’oiseau s’élèvera
Que nul ne pourra situer,
Ni préférer, ni même entendre,
Sauf Dieu qui, lui, l’écoutera
Disant: «C’est un chardonneret.»

Instead of a forest
there’ll be one bird singing,
which nobody will ever place
or prefer, or even hear.
Except for God, who listening out,
proclaims it a goldfinch.
(Translation by Moniza Alvi)

In a sense Supervielle’s poems are an attempt to defy obliteration by seeking out images of persistence. One of his best-known stories, “L’enfant de la haute mer” (The Child of the Open Sea) plays out that persistence in a floating town in mid-ocean occupied by a sole inhabitant, a twelve-year-old girl. Time is frozen, the girl never ages but is condemned to patrol her empty village and be unseen by ships that pass. She’s a phantom, an image created out of a human grief in the mind of a deck hand who lost his daughter during a voyage, who thought of her so intensely “at a place 55 degrees latitude North and 35 degrees longitude West” that this after-image has endured. It’s a haunting image of dangerously persistent love very much of a piece with the poems that perform a similar act of sympathetic endurance:

It is beautiful to have chosen
A living home
And stayed for a while,
And had its hands
Alight on the world,
As on an apple
In a little garden,
To have loved the earth,
The moon and the sun
Like old friends
Who have no equals. . . .
(“Homage to Life”, translated by Kenneth Rexroth)

In the poem about his birth, “Montevideo”, the grammar suspends the act of birth so that simultaneously in the poem a whole world comes to life: “An archipelago of night floated still over the liquid daylight. / The walls were awakening and the sand that sleeps compressed within the walls.” (translated by William Rees). A fragment of his soul glides “on a blue rail against the background of the sky”; another fragment goes out and mingles with a scrap of paper which in turn is trapped by a stone. Typically, the perspective shifts and the poem develops a second movement:

Le matin comptait ses oiseaux
Et toujours il recommençait

Le parfum de l’eucalyptus
Se fiait à l’air étendu.

Dans l’Uruguay sur l’Atlantique
L’air était si liant, facile,
Que les couleurs de l’horizon
S’approchaient pour voir les maisons.

The morning was counting its birds and kept on starting again.
The scent of the eucalyptus was entrusting itself to the outstretched air.
In Uruguay on the Atlantic the air was so engaging, so easy-going, that the horizon’s colours were coming closer to the houses. (Translated by William Rees)

The scene has expanded from his birth to the street outside and on out to the coastal air of Uruguay and stretched ultimately to the image of the earth “beginning its round once more” in lines suffused with a sense of interconnectedness. Montevideo is the specific place, the homeland, but it also functions as anywhere, a fragment of the turning earth. Birth for Supervielle is a process which folds the inward experience out into a kind of cosmic apprehension, a pan-sympathy that embraces the universe.

The dizzying juxtaposition of largeness of view coupled with the relish for the immediate may owe something to the disturbances of Supervielle’s background. He was born in Montevideo to French parents. They returned to France to visit family but his parents both died mysteriously, and the two-year-old was brought back to Uruguay by his uncle and raised by his aunt and uncle as their own son. It wasn’t until he was nine that he found out that his uncle and aunt were not his real parents. By the time he was ten the family had moved to Paris and he’d already begun writing. After much travelling Paris eventually became his home. Living in the great distances of his imagination was possibly an attempt to compensate for his sense of personal loss, the divorce from intimacy that the death of his parents meant. He addresses this most explicitly in “The Portrait” (1925) where he speaks to a photograph of his dead mother. The poem begins with a recognition of the futility of his address:

Mère je sais très mal comme l’on cherche les morts,
et je m’égare dans mon âme, ses visages escarpés
et ses ronces de regards.

Mother, I’m useless at looking for the dead,
losing my way in my soul, with its steep faces,
its brambles and stares.
(translated by Moniza Alvi)

It asks the shade of his twenty-eight-year-old mother “looking out at me from her three-quarter portrait / with her reticent, well-balanced soul, / wearing the dress that will never wear out” to release him from his ceaseless Odyssean journeyings and allow him to be still. The poem’s address continues to circle round its own inevitable darkness, talking to the vanished woman who is unknowable and unreachable even if still part of him:

Je te parle durement ma mère.
Je parle durement aux morts parce qu’il faut leur parler dur,
Pour dominer le silence assourdissant
Qui voudrait nous séparer, nous les morts et les vivants.
J’ai de toi quelques bijoux, comme des fragments de l’hiver
qui descendent les rivières.
Ce bracelet fut de toi qui brille en la nuit d’un coffer
en cette nuit écrasée où le croissant de la lune
tente en vain de se lever
et recommence toujours, prisonnier de l’impossible.

I speak harshly to you, Mother,
to penetrate the deafening silence
that separates the dead from the living.
I have some jewels you left me,
like pieces of winter, swept downriver.
Your bracelet shines in the night of a drawer.
In the crushed darkness
a crescent moon attempts to rise, falls,
and, impossibly, hopelessly
begins again.

Maybe the persistence of childhood in the work comes out of that same “deafening silence”. In “L’enfant et les escaliers” (The Child on the Stairs) it appears as a ghostly child:

Toi que j’entends courir dans les escaliers de la maison
Et qui me caches ton visage et même le reste du corps,
Lorsque je me montre à la rampe . . .

I hear you running up and down the stairs,
but the minute I grab hold of the banister
you turn your face the other way.
(Translated by Moniza Alvi)

Although Paris was his operational base, Supervielle is a relatively anomalous figure on the poetic map of his generation. His thinking about poetry separated him quite distinctly from his immediate contemporaries, the Surrealists, poets like Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Robert Desnos, Paul Éluard or the dadaist Tristan Tzara. He was not eager to stop making sense; he wanted to write a poetry that communicated, which led to some critics calling him, not very usefully, a super-realist. His greatest fear was “to be thought incomprehensible and peculiar” and deliberate obscurity was for him a cardinal error: “Not writing for mystery specialists I have always suffered when a sensitive person has not understood one of my poems.” He has, though, much in common with later poets like his friend Henri Michaux, or Francis Ponge and, it could be argued, in his work’s resolutely humane perspective, with poets like Yves Bonnefoy, Philippe Jaccottet or Jacques Dupin.

Apart from in the poems themselves, his thinking about poetry is most explicitly expressed in his 1951 essay “En songeant à un art poétique”. In it he is at pains to foreground the importance of dreaming for the poetic process: “Poetry comes to me from an always latent dream. I like to direct this dream except on days of inspiration when I have the impression that it directs itself.” (translations here and below by George Bogin from American Poetry Review, Vol 11, No. 6, November/December 1982. He specified it further as not a drifting dream but something more tangible, “a substantial dream”, “a kind of ship’s figurehead which after crossing inner space and time confronts outside space and time – and for it the outside is the blank page”. Dream is a kind of replacement memory for Supervielle, or perhaps a shield against the trauma of his early memories. “People are sometimes surprised over my marvelling at the world,” he says. “This occurs as much from the permanence of my dreams as from my bad memory. Both lead me from surprise to surprise and force me to be astonished at everything.”

Surprise, astonishment – and simplicity. Supervielle liked to live from hand to mouth as a poet. He didn’t necessarily make his formal decisions in advance: he wanted his poems to make their own decisions: “Je laisse mon poème lui-même faire son choix. Ce n’est pas là mépris mais assouplissement de la technique” and he rested his faith in an essential simplicity:

Pour moi ce n’est qu’à force de simplicité et de transparence que je parviens à aborder mes secrets essentiels et à décanter ma poésie profonde. Tendre à ce que le surnaturel devienne naturel et coule de source (ou en ait l’air). Faire en sorte que l’ineffable nous devienne familier tout en gardant ses racines fabuleuses. (“En songeant à un art poétique”, 1951)
For me it is only by dint of simplicity that I succeed in arriving at my essential secrets and in decanting my deepest poetry. I strain until the supernatural becomes natural and flows naturally (or seems to). I see to it the the ineffable becomes familiar at the same time that it guards it fabulous origins.’ (translated by George Bogin ).

So does all this make him an easy poet to translate? Individual Supervielle poems have been translated into English many times over the years, and among book-length selections the New Directions Selected Writings, with translations by James Kirkup, Denise Levertov and Kenneth Rexroth (New Directions, 1967) is a very useful introduction, and Moniza Alvi’s versions are an excellent addition. In fact, he’s not always an easy poet to translate. The apparent looseness and bagginess can transfer as flat and prolix, and many of the existing translations of Supervielle are just that. Because his prosody is organic rather than pre-determined, he can be all to easily housed in a ramshackle prosy English. Moniza Alvi, a distinguished poet herself, has been translating Supervielle for several years, drawn partly by “coincidental parallels with his life on another continent” – Alvi was born in Pakistan – and by the eerily exact dreamlikeness of the poems. Her versions are attractive and readable, and not afraid to take risks for the sake of a better poem in English, dropping rhymes, altering grammar, layout, adding words “to attempt to compensate, perhaps, for something of the music or grace of the poem that had been lost in translation”. One great boon is that the Bloodaxe book is bilingual, so we have access both to the originals and Alvi’s versions. What marks her versions out is their down-to-earthness, their sense that in the tricky journey from French to English the sensibility of the poet is ferried safely across:

Écoute, apprendras-tu à m’écouter de loin,
Il s’agit de pencher le cœur plus que l’oreille,
Tu trouveras en toi des ponts et de chemins
Pour venir jusqu’à moi qui regarde et qui veille.

Qu’importe en sa longueur l’océan Atlantique,
Les champs, les bois, les monts qui sont entre nous deux?
L’un après l’autre un jour il faudra qu’ils abdiquent
Lorsque de ce côté tu tourneras les yeux.

Listen, Will You Learn to Hear Me from a Distance?

It’s a question of listening with the heart, rather than the ear.
You’ll find bridges inside yourself, and roads
that lead right to me.
I’m awake all night, looking out for you.

What does the width of the Atlantic matter,
The fields and woods, the mountains between us?
One by one they’ll have to abdicate –
When you decide to turn your eyes this way.

Alvi’s book is an excellent place to begin an investigation of this rewarding poet whom Eliot, as she reminds us, regarded as “one of the two poets of his generation (the other being Saint-John Perse) whose work was most likely to stand the test of time”. It’s hard to disagree with the final words of Alvi’s introduction, or to resist a poet with such words on his gravestone:

Abundant in imagination and feeling, Supervielle was adept at capturing the scarcely expressible, as he did in the haunting words from “Le Relais” (The Inn) which are inscribed on the poet’s gravestone at Oloron-Sainte-Marie: Ce doit être ici le relais où l’âme change de chevaux (This must be the inn where the soul changes horses).


Peter Sirr has published seven collections of poems with Gallery Press including most recently The Thing Is, 2009, for which he was awarded the Michael Hartnett Prize. He lives in Dublin where he works as a freelance writer, teacher and translator. He is a member of Aosdána.



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