ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Short Poems from Yves Bonnefoy The Wandering Life, translated by Hoyt Rogers



A land of mountains that are dogs, valleys that are barks, boulders erect in that barking like dogs who strain at the end of their chains.
And in their jumps, their pants, their fury, here is the open door, and the spacious room. The fire is bright, the table is set; the wine gleams in the carafes.



The sky’s weight on the glass became unbearable; it was said you could hear appearance crack. Someone shouted that in..., they’d seen “the unknown” issue forth—men and women, perfectly beautiful and nude—while the top of the world, of a blacker and blacker blue, toppled and fell like a stone.



Night, that is the green, the blues, and this dash of very dark red, nipping the lowest part of the page with its lumps. Hastily, I write the word puddle, the word star. I write birth. I write shepherds and three kings. I write that I break a light-bulb, and this is black.



They told him of a civilization graced with all the skills of the marble-cutter, the smelter; it was heir to a classical art, given to placing korai and nude ephebes at the crossroads of its cities, in the penumbra of its temples. But this new era no longer wanted statues—only empty pedestals; sometimes fires were lit on them, bent by winds from the sea. The philosophers said these bare plinths were the sole works of value: they had taken on, among the gullible crowds, the task of non-existence.



He gazed fixedly at the sun, as it set among red clouds. But how could we have addressed him, since he was no more than this large statue of honey-colored marble some of us carried on our shoulders, with greater and greater fatigue? Since his ecstatic gesture towards the sun swayed accordingly, lunging up and down like the prow of a boat? Since his expression—that of a sightless singer—was already ebbing from the stone, like the fire from those distant red clouds?



It’s simple: you dip a finger into the blue gouache, you slide it along the words just traced in black ink, and from the mixture of ink and color a tide wells up. Algae stir in the cloudy water, no longer the sign, no longer the image—our two passions, our two lures. We’ve opened our eyes; we move forward in the light of dawn.
But I wake up. Before me, on the wall of layered colors that flake off, there’s a shape deeply engraved with a nail, down to the plaster. Does it evoke a lamb, carried by a god on his shoulders? Or is the figure obscene? In fact, the incision goes so far into the plaster’s night that its empty rim is all that counts: a gash through any quest for images, an erasure of any sign.



Light fidgets in the cellar: I’m told they’ve found something, the children down there. They’re trying to bring it up to us on the narrow ladder, through the trapdoor. What is it? We don’t quite know yet—something like “a book,” an “endless” book, “the book.” As I lean over the highest rungs, still badly lit, I catch sight of their faces, bobbing back and forth to see me better. Laughing, singing... you’d think they were angels. I reach out my arms, and soon my hands overflow with masses of grey pages, stitched with coarse red thread; and sand that sifts through my fingers; and bits of wood, some of them rotten; and stones.



They told me: no, don’t pick that up; don’t touch that, it’ll burn. No, don’t try to touch that, don’t hold on; it’s too heavy, it’ll hurt.
They told me: read, write. And I tried, I picked up a word; but it struggled, clucking like a frightened, wounded hen—in a cage of black straw, stained by old traces of blood.



When he was twenty years old, he lifted up his eyes and looked at the sky. He looked at the earth again—with attention. So it was true! God had only sketched the world: he’d left nothing there but ruins.

A ruin, this oak, so beautiful all the same. A ruin, this water, lapping so softly against the bank. A ruin, the sun itself. All these signs of beauty are ruins—as the clouds prove so well, more beautiful still.

Perhaps light alone has a fully-fledged life, he said to himself. That’s why it seems simple, uncreated. — Since then, in the oeuvre of painters, he only loves their sketches. For him, the stroke closing back on itself betrays the mission of that god, who placed the anguish of the quest above the joy of the finished work.



He was painting: the slope of a mountain, the serried ochre stones. But this homespun cloth parted to uncover a breast, where a child was pressing its lips. And the heights, almost the sky, descended into the night (for night had come), where coffers were being carried, that leaked glimmers of light.

How many pictures did he leave like that, unfinished, invaded! The years passed; his hand shook. The landscape painter’s work was no more than those slabs of shiny coal piled up over there, where the children of heaven and earth kept wandering.



A hue and cry, far away. A crowd that runs under pouring rain, between canvases rattled by gales from the sea.

A man rushes by, shouting. What does he say? That he knows... that he’s seen! I make out his words. Ah, I almost understand.

I’ve found refuge in a museum. Henceforth, the great windy rain reigns alone outside, shaking the windows.

In each painting, it seems to me, God refuses to finish the world.



It was the temple. The door: low and narrow; the walls of the hallway: grey and clammy. Hidden at the back, beside the cellar stairs, the gate of the lift was so heavy it slid shut with a clang. The upper storeys seemed empty—closed, even walled off—except for this door on the third floor.

The altar is there, in the little dining room: it’s a spigot with water running.
And the image is there on the altar: the great, divine image. You can touch it; you can hold it in your hands; you can knead it under the water in the sink. It’s a clump of soft earth. You can work it easily into countless shapes, though at times a few pieces come loose. You gather them up again; you press them back into the lump, infinitely grey and sad; you mold it again into a ball.



They show him a large crucifix in the chapel to the left. They recount how an elderly man brought it to them one evening, bent beneath its weight.

He said he would pick it up again the next day, but he never returned. And since then, everything out there—the street, the passersby at times—is plunged into night. Florence: that’s where God came from; it’s the other world.

The head leans on one shoulder. Blood from the crown of thorns leaves a red stain on the grey wood. A cleft starts at the shoulder, and seeks out the heart; it sunders the marks of suffering, seems to make them fade.


To the poems in French


Hoyt Rogers is a poet, writer, and translator. He translates from the French, German, Italian, and Spanish; he is known for his English versions of Bonnefoy, du Bouchet, and Borges. He has published many books; he has contributed poetry, fiction, essays, and translations to a wide variety of periodicals. His edition of Yves Bonnefoy’s Rome, 1630 received the 2021 Translation Prize from the French-American Foundation. His forthcoming works include a poetry collection, Thresholds (MadHat Press), the novel Sailing to Noon (book one of The Caribbean Trilogy), and a translation of Bonnefoy’s The Wandering Life (Seagull Books). For more information, please visit his website

The renowned French poet Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016) was an ardent voyager throughout his life. His journeys and sojourns in foreign countries left an obvious imprint on his oeuvre. Given Bonnefoy’s frequent displacements, it comes as no surprise that he entitled one of his major books La Vie errante (Mercure de France 1993, ISBN 2-7152-1831-1). Inexplicably overlooked in the past, The Wandering Life now appears in translation by Hoyt Rogers at Seagull Press, to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. This book possesses a central importance in Bonnefoy's development, not only because it crystallizes the voyager theme, but also because it founds a new aesthetic: the symphonic interweaving of verse and prose in a single volume that characterises the final twenty-five years of his oeuvre.

For a brief introduction to the life and work of Yves Bonnefoy, see his page at the Poetry Foundation,

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