The Lost Place: Reading Yves Bonnefoy’s ‘La Maison Natale’

By Peter Sirr

What are we concerned with? What are we really attached to? Are we entitled to reject the contamination of the impermanent and to withdraw into the stronghold of speech, like the king in Poe’s tale, far from the plague-stricken land? Or did we love the lost object for its own sake, and do we want at all costs to recover it? (Bonnefoy, The act and the place of poetry. 102)

There is something interesting and powerful about an orchestrated series of poems – the kind of sequence or grouping that sets up conversations between the constituent parts, and where a common stock of images and verbal effects complement and reinforce each other. The frame of a sequence is really a loose kind of house, a dramatic space and a series of interconnected rooms, and those connections are important. It means the different parts can speak to each other and it also means there can be an accumulation of image and mood over the duration of the series. For some poets, this working by accumulation and accretion is their default mode. These are poets of the architectonic imagination, the great organisers, deployers, orchestrators whose works have strong conceptual frameworks and who think very much in terms of the suite, the sequence, the series, the book.

Yves Bonnefoy has always been this kind of poet, as I was reminded when I found myself reading ‘La maison natale’ from his 2001 collection Les planches courbes. The book is available in a dual language edition (Bonnefoy, The Curved Planks ) with translations by Hoyt Rogers, but the English translations I first read were John Naughton’s, which are available on the Poetry International website. Both are fine translations. I have been reading Bonnefoy on and off for many years, and again, as often happens when I encounter the work, I was immediately gripped by the force of the poems, and by the way they deploy an obsessive imagery of memory and loss where the real and the dreamed are fused to disturbing effect. What follows is an attempt to report on this particular encounter with Bonnefoy, and to try to register, however inadequately, some of his characteristic concerns and effects, something of what makes him one our of era’s unforgettable poets. 

Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale,
L’écume s’abattait sur le rocher,
Pas un oiseau, le vent seul à ouvrir et fermer la vague,
L’odeur de l’horizon de toutes parts,
Cendre, comme si les collines cachaient un feu
Qui ailleurs consumait un univers.
Je passai dans la véranda, la table était mise,
L’eau frappait les pieds de la table, le buffet.
Il fallait qu’elle entrât pourtant, la sans-visage
Que je savais qui secouait la porte
Du couloir, du côté de l’escalier sombre, mais en vain,
Si haute était déjà l’eau dans la salle.
Je tournais la poignée, qui résistait,
J’entendais presque les rumeurs de l’autre rive,
Ces rires des enfants dans l’herbe haute,
Ces jeux des autres, à jamais les autres, dans leur joie.

I woke up, it was the house where I was born,
Sea foam splashed against the rock,
Not a single bird, only the wind to open and close the wave,
Everywhere on the horizon the smell of ashes,
As if the hills were hiding a fire
That somewhere else was burning up a universe.
I went onto the veranda, the table was set,
The water knocked against the legs of the table, the sideboard.
And yet she had to come in, the faceless one,
The one I knew was shaking the door
In the hall, near the darkened staircase, but in vain,
So high had the water already risen in the room.
I took the handle, it was hard to turn,
I could almost hear the noises of the other shore,
The laughter of the children playing in the tall grass,
The games of the others, always the others, in their joy.

This has all the Bonnefoy elements: the drama of the speech which comes from the strong narration of dreamlike acts, like a mix of different registers of the real. ‘Everywhere on the horizon the smell of ashes,/As if the hills were hiding a fire/That somewhere else was burning up a universe.’ The language is both very particular and dreamily abstract, and as it proceeds the poem becomes more dramatic, more mysterious – a kind of magisterial mysteriousness. A tone, a method and an image stream are all introduced which the subsequent poems will draw on and elaborate. The poems all have the looseness and freedom of dreams, they are ‘images gathered from my sleep’, and they present different states or stages of consciousness, so that the actions of awakeness – everything that follows from ‘I wake up’ – are themselves dreamed. The dreamlike states of consciousness are reflected in the grammar: long, busy sentences where the action piles up, lines gathering pace as they run on. The imagery is both immediately tangible and elusive – the smell of ashes ‘As if the hills were hiding a fire/That somewhere else was burning up a universe’ is a classic example of the Bonnefoy image trajectory.

The first three poems begin with the line which in the original is ‘ Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale . . .’, the English converting a Latinate impersonality into an Anglo-Saxon insistence on specificity:

Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale.
Il pleuvait doucement dans toutes les salles,
J’allais d’une à une autre, regardant
L’eau qui étincelait sur les miroirs
Amoncelés partout, certains brisés ou même
Poussés entre des meubles et les murs.
C’était de ces reflets que, parfois, un visage
Se dégageait, riant, d’une douceur
De plus et autrement que ce qu’est le monde.
Et je touchais, hésitant, dans l’image
Les mèches désordonnées de la déesse,
Je découvrais sous le voile de l’eau
Son front triste et distrait de petite fille.
Étonnement entre être et ne pas être,
Main qui hésite à toucher la buée,
Puis j’écoutais le rire s’éloigner
Dans les couloirs de la maison déserte.
Ici rien qu’à jamais le bien du rêve,
La main tendue qui ne traverse pas
L’eau rapide, où s’efface le souvenir.


I woke up, it was the house where I was born.
It was raining softly in all the rooms,
I went from one to another, looking at
The water that shone on the mirrors
Piled up everywhere, some broken or even
Pushed between the furniture and the walls.
It was from these reflections that sometimes a face
Would emerge, laughing, of a gentleness
That was different from what the world is.
And, with a hesitant hand, I touched in the image
The tousled hair of the goddess,
Beneath the veil of the water
I could see the sad, distracted face of a little girl.
Bewilderment between being and not being,
Hand that is reluctant to touch the mist,
Then I listened as the laughter faded away
In the halls of the empty house.
Here nothing but forever the gift of the dream,
The outstretched hand that does not cross
The fast flowing water where memories vanish.

Lines like these provide an access to a range of feeling, the depths of emotions that only dreams can plumb. They induct us into an image stream compelling and often bewildering: sea, rain, wind, water flooding interiors, mirrors in which the ‘tousled hair of the goddess’ is glimpsed, Ceres, laughter, the boat with its curved planks, all of which are brought into startling conjunctions and intersect with other through the force of metaphor. Hoyt Rogers translates the third last line in II above, in the original, ‘Ici rien qu’à jamais le bien du rêve’, as ‘Here the only thing we ever own is dream’ and that can also serve to express our sense of the world which the sequence inhabits.
In each of these poems the speaker wakes up to a situation both frightening and compellingly attractive: the rain in the rooms, the ‘piled up water’ with their reflections of a face of unworldly gentleness, the goddess/little girl and the ‘Bewilderment between being and not being’. We’re reminded as we read the English that these lines are translations, not because of any infelicity of the translator, but because their formulation seems outside the normal range of English. It is hard, for instance, to imagine an English-language poet arriving at a line like ‘Bewilderment between being and not being’; it’s hard maybe, to see the poems’ particular mix of dreaminess and concreteness, their particular emotional rhetoric occurring in English – which is to say that their thought pattern, their emotional landscape are intimately connected with the French language, or, more accurately, in the French language as it operates in the crucible of Bonnefoy’s imagination.

We remember that Bonnefoy is of course himself a translator and he looks at translations of his own work with the eye of a poet and translator. He has remarked that he feels two different things when he reads a poem of his own in English: ‘the otherness of the language, the words, the rhythms; the otherness of the translator, his particular way of being, which makes the poem his own. I am visiting these words more than reading them, but it is a beautiful experience, I admire the English language, I can appreciate the skill of the translator, I am happy to discover once more the unity of poetry despite the differences between countries and persons’.

Poem III enacts the scene in Book V of Ovid’s Metamorphoses when Ceres, searching for her daughter Persephone, who has been raped and taken off to the underworld by Pluto, knocks on the door of a hut and is given something to drink by the old woman who answers.

While she drank what she had been given a rash, foul-mouthed boy stood watching, and taunted her, and called her greedy. The goddess was offended, and threw the liquid she had not yet drunk, mixed with the grains of barley, in his face. His skin, absorbing it, became spotted, and where he had once had arms, he now had legs. A tail was added to his altered limbs, and he shrank to a little shape, so that he has no great power to harm. He is like a lesser lizard, a newt, of tiny size. The old woman wondered and wept, and, trying to touch the creature, it ran from her and searched out a place to hide. It has a name fitting for its offence, stellio, its body starred with various spots. 
(Translation by A.S Kline, 2000)

In a remarkable act of identification, Bonnefoy inhabits the scene in the form of the offending boy, and converts it into an expression of anguished love. Ceres is a recurrent figure in Bonnefoy’s poems – goddess of fertility and nature, a figure of maternal love searching the ends of the earth for her snatched daughter as the poet searches for his own childhood self, and also a symbol of imaginative creativity whose name is linked with the verbs ‘create’ and ‘increase’. 


Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale,
Il faisait nuit, des arbres se pressaient
De toutes parts autour de notre porte,
J’étais seul sur le seuil dans le vent froid,
Mais non, nullement seul, car deux grands êtres
Se parlaient au-dessus de moi, à travers moi.
L’un, derrière, une vieille femme, courbe, mauvaise,
L’autre debout dehors comme une lampe,
Belle, tenant la coupe qu’on lui offrait,
Buvant avidement de toute sa soif.
Ai-je voulu me moquer, certes non,
Plutôt ai-je poussé un cri d’amour
Mais avec la bizarrerie du désespoir,
Et le poison fut partout dans mes membres,
Cérès moquée brisa qui l’avait aimée.
Ainsi parle aujourd’hui la vie murée dans la vie.


I woke up, it was the house where I was born,
It was night, trees were crowding
On all sides around our door,
I was alone on the doorstep in the cold wind,
No, not alone, for two huge beings
Were speaking to each other above me, through me.
One, behind, an old woman, stooped, mean,
The other standing upright outside like a lamp,
Beautiful, holding the cup that had been offered her,
Drinking greedily to calm her thirst.
Did I think to mock her, surely not,
Rather I let out a cry of love
But with the strangeness of despair,
And the poison ran throughout my body,
Ceres, mocked, broke the one who loved her.
Thus speaks the life walled up in life today.

The boy’s laughter becomes the poet’s cry of love, so that the figure of the poet as child seems also to be combined with the lost daughter sought by the goddess. The myth therefore becomes a complex articulation of the forces that drive through the sequence, as the poet himself seeks a kind of fusion of divinity and laughter. Ceres also makes an appearance in an earlier sequence of Les planches courbes, seen, as always, on her eternal quest:

Ceres, all sweat and dust,
Who kept searching
Throughout the earth,
Should have waited for him.

He would have granted her
Refuge, rest,
And what she lost
She would have recognized

In his bright penumbra–
Embraced it with a cry
And laughing, borne it away
In her vehement hands.

Instead, she still S
tops, at night
Under rustling trees,
And knocks at closed doors.
(Les Chemins/The Paths, III, translation by Hoyt Rogers)

Again here, Proserpine and the laughing child seem to be conflated. The boy seems to have the power to comfort the goddess with the force of life. As he writes these lines, and the lines from ‘La maison natale’ above, Bonnefoy is seeing the painting by Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610), ‘The Mocking of Ceres’, one of two he painted on the subject. He wrote an essay on Elsheimer in The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art and he focuses particularly on the painter’s interpretation of this crucial moment in the myth which, for Bonnefoy, is also ‘from the very beginning an awareness of the precariousness of the sacred’. (Bonnefoy, The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art 90). Ceres is for the poet ‘the being that the spirit of possession comes along to stifle in every life once illuminated by meaning’ while Proserpine is ‘the life that could become presence, that could participate in meaning, and thus in being, but that is estranged from itself. . . .’. It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of this image for Bonnefoy:

Let us reflect upon such a moment, when a wandering being, who is anguished and helpless, comes to knock at a door in a distant land and to ask for help. The door opens, and help is offered, a gift that is like sacrifice or prayer; and through the grace of such an act of union, like the bread and wine in religious rites, a world of plain evidence, of great and simple truths, what I called the symbol, will perhaps come together again. In the final analysis, it is the fate of being that is at stake when the goddess takes the jug, and two futures become possible, one of which implies sudden daylight in the branches and Proserpine returned to the world. . . . (The Lure and the Truth of Painting 90)

That phrase, ‘an awareness of the precariousness of the sacred’ could equally function as a description of the poet’s own deepest impulses. The poet’s quest is, exactly as outlined here, like the recovery of Proserpine, a recovery of ‘presence, that could participate in meaning, and thus in being, but that is estranged from itself…’ As the sequence develops the imagery takes up residence in the reader; we become intimate with the language of the imagery as we do with the speaker’s inner world. It’s also striking the way these poems mesh the inner and outer physical worlds; the physical world of weather enters the dream houses. Poem V opens with the poet dreaming that he is lying in the hollow of a boat, ‘forehead and eyes against the curved planks/Where I can hear the undercurrents/ Striking the bottom of the boat’ but soon finds himself in an endless series of rooms, one of which is ‘cluttered with desks’:

Vois, me dit-on, ce fut la salle de classe,
Vois sur les murs tes premières images,
Vois, c’est l’arbre, vois, là, c’est le chien qui jappe,
Et cette carte de géographie, sur la paroi
Jaune, ce décolorement des noms et des formes,
Ce déssaisissement des montagnes, des fleuves,
Par la blancheur qui transit le langage,
Vois, ce fut ton seul livre. L’Isis du plâtre
Du mur de cette salle, qui s’écaille,
N’a jamais eu, elle, n’aura rien d’autre
A entrouvrir pour toi, refermer sur toi.

Look, I’m told, this was your classroom,
See on the walls the first images you looked at,
Look, the tree, look, there, the yelping dog,
And the geography map on the yellow wall,
This fading of names and forms,
This effacing of mountains and rivers
By the whiteness that freezes language.
Look, this was your only book. The Isis of the plaster
On the wall of this room, which is pealing away,
Never had, nor ever will have anything other
To open for you, to close on you.
Like all of Bonnefoy’s work, these lines tremble, to use his own terms, between presence and absence. The real seems to fade, and then even the images of the real are effaced. The poems are alive with physical detail, the vivid presences of memory

Après quoi il fit jour ; et le soleil
Jeta de toutes parts ses milliers de flèches
Dans le compartiment où des dormeurs
La tête dodelinait encore, sur la dentelle
Des coussins de lainage bleu.

And then it was day; and the sun
Cast its thousand shafts of light
On the lace that covered the blue woolen cushions
In the compartment where people slept

And again as always in Bonnefoy the detail serves a purpose: the poems look at the world in an act of rapt apprehension made all the more vivid because the ferocious attentiveness of the act is driven by the sense that we are on the brink of extinction. In this sequence, which is strongly autobiographical, the poet is re-entering a childhood world haunted by ‘an evasive maternal presence’ and a father who is about to vanish (Bonnefoy’s father died when he was thirteen, and the psychic wounds of that death are felt throughout Bonnefoy’s work.) I use a term like ‘autobiographical’ loosely; Bonnefoy doesn’t write a poetry of self disclosure and his whole aesthetic turns from the pleading of the specific self. Nonetheless the life enters the work and lends its weight to the generalising imagination’s reach for archetype and myth. So these poems are a troubled and partial recovery; the poet is alone on the stage of his dreams always approaching, always agonisingly within reach of a ‘faceless one’ or ‘the others’. He moves through a densely realised physical world that seems about to be swept away by water, ‘The fast flowing water where memories vanish’.
 Throughout there’s a force of longing that comes from the urgency of the task of remembering – ‘I knew that my only task would be/To remember…’ – allied with the emptiness that constantly opens up in front of the approaching poet:

Et des voix, qui jetaient des ombres sur la route,
Ou m’appelaient, et je me retournais,
Le cœur précipité, sur la route vide.

…voices that cast shadows on the road,
Or called to me, and, my heart beating fast,
I turned around to face the empty road.

Poem VII is the most explicit, a memory of his father ‘at the end of the garden/…motionless, looking for something.’ He presents the father as unfathomable, a figure as mysterious to the poet now as he was then:

Voûté comme il était déjà mais redressant
Son regard vers l’inaccompli ou l’impossible.
Il avait déposé la pioche, la bêche,
L’air était frais ce matin-là du monde,
Mais impénétrable est la fraîcheur même, et cruel
Le souvenir des matins de l’enfance.
Qui était-il, qui avait-il été dans la lumière,
Je ne le savais pas, je ne sais encore.

His body was already bent over, but his gaze
Was lifted toward the unaccomplished or the impossible.
He had put aside his pick and his spade,
The air was fresh on that morning of the world,
But even freshness can be impenetrable, and cruel
The memory of the mornings of childhood.
Who was he, who had he been in the light,
I did not know, I still do not.

Towards the end of the poem the ‘two paths’ of father and son part, ‘and one of them /Vanishes, and almost immediately, forgetfulness/Sets in, avid, relentless.’ The poem is a partial act of recovery but is faced with ‘avid’ and ‘relentless’ forgetfulness –forgetfulness granted an active force, as if it were an insidious undercurrent in our lives, sweeping away most of what happens to us. The poet is compelled to confront this scene repeatedly, to bring the force of language to bear on what can’t be understood:

J’aurai barré
Cent fois ces mots partout, en vers, en prose,
Mais je ne puis
Faire qu’ils ne remontent dans ma parole.

I have crossed out
These words a hundred times, in verse, in prose,
But I cannot
Stop them from coming back.

How he presents memory reflects this – I wake up…I open my eyes, yes, it’s the house where I was born.. etc. Memory is not a conscious act but a vivid presence (maybe the poems enact a duality between avid forgetfulness and vivid presence – Presence is a key Bonnefoy concept – and a constant in his work is the idea that language corrupts or betrays presence, or true experience: ‘Le langage est notre chute, et c’est son emploi même qui est la cause de l’angoisse, c’est-à-dire aussi bien de la violence, qui traverse l’histoire humaine’ (Article in La Tribune internationale des langues vivantes).

And yet one of the most striking qualities of Bonnefoy’s work is its physical beauty in the sense of its formal accomplishment, linguistic presence, sonic force, as evident in this sequence as throughout the work, and equally evident in his work as a translator. His work is remarkably consistent in its shapes, sound and tones as well as in its characteristic subjects. One of the things that strikes when you read Bonnefoy is how all of the poems inhabit the same linguistic and emotional continuum, enact again and again the same rituals. Compare, for instance,

Je m’éveillai, c’était la maison natale,
L’écume s’abattait sur le rocher,
Pas un oiseau, le vent seul à ouvrir et fermer la vague,
L’odeur de l’horizon de toutes parts,
Cendre, comme si les collines cachaient un feu
Qui ailleurs consumait un univers.

with these lines from his first collection, in 1953: 

Je me réveille, il pleut. Le vent te pénètre. Douve, lande résineuse endormie près de moi. Je suis sur une terrasse, dans un trou de mort. De grands chiens de feuillages tremblent.

Les bras que tu soulèves, soudain, sur une porte m’illumine à travers les âges. Village de braise, à chaque instant je te vois naître, Douve.

À chaque instant mourir. (Du mouvement et de l’immobilité de Douve IV)

However much the work has developed and extended, there is the same sensuous urgency, the same ritualising imagination, the same grand rhetorical reach, the same meshing of the dreamed and waking worlds. This is not to say that he is a poet of romantic gorgeousness. One of his most famous poems, after all, is ‘Imperfection’.

We get a good idea of the kind of writing Yves Bonnefoy wants from what he writes about other poets. Bonnefoy’s critical prose is, more than most poets’, an extension of his poetry – it is poetry by other means. It has the dreamlike quality of all his prose, and is directed at the spiritual heart of the poetry rather than questions of technique. He uses the ostensible subject of the essay to probe his own impulses and desires. His essay on Baudelaire is really an analysis of the kind of language he wants for poetry. He wants language that can accommodate excess, and the language of logical thought and emotional precision (his own terms) is termed ‘discourse’. Of Baudelaire, for instance, Bonnefoy remarks that ‘in the essentials of their forms, Les Fleurs du mal belong to the realm of discourse’, and discourse is ‘that verbal place which Mallarmé wanted to flee’ and ‘that place much too frequented in our poetic tradition’. The worst crime of discourse is ‘that it prohibits excess’:

It is bound to the concept, which seeks in the essence of things their stability and certainty, purified of nothingness. Excess is the splitting open of essence, forgetfulness of self and of everything, joy as well as suffering in nothingness. (Bonnefoy, The act and the place of poetry. 45)

It also ‘removes one thing from the world – death – and thus it nullifies everything. But if language itself imposes the kind of control, the kind of logical and emotional patterning which Bonnefoy might resist, the ‘discourse’ it necessitates can’t be avoided even by poets – ‘there is no poetry without discourse’. The urgent question for Bonnefoy becomes to ‘salvage its truth, its greatness… by an appeal to death’. He praises Baudelaire because he identified with death, and named death, and Bonnefoy goes on to say that ‘Death in action is at least the ground of true discourse.’ (Act and Place, 46)

Keats is another key to understanding this sequence. Poem IX remembers the shock of recognition which the poet felt when he first encountered some lines from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’:

Et alors le jours vint
Où j’entendis ce vers extraordinaire de Keats,
L’évocation de Ruth “when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

Ruth and Ceres are clearly also conflated in his imagination as another ‘évasive présence maternelle’. It seemed as if had not so much encountered these words as felt them well up from the depths of his own experience

Or, de ces mots
Je n’avais pas à pénétrer le sens
Car il était en moi depuis l’enfance,
Je n’ai eu qu’à le reconnaître, et à l’aimer
Quand il est revenu du fond de ma vie.

I did not have to grapple
With the meaning of these words,
Since it was in me since childhood.
I only needed to recognise and love
What had returned from the depths of my life.
(Translation by Hoyt Rogers)

Bonnefoy has translated Keats, and ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is a poem, for him, ‘parmi les beaux jamais écrits’. His translation of the lines from the ode about Ruth is close in mood and tone to ‘La maison natale’. The voice of Keats’s immortal nightingale

Fut-ce ce même chant qui sut toucher
Le cœur triste de Ruth quand, déchirée
Du regret du pays natal, elle se tenait droite,
En pleurs, dans les sillons d’un autre blé.
(Bonnefoy, Keats et Leopardi 21)

It’s a very short distance from this, or from his translation of ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, to lines like

Beauté et vérité, mais ces hautes vagues
Sur ces cris qui s’obstinent.
Comment garder Audible l’espérance dans le tumulte,
Comment faire pour que vieillir, ce soit renaître,
Pour que la maison s’ouvre, de l’intérieur,
Pour que ce ne soit pas que la mort qui pousse
Dehors celui qui demandait un lieu natal?

Beauty and truth. But tall waves crash
On cries that still persist. The voice of hope,
Above the din – how can we make it heard?
How can growing old become rebirth?
How can the house be opened from within,
So death will not turn out the child
Who kept asking for a native place?
(translation by Hoyt Rogers)

Keats made his poetry out of the recognition of death – the poems are situated in that recognition – and from the beginning Bonnefoy has grounded his imagination in the apprehension and acceptance of death as an essential element of ‘presence’. Douve begins with an epigraph by Hegel: Mais la vie de l’esprit ne s’effrraie point devant la mort et n’est pas celle qui s’en garde pure. Elle est la vie qui la supporte et se maintient en elle. (The life of the spirit is never afraid of death and does not keep itself aloof from it. Life endures death and maintains itself in it). He has more than once located the ‘charter’ of his ideal poetry in Baudelaire’s ‘À une pass ante’:

 La rue assourdissante autour de moi hurlait.
Longue, mince, en grand deuil, douleur majestueuse,
Une femme passa, d’une main fastueuse
Soulevant, balançant le feston et l’ourlet;
Agile et noble, avec sa jambe de statue.
Moi, je buvais, crispé comme un extravagant,
Dans son œil, ciel livide où germe l’ouragan,
La douceur qui fascine et le plaisir qui tue.

Un éclair… puis la nuit! — Fugitive beauté
Dont le regard m’a fait soudainement renaître,
Ne te verrai-je plus que dans l’éternité?

Ailleurs, bien loin d’ici! trop tard! jamais peut-être!
Car j’ignore où tu fuis, tu ne sais où je vais,
Ô toi que j’eusse aimée, ô toi qui le savais!

To a Woman Passing By

The darkening street was howling round me when a woman passed on her way, so tall and slender, all in black mourning, majestical in her grief, with her stately hand lifting and swaying the scallop and hem, light-footed and noble and with a statuesque leg. And I, tense as a man out of his wits, drank from her eye – a pallid sky in which a tempest brews – that gentleness which bewitches men, that pleasure which destroys.

A flash of light – then darkness. O vanishing beauty, whose glance brought me suddenly to life again, shall I never see you once more except in eternity? For whither you fled I know not, nor do you know whither I am bound – O you whom I could have loved, O you who knew it!
(Translated by Francis Scarfe, Baudelaire, The Complete Verse, Anvil, 1986)

Walter Benjamin reads this as the archetypal urban poem with its vision of the city as a constant theatre of possibility. The crowds pass by like an endlessly fascinating river, offering tantalising glimpses of possible lives: 

The delight of the urban poet is love – not at first sight, but at last sight. It is a farewell forever which coincides in the poem with the moment of enchantment. But the nature of the poet’s emotions has been affected as well. What makes his body contract in a tremor – crispé comme un extravagant, Baudelaire says – is not the rapture of a man whose every fibre is suffused with eros; it is, rather, like the kind of sexual shock that can beset a lonely man.
(Benjamin 124-25).

For Bonnefoy, however, ‘À une passante’, naming that which vanishes and dies, is essentially a meditation on death: ‘What concerns the poem if not the naming of what perishes?’ It’s worth seeing the paragraph from which this is taken because like so much of Bonnefoy’s criticism it is a restatement of his deepest conviction of poetry’s role:

Poetry like love must decide that beings truly exist. It must pledge itself to the Here and Now which Hegel revoked in the name of language, and make of words that, indeed, abandon being, a profound and paradoxical return to it. What concerns the poem if not the naming of what perishes? The charter of this recovered poetry is the sonnet A une passante. The subject to which poetry must return after so much wandering is the meditation on death.
(Bonnefoy, The act and the place of poetry. 97)

Bonnefoy values Baudelaire as a celebrant of presence, which is to say that he understood that the essence of presence is that it stands on the brink of transformation, that it contains its own death. There is hardly a line by Bonnefoy that does not in some way reflect this dualistic sense of presence. ‘La maison natale’ negotiates its passage between birth and death, aligning hope and laughter against the counterweight of loss and absence, contriving strange interminglings of the human and divine in a quest for a true home. Bonnefoy’s symbolism is complex and highly personal and capable of shifting. The understanding which the poet gains at the end of the sequence affords him a new perspective. Ceres, who returns in the last poem of the sequence, is a figure for the persistence of hope, of renewal and rebirth, and the human task is to reach across to the afflicted divinity.

Et pitié pour Cérès et non moquerie,
Rendez-vous à des carrefours dans la nuit profonde,
Cris d’appels au travers des mots, même sans réponse,
Parole même obscure mais qui puisse
Aimer enfin
Cérès qui cherche et souffre.

We must pity Ceres, not mock her – and so
Must meet at crossroads in deepest night,
Call out athwart words, even with no reply:
And make our voice, not matter how obscure,
Love Ceres at last, who suffers and seeks.
(Translation by Hoyt Rogers) 

And so the poem completes its circle. As ever, the ambivalent figure of Ceres, so deeply lodged in the poet’s psyche, so much an imaginative trigger in his work, produces some of his most moving lines.

‘La maison natale’ is an entirely characteristic Bonnefoy poem in its structure, its deployment of recurrent motifs, its ritualising language, its endless effort to wrest meaning from and impose form on the impermanent. It relates powerfully with the other poems in Les planches courbes (The Curved Planks); that volume echoes and converses with Pierre écrite (Written Stone) or Dans le leurre du seuil (The lure of the threshold) and so on back to Douve. It can be enjoyed in its own right or it can be taken as part of the constantly evolving journey which still retains all its connections with the first setting out. Fortunately, the whole span of the career can be followed in English through the translations, in dual-language editions, by John Naughton, Anthony Rudolf, Richard Pevear, Emily Grosholz, Galway Kinnnell and Hoyt Rogers. A very useful starting point for an English reader is the New and Selected Poems edited by John Naughton and Anthony Rudolf (University Of Chicago Press, 1995). Reading his work is a journey that, once embarked on, doesn’t easily release you, but it requires certain mental adjustments. To read Bonnefoy with any kind of fluency you have to enter his visionary world; you have to abandon a certain kind of logic and settle for the sway of a language that is very closely tied to the concrete but at the same time avoids referentiality, so that subject and object don’t necessarily match up and the point of view is elusive and shifting. Things come in to focus only to shimmer again. Yet there is a compelling urgency about the work that comes from our sense that high stakes are being played for. ‘I should like poetry to be above all a ceaseless battle, a theater in which being and essence, form and formlessness wage strenuous war’, Bonnefoy puts it in his essay ‘The Act and Place of Poetry’ (Bonnefoy, The act and the place of poetry. 113). Part of that battle is what Joseph Frank in his foreword to The Act and Place of Poetry calls his ‘anguished dialogue with death, a dialogue that throws into the balance against extinction and negation all the forces of the earth, and the occasional gleams of transcendence. . .’ (The act and the place of poetry. viii). To return to Ceres, and the poet’s command at the end of ‘La maison natale’, we must make our voice love what suffers and seeks.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyrical Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London: Verso, 1983.
Bonnefoy, Yves. Keats et Leopardi. Paris: Mercure de France, 2000. —. New and Selected Poems. Ed. John and Rudolf, Anthony Naughton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. —. Selected Poems. Trans. Anthony Rudolf. London: Cape, 1968. —. The act and the place of poetry. Trans. John Naughton. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989. —. The Curved Planks . Trans. Hoyt Rogers. Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2007. —. The Lure and the Truth of Painting: Selected Essays on Art. Trans. John Naughton. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, , 1995 .
Naughton, John. Poetry International Web Yves Bonnefoy. Poetry International Foundation. October 2009 .
Naugton, John T. The poetics of Yves Bonnefoy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.


2 thoughts on “The Lost Place: Reading Yves Bonnefoy’s ‘La Maison Natale’

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