&

wedged in the warm stones
the skeleton of a bird
that takes us back to those years
when………………………….fear
picked apart the………….bodies

his red path uncertain
the great fire at its end
a home……………….burned
………………………….instruments
in the sky

a failed attempt, undoubtedly

 

 

pris dans la pierre chaude
un squelette d’oiseau
nous ramène à ce temps
………………………..la peur
dépeçait……………….les corps

trajet rouge équivoque
au bout un incendie
maison……………instruments
………………………brûlés
dans le ciel

essai manqué sans doute

The hour of the well—–
To embrace its numerous hoards
in a single fawn breath.
Upon his lashes, a gentle foam
is sifting through the day.

His gaze is a wolf
running in its own light.

 

 

L’heure du puits,
En étreindre la meute
dans un souffle mauve.
Sur ces cils, une écume légère
tamise le jour.

Son regard est un loup
qui court à sa lumière.

all of this long ago
……………in an elsewhere
before growing
……………out of memory
that private ruin
……………dangling
……………off the throat

and
the great longing to flee that
gathers all beings

 

 

…tout ça autrefois
…………………….ailleurs
avant de grandir
…………………….dans l’oubli
cette dévastation intime
…………………….pendue
…………………….à la gorge

 

et
l’énorme envie de fuir qui
ramasse les êtres

sometimes still
the air’s soft touch
fools us
and together we are
bathing once more
in the river
amongst the supposed living
thrown from the dock
first thing
at morning

 

 

parfois encore
la douceur de l’air
fait illusion
on se baigne dans le fleuve
tous ensemble
parmi de supposés vivants
jetés du quai au petit matin

we speak we laugh
of everything and anything

our mouths are
ringed with black wire

 

 

on parle on rit
de tout et rien

les bouches sont
baguées de fil noir

the bell ringing
……………for dinnertime
the prayer
between
the dead horse
and
the rancid
……………smell of coconuts
that fed our hunger

to remember that January morning once again
………..the ice
that….froze the words in place
before they fell
……….into the water
……….warm in its folds

that smell of ether
the fourth of a forgotten
……………………..month
a birth
lost witnesses
wants

 

 

…la cloche annonçant
……………………le repas
la prière
entre
cheval mort
et
odeur de noix de coco
………………….rance
qui nourrissaient notre faim

se rappeler ce matin de janvier
………..la glace
qui……figeait les mots
avant qu’ils ne tombent
……….en eau
……….au chaud de la coupure

…cette odeur d’éther
le quatre d’un mois
……………………oublié
une naissance
les témoins disparus
le manque

To the elusive rape fields
in my memory
meld the yellowed pages of a book
London seemed at war
and together we turned
the pages

I rely on your shadow
you’d say to me turned blue

 

Au colza éphémère se mêlent
dans mon souvenir
les feuilles jaunies d’un livre
Londres semblait en guerre
et nous tournions ensemble
les pages

Je dépends de ton ombre
me disais-tu et je bleuis

 

his voice now
pure echo
against…….an indistinct un-here
……………….so void of sense

and on goes sorrow
that blue seal inside the summer

 

 

sa voix désormais
pure vibration
sur…….un ailleurs opaque
…………vide de sens

subsiste la douleur
ce sceau bleu dans l’été

 

 

this fortress of dreams
—–depends upon a speck of skin—–
its life harder still than stone
and yet,
the earth offers its sad laws

 

 

la forteresse du rêve
—–depend d’un grain de peau—–
a la vie plus dure que pierre
mais…
la terre a la loi triste

on the damp shore
sweet nothings
clasp each other under the sun
here a nail a drop of sweat
interrupted gestures after a great collapse

a state of war in
the hollows of the…….body

 

 

sur la grève humide
de petits riens
s’étreignent sous le soleil
un ongle une perle de sueur
gestes inaboutis après débâcle

état de guerre dans
les caves du…….corps

And my hand, a body that crumbles inside your hand
And the beautiful tongue of our mouths, our shared cell
And my fingers coiled inside your fingers, a home for all doubt
And these silences that polish our gazes:
We remain the only memory of fire

 

 

Avec ma main, ce corps qui s’effrite dans ta main.
Avec ce beau langage des bouches, notre prison.
Avec mes doigts dans tes doigts, lieu d’incertitude.
Avec ces silences que lissent nos regards.
Nous demeurons unique mémoire du feu.

Brigitte Gyr: A Tender Dissolution

E C Belli

In the past century, Switzerland has been recognized—–in regards to its contributions to international literature—–as a haven of peace, a physical space for artists to inhabit when their home worlds were collapsing. But what of the people who live and write there? The writers of Romandie, in particular, a French-speaking region of Switzerland (roughly 20-25% of the Swiss population), are often contextualized within the French canon or, alternatively, remain relatively unknown on an international level.

In the Introduction to Marion Graf and José-Flore Tappy’s La Poésie en Suisse Romande Depuis Blaise Cendrars (Seghers, 2005), French poet and editor Bruno Doucey writes, ‘For a long time, the French have held a romanticized view of Switzerland […] sparked by the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Senancour, Benjamin Constant, Madame de Staël, or Henri-Frédéric Amiel […] We must recognize that France lays a claim to [literary] capital it finds appealing (the cases of Rousseau, Constant, Cendrars, or Jaccottet are glaring), but discards those voices which seem more prodding or figures that are too radically distinctive […] Our closest neighbors are those we know the least.’ A Swiss literary canon does exist however. And, as part of it, Brigitte Gyr’s work has been quietly gaining appeal and growing in the hearts of readers and critics alike, leaving its mark on the contemporary poetic landscape of Romandie.

I discovered Gyr’s work, ironically, on a French poetry blog (her work happens to be one of those contextualized within the French canon). In late 2011, I was searching for French-speaking Swiss poets to present at a Festival de la Francophonie event at the Swiss Embassy in D.C, and although male writers were easy to come by—–I’d heard some names mentioned in my high school French classes and had come across others in my more recent readings—–uncovering female writers was quite an ordeal. Were they hiding? Were there none? Had they been omitted from the literature I knew? (Perhaps no valiant effort had been made to bring them to the fore.) Only five of the thirty-four poets anthologized in La Poésie en Suisse Romande Depuis Blaise Cendrars were women. Or did I simply not know where to look? I finally stumbled upon Gyr while rummaging about Florence Trocmé’s blog, she discusses Gyr here, after some weeks of careful searching.

One of the main difficulties in translating Gyr lies in replicating the simplicity and austerity of her language without making choices that would tip her work into the realm of the simplistic. Her lines, in French, breathe intelligence and intensity. They are unassuming, yet artful. The type of language everyone can understand, but not necessarily speak. It is familiar enough to want to nestle there, yet foreign and refined enough that her reader can learn from it. Her word choices are, in a fellow poet’s words, ‘perfect yet inevitable.’ Brigitte Gyr knows le mot juste. At every turn. The translator’s task of mining and striking, word after word, that perfect word, is monumental and anxiety-producing for her translator.

Take this short passage:

une naissance
les témoins disparus
le manque

A transliteration would produce something of this sort:

a birth
the missing/departed witnesses
(the) lack

The enumerative quality and matter-of-factness present in the original word choice is key to Gyr’s gut-punch ending—–how those heart-wrenching things are just part of a list of the things life hands us. How casually she states them. How familiar the words sound. How the speaker takes note of them in the same way she would take note of the temperature or the smell of coconuts, as she does earlier in the poem. The words needed to be short so as to be enumerated easily. They also needed to be common words, but not overused—–and to be void of any melodramatic undertones:

a birth
lost witnesses
wants

Brigitte Gyr writes about coming apart, about a beautiful dissolution. This is formally replicated in her lines, which are very sparse—–almost as though the poems themselves were enduring fragments, small ruins. Her lexicon is soft, simple, smooth, but she moves through the poem with surgical precision, making her work both vulnerable and cutting. Ashes, sand, and water are the raw materials she uses to portray our inevitable collapse. Gyr writes of memory, the epitome of disintegration, and also of our fault lines, of the division within beings, of the multiplicity of our desires, impulses, and sorrows. And of their paradoxical nature. Gyr is acutely aware of her status as a changing, morphing entity; to be living and breathing—–those virtues condemn us to eternal transformation. And to transform is to always leave something behind, and to make a choice is to necessarily close another door. All of this, compounded by our self-awareness, makes us the perfect animals of loss.

Some years back, my friend Liz gave me a poem by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. I carry it in my wallet. The poem, ‘My Wife,’ is translated by the brilliant Esther Kinsky, and has a passage that goes like this:

Her breaths, too,
are numerous, not to mention
the manifold souls in her breast

The manifold souls in our breasts, the multiplicity of our selves: those are Gyr’s stomping grounds. And her reader is a lover whose face is nestled in the crease of her neck, and to whom she whispers, Remember with me.