French surrealist poetry


In English translation by David Gascoyne


Hans Arp André Breton Salvador Dalí
Benjamin Péret Pablo Picasso Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes
Pierre Unik    


Roland Penrose, Portrait of Valentine (1937, collection of the artist)





The Domestic Stones (fragment)

The feet of morning the feet of noon and the feet of evening walk ceaselessly round pickled buttocks on the other hand the feet of midnight remain motionless in their echo-woven baskets

consequently the lion is a diamond

on the sofas made of bread
are seated the dressed and the undressed
the undressed hold leaden swallows between their toes
the dressed hold leaden nests between their fingers
at all hours the undressed get dressed again
and the dressed get undressed
and exchange the leaden swallows .for the leaden nests

consequently the tail is an umbrella

a mouth opens within another mouth
and within this mouth another mouth
and within this mouth another mouth
and so on without end
it is a sad perspective
which adds an I-don't-know-what
to another I-don't-know-what

consequently the grasshopper is a column

the pianos with heads and tails
place pianos with heads and tails
on their heads and their tails

consequently the tongue is a chair




Postman Cheval

We are the birds always charmed by you from the top of these belvederes
And that each night form a blossoming branch between your shoulders and the arms of your well beloved wheelbarrow
Which we tear out swifter than sparks at your wrist
We are the sighs of the glass statue that raises itself on its elbow when man sleeps
And shining holes appear in his bed
Holes through which stags with coral antlers can be seen in a glade
And naked women at the bottom of a mine
You remembered then you got up you got out of the train
Without glancing at the locomotive attacked by immense barometric roots
Complaining about its murdered boilers in the virgin forest
Its funnels smoking jacinths and moulting blue snakes
Then we went on, plants subject to metamorphosis
Each night making signs that man may understand
While his house collapses and he stands amazed before the singular packing-cases
Sought after by his bed with the corridor and the staircase
The staircase goes on without end
It leads to a millstone door it enlarges suddenly in a public square
It is made of the backs of swans with a spreading wing for banisters
It turns inside out as though it were going to bite itself
But no, it is content at the sound of our feet to open all its steps like drawers
Drawers of bread drawers of wine drawers of soap drawers of ice drawers of stairs
Drawers of flesh with handsfull of hair
Without turning round you seized the trowel with which breasts are made
We smiled at you you held us round the waist
And we took the positions of your pleasure
Motionless under our lids for ever as woman delights to see man
After having made love.


The Spectral Attitudes

I attach no importance to life
I pin not the least of life's butterflies to importance
I do not matter to life
But the branches of salt the white branches
All the shadow bubbles
And the sea-anemones
Come down and breathe within my thoughts
They come from tears that are not mine
From steps I do not take that are steps twice
And of which the sand remembers the flood-tide
The bars are in the cage
And the birds come down from far above to sing before these bars
A subterranean passage unites all perfumes
A woman pledged herself there one day
This woman became so bright that I could no longer see her
With these eyes which have seen my own self burning
I was then already as old as I am now
And I watched over myself and my thoughts like a night watchman in an immense factory Keeping watch alone
The circus always enchants the same tramlines
The plaster figures have lost nothing of their expression
They who bit the smile's fig
I know of a drapery in a forgotten town
If it pleased me to appear to you wrapped in this drapery
You would think that your end was approaching
Like mine
At last the fountains would understand that you must not say Fountain
The wolves are clothed in mirrors of snow
I have a boat detached from all climates
I am dragged along by an ice-pack with teeth of flame
I cut and cleave the wood of this tree that will always be green
A musician is caught up in the strings of his instrument
The skull and crossbones of the time of any childhood story
Goes on board a ship that is as yet its own ghost only
Perhaps there is a hilt to this sword
But already there is a duel in this hilt
During the duel the combatants are unarmed
Death is the least offence
The future never comes

The curtains that have never been raised
Float to the windows of houses that are to be built
The beds made of lilies
Slide beneath the lamps of dew
There will come an evening
The nuggets of light become still underneath the blue moss
The hands that tie and untie the knots of love and of air
Keep all their transparency for those who have eyes to see
They see the palms of hands
The crowns in eyes
But the brazier of crown and palms
Can scarcely be lit in the deepest part of the forest
There where the stags bend their heads to examine the years
Nothing more than a feeble beating is heard
From which sound a thousand louder or softer sounds proceed
And the beating goes on and on
There are dresses that vibrate
And their vibration is in unison with the beating
When I wish to see the faces of those that wear them
A great fog rises from the ground
At the bottom of the steeples behind the most elegant reservoirs of life and of wealth
In the gorges which hide themselves between two mountains
On the sea at the hour when the sun cools down
Those who make signs to me are separated by stars
And yet the carriage overturned at full speed
Carries as far as my last hesitation
That awaits me down there in the town where the statues of bronze
and of stone have changed places with statues of wax Banyans banyans.




The Art of Picasso

          the biological
          and dynastic phenomenon
          which constitutes the cubism
          has been
the first great imaginative cannibalism
surpassing the experimental ambitions
of modern mathematical physics.

*     *     *

The life of Picasso
will form the polemic basis
as yet misunderstood
according to which
physical psychology
will open up anew
a niche of living flesh
and of darkness
for philosophy.

*     *     *

For because
of the materialist
and systematic thought
we shall be able to know physically
and without need
of the new psychological 'problematics'
of kantian savour
of the gestaltists
all the misery
localized and comfortable
objects of consciousness
with their lazy atoms
sensations infinite

*     *     *

For the hyper-materialist thought
of Picasso
that the cannibalism of the race
'the intellectual species'
that the regional wine
already moistens
the family trouser-flap
of the phenomenologist mathematics
the future
that there exist extra-psychological
'strict appearances'
intermediary between
imaginative grease
monetary idealisms
passed-over arithmetics
and sanguinary mathematics
between the 'structural' entity
of an 'obsessing sole'
and the conduct of living things
in contact with the 'obsessing sole'
for the sole in question
totally exterior
to the comprehension
this theory of the strict
and of the structure
does not possess
physical means
or even
the registration
of human behaviour
with structures
and appearances
presenting themselves objectively
physically delirious
there does not exist
in our time
as far as I know
a physics
of psycho-pathology
a physics of paranoia
which can only be considered
the experimental basis
of the coming philosophy
of the coming
philosophy of 'paranoiac-critical' activity
which one day
I shall try to envisage polemically
if I have the time
and the inclination.




The Staircase with a Hundred Steps

The blue eagle and the demon of the steppes
in the last cab in Berlin
Legitimate defence
of lost souls
the red mill at the beggars' school
awaits the poor student
With the housemaid Know huntsmen how to hunt on pay-day
Know huntsmen how to hunt
as papa speculates
with the smile
By the dagger the dagger the dagger
the tiger of the seas dreams of happiness
The vestal virgin of the Ganges cries out Vanity
when the flesh succumbs
Stop look and listen
the famous turkey spends a day of pleasure
turning round in an enchanted circle
with the pluck of a lion
M'sieur the major
My Paris
my uncle from America
my heart and my legs
slaves of beauty
admire the conquests of Nora
while someone asks for a typewriter
for the black pirate
It is not possible
that a woman dressed as the Merry Widow
could become the wind's prey
because the millionairess Madame Sans-Gene
leads a wild existence
in another's skin
Her son was right
Patrol-leader 129 who wears an Italian straw-hat
and is the ace of jockeys
is abandoning a little adventuress
for a woman
It is the April-Moon which chases the buffalo
to Notre-Dame of Paris
Oh what a bore the indomitable man
with clear eyes
wishes to judge him by the law of the desert
but the lovers with children's souls have gone away
Ah what a lovely voyage


Making Feet and Hands

Eye standing up eye lying down eye sitting

Why wander about between two hedges made of stair-rails while the ladders become soft
as new-born babes
as zouaves who lose their homeland with their shoes
Why raise one's arms towards the sky since the sky
has drowned itself without rhyme or reason
to pass the time and make its moustaches grow
Why does my eye sit down before going to bed
because saddles are making donkeys sore
and pencils break in the most unpredictable fashion
the whole time
except on stormy days
when they break into zigzags
and snowy days
when they tear their sweaters to pieces
But the spectacles the old tarnished spectacles
sing songs while gathering grass for cats
The cats follow the procession
carrying flags
flags and ensigns
The fish's tail crossing a beating heart
the throat regularly rising and falling to imitate the sea surrounding it
and the fish revolving about a ventilator
There are also hands
long white hands with nails of fresh greenery
and finger-joints of dew
swaying eyelashes looking at butterflies
saddened because the day made a mistake on the stairs
There are also sexes fresh as running water
which leap up and down in the valley
because they are touched by the sun
They have no beards but they have clear eyes
and they chase dragonflies
without caring what people will say





    hasten on your childhood to the hour when white in memory blue borders white in its eyes very white and piece of indigo of silver the glances white cross cobalt the white paper that blue ink tears bluish away ultramarine descends that white may rest troubled blue in dark green wall green that writes its pleasure rain green clear that swims green yellow in the clear oblivion at the edge of its green foot the sand earth song sand of the earth afternoon sand earth in the comer a violet jug the bells the folds of paper a metal sheep life stretching out the paper a rifle shot the paper rings the canaries in the shade white almost pink a river in the -white space in the clear blue shade of colours lilac a hand at the edge of the shade makes of the shade in the hand a very rose-coloured grasshopper a root lifts its head a nail the block of the trees with nothing else a fish a nest the heat in full light looks at a sunshade light the fingers in the light the white of the paper the sun light in the white cuts out a sparkling eyeshade the sun's light the very white sun the intensely white sun


in secret
be quiet say nothing
except the street be full of stars
and the prisoners eat doves
and the doves eat cheese
and the cheese eats words
and the words eat bridges
and the bridges eat looks
and the looks eat cups full of kisses in the orchata
that hides all with its wings
the butterfly the night
in a cafe last summer
in Barcelona




Sliding Trombone

I have a little windmill on my head
Which draws up water to my mouth and eyes
When I am hungry or moved to tears
I have a little horn full of the odour of absinth in my ears
And on my nose a green parakeet that flaps its wings
And cries 'Aux Armes'
When from the sky fall the seeds of the sun
The absence from the heart of steel
At the bottom of the boneless and stagnant realities
Is partial to crazy sea-fish
I am the captain and the alsatian at the cinema
I have in my belly a little agricultural machine
That reaps and binds electric flex
The cocoanuts thrown by the melancholy monkey
Fall like spittle into the water
Where they blossom again as petunias
I have in my stomach an ocarina and I have virginal faith
I feed my poet on the feet of a pianist
Whose teeth are even and uneven
And sad Sunday evenings
I throw my morganatic dreams
To the loving turtle-doves who laugh like hell.




The Manless Society

Morning trickles over the bruised vegetables
like a drop of sweat over the lines of my hand
I crawl over the ground
with stem and wrinkled mouth
the sun swells into the canals of monstrous leaves
which recover cemeteries harbours houses
with the same sticky green zeal
then with disturbing intensity there passes through my mind
the absurdity of human groupings
in these lines of closely packed houses
like the pores of the skin
in the poignant void of terrestrial space
I hear the crying of birds of whom it used to be said
that they sang and implacable resembled stones
I see flocks of houses munching the pith of the air
factories which sing as birds once sang
roads which lose themselves in harvests of salt
pieces of sky which become dry on verdigris moss
a pulley's creaking tells us that a bucket rises in a well
it is full of limpid blood
which evaporates in the sun
nothing else will trouble this circuit on the ground
until evening
which trembles under the form of an immense pinned butterfly
at the entrance of a motionless station.


Brief biography of David Gascoyne

These translations were published in Collected Verse Translations of David Gascoyne, edited by Robin Skelton and Alan Clodd, Oxford University Press 1970, and in English and American Surrealist Poetry, edited by Edward B. Germain, Penguin Books 1978. Copyright Ó David Gascoyne / Oxford University Press.

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