A sampling of French surrealist poetry


In English translation by Amy Levin and Johannes Beilharz



I was delayed that afternoon because I had brushed the teeth of a pretty animal that I'm patiently taming. It's a chameleon. This endearing animal smoked, as usual, some cigarettes, then I left.
I met her on the stairs. "I'm mauving," she told me, while I myself crystal at full sky I at her look that river towards me.
Then it locks and, maîtresse! You pitcherpin so that at nice vase I sit down if the paths tombs.
The staircase, always the staircase that library, and the crowds down there more abyss than the sun only clocks.
Lets get back up! But in vain, memories become sardine! hardly, hardly a button doodledoos. Fall, fall down! And here the verdict: "The dancer will be executed the following morning while doing a dance step with her gems sacrificed to the heat of her body: The blood of the gems, soldiers!"
And what then, the mirror yet! Mistress you black square, and if the clouds all at once forgetmenot, they mills in the ever present eternity.

Robert Desnos, translated by Johannes Beilharz




My siren is blue as the veins where she swims
For the moment she sleeps on mother-of-pearl
And on the ocean I create for her
She can visit the magic grottoes of preposterous isles
There some very foolish birds
converse with crocodiles who never finish up
And the very foolish birds fly above the blue siren
The crocodiles return to their drink
And the island doesn't come back
doesn't come back from where it's placed
where my siren and I have forgotten it
My siren has some very beautiful stars in her sky
Blonde stars with black eyes
Red haired stars with sparkling teeth
and dark stars with beautiful breasts
Each night three by three
alternating the color of their hair
These stars visit my siren
This makes for lots of comings and goings in the sky
But my siren's sky isn't an ordinary sky
My siren has seven boats on her ocean
Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday
Saturday and Sunday
Some with steam the others with sails
Some rapid the others slow
But all beautiful all charming
with sailors who know their craft

My siren has soaps in ail shapes and colors
To wash her lovely skin
My siren has many soaps
One for her hands
Another for her feet
One for yesterday
One for tomorrow
One for each eye
And that one for her scaly tail
And this other one for her hair
And another one for her belly
And another one for her back.

My siren sings for no one but me
I tell my friends to listen to her in vain
No one ever hears her
Except one, only one
But though his air is sincere
I mistrust him, he might be a liar

Robert Desnos, translated by Amy Levin




The trams make a noise like doughnut batter
dropped in oil.
In the prairie there's a cowboy:
He bursts the stars with revolver shots to eternalize the birth of his son.
Hidden behind a carob tree he sleeps
the pirate of the forgotten savanna in a novel by Gustave
In the Chicago prison there's a consumptive assassin three women with white hands with enamel eyes a doctor with tortoise shell glasses a clergyman shaved with a star razor nurse him
Courage! said the three women with white hands
Courage! said the doctor with tortoise shell glasses
Tomorrow he can get up
Courage repeated the clergyman shaved with the star razor
Tomorrow he can get up
and when he can get up
he’ll be taken to get himself electrocuted.

Robert Desnos, translated by Amy Levin



The track I'm running on
Won't be the same when I turn back
It's useless to follow it straight
I'll return to another place
I circle around but the sky changes
Yesterday I was a child
I'm a man now
The world's a strange thing
And the rose among the roses
Doesn't resemble another rose.

Robert Desnos, translated by Amy Levin



Turns without reflections to the curves without smiles of shadows with mustaches, registers the murmurs of speed, the miniscule terror, searches under some cold cinders for the smallest birds, those which never close their wings, resist the wind.

Paul Eluard, translated by Amy Levin



The disciples of light have never invented anything but a not very opaque darkness.
The river rolls the small body of a woman and that means the end is near.
The widow in her wedding dress heads the wrong procession; we all will arrive late
at our graves. A ship of flesh gets stuck on a narrow beach. The helmsman asks the passengers
to be quiet.
The waves are waiting impatiently closer my Lord to Thee. The helmsman asks the waves to speak. They speak. The night seals its bottles with stars and makes a fortune exporting them. Large counters are built to sell nightingales. But they can't satisfy the Queen
of Siberia's desires, who wants white nightingales. A British commodore swears they won't ever take him out again at night to pick sage
between the feet of salt statues. Upon this, a little saltcellar Cerberus gets on his thin hind legs with difficulty. He
empties into my plate what is left of my life. What to salt the Pacific Ocean with? You'll put a life saver on my grave. Because one never knows.

Robert Desnos, translated by Johannes Beilharz



Courageous like a stamp
he went his way
tapping softly in his hands
to count his steps
his heart red as a boar
beat beat
like a pink green butterfly
Now and then
he planted a little satin flag
When he had walked a lot
he sat down to rest
and fell asleep
But since that day there have been many clouds in the sky
many birds in the trees
and there's been a lot of salt in the sea
There also have been lots of other things

Philippe Soupault, translated by Johannes Beilharz



Night jostles her stars
It rains sand and cotton
It is so hot
but silence weaves sighs
and the glory of summer
Signals a little bit everywhere
of heated crimes
of people who'll overthrow thrones
and a great light
in the West
and the East
tender like a rainbow
It's noon now
All the bells answer
Waiting deaf
like a great animal
Gets its limbs out of all four corners
it advances its claws
the shadows and the beams
The sky will fall on our heads
Wind is expected
That today has to be blue
like a flag

Philippe Soupault, translated by Johannes Beilharz




The fire that dances
The bird that sings
The wind that dies
The icy waves
And the surges of rumor
In the ear the distant cries
of the day that passes
all the weary flames
the voice of the voyager
All the powder in the sky
the heel on the earth
The eye fixed on the road
Where steps are inscribed
Which the number unrolls
To the names that have left
In the folds of the clouds
the unknown face
The one which you watch
And which has not come

Pierre Reverdy, translated by Amy Levin



Parabola my nurse...
A parabola was bored in its cage
A parabola wanted to land on the branch
The branch is too low
The sun too high
I watch the flight of birds
They fall then climb again
The branch is too low
The sun too high
These are some strange birds
Their nest is somewhere
Quite far from the earth
The branch is too low
The sun too high

Robert Desnos, translated by Amy Levin



It's strange how you wake sometimes in the middle of the night in the middle of sleep someone has knocked on a door And in the extraordinary city of midnight of half-waking
and half-memory heavy gates clang from street to street

Who is this nocturnal visitor with an unknown face
what does he seek what does he spy
Is he a poor man demanding bread and shelter
Is he a thief is he a bird
Is he a reflection of ourselves in the mirror
Back from a transparent abyss
Trying to re-enter us

Then he realizes that we've changed
that the key no longer turns in the lock
Of the mysterious door of bodies
Even if he's only left us for a few minutes
at the troublesome moment when we put out the light

What does he become then
Where does he wander? does he suffer?
Is this the origin of ghosts?
the origin of dreams?
the birth of regrets?

No longer knock at my door visitor
There's no room on my hearth or in my heart
For the old images of myself
Perhaps you recognize me
I'll never know how do you recognize yourself

Robert Desnos, translated by Amy Levin



It's night be the flame
And the red that colors the clouds
Good day sir Good evening madam
You don't look your age

What does it matter if your embraces
Make the twin stars bleed
What does it matter if your face is painted
if hoarfrost glitters on the branches

Of granite or marble
Your age will show
And the shade of the great trees
will walk on your graves.

Robert Desnos, translated by Amy Levin


Copyright © Amy Levin / Johannes Beilharz 1981 / 2010. Artwork by Normandi Ellis. These translations and the artwork originally appeared in EAT IT ALIVE, published by the University of Colorado at Boulder Creative Writing Program, Volume 3, Issue 5, December 1981.

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