Valery Larbaud Six Poems
translated from the French by Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky

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Lend me your great sound, your great and gentle motion,
Your nighttime glide across illuminated Europe,
O deluxe train! and the heartbreaking music
Sounding along your gilt leather corridors,
While behind lacquered doors with latches of heavy brass
Sleep the millionaires.
I go humming down your corridors
And I follow your run to Vienna and Budapest,
Mixing my voice with your hundred thousand voices,
O Harmonika-Zug!

For the first time I felt all the sweetness of living
In a Northern Express compartment, between Wirballen and Pskov.
We slipped across meadows where shepherds
Under clumps of big trees that looked like hills
Were dressed in uncured, dirty sheepskins . . . .
(Eight o’clock of an autumn morning, and the beautiful soprano
With violet eyes was singing in the next compartment.)
And you, big windows through which I’ve seen Siberia and the peaks of Samnium go by,
Harsh Castile where no flowers grow, and the sea of Marmara under a tepid rain!

Lend me, O Orient Express, South-Brenner-Bahn, lend me
Your miraculous and muffled sounds and
Your vibrant trilling voices,
Lend me the light and easy breathing
Of tall slim locomotives, with motions
So free, express locomotives,
Effortlessly leading four yellow cars lettered in gold
Into the mountainous solitudes of Serbia,
And further, across a Bulgaria full of roses . . . .

Ah! these sounds and this motion
Must enter my poems and say
For me the unsayable in my life,
My stubborn childish life that moves only
Toward an eternal aspiration for vague things.


My face sprayed with Portugal
(Oh, to live in this scent of oranges in cool mist!)
Kneeling on the couch in the darkened cabin
—I’ve turned off the buttons of the electric lights—
Through a clear round porthole that cuts through the night
I spy the city.
This is really it, really it. I recognize
The avenue of casinos and dazzling cafés,
Its perspective of lighted globes, white
Through the hanging curtains of somber palms.
Here are the shining façades of immense hotels,
Restaurants beaming onto the sidewalks, beneath arcades,
And the gilded grilles of the Residence gardens.
I still know every corner of this African city.
Here’s the Post Office, and South Station, and I also know
The way I’d go from the docks
To such and such a store, hotel, or theater,
And all of it at the edge of this blue rolling of peaceful water
Where the reflections of the lights of the yacht are shimmering . . . .
Several sunny months of my life are still here
(Just as I remembered them, in London)
Here again, and real, in front of me, now,
Like a big boxful of toys on the bed of a sick child . . . .
And once again I’d see people that I knew
And didn’t like, who mean less to me in fact
Than the palms and fountains of the city,
These people who never travel, but who stay
Near their excrement, without ever being bored,
I’d see their once-forgotten faces again, and them
Continuing their narrow lives, with their ideas and their affairs
As if they had stopped living when I left . . . .
No, I’ll not set foot on land, and tomorrow
At daybreak the Jaba will weigh anchor.
Until then I’ll pass the night with my past,
Near my past seen through a hole
As in the dioramas at the fairs.


None of the sweetest things:
Not the scent of rotted flowers,
Not music on the open sea,
Not the quick swoon
Of a dropping swing
(Eyes shut, legs straight out),
Not a warm caressing hand in my hair
Filling my skull with a thousand little demons
Like musical ideas,
Not the cold caress of organs
At my back, in church,
Not even chocolate,
Be it melting chunks,
First cool then burning,
Fat as monks,
Delicate as the North!
Be it liquid and steaming
(Lift your sultry kiss to me, colorada!
Let it take me until it takes my breath away,
Leaving behind its scented fire
And a light moisture over my whole body . . . .)
Not the almond bouquet of certain cosmetics,
Not the way things look through red windowpanes,
Or mauve or green ones,
As at the Danieli, in Venice, in the smoking parlor,
Not the precious sensation of fear,
Not the scent of lacquers, not
Roosters crowing at dawn in the middle of the city—
None of the loveliest scenes:
Not the Mediterranean
With its special odor, pungent and blue,
With its swishing and slapping
So caressing and quick
On the sides of ships—
(Oh! Nights on the bridge, when not ill, with the officer of the watch!
And you, lookout, guardian angel of the crew,
How many nights have I spent in silence
At your feet, seeing the stars in your eyes
As Boreas blew straight into our faces.)
With its islands
Innumerable, diverse,
Some white, with the graygreen of olive trees,
Others gilded, where villages are glimpsed.
Others: long blue disappearing things,
With straits filled with music,
Bonifacio like the portals of the underworld,
Messina’s Faro, Scylla sparkling
In the night,
The Lipari with their few lights (one high and red and flowing),
And all day
That whole sea
Like a great flowering garden . . . .

No, none of these things,
Not one of these scenes
Could distract me
From the eternal voluptuousness of suffering!
You see in me a man
Driven completely mad
By his sense of social injustice
And the world’s poverty!
Ah! I’m in love with evil!
I would like to embrace it and become a part of it,
I would like to carry it in my arms the way a shepherd carries
The still sticky newborn lamb . . . .
Let me see all suffering,
Give me the spectacle of outraged beauty,
Of all shameful acts and vile thoughts
(I want to create even more suffering myself,
I want to fan the flames of hatred, burning like a stake).
I want to give contempt a kiss right on the mouth.
Go tell Shame that I’m dying of love for her.
I want to plunge into vileness
As into a very soft bed,
I want to do everything that’s rightly forbidden,
I want to be heaped with derision and ridicule,
I want to be the basest of men.
May vice be mine,
Depravity my domain!
I must avenge everyone who suffers
(And there is no happiness in innocence, either).
I want to go deeper than anyone
Into ignominy and reprobation,
I want to suffer with everyone,
More than everyone!
Don’t shut the door!
I must go sell myself, the price doesn’t matter,
I must prostitute myself body and soul.
How I hunger for hate!
How I thirst for abjection!
And so many others have feasted on them, so many others:
The Poor!
Alas, I am too rich. Evil
Is forever denied me no matter what I do:
I am a Rich Man, naturally good and virtuous.
If I were even richer, maybe
I would be able to buy Shame
And the suffering and the stark naked baseness of the world?
But at least let me hear
The cry of the World’s suffering
Rising forever.
Let my heart fill with it ineffably,
Let me still hear it in my grave,
And may the grimace on my dead face
Tell my joy at hearing it!


To you, vague aspirations, enthusiasms,
Thoughts after lunch, emotional impulses,
Feelings that follow the gratification
Of natural needs, flashes of genius, agitation
Of the digestive process, appeasement
Of good digestion, inexplicable joys,
Circulatory problems, memories of love,
Scent of benzoin in the morning tub, dreams of love,
My tremendous Castilian joking, my vast
Puritan sadness, my special tastes,
Chocolate, candies so sweet they almost burn, iced drinks,
Drowsy cigars, you, sleepy cigarettes,
Joys of speed, sweetness of being seated, excellence
Of sleeping in total darkness,
Great poetry of banal things: news items, trips,
Gypsies, sleigh rides, rain on the sea,
Delirium of feverish nights, alone with a few books,
Ups and downs of temperature and temperament,
Recurring moments from another life, memories, prophecies,
O splendors of the common life and the usual this and that,
To you this lost soul.


I offer myself to each as his reward.
Here it is, even before you deserved it.

There is something in me,
In the deepest part of me, at the center of me,
Something infinitely barren
Like the tops of the highest mountains,
Something comparable to the blind spot in the retina,
And with no echo,
And yet which sees and hears,
A being with a life of its own, which nonetheless
Lives my whole life, and listens, impassive,
To all the chitchat of my consciousness.

A being made of nothing, if that’s possible,
Insensitive to my physical suffering,
That doesn’t weep when I weep,
That doesn’t laugh when I laugh,
That doesn’t blush when I do something shameful,
And that doesn’t moan when my heart is aching,
That doesn’t make a move and gives no advice,
But seems to say eternally:
“I’m here, indifferent to everything.”

Maybe it is as empty as emptiness is,
But so big that Good and Evil together
Do not fill it.
Hatred dies of suffocation there
And the greatest love never penetrates it.

So take all of me: the meaning of these poems,
Not what can be read, but what comes through in spite of me:
Take, take, you have nothing.
Wherever I go, in the whole world,
I always meet,
Around me as in me,
The unfillable Void,
The unconquerable Nothing.


When I am dead, when I am one of our dear departed,
(At least will you remember me a little, people
Who rubbed elbows with me so often in your streets?)
Will a few images in these poems remain,
Images of so many countries, so many glances, of all those faces
Glimpsed suddenly in the moving crowd?
I’ve walked among you, dodging the traffic
Like you and pausing at shop windows like you.
I’ve complimented the Ladies with my eyes,
I’ve walked happily toward pleasure and glory,
Believing deep in my heart that it had happened.
I’ve walked along delightedly in the flock,
Because we’re of the flock, me and my aspirations.
And if I’m a little different, alas, from the rest of you,
It’s because I see
Here in your midst, like a divine apparition
That I rush toward to have it touch me lightly,
The spurned, neglected, banished,
Ten times mysterious
Invisible Beauty.

In creating the fictitious poet A. O. Barnabooth, Valery Larbaud (1881–1957) not only enabled himself to write a book of striking lyricism and beauty, he also also built a bridge between Walt Whitman and Guillaume Apollinaire. Larbaud’s Oeuvres is enshrined in Gallimard’s Pléiade series of great authors, and indeed among his works are some of the most enchanting pages in 20th-century French literature, but his Poems of A. O. Barnabooth (1908) gleams out at us like the jewel that it is. This book, in a new translation by American poets Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky, with an introduction and extensive notes, will appear in a bilingual edition in 2008 from Black Widow Press (www.blackwidowpress.com). [RP]

English translation © Ron Padgett and Bill Zavatsky
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