Poetry by Jules Supervielle
Translated by Dwight Stephens

Jules Supervielle, 1884-1960, may not have lived for an extraordinary length of time, but he lived in an extraordinary length of time--from Mahler and Impressionism to the development of Valium and the pacemaker. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay but grew up and was educated in Paris. The natural and naïve simplicity of his approach to metaphysical subjects is sometimes attributed to his South American background. As these poems suggest, Supervielle's work often addresses issues of faith and agnosticism.


O tentative diminished God


O tentative diminished God
Of leaves and twigs,
Dispersed in tiny particles,
Tramped down and plucked
Like the grass and flowers of the field.
God of thin smoke,
God of drafty doors
Opened so often
That air passes through the wood.
And you, God within the human bark,
God of him who's lost the strength
To have a strong God,
Like one whose blood
Is draining from his wounds,
You fill his cup
Half-full, and grudgingly,
God who's always poised to leave
The heart that doesn't dare
To taste him and hold him there,
You go away, you come again,
You're always in transit.
Happy he who keeps
A good God like a good wine
So they mature together.

And don't forget all those
Whose extreme adversities
Allow them only a cruel God,
Over whom they trip and fall
In the dark of sufferers
Which parcels and gnaws,
More and more each passing day,
The little hope they have.
God of man in his disgrace,
God who always slips away
And leaves a cold and empty place
Instead of love.
The God shamed by blasphemy,
Withdrawn to a distance to nurse his hurt,
The God who turns away
At the sight of physical pain,
Or the one you can see clearly
Only across mountains of fatigue,
Unless he's spotted
Through the bottom of a glass of wine,
Or you come across him in your pocket
Alongside a crust of bread.

Through the microscope I see,
In a drop of sea water,
A God leaning on his elbow by the void,
As in the days of the world's creation.
He raises to his timeless face
A careful hand
Or examines it momentarily,
Now inattentive, in turn, now grave.

"Listen, God at the end of the telescope,
A man has spotted you.
Will you not raise your eyes
To him, and lift your great head,
As in the early days of the planet?
I am worthy of your secret
And of your silent trust.
Give me a sign and I'll be gone."

 

 

Prayer to a stranger


Dear God,
Here I am, talking to you again,
Not even sure if you exist,
You, whose whispery church language I don't understand.
I gaze at your altars, the vault of your house,
But see only wood, stone,
Romanesque columns,
A saint missing a nose,
And human suffering on the inside, as well as on the outside.
Not able to kneel, I lower my eyes during mass,
As if to duck a passing storm,
And I can't keep my mind from wandering.
I've spent my life thinking of other things.
Maybe other things is me,
Maybe it's the real me.
That's where I take refuge.
Maybe that's where you are.
I haven't really lived, save in those magnetic distances.
The actual present is a gift I haven't known how to open.
I turn it every which way,
Wondering at its intricate design,
Not knowing how to turn it on.

 

 

For a dead poet


Quickly, give him an ant
No matter how small,
But one for him alone.
One must not cheat the dead.
Give him that, or else a swallow's beak,
A patch of grass, a tiny plot of Paris.
He has nothing left before him but a great void,
And as yet does not comprehend his fate.

In return, he'll give you a choice
Of subtler gifts the hand cannot grasp:
A glimmer lying under snow,
Or the lining of the topmost cloud,
The stillness at the eye of noise,
Or a single defenseless star.
All this he will name and give,
He who hasn't a dog, or anyone at all.


Dwight Stephens teaches in the NC State University Department of Foreign Languages. He has published translations from French, Persian, Polish, Russian, and Serbo-Croatian, in addition to his own poems in English. He is currently translating Rumi, the 13th-century Persian mystical poet.