Poems from We’ll See
(forthcoming from Free Verse Editions, 2011)
translated by Kathleen McGookey
Georges Godeau was born in 1921 in Villiers-en-Plaine, France, worked as an engineer, and published sixteen books before his death in 1999. While his work has been widely translated into Japanese and Russian, We’ll See, originally published in France in 1995 as On Verra Bien, is his first volume translated into English. “A poem should not last longer than its emotion,” Godeau has said. His brief prose poems capture, almost photographically, moments of everyday life. Jacques Reda has said that Godeau’s poetry is poetry of “what happens when nothing happens.” He handles language with a journalistic eye, evoking daily joys and difficulties. In his account of a day spent with Godeau, Xavier Person observed that his poems were a lot like his modest house in Magné, France—a little cold, excessively clean, very tidy, and without a lot of furniture—poems that contained only the most straightforward and impassioned elements.
Nature, here I am finally at your disposal. For the forty years that they’ve held me, I hardly knew where I was, I needed to walk on your paths, in your fields, in your streams. They have occasionally changed places but I would recognize your sun, your wind and soon, if you want, I will take your arm again to go with you into the depths where you were teaching me your language, do you remember, it was summer, the peasants were napping: generous, you offered me the best of you that we admired with a magnifying glass, head to head, like two lovers. We were, I was ten years old and you, you’ve never said it.
The Briant Fiefdom
Herds grazed during the summer at the Briant Fiefdom.
One day, soldiers chased them away. They made a camp there. Women marched in a row. In the summer, they grazed; in the winter, they died.
Passengers on the trains bound for Paris opened their ice cream when the trains reached the camp. They said, “Jews.”
Peace was restored. But at the Briant Fiefdom, the shepherd refuses to leave. The earth is red and the dog howls at death. So the master sowed some wheat. It grows thickly.
Le Roman de Renart
They rehearsed all winter, the girls, the boys, and in the spring they performed the farce in the Protestant church. For fifty people, their families.
They weren’t any less happy because of this location, they jumped in the stalls, leapt up again, rolled on the ground with laughter, and charged about, howling like wolves.
When the play finished, breathless, they mingled with the public, not for praise, but to offer each person their surplus of joy.
Outside was the weather of the twenty-first century. To return home was a burden.
When I tell Louis that his painting takes wing, free, and sways, and that he is a child, he smiles with pride but if I add that nothing exists without wild excess, he thinks this over and gives me the cold shoulder.
And still, how can one walk up there without being a little crazy or crippled? I’ve spent my life there.
“Listen to the Bird”
Disruption of the senses. On stage, they mime a pretty story. The music helps them. A woman who is almost nude sings. A thousand people wonder. Still, the message is clear, the poetry as well.
In the audience, an important man protests: “They don’t know how to move.” Of course! It’s beautiful for exactly that reason.
Char is eighty years old. He was my friend, he wrote that to me. I believed him.
Today he is alive and silent, despite four calls, I remember his table overloaded with unopened letters. We had coffee on them. He said, “I dream of friends who wouldn’t wait for a response.”
I am his friend and I wait. Except if he is turned against the wall.
He was the best, he came to win the cup and lost it on a fluke. With his head in his hands, he hears the cheers that aren’t for him and suddenly, twenty years old, he decides to get mixed up with the crowd, he approaches all the people standing, he bows to them as best he can to thank them, and he stands there, without the cup; so little, but so big.
One day, a Belgian friend confided to me that at a banquet, in Knokke, he found himself facing Georges Mounin, a man like Homer, Ulysses, and that he lived in Aix-en-Provence.
We took the road South. While we were looking for the street, a passerby approached: it was Georges Mounin. He had just written me for the first time. He kept us two hours. After, under the plane trees, I wanted to climb trees. Upon my return, a message waited for me: “I was without a doubt a fine man, but I had everything to learn.”
Thirty-five years later, he is dead. All that I’ve learned fits in the hollow of my hand. “Show me,” he used to say.
When he was young, he had thrown himself into politics. To change the world. But the world was fine the way it was. Then, he studied to become a professor. Of linguistics. To understand poetry better. In fact, to be happy. That he was, for forty years, in spite of the defeats. For him, they were victories.
In his ancient house, he gardened. He didn’t fire guns into the air to terrorize the neighbors. On the contrary, he approached his iron fence, gathered the raspberries which hung over, and slipped them to the children through the fence, along with his voice, full of music.
The poetry he loved hasn’t gone any farther.
He had never written a single verse but he knew thousands. He had to be coaxed to recite from some. “Badly, like everyone,” he said.
For thirty years, I sent him my poems. He underlined one, two of them, and as for the others, he wrote: “They don’t speak to me, I don’t know why,” or “Here is the real mistake that lies in wait for you.” The worst was his silence.
He claimed that a poet writes between one and three dozen fine texts in his life. Final judgment.
He said to me: “…Then, there is always something greater than the poems one writes, it is the ones that one lives first. Nothing can replace life and for my part, I would give one hundred printed pages signed with my name, and even distinguished by flattering book reviews, for one month of life, perfectly lived.”
I understood, but when I complained, in spite of everything, about the deserts, he added, “No other way than immersing yourself again in your life.”
He was a war general and father of a family.
Mr. Jean Rostand
August 13, 1973
Mr. Jean Rostand
of the French Academy
Dear Mr. Rostand,
I wake from a dream which I share with you:
You live in an old house with a gate that opens on the road. With my wife, I enter, cross the courtyard, and enter a room on street level. In the middle, a big bed, a violet eiderdown. We are going to leave when someone comes in and murmurs, “He’s there, he’s dying.” I turn around, raise myself on my tiptoes and I see you, very much lost in lace like Louis XV. Your face is swollen, eyes closed, and it looks like it’s all over when suddenly you move, the eiderdown slides off and you sit up, you want to get up. And that’s just what you do. Your face changes, you are better quickly, and I approach you with my wife, so close that you see us and I fall on my knees, without saying hello properly. You understand right away what this is about and you place your hand on my head in asking me to stand up. You choose an old armchair for yourself and offer us chairs. And you want to know. I tell you that as I was passing, the desire to come and chat a little overtook me. About Jaurès Medvedev’s book. Lyssenko’s Grandeur and Fall and some of your own, one of which was A Short History of Biology. I slyly point out that you didn’t cite Lyssenko in your own. You smile like on the cover of At The Boundaries of the Superhuman, with the frog, and respond that with Lyssenko, it was quite the opposite. Then we talk about your work which I know by heart since I read it all straight through one winter.
It’s at this moment that neighborhood women—well-endowed—come in with their children and all of them surround you to kiss you. You willingly surrender to their outpouring. In your enthusiasm, you kiss us as well and tell them that we are friends. Many of them are relatives, and since they make themselves comfortable, you get up, go out in the courtyard, take me by the arm and gently ask me to bring you Medvedev’s book. I don’t dare think you don’t know about it. Nevertheless, I make a note of it and you give me your identification cards to deliver to the Estate Management. Meanwhile, your chauffeur brings the car around. You are now wearing a black coat, a round hat, and your usual mustache and you decide to go out. The car starts. Like DeGaulle, you signal from behind the window to everyone there who loves you. And all disappear in a crowded narrow street.
Kathleen McGookey’s first book of poems, Whatever Shines, is available from White Pine Press. More of her translations of Godeau’s work appear in Chase Park, Connecticut Review, Denver Quarterly, The Interlochen Review, Mid-American Review, Natural Bridge, Rhino, Salt Hill, and Stand.