The Epitaph

Yves Bonnefoy (b. June 24, 1923) is a French poet and essayist, the son of a railroad worker and a teacher. His works have been of great importance in post-war French literature, examining the meaning of the spoken and written word. His name is regularly mentioned among the prime favorites for the Nobel Prize. This poem was originally untitled, though usually referred to by its first line: “Le passant, ceux-ci sont des mots. . . .”

[Words on a Tombstone]

by Yves Bonnefoy

Passerby, these are words. But instead of reading
     I want you to listen: to this frail
     Voice like that of letters eaten by grass.

Lend an ear, hear first of all the happy bee
Foraging in our almost rubbed-out names.
     It flits between two sprays of leaves,
Carrying the sound of branches that are real
     To those that filigree the still unseen.

Then know an even fainter sound, and let it be
     The endless murmuring of all our shades.
Their whisper rises from beneath the stones
     To fuse into a single heat with that blind
     Light you are as yet, who can still gaze.

     May your listening be good! Silence
Is a threshold where a twig breaks in your hand,
     Imperceptibly, as you attempt to disengage
               A name upon a stone:

And so our absent names untangle your alarms.
     And for you who move away, pensively,
     Here becomes there without ceasing to be.
From The Partisan Review LXVII(2), Spring 2001. Translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers. Copyright 2001 by Partisan Review Inc.

Categories: Poetry Sundays | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “The Epitaph

  1. I like this quite a bit. I wonder how much better it is in French.

    It reminds me of “Why I am Not a Painter” by Frank O’Hara.

  2. I know that Hoyt Rogers is Bonnefoy’s translator of choice; they’ve even collaborated on a few things. When I read the original and compared it to the translation, I thought there were a few places where I’d have made a different word choice (tinker, tinker, tinker, that’s me), but it’s certainly quite accurate, and captures much of the lyricism of the French.

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