Apr 152013

Pierre JorisPierre Joris

Two truly lovely poems here by the prolific Luxembourg poet, novelist and editor Jean Portante translated from the French by my old friend and former colleague at the University at Albany Pierre Joris who is himself a prolific and peripatetic poet, impresario and world-traveler. (Please revisit his gorgeous translations of Habib Tengour’s “Five Movements of the Soul & Hodgepodge” published earlier on NC.) These are amazing poems. The first is an insistent, undulating, rhythmic meditation on the desert, sand, the sea (the anti-image) and the poet’s self, the sand and the desert inhabiting the self as metaphor and soul. The poem is leavened with sweet touches of wit (the poet at the line between one desert and another, watching the grains of said get married in secret before crossing). And, oh my goodness, just look at the “The One I Saw Again” — three parts, three characters; take the first, with its recursive “passed and passed,” the train passing before the eyes of the subject who is sewing up his wound again and again and not seeing the passing and passing though it is reflected in his eyes. Oh language, oh beauty! Helps heal the day.


PortanteJean Portante



Le désert compta ses rides et l’aigle et le

faucon répandirent, aussitôt la nouvelle.

— Edmond Jabès

it is due to the general indifference of

the grains of sand

that the desert came about

but also because the sand

knew how to remain gregarious


to know that all the grains of sand

of all the deserts sleep in me

does not reassure me

like them every night

I get underway

searching for a dry dream

a dream which in order to defend us

would brave the meanders of humidity


I went to station myself

on the line separating one desert from the other

to watch the grains of sand

getting married in secret

before crossing the border


when I said I had the desert in me

I was thinking less of the dryness

than of the incessant swarming of the sand

and caught in the swirl

I stopped weeping

even though I had been weeping for joy


each desert hides a secret

each secret hides an injustice

nobody knows who slipped it in there

but it makes everybody rejoice secretly


I’ve read somewhere or did I dream it

that the desert was the scar a sea left

o what anguish to think

that one day the wound could open again


in my childhood my youth my life for short

I have known many a gathering of sand

the words I have spoken or written

rest there temporarily

a wind comes up and worries them


I envy the desert’s sand grains’s anonymity

they come and go they say hello good night

they love & know how to recognize each other

because there where one ends the other begins

in the desert the eternal return

is a question of life and death


no one has as much imagination as a desert

the sea was there first

but the desert knew how to dry it up

& seize its memory

that’s why no one

has as much imagination as a desert


Certain words disappear

when they venture into the desert

the stories that emerge from it

nearly always seem truncated

but if one looks at them closely

one notices that they have become purer


All poets should speak of the desert

and the musicians would do well

to think of it from time to time

if only because history

has all too often slandered it


to be as happy as a desert or as sad as water

is not a malediction

one couldn’t have avoided

today you can love the one

without betraying the other


we should thank the desert

for having taught us to ration the water

this could come in handy

during the next drought






two days ago kept sewing

the same wound up again:

if he still sat facing

the train that passed and passed

again it was not because he

particularly loved the

journey but because of this

window that gave

onto the viaduct:

yet the train as it passed

and passed again over the

viaduct before him still reflected

in his eyes:

did he know this as he kept sewing

the same wound again & again:

and what did he know of immobility:

and the one sitting across from

him on the train that passed

and passed again over the viaduct

was he jealous that across

from him the other thus

sat at his window giving

on this viaduct without

particularly loving

the journey:

and isn’t it exactly because

of this that the train passed

and passed again as if

instead of carrying its

passengers towards a specific

destination its only mission

was to agree with this

statistic that states that of

two men sitting one at

least will ceaselessly be sewing

up the same wound.



previously held at the end

of a long string a distant

kite that his hand reeled

in and reeled out:

the clouds were close by

and the migratory birds that

were returning from afar

were also tethered to a string:

just like the clouds

by the way and even the sun

when it hid:

and if you looked carefully you

saw that there was also

a string from one language to

the other or from the apple tree

to the olive tree and our gazes

remember were linked

one to the other by two

strings on which wept like

clothes hung out to dry

or rain that falls and wets

the pro and con

of love:

the kite also wept

on its flight:

you could have thought the entire

universe was repenting:

the strings of course were

invisible to the naked love

but when the storm

broke and the flash of

lightening photographed the

landscape didn’t you see

as if you were all

these hands that reeled in and

reeled out all remorse.



more than a week ago

like a dead man hugged

the walls of the city:

you’d have thought he was

sorting the mirrors

from the shadows:

there were graffiti

behind him on the walls

he was hugging but he

didn’t read them:

everything he did or

didn’t do was

carefully sorted:

I confess that I didn’t

read what the walls

said either and when

I said that I saw him again

more than a week ago the one

who like a dead man hugged

the walls of the city maybe

I was a little too forward:

it was pitch black already

and a street light of uncertain

origin was projecting

shadows on the walls:

what I saw was that

some were missing

others not as if light

had its preferences:

so then I started to count

these shadows thus sorted

on the walls of the city

and coming to mine with

a step darker than usual

I like someone who knows

but doesn’t say anything

to anyone thought back on

this story of a kite that

doesn’t fly which

I often tell and on these chance

occurrences that sort so well

the secret from death

but I told no one about it.


 —Jean Portante translated by Pierre Joris


Born in Differdange (Luxembourg) in 1950, though presently living in Paris, Jean Portante is a writer, translator and journalist. He is the author of some thirty books including volumes of poetry, collaborations with artists, narratives, plays, essays and novels. Published in 15 countries, his work has been translated into English, Spanish, Italian, German, Slovakian, Croatian and Rumanian.  He has translated Juan Gelman, Gonzalo Rojas, Jerome Rothenberg, Maria Luisa Spaziani, Edoardo Sanguineti, John Deane, Pierre Joris many other poets into French. For editions Phi in Luxembourg he directs the poetry book series graphiti. In 2003, he was awarded the Prix Mallarmé for his book L’étrange langue  and the Grand prix d’automne de la Société des gens de lettres 2003 for the whole of his work. En 2005, a Selected Poems came out from Editions Le Castor Astral. The sequnce above is from “Journal d’un oublieur intime” in La réinvention de l’oubli. Editions Le Castor Astral, Paris,  2010.

Pierre Joris has moved between the US, Europe & North Africa for 45 years, publishing over 40 books of poetry, essays and translations. Coming in early 2013 are Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press & Barzakh (Poems 2000-2012) from Black Widow Press. Just out from UCP is The University of California Book of North African Literature (vol. 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced & translated by Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press) came out in early 2012 as did Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, edited by Peter Cockelbergh, with essays on Joris’ work by, among others, Mohamed Bennis, Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Fisher, Christine Hume, Robert Kelly, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Jennifer Moxley, Jean Portante, Carrie Noland, Alice Notley, Marjorie Perloff & Nicole Peyrafitte (Litteraria Pragensia, Charles University, Prague, 2011).  The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan, translated & annotated by Pierre Joris, is scheduled for early 2014 from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. Other recent books include The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011), Canto Diurno #4: The Tang Extending from the Blade, (poems, 2010), Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Books), Aljibar I & II (poems) & the CD Routes, not Roots (with Munir Beken, oud; Mike Bisio, bass; Ben Chadabe, percussion; Mitch Elrod, guitar; Ta’wil Productions). Further translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UC Press) & Lightduress by Paul Celan which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. He lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte & teaches poetry & poetics at the State University of New York, Albany. Check out his Nomadics Blog.


  2 Responses to “The General Indifference of Sand: Poems — Jean Portante Translated by Pierre Joris”

  1. Thanks for introducing me to these fine poets/translators, nicely done.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.