Tuesday, July 14, 2015

“Attitudes” by Jean Le Louet


At that time I saw three men. The first was covered with blood, and because they had beaten him, the blood kept pouring out of him. The second was kneeling, and because they had tied his arms, he remained on his knees. The third was sitting at his enemy’s table, and because the enemy treated him with respect, he remained at that table.

Then I called the first by name and cried out to him, “Don’t die.” But the blood continued to flow and through the blood he replied, “I’ll make it, because I love.”

Then I named the second man and cried out to him, “Cast off your bonds.” He replied, “I am weak, and the man who tied me up is very strong.”

And I named the third man and said to him, “Stand up, won’t you!” And he replied, “I shall remain here, because my enemy is cunning and I wish to outwit him.”

Then I summoned the angel of unity and said to him, “Unite these people or destroy them.” At that the angel of unity took the first man’s blood and smeared it on the other two.

And he who had been kneeling and he who was sitting were strengthened.

The bleeding man leaned on them for support. And the blood flowed less freely from his wounds. And the blood removed the veil from their eyes.

I came across Jean Le Louet’s poem in Czeslaw Milosz’s Year of the Hunter. Czeslaw Milosz includes some context:

[I]t is a translation into French of my translation into Polish; the French original was lost. Its author, Jean Le Louet, a French poet of the second wave of Surrealism was in Warsaw in August 1939, possibly for romantic reasons (he was gay). … The outbreak of war caught him in Warsaw; the Germans sent him to Lake Constance as a French citizen, and he was interned along with another French citizen, Stanislaw Dygat. That is when he wrote the poem, immediately after the fall of France in 1940, I believe. Dygat brought it to Warsaw and gave it to me; I translated it and put it in my anthology The Invincible Song (1942).

Louet [was] thin, delicate, almost feminine, with a sickly throat, speaking in a whisper. … I heard that after the war he led the life of a clochard [vagrant]. No one knows when he died. … Completely forgotten as a poet, with that one title to his fame — a poem in Polish translation. An unusual poem, having nothing to do with Surrealism … but referring to biblical tradition (as if it were written by a Polish romantic poet); a prophetic poem, because how in 1940 could he have foreseen collaboration?

I searched the web for more on Jean Le Louet and found description of a chapbook from 1937, Ceci Passe: Quatrième Cahier de Habitude de la Poésie. So it seems more than just a single poem of Jean Le Louet has survived. I found no mention of his publishing after the war. I’m sure there are French sources to search, but that’s beyond me.

I present the poem here because I like it. The poem traveled no easy path to survival. Yet, despite Milosz’s claim, it is not the only “title to his fame.” I am curious, if Milosz’s translation is the closest we can get to Louet’s French original, is the one here, the version in English, translated from Milosz’s French version of his own Polish version or did the translator of A Year of the Hunter, Madeline Levine, work with Milosz’s Polish?

source: A Year of the Hunter by Czeslaw Milosz, translated by Madeline G. Levine. 1994. Farr, Straus and Giroux.

update: After asking the question at the end of the post, I looked up the translator, Madeline G. Levine. There is a professor of Slavic Literatures, Emerita at the University of North Carolina named Madeline G. Levine. Her email is listed on the UNC site. So I sent Ms Levine an email, apologizing for bothering her, but wondering if she could recall whether Jean Le Louet’s “Attitudes” made one stop or two on its way to English. Ms Levine wrote back the same day saying she remembers reviewing the page proofs of Year of the Hunter with Milosz himself. She said she translated the poem from the Polish. The French original (in Stanislaw Dygat’s transcription) must have been lost. Why else would the poem require retranslation from Polish back into French?

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