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Yves Bonnefoy

from ‘The Beginning and End of the Snow’

Hopkins Forest

I went out
To fetch water from the well by the trees
And was in the presence of another sky,
The constellations gone in an instant,
Three quarters of the sky empty,
And an intense darkness over it all.
But on the left, just above the horizon,
Mixed with the crowns of oak trees,
A mass of reddened stars
Seemed like smoking embers.

I came in again
And reopened the book on the table.
Page after page:
It was nothing but indecipherable signs,
Mixed shapes without sense,
Vague patternings
And underneath a whiteness of the abyss
As if what we call mind fell there, soundlessly,
Like a snowfall.
Yet I turned the pages.

Many years earlier:
A train at dawn
Between Princeton Junction and Newark -
Which are, for me, two chance places,
Two arrows that fell at random -
The travellers were reading, in silence,
Snow swept the grey window panes,
And suddenly,
In an open newspaper two steps from me,
A big photograph of Baudelaire,
A whole page:
The empty sky at the world's end
Consenting to the disorder of words.

I brought together this dream and this memory
When I walked, one whole autumn
Through woods that soon the snow was to claim,
Among the many conflicting signs we receive
From a world devastated by language.
The conflict between two principles,
Was ending, or so it seemed to me,
Two lights were merging,
The lips of a wound were closing.
The white mass of cold fell in gusts
On the colours. But a roof in the distance,
A painted plank resting upright against a gate -
That was colour, and mystery,
As if one who came out of the tomb, and smiling,
said "No, touch me not" to all the world.

Truly, I owe much to Hopkins Forest,
I keep it on my horizon, where
The seen becomes the unseen
In a dazzle of distant blue.
I listen to it among the daily murmur,
And sometimes even,
In summer, my feet pushing the dead leaves
Of past years
Clear in the half-light
Among the stones and too-crowded oaks,
I stop. The earth seems to open on infinity.
Leaves fall there, without haste, or rise up again -
Height and depth no longer exist, nor sound,
Only the soft whisper of flakes
Which soon multiply, thicken, swirl.
And I see again a wholly different sky.
I enter, for a moment, the great snow.

Eveything and Nothing


It's the last snow of the season,
Spring snow, the better to mend
The torn, dead woods
Before they're fit only for burning.

It's the first snow of your life,
As yesterday, only stains of colour were there,
Brief pleasures, fears, anguish
Without consistency, without words.

And I see that in your eyes, opened in surprise,
Joy, in a single leap,
Takes over from fear: that cry,
That laugh, which I love, which is my centre.

We are so close, and the child
Is father of the one
Who took him in his cupped hands,
Raised him up, and consented to the light.


Yes, at hearing, yes, at making mine
That spring, the cry of joy which bubbles
And surges between the stones of life
Early, and so strong, then feeble and blind.

But to write is not to have, is not to be,
For the dazzle of joy is no more
Than a shadow trying to shine
In words which still remember

So much and so many things
That time has laboured to claw down
- And so I can only tell you
What I am not, apart from my longing.

A way of possessing, which would be
To lose the self in the act of possession,
A way of saying, which would leave us
No longer alone in language.


May this deep snow be everything and nothing,
Child of first, uncertain steps on the grass,
Eyes full of beginnings,
Hands grasping nothing but light.

May these branches that glisten be words
You must listen to without understanding
What they carve on the sky,
Since you name things only to lose them.

May the two lines of the hill, one shining,
In the gap between the trees, suffice for you,
Bee of life, when your dream of the world,
And the world itself, runs dry.

And may the water that streams through the meadow
Show you that joy can survive the dream
When the breeze from who knows where
Scatters the almond blossom, another snow.

Translated from the French by Alan Baker. The originals of these poems were first published as part of the collection ‘Début et Fin de la Neige’ by Poesie Gallimard, Paris (1991). Translation copyright © Alan Baker 2007.