Friday, June 15, 2007

Must I Recall

The words of Richard Wilbur's translation of Apollinaire's "Mirabeau Bridge" keep running through my head. I can't, on Blogger, get the indentation of the lines correctly, but here are the first and fourth stanzas in English (look up the rest if it moves you):

Under Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine
Must I recall
Our loves recall how then
After each sorrow joy came back again

. . .

The days the weeks pass by beyond our ken
Neither time past
Nor love comes back again
Under the Mirabeau Bridge there flows the Seine

This sort of poem represents the various pleasures of formal verse to me: the repetition, both of rhyme and diction; the pleasant clicking of the formal mechanism; the expectation of return as both a formal and thematic device; the insistence of rhythm itself; the ability to embed rhetorical statement and give it authority and authenticity precisely because the formal requirements force the statement into an elegance and eloquence of expression.

I'm not always one for Universal Truths, but this poem posits the most essential of all for me--the movement of time forward, the longing for return, the impossibility of return. Of course, a poem that rhymes and takes on this theme ironizes all of that.

Look at the original of Apollinaire's French (of course, no accent marks, b/c I don't know how to do them with this):

Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine
Et nos amours
Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne
La joie venait toujours apres la peine

The language makes multiple returns--of course, the rhyme and rhythm, but that goes without saying. There's a possible play on words with "sous" and "souvienne"--to remember in the French linguistic construction is to recall, or to come through beneath something else, to come again in a 'pleasant guise'? Of course, the verb souvenir is also reflexive. A return, a default. "Coule" is also more than "flows"--to an English speaker, it has the connotation of curling, returning. I like, too, the necessary grammatical stutter of the French in the third line: 'is it necessary that it come back to me?' A lot of that little semantic dance is lost in the English (in what is an incredibly good translation, of course)--the 'il' the pronoun reflects itself--the self looking at the self, the lover looking at past loves.

In the English, it seems much more certain, it is much more of an aphorism, that joy returns after sorrow. But in the French, the speaker seems both to glibly accept it, but the complications of French syntax and grammar thrust a note of uncertainty into the speaker's contemplation of the truism. And of course, the poem moves on to undercut the idea that anything, anything can return to us. It's a love poem, but much broader than that--it applies to all our hopes and ideals. And the poem isn't simply ironic. It doesn't mock us for believing or hoping--the refrain is: "Let night come on bells end the day / The days go by me still I stay"

Vienne la nuit sonne l'heure
Les jours s'en vont je demeure

In English, to demur is to let pass without comment. And this is what the speaker is doing--riddling through the part of our hearts and minds that wants a past beautiful experience to return, and knowing that it cannot, yet at the same time acknowledging the beauty of recollection, of fleeting recollection, and refusing to pass judgment on the human desire to long for return--we all long for return. And the formal elements of the poem reinforce our desire for this sort of state.

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