from Gravel

José-Flore Tappy

So white
is the caper flower
opening at dawn
its flexible stem
climbing the rock cliff

I am so stubborn
I haul myself into the open air

from my shoulder
the sky hangs
like a weary bag


Shoes off
clumsily we walk
over the heavy
gravel of every day

and yet

all these wheat stalks
the bitter ripe lemon tree
the smoked spice of the open sea


A crowd in jubilation
high transparent grass
that moves to the side then rights itself
it's the multiple aerial
thirst rising
toward the necessary water

to the side
on a hollow staircase
I fill my bone spoon
with some paltry rain


Now comes the hour
when dust drifts down
alighting noiselessly
on the dark roofs

like wool
like lichen


But the cliff


never weary
of keeping space
at bay

at the foot of this wall
a wonder
it still stands

the immense breeder
of waves


Spotted with chalk
with fruit with rust
a big apron tossed
over this stone stomach

it's to its slope
its steep folds
that today my tears
severe in the clear night
one by one

translated from the French by John Taylor

Click here to read the Special Feature: John Taylor on José-Flore Tappy.

Read the original in French

Read translator’s note

José-Flore Tappy was born in Lausanne in 1954. She is the author of five volumes of poetry and has won two prestigious Swiss literary awards: the Ramuz Prize for Errer mortelle and the Schiller Prize for Hangars. She works as an editor and scholar at the Centre de Recherches sur les Lettres Romandes at the University of Lausanne. In John Taylor's translations, her poetry has appeared in the Antioch Review, the International Literary Quarterly, and Carte Blanche.

John Taylor has recently translated books by Jacques Dupin (Of Flies and Monkeys, Bitter Oleander Press), Philippe Jaccottet (And, Nonetheless, Chelsea), and Pierre-Albert Jourdan (The Straw Sandals, Chelsea). He is also the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction), and Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction). Born in Des Moines in 1952, Taylor has lived in France since 1977.

José-Flore Tappy's subtle lyricism affects the overall impression given by these short simple poems that are ultimately quite complex. Her verse is structured around studied effects of rhythm, assonance, and consonance, as well as around syntactic ruptures that contribute to the oft-acute emotions that she invokes. Whenever I asked the poet questions about semantic nuances in such and such a line during my work on this translation, she would reply precisely but also sometimes add, while underlining similar vowels or consonants, that her "search for sounds" was as important as her search for meaning. She encouraged me to take liberties with sense—and I have taken a few. Semantic resonance—a mainstay of French poetry of this kind—and even some semantic double-layering—note the numerous enjambments—are carefully arranged in her poetry; but it is also true that sound moves the poems along as much as do line breaks, truncated word order, and tantalizingly postponed meaning. I am not sure which comes first, the sound or the semantics, in her initial drafts, but both interact effectively by the end of her labors. An equilibrium is reached, and this goal and notion are central to her poetry for other reasons as well. Given the differences between French and English in this regard, I have tried to give an impression of Tappy's music by paying special attention to alliteration.