To Odette Bost
Into the houses where children die
Go some very old people.
They sit down in the antechamber
Their sticks between their black knees.
They listen, nod their heads.
Every time the child coughs
Their hands clutch their hearts
And make big yellow spiders
And the cough, rising through the furnishings,
Is shredded, listless as a pale butterfly.
They have vague smiles
And the child’s cough stops
And the big yellow spiders
On the polished boxwood handles
Of the sticks, between their hard knees.
And then, when the child is dead
They get up, and go elsewhere…
To Lucien Coutaud
There are islands in the Black Sea
Pale and made of cold stone
You’re always alone there
And you go into castles
Full of rooms into walls
And you find soft women
Gentle fat white women
Displayed on open beds
Their hair gives off a scent
In thin curly volutes
Blue in the colourless air of the bedrooms
You mustn’t stop
For they are there, they’re waiting
They can do anything they like
They take on any shape
They flow like water.
You mustn’t go to the islands of the Black Sea
You’d do better to buy ham.
Mothers bleed when you’re made
And hold you all your life
By a flayed gash of flesh
You’re brought up in cages
You live by chewing morsels
Of bleeding, torn off breasts
Which you hook onto your cradle
You have blood all over you.
And as you don’t enjoy the sight of this
You make the blood of others flow
One day, there won’t be any left
And you’ll be free.
I notice a dog in the street
I say to him: how’s it going, dog?
Do you think he’d reply?
No? Well, he replies anyway
And that doesn’t concern you
So when I see people
Passing by without even noticing dogs
I’m ashamed for their parents
And for their parents’ parents
Because such a bad upbringing
Requires at least … and I’m not being generous
Three generations with hereditary syphilis
But I would add to avoid giving offence
That a fair number of dogs don’t have much to say.
Boris Vian (1920–1959) was a French novelist, poet, playwright, singer, musician and inventor. He enjoyed relatively little success in his own lifetime, but subsequently his name has become synonymous with Saint Germain des Prés in the postwar decade, and his work has become hugely influential. However, his poetry, unlike his novels and plays, remains largely untranslated into English, possibly as a result of the challenges posed by Vian’s inventive wordplay and surrealistic allusions.
Jeremy Page works in the Centre for Language Studies at the University of Sussex and is the founding editor of the Frogmore Papers. In the 1970s he directed an English-language translation of Boris Vian’s absurdist classic The Empire Builders. His poetry is widely published, most recently in Closing Time (Pindrop 2014) and his translations of Catullus’s Lesbia poems were published as The Cost of All Desire by Ashley Press in 2011.