Passerby, Do You Want to Know?

Yves Bonnefoy


Passerby, do you want to know
How the guest of this tomb died,
This brow-bent-low, this student?

He was reading, one night,
Before his hearth where the fire moved,
A treatise of Saint Augustine, De Trinitate.
The wind shook the isolated house
Between old abandoned gardens
Where he rented a room. Outside,
High waves of rain against the windowpanes
In some moments. In others, silence.

What did he read?
"God does not signify.
God alone.
God is the sole reality, who is but a thing."

(For each thing, you see,
The book explained to him,
Is sign, sign of another thing. Even the roughest,
most shapeless stone, the stone most absent
From the counsels of the mind is still sign
Of chaos, let's say, of nothingness. God alone
Refers only to himself.
The very idea of sign loses itself in him.)

And the student: What is it, he said to himself,
Curved, a little sleepily, over his book,
That is only this, a thing,
With nothing, with absolutely nothing, to give a hold
To the instinctive need to create meaning,
To name? Stone,
I know well that I love you, as perhaps
One can love God, but it is only
By giving you a name: this name, stone, your name,
And taking you thus, with open eyes
Into our room of names, our refuge.
We cannot think
Toward the outside. We cannot
Conceive of that without name,
Without room for meaning,
This we cannot do, it would be for our feet
To trip over a cadaver in a tomb.
For it is death, in fact,
That alone does not signify,
It is death alone that, under each word, hides itself,
And if the sound at the bottom of a word catches us, sometimes,
When we stumble over one syllable,
If it is then something within us that suddenly
Does not speak, does not signify, is only a chasm,
We recoil from the rim of the chasm
Tottering, legs heavy with vertigo,
And we let ourselves fall
Into the dense grass of the world that we are.
And if God is only a thing,
Why would we desire him? He, the outside,
He who would ravage all our memories!


The student reflects,
Then, what is it he has heard? He startles,
Rises, moves away from the hearth.
He extinguishes two or three of his feeble lamps.
Hardly anything now but the thought
Of the scattered embers, sometimes flames,
Tracing on the ground their words of fire.
Certainly there is a little moonlight outside,
As always in literature, which
Loves to give meaning to the rain, to the wind,
But in the agitation of the sky, at each instant,
The clouds cover it. And he who listens
To these sounds of the night remembers, perhaps,
Other nights, from his childhood. While he was not sleeping,
He listened
To trains traveling from far away to everywhere else in the world,
And passing by the edges of the gardens of his suburb
With a clamor that had a reason to be,
And therefore grants repose and sleep.

He reflects, looks at his table,
Extending, as if distantly, into the shadows,
Almost shimmering, black. But suddenly
The sound, against the window, of a stone
That someone has thrown, which rebounds
Off the windowsill, then ceases to be.

What is it, then?
And isn't it the same small sound
That a moment ago had disturbed his reading?
The reader of a moment ago listens, holds his breath.
The garden is very silent, even the wind
Has died, and the rain makes almost no sound against the window.

Must one worry, must one make a room
For this event, if it is one,
In the anguish of memory? The temptation
Is rather to forget, to efface
The sign that appears, deprived of meaning,
In the meaninglessness of night.

Yes, but here
Once again a stone against the glass,
And, almost immediately after, another again.
The student is very afraid, decisively
Throws the window open. Ten steps
From him, a gleaming. It's an old woman
Dressed in rags. Tall and curved,
Hands moving, one still holding
A handful of small stones.
This woman—of gray, yellow, almost red,
Clinging one to the other in that which resembles
A figure painted over crevasses,
Around her the folds of the rain
Like a shawl, or a halo.
Who is this old woman? He has seen her before,
He knows that he has taken these thin hands before
In his, over a table. He remembers
They were blackened by the smoke
Of the fires of another time, made on the ground,
Over which cauldrons move.
Hands, nevertheless, somewhere else in his eyes, of a young girl.
Who are you, he demanded, o wanderer?

Who are you? But she now has
On her head a ring, one might say, of iron,
From which flames are rising. An entire tiara
Of small, damp, flickering flames,
At times almost dying out. The scene
Seems set far away: but fragile
Is a fire that water covers, and this woman
With hands moving in color, how near she is!
Looking at her, he knows she is asking
To enter, to approach his great table,
To stretch her hands there, hands that have put down
On the ground the still-burning crown.
"Who are you?" No, it's "Enter," he says.


Enter, he repeats, and she smiles
Beneath the rain that makes her face gleam.
Enter! She approaches, stumbling, he holds her up,
She passes the threshold.

And the house vanishes around them
And she comes forward in the light,
The flames from her head rushing
As if to gain access to another life.
She has entered, they are in high grass,
There are holes beneath their feet, and they are afraid
That the curving flames may be extinguished.
But the sky can do nothing against them
Except multiply their colors
At each new instant, in the mist
Of the night weighing on them in all their weight.

They will fall
In a moment or two, far into the distance.
They will kneel and look at one another.
The face of the woman is furrowed,
Who are you, he will ask again, but graciously
And even smiling,
She will remove the tiara from her head,
And lay it down close to him in the grass.
Then she will rise and back away,
After resting motionless a moment.
And then she will turn away,
Bending her head to her shoulder
As young girls do
Whether from vanity or sadness, we do not know.

And he,
Bending over the tiara whose mystery
Shines among the leaves and the wet, muddied stalks
Of the high grasses, he knows
That, should he take
One of the flames between his fingers,
It would not burn him, no,
It would remain.
He knows that should he stubbornly
Try to crush the flame by seeking
To cover it with the mud beneath the grasses, this flame
Would victoriously rise again.

The tiara
Is nothing more,
He notices,
Than a theatre prop: two rings
At once drawn together and separated
By four or five wire attachments.
One to circle the head,
The other to hold seven cups
In which, without ceasing, a kind of oil seethes.

translated from the French by Thade Correa