from The Neverending Quest for the Other Shore

Runner-up of the 2014 Close Approximations contest for emerging translators (Poetry)

Sylvie Kandé

Ever since they row songless no heave-ho
For how long . . . to know . . . how many seasons
how many island mirages the wind will sow
did they row past pitch-drunk and swollen with spindrift
A foggy memory of what-it-is-to-have-one's-feet-on-the-ground
and eyelids fluttering
they heed nothing at present but the wave that goes
                                                      slips away
                                                                     and returns

These peasants made themselves belated sailors
their bodies cadence them
to cleave with the oar's tainted tip
the purple mounds of the great salt savannah
which no furrow marks
where no seed takes root
(But to say the sea
earthly words were little suited)
At the point of the dream
they were a myriad
no less and no more
to cross the coral barrier in laughter with its vermilion flowers:
there remain but three barks adrift
full so full to the point of capsizing

With paddling their arms have become paddles
hard driven into their brown and knotted trunks
and their salt-eaten feet are now no more than stumps
that cleave to the hull with the agony of seven wounds
In their dizzying heights of suffering they yet find the strength to row
oh the arrogant zeal of those who know their death
approaches and prefer to gaze beyond the certain

In the foremost boat they row in fine unison
(barons and captive craftsmen and archers)
a remaining bit of cola at the edge of their bitter lips
and without pause
aside from two buggers wallowing in the sentine
who cease to rumble
only to hurl at the birdless cloud drooling imprecations:
their folly just now brought forth noisily displays itself
Aside also from the boy ever so young
who the pitch of the sun consumes and scorches

Yet he had promised to his beloved
to return with so much ease and luster
that even his mediocre
birth would be forgotten and that he would make good
his pretension to make of her at all costs his honor
I shall last upon the water: when I return will you love me well . . .
From the second boat the one on duty for the dead
will be requested to sink the child
with the slightest ceremony
or else a few prayers: it depends
Taciturn the other rowers are still pulling hard
all the more firmly all the more supply
that effort no longer has an end for now
Such torment in these trials

Here we were ourselves at first
rowing for our faith while standing tall
for the Manden and for our king most of all
Bata Manden Bori melodious in movement
He who is also called Abubakar the Second
He who all beseech he who beseeches God alone

But now see him leave the stage at once
where he customarily rests balanced on one side
elbow bent holding his head in one hand
and curled up in one armpit an Abyssinian cat
that can predict without fail
the calm and the hurricane
the mist and the rainstorm
There he is our prince who glides
his way through tatters shredded by the tides
into the dais decked in our imperial colors
a fabric red and yellow
surmounted in glory
by his insignia: a broad and golden vulture
wings volant close and lowered neck
Ourselves his loyal partisans
heedful of his balance
release although with great difficulty
the bowstrings of our backs

But his prudent step is that of the gracile ibis
indifferent so to speak
to the infinite fracas of the surf
His drum is at his heels: she is a little woman
(the flash of a ring upon each of her nimble fingers)
with a voice that cuts the air like a vouge
and slices the waves' black crest that stretches as far as the eye can see
Who better than you Simbon
is worthy of the handsome name of hunter . . .
Who else but you Lord of Quivers

Behind the bars of our lashes
questions and reasons do not leave off worrying at their chains
while Abubakar to the prow advances and represents
His unbraided hair shines sargasso under gusts of wind
His sweat-enfolding nostril takes in the ocean's foul breath
(No doubt his tested honor measures too the depth of the abyss)
would more deserve the name of voyager
engaged as you are with the waves in this furious commerce . . .
For it is often that she (the sea) mounts
her great horses bareback
piebald chargers that trample terror
rear up and bear down in full gallop
They would seem to struggle and entangle themselves again and again
to run ragged with their fierce hooves
our last three tubs
(But to say the sea
words of war were little suited)

Racked with waiting as it were
ourselves his crew are here from the first
a droplet of time

Ah these paddles let us speak of them (says she)
But not before water has been poured for me
to moisten the telling
no not before I have been served
honey to sweeten my words
Then were you as the bees
of the Seven-Gated Kingdom
those raging bees who
in the midst of the slack season
guard access to the wells
tightly gathered in malignant hordes . . .
What . . . Is that all that I am offered . . .
Sons of avarice would you consider
upon return to the Bright Land
that I should sing the deeds of those who keep
from me the last three grains of millet stuck
at the broken bottom of this great coffer
to feed us yesterday today to whet our hunger . . .
The giving hand is always above
(so you believe) the open outstretched hand
As for me I insult incense and deceive:
I alone can say I want
by pointing to my desire
The gift pleases me yet does not oblige me

Add some more Yes do That's much better
Now that I tune my instrument:
watch me rhyme as you row
for our ancestors
for Bata Manden Bori our beautiful sire
and for the sons and daughters of the Manden
Maninyan that's me Nassita Maninyan
that's me all right at your service
To sing of heroes truly I excel
(even disgrace and perjury
where they're concerned
I can cover them with a word
or a lovely turn of phrase)
I name their names and laud their exploits
so that tomorrow they be not all forgotten
For history is a wicked stepmother when memory
is orphaned These oars I was saying a marvel:
sculpted in iroko wood
they have ivory caps at one end
Along their shafts twist one iron and one copper wire:
thus my story in which misery and grandeur mingle
is entwined with your lives
and carved into jagged destinies plunges them
in the eddies of poetry
and time
Who better than you Mali-koi . . .

[ . . . ] 

At present they would rather be rowing:
seventy passengers
that's seventy stouthearted souls
and seventy times two arms
well not entirely
if you subtract the group of children
under the greasy tarp there in the middle
Heaving waters shivering bells of bodies:
how they would rather be rowing
adding to each impulse
the splendor of the fray
and the audacity of renewal
But they are here elbow to elbow
standing most often
sitting when possible
while casting at the sky twisted with pale contractions
a jaded and rheumy glance
For here is the night giving birth
any which way
wasting no time
to an even uglier day than the last

Where has it gone of the first dawn at sea
the bitter enchantment:
a hasty departure (we had to chase the ebb tide)
that quietly takes shape as a voyage
surprise of eyes adjusting to salt and to wind
sourness of armpits where little by little
fear and its trickling dries up
the spirit (free no but) disentangled from the everyday . . .
Oh here and there a few sobs were indeed heard
(but to weigh renunciation
a tear will never measure up)
The water had its motives and they were clear:
we know I know we now
have our reason-for-being-on-Earth
and it is in boarding this ship
And in that osprey wavering overhead
like the flickering promise of return
Alassane then or else was it Maguett . . .
balancing on a barrel
was singing in a head voice
that outsang the motor

But this morning it's awful cold
to watch the nothing
the nothing at all
the naught and nothingness
that heaves about oneself
On the seventh day there is no celebration
and especially not the birth of the day
—besides where I ask you would we pray . . .
If I make safe harbor
I'll pay it back for sure

Too late too soon to regret it
Ten days like this we were promised
ten days only
And what's a week right
in the life of a loser . . .
Bargain price for a friend—yet your life isn't worth a bean:
you eat and you prate but you hardly earn a thing
Ambition you've got but not what it takes
here nobody buys your nickel's worth of dreams
There things are better: throw a seed away
and in the time it takes to turn around
I swear it sprouts and grows
Anyway dollar for dollar and oar for oar
one ought to have a goal

One evening I was bumming around on the shore
disturbing one cackling quarry after another
as they were feeding on some leftover fish
—careful not to slip on any entrails
anxious to find my former bliss again
before the gold-tinged bouquets of a glorious sunset
The horizon as far as I recall it
was blocked by an enormous trawler
forcing the sun into the background
Whose fault is it that fish have grown scarce
and our multiple excursions all the more vain . . .
The fishermen's litanies were interrupted
by harangues from tardy gossipers
whose sharp nails weighed the fry on display
While they upbraided the men
for being unworthy of the sea
all of a sudden it seemed to me
son of a talent thrown upon the shore
they took their fingers' scorn
to spread apart the gills of me
in order to assess my agony
as dubiously fresh

A liar pointed to the sea with one slender hand
construing the puddle I wet my toes in
You'll come back rich as sin
with simply giant baggage
and a mound of coffers
Ray-Bans to keep your intentions under wraps
and a contemptuous smoke at your lip
You'll be the talk of the town
when they see you build endow
wed and baptize build again
Not to mention day and night
never will your home be empty
of requests of praises and of invitations
Indeed a ship was being made ready at the appointed place
and as one might expect there was only one spot left
Take your chance by the horns: it won't take its time
So I took the sea lightly
without a penny a crust of bread a prayer
with neither bells nor whistles without warning
—just this fully charged cell
and a can in one pocket with
a safara inside macerated for the occasion
by an ace in prophylactics and protections
a real tamer of reversals of fortune
Not for the sake of leather nor for the tinted glasses
but for the sake of the gesture that gave to each of us
(we ourselves neither flesh nor fish
innards cast
upon the slimy millennial sand)
the singular stature of a person

[ . . . ]

(Yet what is a voyage
but the union of mirage and impatience . . .)
And to say we might have rowed
backs broken and wrists hard at work
To draw with our bound bodies a perfect parabola
To trace a trajectory from the minute changes in our infinitely repeated gestures
And to say we might have rowed to cheat the waves
rowed just to kill time
and to thumb our nose at death

Exhausted the boy crumples to the planks
and the book of tall tales he calls his journal
will roll beneath a bench where it ends up drenched
But is it not the insistent siren
of a patrol boat we're hearing from far off . . .
No time to turn around
before it draws up beside us fast as a moray eel
and towers over us (redundant white wall of buoys
radar megaphone ship's rail and airtight cabin)
promptly ending our excursion
So Alassane or is it Yacine . . .
begins to hum a little riddle
and meaning no harm he butchers the original
Liberty security and justice are in a boat
Liberty and justice fall into the water
Guess what oh guess what could possibly be left . . .

We help those who are not dead
merely paralyzed to cross the gangway
Here they are on deck where tents have been raised
with water medicine and blankets
Well To the misfortune of others we are soon accustomed
Now stretchers are made ready
for the brotherhood of pecked-out eyes
A nice catch of the more-stiff-than-kippered
drowned caught in the wake of our raft
which is full of leaks One must admit we stick in there
These float unable to join the old ones
who have sunk to the bottom of the drink
while we brush over their exploits
their hell their torment their america that is
Drag this wreck to port in all haste
but let us drain her first
Tow her forward and don't spare the hawser
A hunt for scrap and off to the cemetery:
there's another one won't harm its people anymore
Still one or two dailies will publish its photo:
saddened two amateur sailors inspect the nacelle
that offends the beach before it is scrapped
Tourism Threatened
reads the newspaper's headline

So here we are safe and sound as they say
except that Alassane or is it another by that name
refuses categorical to leave the boat
He's still sitting on the ship's beak
he's swinging his feet and shaking his head
composing his rhymes and monologues
Incidentally we know him well
he never did do daily life so well
(but isn't that the mark of the hero . . .)
and he's said to soar far above our trifles
We were still boarding the patrol boat
when I heard him hiss my watchword: Big brother
what'll you bet they won't see me . . .
He stands and makes as if to dance
gestures and winds up his arms
bungles and tramps like the fettered albatross:
a true pantomime for sure What'll you bet
they won't see me go by . . .
No-one the wiser wool over your eyes
Later I'll catch you in the city
And there he goes and takes a corkscrew dive
leaving his boonie hanging on the rostrum
Look: there he is between the sky and the sea
between salt and spray
Disappears then surfaces again with a wave of his hand
He who has eyes
Not true there's no doubt: that spot out there
Let him see Say he's ahead of us
Could be the lucky bastard's arrived already
By now he will have reached the shore
that is to say if the shore is for him
Everyone gets his own chance
but all those with a bit of sense
envy that which he's been given
Alassane if I say hero
it's because you closed the voyages
Thus it is time at present for the word to make port

translated from the French by Alexander Dickow

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