Three Poems by Benjamin Fondane
The Refusal of the Poem

The daughters of song came:
“Would you take us, naked,
our lips lavender scented?”

– I dream of valleys in Finland
where soldiers of ice sleep.

The salt virgins of the poem
said, “it is time we were loved.
We are naked under our skin.”

– I dream of watery ships
drowned behind glass.

The supple whores of my dream
call to me, “let go, dive in
where the fish are fresh and dumb.”

– I dream of Germany's prisoners
gaunt beneath the whip ...

The sweet mothers of sleep
coo, “go to bed, your big toes
pointing to the tip of sleep.

The Sleeping Beauty in man
lives on kisses alone...”

– I dream of the vast embers
that flare around the earth ...

The toothless hag of death
said, “each horse has its bit.
Your lot is a slow death.
So like it or not, sing!
No one has a right to mercy.
What do you think, vague shade?”

– My dearest, I dream of Prague.
I don't hear, I no longer hear
the prayers of her synagogues.


Letter Not Sent

I write. Has anything in this world changed?
You write. We're so afraid, both of us,
to recognize that in our hearts it's snowing
and that we are dead, one to the other.

I died bit by bit without noticing.
You died little by little, without a cry.
By degrees the heat escaped our letters;
the rose has given way to the snow-drop.

Sometimes I remember you were pretty.
Do you recall that I was sharp and fresh?
Yet of course, we've kept the same manners
since time stopped counting the hours of its absence.

You and me... together we've read a book;
a marvelous and full book; each detail
cast its troubled stain-glass light inside us;
no one can read that book without opening us.

What will become of it, now that I am farsighted,
your eyes are going bad, now that the book too
must have donned a pair of thick glasses, have aged?
Now that neither of us can read it anymore?

You say there are snatches that remain – “I love you.”
Ah, the nails keep growing when the corpse is cold;
others have said those words I spoke for you,
others have lived their lives by the light of these candles.

Later, when we were lost, I tried myself
to say again, “I love you”; and the words sounded
like a stone thrown in the water; I was surprised
they could make a ring at all in the smooth water.

Would you have tried as well?... I was so far.
That's how we broke the spell ourselves.
You cannot weep the same tear twice;
you cannot call out to gods you have betrayed.

Each passing day erases more of you
in me. Don't cry. You go, but there are holes
left in the wall where the nails rusted;
and when you've gone completely from me

nothing will be left but a sieve where cheerful
water will sing. Oh yes, you will be dead in me –
my dear. Dead in one who is dead. And like that
we will stay side by side, always apart.

I write.  Do you understand? I've nothing to say.
And yet I grip you, oh you who are
a glacier that begets in the water
a reflection that would replace what creates it.

Over There

They all left for America.
   First was the son
(damn fate! They were too many
   for the old tune)

then the little sister who could sew,
   who had a pair
of worn millstones for lungs
   grinding the air.

Then life went on a spell, not taking
   another one;
at last they put everything on the Ark,
   and soon were done

preparing their departure: grandparents,
   the stove-pot, bags
packed with last of their garlic-
   pungent rags.

Only the ancestors (what to do?)
   would have to stay
in a land that wasn't theirs, blessing

From time to time, an errant scrap
   of letter bore
shipwrecks, baptisms, a postscript: “Soon
   we may touch shore...”

Then silence. For the dead was held
   the ceremony
according to the Law, and the land's

Time strung and unstrung his bow
   turning around
and the house crumbled like a boat
   that's run aground.

The bricks went missing one by one,
   the roof the same;
they were busy building in Heavenly

But the melancholy grass
   in the yard still dreamed
of postmarks from America
   that never came.

They heard the diligence arrive
   from who knows where,
then drive on into the silence
   of the stifling air.

Each neighbor, lost in his own silence,
   could only nod,
“And if it was the diligence
   of the living God?”

One by one they came out of doors
   into the evening,
considering the strange occurrence
   they had just seen.

For a while that lingering wax museum
   but dimly lit
tossed in their minds like a poorly
   anchored ship.

They felt a little nostalgic
   for the great departures
then lit their evening candles
   and samovars.

A long, unearthly whisper of prayer
   and turning pages
enveloped like a canopy
   the villages

as each, lost in his own silence,
   could only nod,
“And if it was the diligence
   of the living God?”


BENJAMIN FONDANE is a francophone Romanian poet who lived and wrote in Paris from 1923-1944. These poems were all written during the occupation of Paris, 1941-44, shortly before Fondane's deportation, and published posthumously.

Excerpts of NATHANIEL RUDAVSKY-BRODY's translation of Fondane's long poem The Sorrows of Ghosts were published in the Summer issue of The Jewish Quarterly (London), and others will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of Cerise Press.