Portraits of Pierre Reverdy and Three Poems


The most memorable thing about our meetings [around 1919-1920] was the almost complete bareness of the room in which Reverdy received us, usually on Sundays. He lived at the top of Montmartre, rue Cortot, a stone’s throw from the rue des Saules. Of the astonishing ‘climate’ that prevailed there, nothing could give a clearer picture than this remarkable description by Reverdy himself, at the opening of La Lucarne Ovale [1]:


At that time coal had become as precious and as rare as nuggets of gold, and I was writing in an attic where the snow, falling in through cracks in the ceiling, would turn blue.

Such force of expression has for me lost none of its beguiling charm. It takes me back, instantly, to the heart of that verbal wizardry which, for us, was the preserve of Reverdy. Only Aloysius Bertrand and Rimbaud had previously ventured so far down that path. For my part, I loved and I love still – yes, love – this poetry that takes as its subject the vast swathes that halo everyday life, that haze of anxieties and intimations that flutter around our thoughts and actions. From these he pruned as if at random, the rhythm he created appearing to be his sole tool, albeit one that never betrayed him; he was a marvel. Reverdy was much more of a theorist than Apollinaire: he would even have been a master in our eyes had he been less impassioned in debate, more aware of the arguments with which we opposed him, though it is true that this passion made up a great part of his charm. No one has reflected better, nor has known how to make others reflect, on the profound effects of poetry. Nothing could hold greater importance later on than his ideas on poetic imagery. Nor is there anybody who has shown such exemplary indifference to the ingratitude of fate.


(Interviews with André Parinaud, ‘Le Point du Jour’, Gallimard, 1952)




A black sun has set in Solesmes

When we were 20 (Soupault, Breton, Eluard and I), he embodied for us all that was pure in the world. Our immediate elder, and the exemplary poet. Life may well have ebbed between us, but it has never clouded that image, that dark conscience, that obstinacy, that shadowy voice from our youth. I will not play at measuring this loss – when he was alive I already felt the inscrutable depths of his being… His absence will amplify over the century; what is said today matters little. His greatness – what could I add to it by comparing him to the dead and those surviving? We still have Saint-John Perse and Marie Noël, Apollinaire is no longer, nor Eluard… We take no notice of this unknown man who kept himself to one side, until the sun comes round and his shadow grows, spreading, covering the century.


I can remember him in rue Cortot in that time of destitution and violence, a winter in which there prevailed an extreme, horrific coldness, his wife ill, in the house above that bloody Utrillo who made such a perfect racket – it was utterly dreadful. There was in Reverdy’s black eyes a burning fury such as I have never seen anywhere, like charred vine stocks in the dark of night. I remember the day when he had to sell to one of those rich men who so love their art a small Braque – which for him was very much more than a picture – and how at the last minute before he was stripped of it, he had fiercely grabbed the canvas and kissed it with his lips, to the bewilderment of the enlightened connoisseur.


(Les Lettres Françaises, 23 June 1960, no. 830)




Reverdy in his labyrinth

How to accept that our conversation, begun thirty years ago on rue La Boétie, around the time of Minotaure, is now forever interrupted; that never again will I happen upon his provincial silhouette, always slightly overdressed, a bit awkward and out of place on the Parisian pavement; that never again will I see his black hat, his gabardine overcoat, his navy blue suit, his bow tie; that never again will I have the pleasure of looking at his unbowed head with its long, thick hair, black like a crow’s, sweeping across a stubborn forehead and sitting at the nape of a neck given to abrupt nods of the head, or his tanned, peasant’s face ever protruding from a cloud of light silk, his half-opened lips revealing the whitest teeth; that never again will I confront the fire in his eyes, like a little bull, black and squat, ready to charge; that never again will I hear his gravelly and warm ‘My dear…’, more manly than any voice I have ever known, unforgettable in its resonance.


I met the man before I got to know his poetry. The man shone with health and love of life. His sharp and animated gestures, his voice, his Mediterranean verve, his nervous temperament, his child’s laugh, all were those of a man perfectly at ease with himself, who smiled on life and on whom life smiled. He loved to eat and drink, he adored women, the bustle of the street, café terraces, window-dressings, newspapers, books… and he displayed a passionate interest in art and its intimate relationship with poetry. And how he loved to get het up and hot under the collar, whether by an idea that had come to him, or by alcohol, and to lecture or even debate for hours and hours, a man quite at leisure, striding on tirelessly. Nothing in his appearance, in his curiosity always alert to all things, would have led me to believe that this man, so alive, so resplendent and handsome, concealed a wound in his side that he knew to be incurable, as his poetry would later reveal. And I had not yet read his warning, that one must never judge a man on appearances or talk about him without knowing ‘what is happening in his head when he finds himself alone, with the light off, under his sheets.’


(Mercure de France, January 1962, no. 1181, special issue Pierre Reverdy, pp. 159-160)




le chant des morts, 1944-48 ]

J’ai retrouvé l’île natale
L’archipel des mots libérés
Le sens le plus cruel des gestes furtifs
Dans l’ombre où la crainte se dissimule
Derrière le rideau mouvant de la pensée
A peine le dessein perçant sous les gerçures
Un doigt de miel sur les lèvres ourlées
Le grognement du ciel tard dans les encoignures
Où se cache l’absence d’un amour étoilé
Figure du retour sanglant à main remise
Désastre d’un destin tardivement éclos
Navire fracassé à l’angle des banquises
On joue à qui perd gagne sur les mots
Et sur le sol de sel durci à la lumière
Fatigué de t’entendre écouler tant de pleurs
Fleurs du matin roussi
Cœur dans mes mains de cendre
Dunes mouvantes du désert

song of the dead, 1944-48 ]

I have regained the island
The archipelago of words unbound
The cruelest sense of stolen gestures
In the shadows where fear conceals itself
Behind the twitching curtain of thought
The sketch barely piercing the cracks
A sliver of honey lines pursed lips
The groaning of the evening sky in every corner
Where hides an absence of any starlit love
Turning face bound with hand checked
Disaster of a fate coming late to bloom
Ship shattered at the edge of ice floes
We play word games of loser’s chess
And on the salty soil baked solid by the light
Tired of hearing you eke out so many woes
Flowers of the scorched morning
Heart in my hands of ash
The desert’s rolling dunes

Ferraille, 1937]

Il ne faut pas aller plus loin
Les bijoux sont pris dans la lyre
Les papillons noirs du délire
Remuent sans y penser la cendre du couchant

A peine revenu des voyages amers
Autour des cœurs jetés au fond des devantures
Sur l’avant-scène des prairies et des pâtures
Comme des coquillages nus devant la mer

A peine remué par l’amour de la vie
Des regards qui se nouent aux miens
Des visages sans nom des souvenirs anciens
Diamants de l’amour qui flottent sur la lie

Pour aller chercher au fond dans la vase
Le secret émouvant du sang de mon malheur
Il faut plonger la main aux racines du cœur
Et mes doigts maladroits brisent les bords du vase

Le sang qui jette sur tes yeux ce lourd rideau
L’émotion inconnue qui fait trembler ta lèvre
Et ce froid trop cruel qui emporte ta fièvre
Froisse dans tous les coins le linon de ta peau

Je t’aime sans jamais t’avoir vue que dans l’ombre
Dans la nuit de mon rêve où seul je peux y voir
Je t’aime et tu n’es pas encore sortie du nombre
Forme mystérieuse qui bouge dans le soir

Car ce que j’aime au fond c’est ce qui passe
Une fois seulement sur ce miroir sans tain
Qui déchire mon cœur et meurt à la surface
Du ciel fermé devant mon désir qui s’éteint

[cast iron, 1937]

We must not go any further
The jewels are set in the lyre
Delirium’s black butterflies
Stir unthinkingly the ashes of the setting sun

Barely back from bitter voyages
Around hearts thrown to the back of windows
Onto the foreground of prairies and pastures
Like naked shells before the sea

Barely roused by love for life
Looks which gather around mine
Nameless faces of times gone by
Diamonds of love floating on the dregs

Looking in the depths of the sludge
For the moving secret in the veins of my misfortune
I must sink a hand into the roots of my heart
And my clumsy fingers shatter the vase’s edge

The blood which draws this thick curtain over your eyes
The unknown emotion which makes your lip quiver
And this too cruel cold which drives your fever
Crumples all the corners of the linen of your skin

I love you having seen you only in the shadows
In the darkness of my dream where alone I can see
I love you and you are as yet indistinct
A mysterious form which moves through the evening

For what I love deep down is that which passes
Just once through this two-way mirror
Which tears my heart and dies at the surface
Of the closed sky before my ebbing desire

[sources du vent, 1929]

Un feu naturel flambe dans la grille des bois
A la racine prise au fond de la mémoire
Les sentiers imprévus et le ravin plus bas
Le trou creusé du ciel où les bêtes vont boire
Il n’y a qu’un moment plus frais dans la saison
dont les rousseurs s’effacent
sur le visage inquiet du vagabond
toujours conduit et rejeté
au temps qui le dépasse
La pluie manque au rocher
Le sillon suit son pas
Et l’homme fatigué revient sur la nuit noire
La route de clarté reflète un tourbillon
Une bouffée de mots tièdes qui veulent dire
Tous les oiseaux du ciel cherchent une oraison
Les arbres sont pris de délire
Tout est perdu dans la réalité
Tout est trop loin pour la main prisonnière
Le filon d’or
et la lumière
Le dernier regard de l’Été

[sources of the wind, 1929]

A wild flame blazes at the gate of the woods
Rooted down in the depths of memory
Down unknown paths and the gully below
The hole dug in the sky where the beasts go to drink
There is but one fresher moment in the season
when the freckles fade
on the anxious face of the wanderer
always driven away rejected
by time overwhelming
Rocks long for rain
Furrows long too
And the tired man turns back to the dark night
The lighted way resembles a whirlwind
A gust of warm words which want to speak
All the birds in the sky seek out their prayer
The trees are driven to folly
Everything lost in reality
Everything too far for the captive hand
Seam of gold
seam of light
Summer’s final glimpse


[1] Translator’s note: lit. The Oval Skylight. An early volume that first appeared in 1916, and now forms part of Plupart du Temps (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1998).



is a freelance translator working from French and Spanish. He is originally from Aberdeenshire but is currently living in London.



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