Yves PréfontaineOn July 25th 2015 my friend the poet, blogger and curator Dave Bonta was kind enough to publish on his eminent blog, Via Negativa  a first draft of French-Canadian poet Yves Préfontaine’s extraordinary poem Peuple Inhabité. Life in a time of Corona has given me the time to return to it and as result make some small but important revisions. 

Here;’s what Dave wrote above that first translation:

Quite a challenge, this one. It’s always a delicate balance that has to be maintained between ‘translation’ and ‘version’ so I shall be interested in any feedback from other Francophones.

I found a brief biog of Yves Préfontaine at the Electronic Poetry Centre (which, incidentally, opened for business way back in the mid ‘90s when there was virtually no poetry presence on the internet at all). Born in 1937 in Montréal, poet Yves Préfontaine is an anthropologist by training. He published his first poems at the age of fifteen and released his first collection at twenty. At eighteen, he began his career as radio script writer at Radio-Canada, with some incursions into television. He organized, amongst other things, a series of fourteen shows with Oscar Peterson, the great jazz pianist – who was also originally from Montréal. In 1959, he co-founded the journals Situations and Le Québec libre; later he joined the editorial board of Liberté, of which he was the editor-in-chief from 1961 to 1962. […] His poems have been translated into English, Spanish, Hungarian, Italian, Romanian, and Croatian.


by Yves Préfontaine, translated by Dick Jones

I live in a region where the cold has beaten down the grass, where  gloom lies heavy over the ghostly trees.

I live in silence amongst a dormant population, shivering under the frost of their words. I live amongst a people who have lost all language both fragile and forceful.

I live inside an all-embracing cry –
Speechless stone –
Sudden clifftops –
The winter a naked blade in my chest.

A snowdrift of exhaustion gently stifles this land in which I live.

And I prevail within the fog.
And I persist in speaking out.
And from my pain no echo returns.

A people’s language is their bread.
A place of light amongst the rotting wheat.

I live amongst a people who have lost themselves.
And the great territories of their joy wither beneath this endless tundra
This great disowned abundance.
I live inside a cry powerless now to pierce, to strike, to break through
these barriers of spittle and masks.
I live amongst a phantom people disowned like the ugly daughter.
And my footsteps mark a circle in this desert. A deluge of furious white faces surrounds me.

The land that I inhabit is a marble tableau under ice.
And this land empty of the men of light whispers in my blood
like a lover.
But I fight against this absence between my teeth, a poverty of words
that gleam and then are lost.


Peuple inhabité

J’habite un espace où le froid triomphe de l’herbe, où la grisaille règne
en lourdeur sur des fantômes d’arbres.

J’habite en silence un peuple qui sommeille, frileux sous le givre de ses mots. J’habite un peuple dont se tarit la parole frêle et brusque.

J’habite un cri tout alentour de moi –
Pierre sans verbe –
Falaise abrupte –
Lame nue dans ma poitrine l’hiver.Une neige de fatigue étrangle avec douceur le pays que j’habite.

Et je persiste en des fumées.
Et je m’acharne à parler.
Et la blessure n’a point d’écho.

Le pain d’un peuple est sa parole.
Mais point de clarté dans le blé qui pourrit.

J’habite un peuple qui ne s’habite plus.
Et les champs entiers de la joie se flétrissent sous tant de sécheresse
Et tant de gerbes reniées.
J’habite un cri qui n’en peut plus de heurter, de cogner, d’abattre
Ces parois de crachats et de masques.
J’habite le spectre d’un peuple renié comme fille sans faste.
Et mes pas font un cercle en ce désert. Une pluie de visages blancs
Me cerne de fureur.

Le pays que j’habite est un marbre sous la glace.
Et ce pays sans hommes de lumière glisse dans mes veines comme
Femme que j’aime.
Or je sévis contre l’absence avec entre les dents, une pauvreté de mots
Qui brillent et se percent

Jean Coulthard  – The Bird Of Dawning Singeth All Night Long. Poem for violin, harp and strings (1960)




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My dad was a man of prose – a specialist: words used
like gardening tools to conjure shapes, to fashion patterns.
Language mattered: correspondence ran to pages –
letters to the council; ‘thank you’ cards to nurses
that read like testimonials. Even notes to the milkman
came across like billets doux to an old and valued friend.
And the writing: tiny box-shaped words in biro,
whispering in lines, or gathered quietly in the margins,
small-voiced but insistent, looking for truths.

When he knew that he was dying, he sat at the edge
of his life, scribbling a commentary. Twinges
from a cancer hotspot got a note immediately,
draped around the Guardian crossword clues
or squeezed between the calculations in his ledger:
where it hurt, for what duration, and, in imagistic detail,
the character of pain (like a voice, like broken glass, an ache
like winter rheumatism). And, towards the end, in his little diary,
potted phrases: “Slept well”, “Insomnia”, “Coughing still”.

For we who sat around his bed, it was the silence
that confounded. To the nurses plumping pillows, lifting cups
from which he didn’t want to drink; to waiting family
fiddling with the radio, sifting through his laundry,
he said nothing. All his words were spent just days ahead
of the breath that carried them. And then, the afternoon
of the day he died, the clouds drew back, late spring appeared.
Mum leaned back towards the window, smiled and said:
‘Look – a clear blue sky’, and we turned to see.

My father didn’t turn his head. Whatever sky he saw
was far behind in time, or maybe just ahead. Whatever sky it was,
no messianic veil, no chariots of fire obscured the view.
His great abundance, just like ours, was absolutely empty –
birdless, sunless, silent and ineffable, mocking the mad commotion
down below. He drew in breath, breathed out and said:
‘A clear blue sky’, floating the words on the sterile air
like leaves. He didn’t speak again; he died that night and,
one by one, the stars went out, a lexicon set free.


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The quality of light: this, a piece
of late evening sky. How darkness
can shine: last of the sun, a first
breath of stars, a waxing moon.

Judas walks out of the small room
while they are still dining.
No one knows but Jesus
and his head is turned away.

But they can’t escape, these
protagonists, caught between
the ruby and green, the dark blue light,
the black bands of lead.



What interests me so much more than
those pages of scripture foxed with turning
is his choosing of a blue gown over a white;

his weighing of two stones in either hand, the one
mottled like a perfect moon, the other pale and blind
as a sleeper’s face,

and his standing by an open window
speculating the limitless sea
as a merciful place where to rest his head

against a turning back towards a roiling world
whose tide is in the flood.


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dj in front garden


A summer morning.
I’m 10. I’m sitting
in a sandpit, back
supported by
a bucket
upside down.
The sun is brilliant,
and standing high;
it must be
nearly noon. I
tip back my head
and I yawn and
the sun fills
my open mouth
like a spoon
and I know
that I shall
live forever.

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Memories of loneliness within the crowd and seeking solitude in order to conjure up home…


They were singing The Parting Glass. The fire was high.
Some eyes were closed with the weight of the song;
others gleamed. All there were drinking hard.

The windows ran with condensation and rain fell straight
in the windless night. I rose and threaded my way
to the door. From woodsmoke, I stepped into seaspray.

From the crossweave of the song, I stepped into the cry
of gulls. Sickle wings looped and turned in the dark.
I sat on the wall and thought of home. I lifted my face

into the rain and thought of you and the children. All of you
asleep – your hair auburn-red over the counterpane,
their faces spellbound. And I called along the alleys

of the rain and out across the tenements of clouds
to where you lay sleeping, thinking not to wake you but
just to stand for a heartbeat at the corner of your dreams.

Image: https://landseastars.wordpress.com/2011/03/12/the-griffin-inn-dale/

The Parting Glass at Peadar O’Donnell’s Bar, Derry

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Another restless night. At 01.20 I stood at the window watching the skyline. During previous bouts of insomnia, there was always something faintly comforting about the long, probing lights of planes flying into Luton Airport from the east and descending elegantly behind the trees. Others awake like me, but in transit from Sofia, Talinn, Lyon, Kutaisi, Reykjavik, Cork. The enigma of arrival.

But in the small hours this morning nothing disturbed the skyline. And my sense of solitude was strangely heightened by the sudden doppler whine of a motorbike speeding by on the road below. But, of course, the solitude is real and its sense is pervasive. Yesterday we went for a walk. We crossed the fields and walked down the long slope of the lane. We were passed by just one car before turning onto the muddy track that took us past the farm and onto the bottom of the hill leading up to our house. As we walked alongside the meadow where the horses are grazed, half way up it a lone figure was slipping a bridle over the neck and head of a piebald shire horse. She turned as she gathered it into her arms and saw the three of us paused by the fence. With the solemnity of the stay-at-home edict still fresh in our minds, there was a curious hesitancy in the distant encounter. Then the woman slowly raised her free arm in a strangely stiff and formal salute; we returned it in similar manner; she turned and walked towards the stable buildings and we continued on our way.

So suddenly we’re strangers in a strange land. And as the economic structure purées all standard procedure around us, the normal social protocols go into suspension. In one street an act of inexplicable cruelty and stupidity occurs; in a parallel street the self-sacrifical kindness of a stranger demonstrates the extraordinary generosity that ennobles humanity in crisis.

And it’s all broken apart in a little over a fortnight. Here we all are inside our familiar house, moving from room to room, eating meals, binge-watching on Netflix, carrying our laundry upstairs, face-timing friends, sweeping floors, insulated briefly from the Mystery. But the outside world that we scrutinise through the windows has fallen away. The trees and fields and pathways prevail, but the few passers-by hasten in their transit as if anxious only to draw their own walls swiftly around them so that they too may themselves move from room to room, glancing now and then through the windows.

Ólafur Arnalds – Particles, featuring Nanna Brands Hilmarsdóttir.

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Brent Geese (Branta bernicla) flying past the moon

I’m okay during the day. There’s lots to do and in between the TV bulletins updating us on the steepening infection curve, the increasingly ravaged images of angry, exhausted doctors and nurses on the front line and the sad, baffled faces of politicians sharing our fear and incomprehension, I’ve been here before: I’m on holiday and the time beat of the day has adjusted to the slow, muffled background thump of hours without agenda or direction.

But at night I wake up suddenly. I open my eyes and the stars are looking back at me, cold and indifferent. Sometimes I’m able to sleep again immediately. But too frequently there’s something about that indifference, that absolute implacability that has me out of bed and downstairs, fearful and alone…


Unable to sleep, I sit before
the heartless brilliance of the screen
with the real-world darkness

hovering, fresh-minted, glossy
at the window. It’s as if time
has packed her bags and left

for the coast and then beyond.
Fear leans on the back of my chair
in his poacher’s coat, deep pockets

full of gin-traps, poison, shiny knives.
I take off my glasses, knuckle away
the mess of my tears. And then,

like a gaggle of drunks through
a suddenly opened door, the geese
are overhead. Some crass dispute

as to the whereabouts of water
in the impossible night, their voices
skronking inside a collision of

cranking necks and wings. As they
tumble through the unseen clouds,
I laugh out loud and love them all

for their unconsidered vandalism,
neither thought nor theory troubling
the palate of their need.

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I stood looking out of the kitchen window. Hardly a breeze; everything very still. Early violets studding the grass; those last daffodils; the may pushing through the privet. The unconscious persistence of nature set against listening to the Canon Triplex In omnem terram exivit sonus eorum by Benedetto Marcello from the radio, caught by chance at that moment. Tears streamed.

It’s too easy to interpret that persistence through the medium of the emotions, as if these synchronous moments represent some kind of absolute compact between nature observed and our attempts to frame the numinous through music. But Covid 19, the latest in a group of disabling corona viruses, is moving amongst us with the same unconscious persistence. And to the epidemiologist that microscopic floret-bearing globe will have beauty too, even as it exploits our immune systems through sickness and maybe into death.

Spring is officially wide open on Friday and with its cautious warmth and early blooming we’ll feel hope as we open doors and step into it. Easy to emotionalise the big, pale blue skies and the sudden blossom amongst the spiny branches still pushing out their buds. The best we can manage amidst the fecundity of Covid 19 is fear.

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Day 3 of family self-isolation. But it’s a spring Sunday and the daffodils are still in full cry across our weird bumpy lawn. I tried for some solemn moments yesterday. I had a how-to-cope list on my knee that started off with the words, ‘We don’t know what’s in store and we don’t know for how long…’ But everyone giggled so my Swiss Family Robinson pater familias role went up in smoke before I could get to the hard-core survivalist stuff.

So life goes on much as usual with only flickers of newsreel images in the tail of an eye or the sententious tones en passant of another rogue epidemiologist calling out the government for indecisive management to remind us that this is only the beginning. This morning when the girls were up in our bedroom for Mother’s Day a barn owl swept across a skylight whilst higher in a pale blue sky two red kites sauntered around the thermals. We have enough in fridge and freezer pro tem and the local village store and our beloved Red Lion are opening up as conduits for supplies. Behind me now a crop sprayer crosses the field with radials at full spread like some crazily optimistic aeronautical folly. Cars thump pass and a Harley-Davidson hammers along in its own blue smoke behind the Stevenage bus. We can all still hold our collective breath because this is only the beginning.


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It’s still outside, save for the cars passing. I’m home alone. Sunny on the fields, but cold inside because I daren’t overtax the two 47kg LPG cylinders that comprise our entire gas supply. Better to wrap up during the day and disseminate a little heat in the evening when everyone’s home. Just one delivery driver down with the C19 and we go without for days. Eric Whitacre’s ‘Allelluia’ is on iTunes, volume down so the distant voices seem to be percolating through the walls.

I don’t feel fear for me. Those microscopic naval mines will come bobbing by if they will. And if one bumps my bows then I’ll brace myself for the muffled boom and hope that the damage stays above the waterline. Much more concerned for family members. They have asthma – not severely, but the ash trees are self-germinating now and they’re promiscuous with their pollen.

So not afraid for myself, just sad, terribly sad. Bereft, I guess – so sudden a loss. The Tuesday before last I was at Steve and Jo’s for our weekly music session. I had a bassline to put on a song of Gemma’s after which we played through Steve’s and my two latest songs. Then there was to be next week at mine and the following at Steve’s and so on into our mutual indefinite futures. Now Steve and Jo are in voluntary seclusion through the months ahead and the shared music that has for each one of us served our souls in troubled times must await the silent, invisible movement of this toxic global cloud.

That’s my immediate sorrow. In the world at large there’s ‘a drawing down of blinds’ as everything that has animated our quotidian lives for generations ceases, bringing about a huge empty, uncomprehending vacancy. From those hastening up and down the corridors of power to the puzzled soul standing alone in a once busy street, no one knows what must happen next. The Four Estates are dumbfounded. All about us the signal-to-noise ratio loses out to mere babble. A rumpled, baffled PM mangles his silver spoon vowels, turning with ill-concealed relief to one of the two skeletal science supremoes who flank him on either side. I watch the mouths flapping and think of Yeats: The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

I sleep fitfully, wondering in my momentary half-consciousness what it is that’s shifting out there in the darkness. And in the morning I know.

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