a line
is only a
sentence that stops then another
life rhymes
with life
we are all living rhymes
who look to
finish their sentences
there is no
end of
maybe without knowing it
we are only the syllables
of the words we begin
but no one has the whole sentence
meaning is only the odds and ends
of meaning we are what
is missing
completing the sentence belongs to
the other the other the other

une ligne
c’est seulement une
phrase qui s’arrête puis une autre
la vie rime
avec la vie
nous sommes tous des rimes vivantes
qui cherchent
à finir leur phrase
il n’y a pas
de fin pour
peut-être sans le savoir
nous ne sommes que les syllables
de mots que nous commençons
mais nul n’a la phrase entière
le sens c’est seulement des bouts
de sens que nous sommes ce qui
pour faire la phrase c’est chez
l’autre l’autre l’autre

–from Puisque je suis ce buisson (Since I Am This Bush),
Arfuyen, 2001

there is also laughter that floats in the air
we breathe it without knowing
laughter provides its colors
to things
and travels from breath
to breath
we hold back from
moving to see it
thanks to it
we are mixed with air

il y a aussi des rires qui restent en l’air
on les respire sans savoir
c’est eux qui donnent leurs couleurs
aux choses
et qui passent de souffle
en souffle
on se retient de
bouger pour les voir
par eux
nous sommes mêlés à l’air

–from Infiniment à venir (Infinitely to Come),
Dumerchez, 2004

Translators’ Note:
The original poems were written by Henri Meschonnic, whom Pierre Joris described as a core figure of the French literary scene of the last half-century (https://pierrejoris.com/blog/henri-meschonnic-1932-2009/).

Our translations are the result of a collaboration between a poet (Don Boes) and a translator (Gaby Bedetti). Our translations seem to be the first English translation since then of Meschonnic’s diaphanous stripped down voice. As with the poems of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jacques Réda, the rhythm of Meschonnic’s poems exposes the subject. He follows Montaigne’s practice—“I do not describe being. I describe the passage… from minute to minute.” Meschonnic’s poems follow Montaigne—“I do not describe being. I describe the passage… from minute to minute.” Untitled and unpunctuated, his poems are kin to W. S. Merwin “climbing out of myself/ all my life.” Meschonnic writes, “I am not in what/ I seek but in what escapes me.” Our larger project is to translate a few poems from each of Meschonnic’s nineteen collections, which we look to publish as a Selected Poems. The attached poems are a sampling from that manuscript.

Our challenge as translators was to capture the continuous movement of the poems, a movement that suggests the possibility of passing energy from subject to subject, of inventing within language new ways of being with oneself, others, and the world. Replicating this movement in English texts was difficult. We could hear and feel the rhythm of the French. And, we thought, Meschonnic’s minimal vocabulary and relative lack of poetic features, such as images and metaphors (his poems are nearly adjective-free), suggested somewhat of a clear path from French to English. However, we soon realized his rhythms and condensed language was in the service of mapping voices, not poems. His use of enjambment and only the most colloquial verbs and nouns made us take a hard look at individual words (no matter their simplicity) and therefore, the world. In translating these poems, we became, like Meschonnic, that accomplished innovator, “patients of life.”

Our translations of Meschonnic’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Asymptote, The Brooklyn Rail, Ezra, and Rhino Poetry. We’d love to see his stripped-down voice reach more Anglophone readers.

Translator Bios:
Don Boes is the author of Good Luck With That, Railroad Crossing, and The Eighth Continent, selected by A. R. Ammons for the Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize. His poems have appeared in The Louisville Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, CutBank, Zone 3, Southern Indiana Review, and The Cincinnati Review.

Gabriella Bedetti studied translation at the University of Iowa and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her translations of Meschonnic’s essays and other writings have appeared in New Literary History, Critical Inquiry, and Diacritics. Meschonnic was a guest of the MLA at her roundtable with Ralph Cohen and Susan Stewart.


Henri Meschonnic

Henri Meschonnic (1932–2009) is a key figure of French “new poetics,” best known worldwide for his translations from the Old Testament and the 710-page Critique du rythme. During his long career, Meschonnic generated controversy in the literary community. As a poet and as a translator of the Hebrew verse of the Bible, Meschonnic contends that rhythm rules over meaning, flowing from the bottom up. For him, the revolution in the idea of language is the basis of a continuing change, not only in the poem but also in the idea of history and social life itself. His poems appear in more than a dozen languages; however, even now, almost none of Meschonnic’s poems have been translated into English. His poetry has received prestigious awards, including the Max Jacob International Poetry Prize, the Mallarmé Prize, the Jean Arp Francophone Literature Prize, and the Guillevic-Ville de Saint-Malo Grand Prize for Poetry.