Poetry by Jean-Baptiste Para

Ghazal for Rosa L.

…I am always thinking of the Communist future.
Gerard Manley Hopkins


Night effaces the blackbird’s tracks
Dark comes to my new prison.

I hear the steps of the guard pacing
Sunday is the prisoner’s saddest day.

Sonia, thank you for the sweet peas
Your acts of kindness are as sweet as the horizon.

A cloud is sufficient for my happiness
But the sky cannot circumvent these walls.

Songbirds–a warbler, a titmouse–console me.
Solomon gathers their sounds, O implements of healing.

I do not know why their songs have departed Germany
Tsitsi be, tsistsi be and suddenly without reason I feel anguish.

I hear the noise of the water as I drink
And then silence begins anew–I shall never become embittered.

The ants and the white sand are my comrades
I will die at my post if I am to die in prison.

I am linked to life by an invisible thread
In every creature love has its coat of arms.

If it seems to you that my mouth has gone dry of words
It is because the root of sacrifice resides in that which we haven’t said.

But if I fall before having uttered my heart’s secrets
And if desire concedes to death its final banner

Bring me a meter of black tulle
So that I may cover my eyes like those of a falcon.

Let my wound be the balm which heals my wound
And let my pain wither as do roses within these prison’s walls.

On the Victory of the Imperial Army

The imperial army has retaken the Eastern capital.
I don’t know who has brought the news.
A monk in blue sandals
or this young man, as robust as a young calf?

On the lake reflections of stars eddy
Rain no longer moistens my sleeves.
Must I ascertain from where comes the sound
Or take up my brush and give myself to its ink?

War horses, work horses, I will say it to you.
My paper is less white than the skin of the girls of Wu.
Victory is more bitter than the core of astringent fruit.

On this day upon which I pay my wine debts
one epitaph shall suffice to open my heart:
The world has plagued me but has not overtaken me.

Plateau of the Ming

And in the case where you, my son, might now
aspire to despair you will
find the entire world at your disposition
Sarah Kirsch


On a terrace enclosed by a balustrade and a pavilion, two
men of letters converse
Flowering foliage which runs the length of the foundation stones
protects them from a night as black as lacquer.
Servants surround them, pouring refreshments.
For the entire time a footman stands holding the horse’s bridal.
This reddening peony is the form of dejection in which
they rest, light, under the eyelids of time.

Before Saying Goodbye

On the span of a cupola
clear and dirty water will mix.
You will seek out the bullfinch in the plain.
And again be astonished by its leaden-brown ridge.
Your heart will go barefoot,
You will give it to a white sun, to the intransigent steppe.
When Brentano will descend the course of the Isar,
your barque will shipwreck, a brew of stars in the waters’ depths.


Whole days I give my heart to silence
and if I close my eyes I see
a white cypress at the edge of a spring
peacocks walking upon wet sands
a dampened cloth
the silhouette of saints
upon the gold base of an icon
and your face standing out against
the light of your name

For my open eyes
everything has kept
its form intact

A Slight Fever

To lose what would have been able to be
has left a trace,
a vacant word
amongst the leaves
through which time falls drop by drop.
That which is inert possesses a velocity
I will never attain.
It is our room facing upon the street.
I would like look at your face
at the precise moment when the world catches fire.
But everything that exists
suffers in translation.
Who could separate shadows
so that once again they might know expectation?
A poem carries out its own instruction
face down amongst the brambles.
I know that I must stifle my voice.

Last Visage

As the hours dwindle down
an unknown hand leads us
along unwalked routes and through twenty closed doors
where life is steadfast like silence,
an impoverished passerby with naked
and hopeless feet beneath a blemished moon.
We see no more than the kind of movement
which reveals emptiness amidst the spokes of a wheel
and this heart which beats for the lucent prow
at last guiding us through internal pathways
towards the fresh water of agony.


Kitezh, Kitezh
when Love succeeds love
of what do you think?

Of the one whose name I seek,
at first breath in her night,
of her flesh which stretches across my stomach,
her face smooth amidst
life’s impoverished terrain.

We hold closest
to that which is not yet,
white like arms, like snow
we accompany the steps of
an infant never born.

Kitezh, Kitezh,
when anticipation succeeds anticipation,
about what do you think?

of the blackness of flies,
of the kites a father knows so well how to fashion
for his little son
with long eyelashes of usnea
from which one might
make an ogre’s beard
in the lightness of gravity’s commencements
where a child might balance
in oscillation,
in trochaic light,
filling his pockets with beechnuts
as if narrated
in a nursery rhyme
which seems to trail off
enveloped in the formalities
of public holidays

Kitezh Kitezh
Do you hear the sound
of the bells
tolling at the bottom of the sea?

The Same Trace

“An entire epoch
whose open face
is that of a nightmare”
(from a letter of Chris Marker
to Medvedkine, I remember only these
words bound tight like a hand
whose shadow splinters
in fragments, a fist
where an angel endlessly opens
and closes its wings
while the eye of a cyclist
traces a straight line
from a hidden sun
to the ever bright sparkle
of his handlebars).


Jean-Baptiste Para

Jean-Baptiste Para (1956-), in addition to being one of the contemporary French language's best poets, is also a very fine art critic, and a superb translator of Italian (Umberto Saba, Antonio Tabucchi, Guiseppe Conte, Camillo Sbarbaro, Cristina Campo, Milo de Angelis, Giorgio Manganelli, Alberto Savinio), Russian (Vera Pavlova, Nikolai Zabolotski), and Indian (Nissim Ezekial, Agha Shahid Ali) authors. For more than two decades he has been the editor-in-chief of France's leading literary review, Europe, which was founded in 1923 by Romain Rolland and edited in the 1930s by the poet, art historian, and resistance hero Jean Cassou,who thereby forms a marvelous symmetrical pair with Para. Para's first book of poems, Arcanes de l'ermite et du monde, appeared in 1985, followed in 1986 by Une semaine dans la vie de Mona Grembo, and subsequently Atlantes (1991), a truly splendid volume which should be much better known, and the Apollonaire Prize-winning 2006 volume, La faim des ombres, from which the translations presented here are drawn. Para is also the author of a study of Virgil, Longa tibi exilia (1990), and of Le jeune des yeux et autres exercises du regard (2000), a volume containing many of his essays in art criticism. In addition, he is the author of a sagacious, supple, and truly superb book on the French poet and art critic Pierre Reverdy, Pierre Reverdy (2007), a book which Para, poet and art critic of the most special and supple kind, was certainly elected to write.

Steve Light

Steve Light, a basketball point-guard following upon Nate Archibald, Pete Maravich, and Willie Somerset--and akin as well to Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, and Earl Boykins--is also a philosopher and poet. He is the translator of Jean Grenier’s Islands: Lyrical Essays, and his translations of poems from the Friulian and Italian of Pier Paolo Pasolini, the Italian of Sergio Solmi, Umberto Saba, Giuseppi Ungaretti, Salvatore Quasimodo, and Carlo Carabba, the French of Alain Suied and Jean-Baptiste Para, the German of Rainer Maria Rilke, and the Japanese of Yoko Mihashi, have appeared in journals and reviews in the US, UK, and Canada. His own writings have appeared in the US, UK, Jamaica, Canada, Australia, France, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Argentina, Brazil, and Japan.

La faim des ombres. Copyright (c) Editions Obsidiane, 2006. English translation copyright (c) Steve Light, 2015.