Six poems from Charms by Paul Valéry

The Sylph

Unseen unknown
I am perfume
Born on the wind,
Faded, alive!

Unseen unknown,
Genius or chance?
No sooner come
The task is done!

Unread ungrasped,
The finest minds
Will stumble there!

Unseen unknown,
Glimpse of a breast
Through loosened shirts!

The Faux Death

Humble, tender, against the charming tomb,
……….Unfeeling monument
That out of shadows, leavings, offered love
……….Conjures your weary grace,
I fall, dying against you, dying — Yet,

No sooner fallen across the low grave
Whose lawn littered with ashes summons me,
Life reawakens in her seeming death;
She shakes, reopens lambent eyes, and bites,
And wrenches from my chest still other deaths
……….Dearer than life.

Lost Wine

One day I tossed into the Ocean
(I don’t recall under what skies)
A kind of offering to the void,
A whole remnant of precious wine…

Who willed your loss, Oh alcohol?
Perhaps the heavens led my hand?
Perhaps my heart’s preoccupation,
Dreaming of blood, spilling wine?

There was a brief effusion of rosy
Smoke, and then the sea became
Transparent, as it was before…

The wine lost… the waves drunk!
I saw extraordinary figures
Leaping across the bitter air…

The Bee

However keen may be your sting,
However fatal, yellow bee,
Over my basket I have draped
The merest dream of floating lace.

So prick that swelling gourd, my breast
Where Love is sleeping, or has died.
A little of myself will rise
Scarlet to plump, rebellious flesh!

A sudden pang is what I need:
A pain that quickens and is gone
I’d rather than this slumbering grief.

Illuminate my senses with
Your microscopic gold alarm
Without which Love slumbers or dies!


Oh curves that meander
As a secret lie,
Is not this slowness
The tenderest art?

I know where I’m going,
I’ll take you there,
My dark intentions
Mean you no harm…

(Although she smiles
With blooming pride,
So much freedom

Oh curves that meander
As a secret lie,
I’ll make you wait
For the tenderest word

The Girdle

When, blushing as a cheek, the sky
At last admits the reverent eyes
And time, tipped towards a golden death,
Plays a while among the roses,

A Shadow, loosely girdled, dances
Against the quiet of delight
That such a picture has inspired,
The evening snatching at her hem.

This girdle, floating freely on
The rise and fall of the wind’s breath,
Riffles the single filament
That ties my silence to this world.

Absent, present… I am truly
Alone in shadow, luring shroud.


Paul Valéry

Paul Valéry (1871-1945) occupies a key place in French poetry, summing up the charm and technique of the nineteenth century while looking ahead to the psychological preoccupations of the twentieth. His reputation was made by a small amount of highly polished verse, but he also published numerous essays and other occasional work, and left behind the 28,000 pages of his early morning notebooks filled with notes, aphorisms, and prose poems.

Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody

Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody's translations of French poetry have appeared in magazines such as TriQuarterly, Two Lines, and Cerise Press, and at film festivals in Scotland and Rome. He was the recipient of the 2013 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation, and a book of his French poems is forthcoming next year with Arbre à Paroles. He lives in Belgium.

English translation copyright (c) Nathaniel Rudavsky-Brody, 2014.