Songs by Jacques Brel


Seems he’s dead, Fernand
seems Fernand has died
seems I’m on my own back here
seems he’s on the other side

him–he’s in his wooden box
me–I’m in a fog
him–they put him in the hearse
me–a desert slog.

Ahead, I see just one white horse
behind, just teary me
seems there’s not the slightest breeze
to set my flowers free.

Me, if I were god above
I think I’d run and hide
seems it has begun to rain
seems Fernand has died.

Seems we’re crossing Paris now
as the early dawn sets in
seems we’re crossing Paris now
I’d swear we’re in Berlin
You, asleep, don’t know
it’s sad to be among the dead
to be obliged to part
with Paris still in bed.

Me, I’ve got half a mind
to rouse the citizens
to bring them to the burial
to pretend they are your kin.

And me, if I were god above,
it wouldn’t be my finest hour
I guess one does the best one can
but this is how you use your power?

You know that I will visit you
I’ll come by every week
to this forsaken field
and wish that we could speak.

Summertime I’ll give you shade
we’ll toast, but silently
we’ll toast to Constance, what a girl
where the hell is she?

Grown-ups, what jerks they are
they’ve hatched another war
me, I’ll come and join you soon
and sleep upon your floor.

Congratulations, god above–
your best joke in years
congratulations, god above,
and now, here come my tears.

The Lockman (L’Eclusier)

The bargemen watch
me as I age
the bargemen age
as I watch them.
We play old games
we have outgrown
say “tag you’re it”
you turn to stone.

The bluest blue
of summer skies
is lost on us—
we close our eyes.

It’s quite a job to man the locks.

The bargemen know
my worn-out mug
they tease me so
but I just shrug.
I’m half a shaman
half a lush
I cast a spell
and singers hush.
At harvest time
the crops abound
we gather apples
then the drowned.

It’s quite a job to man the locks.

Inside the pram
The baby blows
to get the fly
off of his nose.
His mama hums
the hour sighs
the cabbage sweats
the fire dies.

When cold winds come
when winter’s here
we think of dad
who drowned last year.

It’s quite a job to man the locks.

When spring arrives
there’s such a charge
as bargemen’s wives
flirt from the barge.
I wish they’d stop
this silly war
it’s worn me down;
what’s good’s it for?
My line of work
it’s in the spring
we plot the depth
and plan our fling.

My Childhood

My childhood passed
in sepia quiet
with never a riot,
revering false gods.
Winters I holed up
deep inside the big house.
The north wind came through
outside the cattails blew.
Summers half-dressed
but modest nonetheless
I became a redskin
though somehow I guessed
that my well-fed uncles
had mortgaged the Wild West.

My childhood passed
with women in aprons
I was dreaming of China
while they churned out meals.
Flemish men with their cheeses
the smoke from cigars
sage or just silent
so near and yet so far.
And each night at bedtime
I got down on my knees
at the foot of my big bed
no one answered my pleas.
I longed to board a train
bound for a new terrain.

My childhood passed
one servant, another—
how could it be so
that they all pulled up stakes?
And how could it be so
that my family’s main pastime
was dressing in mourning
and going to wakes?
The family’s joy and pride
was knowing how to cry
how could it be so
that I was part of this clan
I had the eye of a shepherd
but the heart of a lamb.

My childhood burst
into adolescence
and one morning the silence
cracked at the seams.
First flowers appeared
the first girl bloomed too
kindness broke through
and fear joined the brew.
I could fly, I swear to you
I still swear that I flew
my heart opened its door
little savage no more.

Then the war came into sight
and here we are tonight.

What Do You See, My Boy?

What do you see my boy,
what do you see?
On the plain way out there
as high as the reeds
between windmill and sky
there’s a man coming near
who I don’t recognize.
What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?

Is he a traveler who’s lost
a neighbor displaced
a vet from the war
a merchant of lace?
Is he a priest peddling hope
with a sack full of sermons
to help people cope?
Has my brother come back
to bury the hatchet
to let bygones be gone
or is it just the wind
stirring the vines
forming mirages
to help us pass the time?

What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?
On the plain way out there
as high as the reeds
between windmill and sky
there’s a man coming near
who I don’t recognize.
What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?

It’s no neighbor of ours
his horse is too sleek
to be from these parts
or to be back from the wars
It can’t be a priest
his horse is too weak
to belong to the church.
It isn’t a merchant
his horse is too bright
his garments too white

Who’d come anyway
across that creaky bridge
since father passed away
who might know who we are?

What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?
On the plain way out there
as high as the reeds
between windmill and sky
there’s a man coming near
who I don’t recognize.
What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?

No my brother’s not back
his horse would have shied
my brother’s not back
they told me he’d died
There’s nothing left here
he could possibly want
My brother’s not back—
he never would dare.
This shadow at noon
is haunting me so
it’s giving me a scare.

Come, it’s just the wind
stirring the vines
to help us pass the time.
What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?
On the plain way out there
as high as the reeds,
between windmill and sky
There’s a man leaving now
we’ll never know who.
What do you see, my boy,
what do you see?

You must dry all your tears
there’s a man leaving now
who can do us no harm
you can put down your arms.

Bonbons ‘67

I’ve come to take my bonbons back.
Germaine, you see you hurt me so
you didn’t have to make that crack
about how long my hair has grown
It’s an unforgivable attack
I’ve come to take my bonbons back.

Anyway, I’m a whole new guy
I live at the Hotel George Vee.
I’ve lost my Belgian inflections
no one talks that way these days
but that guy Brel on the TV.
Please give my bonbons back to me.

When Dad provokes me
I just go poof.
I take Mama to see a shrink.
I say that Mom’s a bit of a snob
and that Dad is cool, wink wink.
Hey—it’s just the generation gap.
I’ve come to take my bonbons back.

And Saturdays when all is calm
Germaine, I listen to my growing hair
I cure my munchies with a snack
I cry, “end the war in Vietnam.”
Because I have opinions to the max.
I’ve come to take my bonbons back.

Oh, I see your kid brother there, Miss Germaine
the one who’s a neo-con
I’ve brought you some bonbons.

Because flowers tend to wilt
and bonbons taste so sweet
though flowers sure look nice
and the buds are such a treat

I’ve brought you some bonbons…


Jacques Brel

Jacques Brel (1929-1978) was a Belgian-born singer-songwriter who failed impressively in his first attempt to break into the music scene in Paris in the 1950s, and by the '60s was arguably the best-known and most-celebrated composer and performer of chansons in Europe. Known for his sturdy baritone and unusually expressive delivery, he performed his own songs exclusively, including the huge hits “Quand On n’a que l’Amour,” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” “Marieke,” “Amsterdam,” and “La Chanson des Vieux Amants.” His catalog of close to 200 songs encompasses a wide range of subjects and styles, from early lighthearted love songs to musical character sketches to tender ballads and biting satirical numbers often aimed at organized religion, the bourgeoisie, and hypocrisy. He retired from touring abruptly in 1966 to pursue a second career as an actor, and later a director. In 1968, the English-language Off-Broadway revue “Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” introduced Americans to his work. He spent his final years sailing around the world, settling in the Marquesas Islands before dying at age 49 of lung cancer.

Michele Herman

Michele Herman’s poems, short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Sun, Lilith, Metropolis, Diagram, and dozens of other magazines and journals. Her first chapbook of poems, Victory Boulevard, will be released in February 2018 by Finishing Line Press. She is also a longtime columnist for The Villager (the Greenwich Village weekly paper), a writing teacher, a developmental editor, and an occasional spoken-word performer. She is a two-time recipient of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for her Brel translations.

Copyright (c) Éditions Jacques Brel, 1965, 1967, 1968. English translation copyright (c) Michele Herman, 2017.