The Cemetery by the Sea

Μή, φἰλα ψυχά, βἰον άθάνατον

σπεῦδε, ταν δ’ἔμπφρακτον ἄντλεῖ μαχαναν.

Pindar, Pythian Odes, III.


This peaceful roof where doves couple and hum

shakes with heat between the pine trees and tombs

as noon the arbiter unfolds in flames

the sea’s endless need to begin again;

this is the final recompense for thoughts

that looked on the long calmness of the gods.


What perfect shifts of brightnesses consume

myriad diamonds of imperceptible foam,

and what peace, seemingly conceived in mists!

When a sun settles itself on the abyss,

an eternal cause’s pure achievements glow,

Time turns to flecked fire, what was dreamt, to known.


Calm mass of arrogance, close-kept trove of light,

this tide is Minerva’s simplest shrine, an Eye

of visible reserve, upturned, restraining

such a store of rest beneath its veil of flames,

and my silence … Constructed in the soul,

but, Roof, golden summit to a thousand tiles!


Time’s temple, summed in a sigh’s loneliness,

I accustom myself to the cliff’s crest,

surrounded by the sight of burning sea,

and, as if it were my highest offering

to the gods, the flecked fires sow, serene,

upon this height, a sovereign disdain.


As the fruit concludes itself in pleasure,

as delight springs from its being-no-more,

between the teeth that eat its form away,

I snuff the smoke of my future in this place,

and the sky sings to the soul in its teeth

whispers of sands shifting beneath the sea.


Handsome sky, I am abandoning myself

to a shining vacuum beneath your truth,

after so much pride, after such strange lengths

of idleness, but full, heaven, of strength,

look how I change! My shadow passes over

the graves and tames me to its frail shiver.


You have your weapons, light, are merciless:

I uphold your admirable justice,

soul stripped before the brands of equinox.

Pure I return you unchanged to your source

to see yourself … But reflection assumes

to the light the same again, left in gloom.


By a heart, at the wellspring of the poem,

in myself, to myself, for me alone,

between the pure event and the vacuum,

I wait the echo, ever still to come,

of the great space within me, in my soul,

a sombre, bitter, sonorous hollow.


Do you know, false captive to the foliage,

consuming gulf of the shadows’ slim cage,

eyes closed, and blinding secrets on their lids,

what flesh brings me to ending idleness,

what face draws it in, to this field of bones?

An ember thinking there, of my lost ones.


Closed, sacred, full of insubstantial fire,

fragment of earth offered up to the sky,

this place of gold, of stone, and sombre trees,

dominated whole by flames, pleases me,

where so much marble trembles over shades,

where the faithful sea dozes by my graves.


I wear a shepherd’s solitary smile

watching a flock at grass in strange still files,

white sheep of the graves. Resplendent watchdog

keep them from the idolater, keep off

the prudent doves brooding, and empty dreams;

make curious angels turn on their wings!


The future brought here idles, undoing.

Over dry dust an insect scrapes and gleams;

everything is burned, unmade, taken here,

and received in some strict essence’s air …

Drunk on absence, life changes, grows, is vast;

bitterness is sweet, the mind light and fast.


The hidden dead are well in the warm ground,

warm darkness wraps their mystery, dries it out.

Highest noon is above, moveless golden

considering, who suits himself alone …

Perfected head and perfect diadem,

I am the secret change in your kingdom.


I am your fears’ lone vessel and container,

my doubts, my repentances, my constraints

are your surrounding diamond’s only fault …

But in their heavy night of marble vaults,

a vague nation between the roots of trees

has taken your side, already, slowly.


Dissolved into dense absence, the pale race

is liquid now, drunk up by the red clay,

their knack of living passed into the plants.

Where now are the dead’s such personal arts,

their singular souls’ repeated phrases?

In tunnels once for tears, the larva mazes.


The sharpening shrieks of tickled girls, their eyes,

their lashes wet with tears, the teeth behind

gapped lips surrendering, and blood that shines

in them, the charming breasts fired and alive,

last gifts, and the fingers defending them;

all go down, and begin the game again!


And you, soul, do you wish a dream would come

without the lying colours that the sun

and waves present to eyes still set in meat?

Will you sing when you’re smoke? Go. All things flee.

My presence is here is porous and faint,

even sacred impatience dies, and fades.


Lean immortality, black gilded over,

laureate consolatrix crowned by fear,

who makes death a mother’s breast to rest in,

pious ruse and beautiful deception!

Who does not know and who does not revile

the empty skull, its fixed unending smile?


Profound fathers, uninhabited heads,

who are the ground and who confuse our steps

beneath so many spadefuls’ weights of earth,

the true mouth, the irrefutable worm,

is not for you who sleep beneath its table,

it lives off life, follows inescapable!


Love, perhaps, or is it hatred for myself?

So close beside me bides its secret tooth

that it could all titles bear, bear all names.

And so? what then? It sees me, wants me, dreams,

touches! My flesh draws it; even at rest

I live life only to belong to it!


Cruel philosopher, Elean Zeno!

Your feathered arrow has pierced me through,

which flying quivers, and which cannot fly;

I’m born in its sound and killed when it strikes.

Ah, the sun … Tortoise shadow for a soul,

Achilles’ flight in its great strides locked still!


No. No … On my feet! In the time to come!

Shatter, body, your taken pensive form!

Drink, breast, the newborn rising breeze!

A freshness breathed out by the breathing sea

returns my soul to me … Salt power, brine.

Run down to the tide and rebound, alive!


Yes! Great sea rich in madnesses, the sun

has draped you on its idols, a thousand

and a thousand more of them, panther skin

and tattered cloak, hydra absolute, reeling

on your own blue flesh, bright tail stinging

yourself in tumults like silence – the wind


lifts! …We must try to live! Immense

air opens my book, closes it again,

the waves in powder dare against the rocks!

Rifled pages, blinded by sun, take off!

Break, waves! With rejoicing waters wreck

this peaceful roof where scraps of white sail pecked! 


(Translated from the French of Paul Valéry)