Congé au Vent (Wind Away)
Camped in the hillsides near the village are fields of mimosa. During the gathering season, it may happen that, some distance away, you meet an extremely sweet-smelling girl whose arms have been busy during the day among the fragile branches. Like a lamp with a bright nimbus of perfume, she goes her way, her back to the setting sun.
To speak to her would be sacrilege.
The grass crushed beneath her slippers. Give her right of way. You may be lucky enough to make out on her lips the chimera of the damp of night.
René Char, from Fureur et Mystère (1948)
A native of
, the poet René Char (1907-1988) had the gift of capturing expansiveness in the small frame of verse. It was freedom he valued, and he invited the reader to walk in the “great spaces of the self”, uniting the universal and the deeply personal. Provence
Originally part of the French surrealist movement, Char reflected the complexities of the “fury and mystery” of World War II in occupied
. Directness and passion are coded into the landscape of his descriptive flow. For Char was no mere wordsmith: he was a man of action and astonishing bravery, commanding a Resistance cell from Céreste in the eastern Luberon. France
The short prose-poem Congé au Vent appears in René Char, Selected Poems, edited by Mary Ann Caws and Tina Jolas (pub. New Directions,
). This is a superb introduction to his work, with English translations and the original on opposite pages. New York
You only have to go as far as the title of Congé au Vent to get a taste of Char’s wordplay – and the delicacy of these excellent translations. Wind Away is the English title, which is perhaps too lyrical quite to capture the holiday or 'day off' sense of “congé” – I think Off in the Wind, the more literal translation, would work better for me.
But to quibble is to engage, and that was above all, what René Char intended his poetry to do.
The painting used to illustrate the poem is Long Shadows – Provence by Maryanne Jacobsen which I’ve written about here. The richness of the evening colours and the path leading on seem to catch the essence of Char’s words.