The streets are the same
and not the same. No longer.
The Town Hall, the Courthouse, the cafés
are still there, the chairs scattered
under the plane trees on the terrace
before the splendid nineteenth-century edifices,
First and Second Empire. You’d recognize
that have aged us as well.
We’re no more the same than they,
yet “we” and “they” are not
mere grammatical artefacts, knots
the tongue uses to assume
the illusion that the self lasts.
How many years did we live here?
Was it really years, lengths
snipped off life’s ribbon at so much per yard?
And what if the past were not immutable,
as Cleanthes may have said?
If we could go back through the years,
come out again, embark
on a different course of days and veer
towards another life the way you take
the left coming off the highway—a narrow road
lost between fields and forest? Could we
find again the evening hanging still
above this river, and make
a permanent home before this technicolour sky
that Plato called the soul’s homeland?
If all knowledge is recollection, if the play
of sunlight on a wall, an uneven paving stone,
the curve of a narrow street one followed
without a thought in mind, if
anything could tear
the soul from sleep and you
could feel it in yourself, strange
and pounding with impatience, as Ficino said
in his commentary on The Banquet, if all
becomes allegory, where does that leave us,
and in what time? Summer’s coming back,
it’s unmistakeable: gardens, shaded streets, long days,
evenings that reconcile us to our time here.
But a dark hand grips our hearts and we become
foreign to this place where our faces might
finally have seemed to become our own.
Everything recedes from us while we
remain without a voice, astonished
to be here and to be someone, not
no one, nowhere.
to this city thinking to retrace
our steps by following its streets.
All would be laid out for me, everything
set before me, running my way
like words in a line of classical verse.
I might just as well have sought
the edge of the horizon, the threshold
where time begins and ends. I ended up
on the docks, night was flowing
on the Loire. It was, to be sure,
that leaden water I was looking at
without understanding anything about
the darkness coming down on me.
Everything was there. Only now
do I realize it and write, not knowing why,
these words that will give me nothing back.
Translated from the French by Donald McGrath
Robert Melançon is one of Quebec's most original poets. He won the Governor General's Award for Poetry for his collection Blind Painting and shared the Governor General's Award for Translation with Charlotte Melançon for their French version of A.M. Klein's The Second Scroll. A long-time translator of Canadian poet Earle Birney, Melançon has been the poetry columinist for the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir and the Radio-Canada program En Toutes Lettres. In 2013 Biblioasis published an English edition of For As Far As the Eye Can See, a sequence of 144 impressionistic and painterly twelve line sonnets, translated from the French by Judith Cowan. Melançon lives in North Hatley, in Quebec's Eastern Townships.
Donald McGrath is a writer/translator based in Montreal. He has published two poetry collections, At First Light (Wolsak and Wynn, 1995) and The Port Inventory (Cormorant Books, 2012). His poems have appeared in periodicals in Canada and abroad; “Biarritz” was selected for the Web anthology of the 2012 Montreal International Poetry Prize.