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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |


...ten poems by Henry J.-M. Levet (1874–1906)

translated by Kirby Olson


In a letter from 1950, Edmund Wilson wrote to Christian Gauss about André Gide’s new anthology of modern French poetry. ‘He has produced some amusing modern poets — such as Franc-Nohain and Henry J.-M. Levet, of whom I had never heard. Do read these, if you don’t know them.’
      On a lark, I decided to look them up in my local library.
      Levet was only a couple of years older than Leon-Paul Fargue, and they knew each other as young men in the café scene in Paris. Fargue related that Levet loved maps, compasses, and wore beautifully cut English-style suits. He was always willing to help out those with less money. In order to indulge his eagerness to travel, Levet joined the consular service and served in India, Vietnam, the Philippines and finally in Argentina. He sent his charming verses home to be published in popular journals. In the introduction to the French edition of Levet’s Poèmes (Maison des Amis des Livres, Paris, 1921; Gallimard 2000), the great French poet Valery Larbaud relates that he read and memorized Levet’s verses, and hoped to meet him when he came back to France on leave.
      Levet came home sooner than expected with a disease that left him unable to speak. He tried to recuperate on the Riviera, but his strength left him and he died soon after.
      Fargue and Larbaud made a literary pilgrimage to Levet’s parents’ home in Menton (a small city between Italy and Nice), some five years after Levet’s demise. Larbaud commented that if one is too late to meet someone, one can be met instead by a pale featureless head on blind white stone. Nevertheless, he felt that something of Levet remained in his parents’ house, especially in the room set aside for memorabilia. There were photographs from Maharajas with dedications in English, and a flag from a nearly unknown country.

Photo of Valery Larbaud

Valery Larbaud

Fargue and Larbaud considered Levet to be the next important link in the chain of modernism that runs from Whitman to Rimbaud to Laforgue. Larbaud wrote, ‘I dreamed of a poet, a fantasist, sensitive to the diversity of race, peoples, countries, for whom everything or nothing would be exotic (it amounts to the same thing), very ‘international,’ a humorist, capable of doing Whitman tongue-in-cheek, giving a comic note of joyous irresponsibility, which was lacking in Whitman. At bottom, I was looking for a successor to Laforgue, Rimbaud, and Whitman. And here I seem to have found him ... Henry J.-M. Levet.’
      Globe-trotting cosmopolitan poets such as Blaise Cendrars and Paul Morand, or so says the Larousse Dictionary of Contemporary Poetry, ‘cannot hide what they owe him.’  Even the surrealists, particularly Philippe Soupault and Paul Eluard, seem to have taken a cue from Levet.

Photo of Levet

Henry J.-M. Levet

Levet wrote a novel called The Benares Express, but it was withheld from publication by his parents, and is now presumably lost. Other than that novel, what is all the more astonishing about Levet’s influence is that, aside from a few garbled pages of juvenilia along symbolist lines, Levet’s mature work amounts to 11 pages. Those 11 pages, known as ‘Cartes Postales’, or ‘Postcards’, are all published here in Jacket magazine for the first time in English in their entirety. They are in the same order that they were originally published by Maison des Amis des Livres in 1921.
      ‘Outwards’ and ‘Homewards’ originally appeared in Partisan Review Winter 1989.
      ‘West Africa’, ‘Japan — Nagasaki’ and ‘French Possession’ originally appeared in Common Knowledge Fall 1992.

— Kirby Olson

Postcards — Tropical Sonnets

Voyages (triptych)



To Francis Jammes

The Armand Behic (of the Maritime Freight)
Speeds along at fourteen knots over the Indian Ocean
The sun sets in a jelly of crimes,
On this sea flattened as though by hand.

— Miss Roseway, who is returning to Adelaide,
Towards Home Sweet Home and her Australian fiancé,
Miss Roseway, alas, who has no cure for my ennui;
Her lorgnette fixed on the Laccadives, so far away...

— I go to get myself ready — without joy! — for tonight’s
Party: on the bridge, lanterns, dances, ballads,
(I must accompany Miss Roseway who asks

— Very gently — after the families of shipwrecked
Sailors!)  Oh, that in a slow waltz, her back
In my right arm, I might sweep her away without violence

To a deserted isle where God would recognize his own...

* The Laccadives (Fr. Lacquedives): A group of islands in the Indian Ocean off the SW coast of India, and belonging to India. Since 1973, this territorial unit has been known as Lakshadweep.

Sonnets torrides

Les Voyages



                     A Francis Jammes

L’Armand-Béhic (des Messageries Maritimes)
File quatorze noeuds sur l’Océan Indien...
Le soleil se couche en des confitures de crimes,
Dans cette mer plate comme avec la main.

— Miss Roseway, qui se rend à Adelaïde,
Vers le Sweet Home au fiancé australien,
Miss Roseway, hélas, n’a cure de mon spleen;
Sa lorgnette sur les Laquedives, au loin...

— Je vais me préparer – sans entrains! – pour la fête
De ce soir: sur le pont, lampions, danses, romances
(Je dois accompagner miss Roseway qui quête

— Fort gentiment – pour les familles des marins
Naufragés!)  Oh, qu’en valse lente, ses reins
A mon bras droit, je l’entraine sans violence

Dans un naufrage où Dieu reconnaîtrait les siens...


British India

To Rudyard Kipling

The offices close at four o’clock in Calcutta;
In the palace park the tennis court stirs;
In Eden Park grinds the spicy music of the sepoys;
The brilliant carriages salute each other on Red Road...

On his throne of gold, sparkling with rubies and emeralds,
His highness the Maharajah of Kapurthala
Longs for Liane de Pougy and Cléo de Mérode
Their autographed photos nearby...

— Benares, squatting, dreams along its stretch of the river;
The Brahmin, candid, tired of his trials, sits
In lively repose amidst the perfumed abstraction...

— At Lahore, 120 degrees Fahrenheit,
The doctors Grant and Perry play cricket, —
Railroads crawl through the sunlit jungle...


British India

                     A Rudyard Kipling

Les bureaux ferment à quatre heures à Calcutta;
Dans le park du palais s’émeut le tennis ground;
Dans Eden Garden grince la musique épicée des Cipayes;
Les equipages brillants se saluent sur le Red Road...

Sur son trône d’or, étincelant de rubis et d’émeraudes,
S.A. le Maharadjah de Kapurthala
Regrette Liane de Pougy et Cléo de Mérode
Dont les photographies dédicacées sont là...

— Bénarès, accroupie, rêve le long du fleuve;
La Brahmane, candide, lassé des épreuves,
Repose vivant dans l’abstraction parfumée...

— A Lahore, par 120 degrés Fahrenheit,
Les docteurs Grant et Perry font un match de cricket, —
Les railways rampant dans la jungle ensoleillée

Messageries Maritimes poster



To M.P. Bons d’Anty

At the Waterloo Hotel, I have had my lunch,
And, my bill paid, I steer myself toward the wharf.
Here is the Indus (of the Maritime Freight)
And the idiotic sorrow of ‘homewards’.

— Some French officers returning from Indochina
To spend a leave of six months in Europe,
Comment on the boarding of young misses, sufficiently divine,
With whom I will certainly never flirt!

On the bridge my future traveling companions
Size me up...
Then we undergo a summary health inspection —

(This year the plague has caused considerable ravages!)
— Finally there is the bell for departure,
And so I bring home, piously wadded,

The flower of my Anglo-Saxon melancholy...



                     A M.P. Bons d’Anty

Au Waterloo Hotel, j’ai achevé mon tiffin,
Et mon bill payé, je me dirige vers le wharf.
Voici l’Indus (des Messageries Maritimes)
Et la tristesse imbécile du ‘homewards’.

— Quelques officiers français qui reviennent de L’Indo-Chine
Passer en Europe un congé de six mois,
Commentent l’embarquement de jeunes misses, assez divines,
Avec lesquelles je ne flirterai certes pas!

Sur le pont mes futurs compagnons de voyage
Me dévisagent...
Puis on passe une sommaire visite de santé –

(Cette année la peste a fait ici bien des ravages!)
— Enfin voici la cloche du départ, qui sonne
Que je ramène, pieusement ouatée,

La fleur de ma mélancholie anglo-saxonne.

French Possession

To the memory of Laura Lopez

One recalls the Goyaves chapel
Where two thousand Antillean Sundays sleep
The harmonious widowhood of the port,
And the music, quaint antiquities of leaded glass...

— Colony from which the adventurer returned poor!
Half-nude children played, and their cries
Deafened, familiar as mauve bougainvillea,
From the verandah and terrace to the heavy gray walls...

— And the picnics on Sunday at the Gros-Morne?
— They once lived, the good old novels the Young Creole
Adorned, heavy, with light morals...

Those children have left and their parents are dead —
And now in the little moribund colony,
Nothing remains but a few bureaucrats...

Possession Française

                     A la mémoire de Laura Lopez

On se souvient de la chapelle des Goyaves
Où dorment deux milles dimanches des Antilles,
De la viduité harmonieuse du havre,
Et de la musique, du temps vieillot des résilles...

— Colonie d’où l’aventurier revenait pauvre! –
Les enfants demi-nus jouaient, et leurs cris
Sourdaient, familiers comme les bougainvilliers mauves,
De la vérandah et de la terrasse aux lourds murs

— Et les picnics du Dimanche au Gros-Morne ?
— Ils ont vécu, les bons vieux romans qu’orne
La Jeune Créole, lente, aux moeurs légères...

Ces enfants sont partis et leurs parents sont morts –
Et maintenant dans la petite colonie morte
Il ne reste que quelques fonctionnaires...

West Africa

To Leon-Paul Fargue

On the verandah of his hut, at Brazzaville,
By sweltering Congolese moonlight
A minor colonial bureaucrat
Thumbs the ‘Poèsies’ of Alfred de Musset...

For he still thinks of that pretty Chilean
That he should have left behind on disembarking at Luango...
— It’s true that she said to him ‘Paul I love you’,
Aboard the City of Pernambuco.

Under the punkah which keeps away mosquitoes,
He deplores ‘this shore where he’ll find greatness,’
Gives a sigh for his transatlantic amours,
Complains of the roughness of Monsieur the governor
And reproaches energetically
The barbarity of the officers towards the blacks...

The young and sensitive bureaucrat
Closes his eyes and tries to forget...

Do you miss the time when the sky on earth
Walked and breathed in a heavenly people,
When Venus Astarte, daughter of the bitter wave...?’

Levet postcard

Afrique Occidentale

                     A Léon-Paul Fargue

Dans la verandah de sa case, à Brazzaville,
Par un torride clair de lune congolais
Un sous-administrateur des colonies
Feuillette les ‘Poésies’ d’Alfred Musset...

Car il pense encore à cette Chilienne
Qu’il dut quitter en débarquant, à Loango...
— C’est pourtant vrai qu’elle lui dit ‘Paul je vous aime’,
A bord de la ‘Ville de Pernambuco’.

Sous le panka qui chasse les nombreux moustiques
Il maudit ‘ce rivage où l’attache sa grandeur’,
Donne un soupir à ses amours transatlantiques,
Se plaint de la brusquerie de M. le Gouverneur,
Et réprouve d’une façon très énergique
La barbarie des officiers envers les noirs...

Et le jeune et sensitive fonctionnaire
Tâche d’oublier et ferme les yeux...

‘Regrettez-vous le temps où le ciel sur la terre
Marchait et respirait dans un people de dieux,
Où Vénus Astarté, fille de l’onde amère...?’

Algeria — Biskra

Under the terraces of the Royal the ghoums file past
To take part in the fantasia:
On his proud horse that disturbs the noise of the zornas,
We admire the presence of the Caid of Touggourth...

At the little brown café where the goumbre sings
Monsieur Cahen d’Anvers orders a cahouha:
R.S. Hitchens chats with the beautiful Messaouda,
Whose lips have the savor of rhat-loukoum...

The sun, the palm trees, spread their numerous rays
On tubercular shoulders;
Baron Traurig buys an amber necklace;

The comtesse of Pienne, born Mac-Mahon,
Strolls along the boulevard Mac-Mahon...
— ‘What? Such beautiful weather! Who would believe it
          at the end of December?’

Algerie – Biskra

                     A Henry de Bruchard

Sous les terrasses du Royal défilent les goums
Qui doivent prendre part à la fantasia:
Sur son fier cheval qu’agace le bruit des zornas,
On admire la prestance du Caïd de Touggourth...

Au petit café maure où chantonne le goumbre
Monsieur Cahen d’Anvers demande un cahouha:
R.S. Hitchens cause à la belle Messaouda,
Dont les lèvres ont la saveur de rhât-loukoum...

Le soleil, des palmiers, coule d’un flot nombreux
Sur les épaules des phtisiques radieux;
La baronne Traurig achète un collier d’ambre;

La comtesse de Pienne, née de Mac-Mahon
Se promène sur le boulevard Mac-Mahon...
— ‘Hein!  Quel beau temps!  Se croirait-on à fin Décembre?’

Argentine Republic — La Plata

Neither the most agreeable Argentines,
Nor the race tracks on the Pampas,
Have the power to distract from his bad mood
The Consul General of France to La Plata!

We whisper the poor man’s story:
His life was crossed by a fatal love,
And he was swept up in the disastrous opium craze;
At that time he occupied the post at Singapore...

— He loves to gallop on our bitter plains,
He envies the wild life of the gaucho,
Then he returns to his Consular Palace,
And his sadness drapes him like a poncho...

He never notices, I am quite sure,
How Lolita Valdez smiles at him at every feast,
In spite of his graying temples, and his face
Ravaged by the fevers of the Far East...

Levet postcard

Republique Argentine – La Plata

                     A Ruben Dario

Ni les attraits des plus aimables Argentines,
Ni les courses à cheval dans la pampa,
N’ont le pouvoir de distraire de son spleen
Le Consul general de France à la Plata!

On raconte tout bas l’histoire du pauvre homme:
Sa vie fut traversée d’un fatal amour,
Et il prit la funeste manie de l’opium;
Il occupait alors le poste à Singapoore...

— Il aime à galloper par nos plaines amères,
Il jalouse la vie sauvage du gaucho,
Puis il retourne vers son palais consulaire,
Et sa tristresse le drape comme un poncho...

Il ne s’aperçoit pas, je n’en suis que trop sûr,
Que Lolita Valdez le regarde en souriant,
Malgré sa tempe qui grisonne, et sa figure
Ravagée par les fièvres d’Extrême-Orient...

Egypt–Port Said — En Route

To Gabriel Fabre

One looks at the brilliant fires of Port Said,
As the Jews looked at the Promised Land;
Because one cannot go there; it is forbidden
— It seems — by the Convention of Venice

To those in the yellow quarantine pavilion.
We will never calm our anxious desires on this shore
To provide ourselves with the obscene photos
And the excellent tobacco of Latakia...

Poet, one would have loved, during the short call at port
To spend an hour or two treading the soil of the Pharoahs,
Instead of listening to Miss Florence Marshall
Sing ‘The Belle of New York’ — in the salon.

Egypte — Port-Saïd — En Rade

                     A Gabriel Fabre

On regarde briller les feux de Port-Saïd,
Comme les Juifs regardaient la Terre Promise;
Car on ne peut débarquer; c’est interdit
— Paraît-il – par la Convention de Venise

A ceux du pavillon jaune de quarantaine.
On n’ira pas à terre calmer ses sens inquiets
Ni faire provision de photos obscènes
Et de cet excellent tabac de Latakieh...

Poète, on eût aimé, pendant la courte escale
Fouler une heure ou deux le sol des Pharaons,
Au lieu d’écouter miss Florence Marshall
Chanter ‘The Belle of New York’ au salon.

Cote D’Azur — Nice

To Francis Jourdain

Scotland is veiled with its classic mists,
Our beaches and our lakes are abandoned;
November, supreme judge of the tubercular
Has exiled me on the banks of the Mediterranean...

I will have a wheelchair ‘full of soft scents’
That a well-groomed valet will slowly push
A sweet sun will varnish my last hours,
This winter, on the Promenade des Anglais...

Meanwhile Jane, who is now the companion
Of a healthy and fierce sheep farmer
Adorns with her grace an Australian prairie
Of more than forty thousand acres, they tell me,

And when the pale and cold blood of my twilight
Will have tarnished my Mediterranean beat,
Down there, in New South Wales,
The dawn of a new summer day will arise... How sweet!

Cote D’azur – Nice

                     A Francis Jourdain

L’Ecosse s’est voilée de ses brumes classiques,
Nos plages et nos lacs sont abandonnés;
Novembre, tribunal supreme des phtisiques,
M’exile sur les bords de la Méditerranée...

J’aurai un fauteuil roulant ‘plein d’odeurs légères’
Que poussera lentement un valet bien stylé
Un soleil doux vernira mes heures dernières,
Cet hiver, sur la Promenade des Anglais...

Pendant que Jane, qui est maintenant la compagne
D’un sain et farouche éleveur de moutons
Emaille de sa grace une prairie australe
De plus de quarante milles carrés, me dit-on,

Et quand le sang pâle et froid de mon crépuscule
Aura terni le flot méditerranéen,
Là-bas, dans la Nouvelle Galles du Sud,
L’aube d’un jour d’été l’éveillera... C’est bien!...

Levet postcard

Japan —Nagasaki

To Auguste Brunet

The city has closed its many colored eyes
And shushed its clowns, gongs and tam-tams;
On the calm water the captain of the port
Takes the oars of a sampan and glides...

Since the last cholera epidemic
When his daughter was brusquely swept away
— It is just a year ago today
Captain Kio-tsu has greatly changed.

After the event — and he such a worldly navigator!
He broke with all his relations
And lived in his sad, solitary cottage:
(For a time, there was even fear, for his sanity...)

His despair seems to detain him like a pillory
As he lowers his anemic head in rowing,
He circulates among the boats at anchor,
Cargo-boats, steamers, coal-burners...

How the calm of this beautiful night weighs on him!
Ah suddenly the wounded father
Curses this Japanese night,
As in its cloak Nagasaki sleeps...

An hallucination from his sick spirit
Makes him hear the sinister voices of sirens
From all the boats asleep there, in the swell,
Lamenting in concert the death of his Yu-len!

Yes, they cry for the young Departed
Like the mourners at ancient burials:
Their shrieks of bewitched Valkyries
A choir of strident and piercing clamor,
The sorrowful whistling of somber departures,
— Ah, what an anniversary for a sailor’s daughter!

— This is what is heard in the senseless woe without remedy
Of Nagasaki’s Port captain;
When nothing disturbs the moonstruck tepid night
But the slow bubbling of teriyaki...

Japon – Nagasaki

                     A Auguste Brunet

La ville a clos ses prunelles multicolores
Et tû ses baladins, ses gongs et ses tams-tams;
Sur l’eau calme le capitaine du port
Promène dans un sampan dont il tient les rames...

Depuis la dernière épidémie de cholera
Où sa fille lui fut brusquement enlevée
Il y a aujourd’hui juste un an de cela –
Le capitaine Kio-tsu a beaucoup changé.

Après l’événement – lui si mondain naguère! –
Il a rompu avec toutes ses relations,
Et vit dans son cottage triste et solitaire:
(Même on a craint, pendant un temps, pour sa raison...)

Son désespoir semble l’étreindre comme une cangue
Car il baisse en ramant sa tête anémiée;
Il circule parmi les navires à l’ancre,
Les cargo-boats, les steamers, les charbonniers...

Comme le calme de cette belle nuit lui pèse!
Ah!  Mais voilà soudain que le père meurtri
L’entend se déchirer, cette nuit japonaise,
Où comme en son manteau dormait Nagasaki...

Une hallucination de cet esprit malade
Lui fait ouïr les voix sinistres des sirens
De tous les bateaux qui dorment là, dans la rade,
Pour lamenter de concert sur la mort de son Yu-len!

Oui, elles lamentent pour la jeune Trépassée
Comme les pleureuses des enterrements anciens:
Leurs hurlements de Walkyries affolées,
Le choeur de leurs clameurs stridents et crispées,
Les sifflements lugubres des sombres traversées,
Ah quel anniversaire pour une fille de marin!

— Voilà ce qu’entend dans sa folle douleur sans remède
Le capitaine du port de Nagasaki;
Quand rien ne trouble cette nuit lunaire et tiède
Que la mélopée lente d’un thériaki...

Photo of Kirby Olson

Kirby Olson teaches philosophy and literature at State University of New York at Delhi. He is the author of Comedy after Postmodernism: Rereading Comedy from Edward Lear to Charles Willeford (Texas Tech U. Press, 2001) and Gregory Corso: Doubting Thomist (Southern Illinois University Press 2002). He is married to the Finnish poet Riikka Olson.
All Poems by Henry J.-M. Levet, translated by Kirby Olson, Assistant Professor, Evenden Hall 707
State University of New York at Delhi, Delhi, NY 13753, USA

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