The library is on fire: these were the code words, in World War Two, for a parachute drop to the Céreste maquis of the French resistance—words that acquired a mysterious life when one of the containers exploded and set fire to the forest, alerting the Gestapo to the position of René Char’s group. They barely escaped with their lives. And the poet thought the fire was proof of the power of language to shape the world. “I believe in the magic and in the authority of words,” he told his superiors in London, insisting the code be changed. These words furnished the title for a poem he wrote immediately after the war addressing questions of his literary origins—“Why did I become a writer? A bird’s feather on my windowpane in winter and all at once there arose in my heart a battle of embers never to subside again”—and of poetry’s role in the modern world: “Hell in our heads... Spring at our fingertips.” This selection of Char’s poems in English translation, a record of the fires he witnessed on the battlefields within his soul and without, is a testament to the spirit of renewal at the heart of the poetic enterprise: shoots in a scorched land.

It is also an emblem of the precarious hold of literary values on civilization. For the war on memory is endless, and for readers living in a time in which the destruction of a library—Sarajevo, Baghdad—is mourned for a season and then forgotten Char embodies the ideal of the poet fighting for the nobility of the word—the leader of a small resistance group dedicated to honoring the ten thousand things of the universe. Mountains and rivers, flowers and vipers, meteors and rain—everything teems with meaning for the poet. “What is reality without the dislocating energy of poetry?” Char asks. His answers, in free verse, aphorisms, and prose poetry, are charged with a mysterious presence drawn variously from the landscape of his native Provence; his activities with the surrealists; his wartime experiences; his reading of Heraclitus; the discoveries of artist friends like Braque, Giacometti, Matisse, Picasso; his loves. Illumination was his theme, his method—“For me lightning lasts,” he declared. His work is an essay in revelation.

René Char was born in 1907, in L’Isle-sur-Sorgue in Vaucluse, the youngest of four children. His was a lonely, silent childhood—a time of waiting, of listening to nature, according to a British translator—and in adulthood silence surrounded the solitary spaces of his poems, despite his gift for friendship and his decision to join first the surrealists and then the Résistance. Indeed the strongest influences on his work, beyond the physical facts of Provence, were his associations with the surrealists and with the men of his region who fought the Nazi occupation. In 1930, on a driving tour of Vaucluse, Char, André Breton, and Paul Éluard composed Ralentir Travaux (Slow Down Construction), one of surrealism’s most interesting collaborative efforts; in the resistance the poet-soldier—Capitaine Alexandre was his nom de guerre—wrote Feuillets d’Hypnos (Leaves of Hypnos), a diary that quickly entered the pantheon of war literature. Thus he shuttled between solitude and company, even as he alternated between the lyric poems of a solitary individual and the public voice of prose. He spent much of his life in a rural setting near his birthplace, although Paris was his second home. Hailed in mid-career as one of France’s greatest poets, by the 1950s he had been ably translated into English by the likes of William Carlos Williams, W. S. Merwin, James Wright, Richard Wilbur, Thomas Merton, and Jackson Matthews. But he fell out of favor in American literary circles before his death in 1988. The Smoke That Carried Us is a welcome, and necessary, reminder of his central place in modern letters.

It was Éluard’s magnetic collection, Capitale de la douleur, which Char read during his military service in Nîmes, that summoned him from his isolation. In 1929, after sending Éluard a copy of his book, Arsenal, he was visited by the older poet in L’Isle-dur-Sorgue: a decisive meeting, which led to introductions to Breton and the rest of the surrealists. Char joined the movement, publishing in their annals, protesting against the growing strength of the right wing, signing Breton’s antifascist statement. It has been argued that Char’s poetics were set by the time he came into contact with the surrealists; that the alliance merely confirmed his aesthetic instincts. Perhaps. But we should never underestimate the power of solidarity to enlarge a young poet’s vision. From the surrealists Char learned to value metaphorical juxtapositions—“Cool sun, whose creeping vine I am”—and to honor the hidden energies of language. “I strike at the iron of invisible hinges,” he declares, and the doors locked inside a word open onto news vistas.

Char was unwilling, though, to give up conscious control over his poems: there is nothing automatic about his work, which from beginning revealed his careful craftsmanship. Inspired by pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, he wrote hundreds of aphorisms, each a model of clear, concise thinking, exploring the human condition, particularly the role of poetry in the life of an individual and of a culture. If the surrealist emphasis on the role of desire in the making of a poem accorded with his own ideas—“A poem is always married to someone,” he wrote—Char was in the end too restless, too lucid, to restrict himself to a doctrine dependent on the unconscious. Here is how he explains the connection between the interior and the exterior realms, the unconscious and the conscious: “The poet must keep an equal balance between the physical world of waking and the dreadful ease of sleep; these are the lines of knowledge between which he lays the subtle body of the poem, moving indistinctly from one to the other of these different states of life.”

Char sought nothing less than to bear witness to the totality of experience, registered in the most compressed language imaginable: what he called la clarté énigmatique—the enigmatic clarity of a seer whose visions, daring in the sweep of their insights and ideas, are lost on readers avid for platitudes. For those who recognize uncertainty as the foundation of existence, however, Char is a companionable guide to the ever shifting meaning and hue of our walk in the sun: “In this rotting light,” he suggests, “darkness wouldn’t be the worst fate.”

Certainly he knew darkness. Too independent to spend his life taking marching orders from another man, even from one as brilliant as Breton, Char left the surrealist movement in 1934, returning to Provence, where he fell seriously ill with blood poisoning. His recovery, which took the better part of two years, coincided with the Spanish Civil War. The overthrow of the second republic; the unholy alliance that Franco made with Hitler and Mussolini; the appeasement of the European democracies; the Soviet machinations in the guise of furthering the Republican cause; the vast scale of death and destruction visited upon the Spanish people; the assassination of the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca;—these shattered the illusions of a generation of artists and thinkers. Char reconsidered the social role of poetry—he dedicated a volume to the children of Spain, whose future had been turned into a wasteland—a concern that acquired greater urgency with the looming threat of world war. In 1939 he was sent to the front in Alsace, and when the Nazis invaded he fought his way home. A poet with a conscience, antifascist convictions, and a Jewish wife—it was not long before he was sabotaging German military installations.

“The Formal Share,” a suite of aphorisms largely on the subject of poetry, dates from the first years of the war. “The poet is the man of unilateral stability,” Char wrote. No doubt his poise under fire was why he was selected to command the Céreste maquis. His code name was Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, and if he generally worked under cover of night, plotting attacks against the Nazis, his Leaves of Hypnos celebrates wakefulness. He was always present—“I write briefly,” he explained, “I can scarcely be absent for long”; the attentiveness he cultivated reinforced his poetics, which after the war acquired new meaning on his daily walks in Vaucluse. Just as the soldier must be alert to every detail of his surroundings, so the poet who takes nature as his prey hunts for words in every fold and crevice of the land. “The petals open out, leave their center, escorted by death, assisting for a moment the withdrawing heart of the rose,” he writes in “Looking at the Earth,” the last poem in this collection. Such blossoming is an apt metaphor for the place of poetry in our lives: a burst of color in the midst of ruin.

In the war Char learned that “It is not whether your words or actions are tough or gentle; it is the spirit behind your actions and words that announces your inner state.” What his work reveals is the soul of a man possessed of an unfathomable lucidity, which drew the attention of such intellectual luminaries as Albert Camus and Martin Heidegger, who visited him three times in Vaucluse. A steady stream of works issued from his pen, illustrated by Braque, Matisse, Picasso, and others. Nor did his concern for justice and the fate of the earth diminish over the decades. He fought against nuclear proliferation; he mourned the fact that mankind had secured but partial freedom; he discovered joy in what Pliny called the “least things” of nature. “Poetry will rob me of my death,” he announced in “The Library is on Fire.” Which was true. His bold spirit lives on not only in his poems but in the figure he presents to the world—a courageous man of letters whose moral energy, intelligence, and exuberance inform every page of his writings. “A poet must leave traces of his passage,” he wrote, “not proof.” These traces of René Char will inform our discourse, our very style of thought, for a long time to come.

—Christopher Merrill

L'Absent The Absent One

Ce frére brutal mais dont la parole était sûre, patient au
sacrifice, diamant et sanglier, ingenieux et secourable, se
tenait au centre de tous les malentendus tel un arbre de résine
dans le froid inallable. Au bestiaire de mensonges qui le
tourmentait de ses gobelins et de ses trombes il opposait son
dos perdu dans le temps. II venait à vous par des sentiers
invisibles, favorisait l’audace écarlate, ne vous contrariait
pas, savait sourire. Comma l’abeille quitte le verger pour
le fruit déjà noir, las femmes soutenaient sans le trahir le
paradoxe de ce visage qui navait pas des traits d’otage.

J’ai essayé de vous décrire ce compére indélébile que nous sommes
quelques-uns à avoir frequenté. Nous dormirons dans l’espérance,
nous dormirons en son absence, puisque la raison ne soupçonne
pas que ce quelle nomme, à la légére, absence, occupe le
foumeau dans l’unité.

This rough brother, whose word, however, was true, steadfast in
the face of sacrifice, wild boar, gem, ingenious rescuer in the midst of all misunderstandings, who remained in all the confusion impassive, cool,
a resinous tree in the merciless cold. Already lost in time, he had turned
his back on the rogues’ gallery of lies, which tormented him with its goblins and waterspouts. He came to you via an invisible route,
chose a crimson boldness, did not contradict you, knew
how to smile. Like bees abandoning the orchard for fruit
already blackened, women sustained and did not betray this
paradoxical face which was devoid of the features of a hostage.

I have tried to describe for you this unforgettable companion whom some of us knew well. We will sleep in hope, we will sleep in his absence, never suspecting that what is lightly called absence is the crucible of unity.

—translated by Susan Dubroff

La Faux Relevée Picking Up the Scythe Again

Quand le bouvier des morts frappera du bâton,
Dédiez á l’été ma couleur dispersée.
Avec mes poings trops bleus étonnez un enfant.
Disposez sur sesjoues ma lampe et mes épis.

Fontaine, qui tremblez dans votre étroit réduit,
Mon gain, aux soifs des champs, vous le prodiguerez.
De l’humide fougère au mimosa fiévreux,
Entre le vieil absent et le nouveau venu,
Le movement d’aimer, s’abaissant, vous dira:
“Hormis là, nul endroit, la disgrace et partout.”

When the shepherd of dead strikes with his staff,
Give my lost colors to the summer.
Astonish some child with my too blue fists.
Leave him my lamp and my sheaves.

Fountain trembling in your narrow path,
Spread my riches over the thirsty fields
From the moist ferns to the fevered mimosa,
Among the absent old and the come-latelies,
Humbling itself the act of loving will say:
“ Except for here, which is nowhere, disgrace is everywhere.”

—translated by Susan Dubroff

L'Allégresse Cheerfulness

Les nuages sont dana les rivières, les torrents parcourent le ciel. Sans saisie les journées montent en graine, meurent en herbe. Le temps de la famine et celui de la moisson, l’un sous l’autre dans l’air haillonneux, ont effacé leur difference. Ils filent ensemble, ilss bivaquent! Comment la peur serait-elle distincte de l’espoir, passant raviné? II n’y a plus de seuil aux maisons, de fumée aux clairières. Est tombé au gouffre le désir de chaleur-et ce peu d’obscurité dans notre dos où s’inquietait la primevère dès qu’épiait l’avenir.

Pont sur la route des invasions, mentant au vainqueur, exorable au défait. Saurons-nous, sous le pied de la mort, si le coeur, cc gerbeur, ne doit pas préceder mais suivre?

The rivers have clouds in them, torrents course in the sky. The days offer to grow like grain, die on the grass. Having resolved their differences, the time for famine and the time for harvest walk hand in hand in the ragged air, camp out together! How can we expect hope to differ from fear if it is stomped over and eroded? Houses no longer have thresholds, there is no smoke in clearings. The desire for warmth has disappeared in the abyss, as has that bit of darkness behind us where the primrose quivered because the future was peeping at it.

Bridge over the invaders’ path, leading the victors astray, pitying the defeated. At death’s heel, will we know that the heart, that sheaf-binder, shouldn’t lead the way but follow?

—translated by Susan Dubroff

Susanne Dubroff, whose translations of René Char’s poetry will be coming out in the collection This Smoke That Carries Us (2004, White Pine Press, www.whitepine.org), is a poet. Her most recent work has been published in The Paris Review, Poetry, and Chelsea. She lives in Lebanon, New Hampshire.