Another Poem by Jacques Prevert


Yesterday I wrote about a poem on a pair of young lovers. Today I’ll write about another of Prevert’s poems. This time, it will be about one of those old men that you see sitting alone in the parks or one of those public squares you find in the French streets. I’ll put my line by line translation side by side with the original.
 
        Le désespoir est assis sur un banc                                Hopelessness seated on a Bench
            Dans un square sur un banc                                                                             In a square over a bench               
Il y a un homme qui vous appelle quand on passe                                 There’s a man who beckons you when you pass 
       Il a des binocles un vieux costumes gris                               
              He has binoculars an old man gray suits 
            Il fume un petit ninas il est assis                                               He smokes a small cocktail cigarette he is seated
            Et il vous appelle quand on passe                                                      And he beckons you when you pass  
             Ou simplement il vous fait signe                                                                Or he’ll simply signal you 
                 Il ne faut pas le regarder                                                                     You mustn’t look at him 
                  Il ne faut pas l’écouter                                                                        You mustn’t listen to him   
                        Il faut passer                                                                                   You must pass along
           Faire comme si on ne le voyais pas                                                                Act as if you did not see him 
             Comme si on ne l’entendais pas                                                                   As if you didn’t hear him
                    Il faut passer presser le pas                                                           You must quicken your steps
                       Si vous le regardez                                                                                  If you look at him
                        Si vous l’écoutez                                                                                     If you listen to him
            Il vous fait signe et rien ni personne                                                      He’ll signal you nothing, no one
Ne peut vous empêcher d’aller vous asseoir près de lui                                 Can e’er stop you going to sit close to him
                Alors il vous regarde et sourit                                                               Th
en he’ll stare at you and smile                    
                 Et vous souffrez attrocement                                                                And you’ll suffer atrociously 
                Et l’homme continue de sourire                                                            A
nd the man’ll continue to smile 
               Et vous souriez du même sourire                                                            And you’ll smile the same smile
                            Exactement                                                                                             Exactly 
              Plus vous souriez plus vous souffrez                                                 The more you smile the more you suffer 
                                      Atrocement                                                                                           Atrociously
                 Plus vous souffrez plus vous souriez                                                    The more you suffer the more you smile 

                                  Irrémédiablement                                                                           Irrremediably 
                           Et vous restez là                                                                               And you’ll stay there 
                              Assis figé                                                                                           Seated frozen
                         Souriant sur le banc                                                                             miling on the bench
                Des enfants jouent tout près de vous                                                     Childen play very close to you 
                         Des passants passent                                                                              Passers-by pass
                              Tranquillement                                                                                       Peacefully
                          Des oiseaux s’envolent                                                                         The birds fly away
                             Quittant un arbre                                                                               Leaving one tree
                                Pour un autre                                                                                  For another
                             Et vous restez là                                                                          And you’ll  stay there
                                Sur le banc                                                                                     On the bench
                       Et vous savez vous savez                                                                    And you know you know
                  Que jamais plus vous ne jouerez                                                             That you’ll ne’er play again 
                           Comme ces enfants                                                                                       Like these children
         Vous savez que jamais plus vous ne passerez                                                   You know that you’ll ne’er pass again  
                                     
Tranquillement                                                                                               Peacefully 
                       Comme ces passants                                                           Like these passers-by
            Que jamais plus vous ne vous envolerez   
                                                 
That you’ll ne’er fly again
                 Quittant un arbre pour un autre                                                             Leaving one tree for another
                       Comme ces oiseaux.                                                                                     Like these birds.
 
Prevert writes so simply about what would happen so many times, when we pass by lonely old men sitting all alone, in a small city park bench, having nothing to do, waiting for the time to pass, maybe a cocktail cigarette carefully garnered from the leftover tobacco of discarded cigarette butts in hand to while away the empty hours, longing for a little attention, a little warmth, a little humanity from the passers-by, each hurrying along their way, preoccupied with their own petty tasks, with no time for anything or anyone else. Yet we may be caught. If we stay, that may well mean that our whole afternoon or evening will be gone. They are so desperate for company! How can we have the heart to leave them. But once you stay, you’re stuck, perhaps forever. So we pass along. He smiles, how can you not smile back. But once you do, you’re done forever.  So we must be blind! We must be deaf! And perhaps write poems to relieve our hearts of our guilt! Fear of intimacy against desire to be close! The freedom of the air against the solidtiy of the bench on the ground!
 
Prevert does not preach. Prevert does not tell you how he feels. He simply presents the images. He just outlines the situation. He simply paints a picture in words for us. An old man in gray with binoculars in his hands. passers-by hurrying on their way, children playing around him, birds hopping or flying from tree to tree.  The old man’s dress is the embodiment of his biological and emotional condition: it is grey: the colour of his hair and his heart. Prevert is economical in the use of imagery.  The "image: of the old man with a failing eye-sight with a pair of binoculars is suggestive his desire to reduce "distance" between himself and the others. His emotional desire is transformed into the physical desire to be closer. So desperate is the old man that he’ll call out to whoever will be prepared to spare a minute, like a beggar for a scrap of someone else’s time, a wee bit of their attention and a sliver of their sympathy.  He compares men to birds, each with their own perch but each wanting to change places from time to time. If we do not want to be caught: there’s only one thing to do: to harden our hearts and act as if we didn’t hear him, as if we didn’t see him! That’s the plight of all sensitive city folks! The birds are freer. They can fly. Man can only sit and wait or walk slowly, their feet tied to the ground the longer to suffer the the unedurable sight of the loneliness of old people who, having had all their life and value as working hands sucked dry by society, are now thrown way, just like so many discarded cigarette butts, to be trampled by the callousness of passing feet. The choice of the old man smoking  "ninas" or cocktail cigarettes is a stroke of genius. It is the very image of the old man’s social and emotional situation. Leftovers by others, yet having to be carefully bound together by cheap paper.  Scraps of other people’s discarded material being "re-used" and "re-cycled" not out of any particular concern for the earth’s long term welfare but his own, out of necessity, for the transient forgetfulness induced by nicotine and seeing his life disappearing with every puff of smoke, and as insubstantial. And the cigarettes are burning away, as he is burning away what’s left of his life, in boredom, in loneliness, in lack of any meaning or purpose and looking outward, seeking salvation, a slender link to other members of the human species. The old man sitting on the garden bench, is contrasted with the freedom of the birds which are able to fly away if they wanted to. When we are confronted with such sights, our feet must battle with our heart! Once you sit with this smiling old man in grey with binoculars and a smoke, you’ll never leave him again! Your freedom is gone forever, a prisoner of sympathy! Sympathy is like an invisble glue, that binds you to other people, even "strangers" that you see everyday, in the streets. We fear to start. We want to remain birds.  
 
Note also how the lines expand and contract, contract and expand. They’re a visual delight to watch. Note also the repititions and the variations in the repetitions of a word, a phrase and a structure in the order of their words, the better to throw into relief what’s different. I like the precision of French words and the sonority of their words. Like Chinese, French is a language for poetry par excellence in the same way as Spanish and Italian are languages for songs par excellence.  
 
The poem starts with a static situation: an old man on a bench. It is significant that the bench is in public, not a private home. The old man’s plight is visible to all.  The old man sits alone doing nothing. Around him the children play, indifferent. It then develops with the description of certain hypothetical motions but the motion is interrupted. It never culminates in anything, any achieved purposes. It starts with a static external condition and and ends up describing an internal condition: the condition of mind of one of the on-lookers, that of the poet and the conflict in his mind and his heart between the freedom and the fear inherent in the desire for connection, between the head and the heart. Are we not all in one way or another, the old man with a pair of a binoculars in his hands sitting in a public park, frozen to the seat, and longing for human connections?
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