July 30


After killing a daily share of ants with my fingers

in the kitchen this morning,

I don’t feel particularly guilty.

I am only angry with myself, because

Yesterday evening I didn’t wash the dishes once again.

February 21

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

– W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”


December 31

Time is endless in thy hands, my lord.
There is none to count thy minutes.

Days and nights pass and ages bloom and fade like flowers.
Thou knowest how to wait.

Thy centuries follow each other perfecting a small wild flower.

We have no time to lose,
and having no time we must scramble for a chance.
We are too poor to be late.

And thus it is that time goes by
while I give it to every querulous man who claims it,
and thine altar is empty of all offerings to the last.

At the end of the day I hasten in fear lest thy gate be shut;
but I find that yet there is time.

– Rabindranath Tagore

December 30

“The infinite sky is motionless overhead and the restless water is boisterous. On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.

“They build their houses with sand, and they play with empty shells. With withered leaves they weave their boats and smilingly float them on the vast deep. Children have their play on the seashore of worlds.”

– Rabindranath Tagore, “The Crescent Moon” IMG_2868

December 14Nekyia_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_1494_full

A Caption

In this spectacular black-figure amphora from Vulci, dated ca. 530 BCE, Sisyphus lifts a heavy stone like a giant white egg. The white of the stone carries the paleness of Persephone’s face and that of the feather attached to the helmet of the worrier standing behind.

Sisyphus action appears effortless, which might be explained as follows: it was reported in 2002 that falling coconuts kill 150 people worldwide.

December 12


I watch her favorite cat

Who escaped from her poems

And hid his sharp claws down this page

“Lifting your soul”

Appears like a bowtie cut from a newspaper

Pasted across his neck covered with invisible burs

“Duch” stands for “ghost,” or “soul”?

Perhaps for both

But only she knows the difference

Przyglądam się jej ulubionemu kotowi

Który zbiedł z jej wierszy

I ukrył swoje pazury na dole tej strony

“Podtrzymywanie na duchu”

Pojawia się jak muszka wycięta z gazety

Wklejona wzdłuż jego szyji pokrytej niewidocznymi ostami

“Duch” to czy “dusza”

Może i jedno i drugie

Ale tylko ona zna różnicę

November 9

Przyniosła czerwone, a miało być białe, na popołudnie.
Butelka z ciemnego szkła ją zdezorientowała.
Wypiliśmy po lampce, do rozmowy, o wszystkim i o niczym.
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz.

She brought a bottle of red, it was supposed to be white, suitable for the early afternoon

The dark glass of the bottle deceived her

A glass for each, to accompany our conversation, about everything and nothing

One more time, one more time

August 31

The journey continues, when I admire this island from the terrace of my house on the hill

It’s the same as Ithaka, only smaller

I tell myself: a hat of Laistrygonians, Cyclops and angry Poseidon

Under it, the abyss of my poor thoughts.


July 5

We vanish slowly,

with little time for others.

We examine ourselves

with a growing disbelief.

February 17

IMG_7337January 2

He came today, I saw him.

Then, I copied Her words:

But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.

                     Then he returns

to the pale subways of cement he calls his home.

IMG_7157IMG_7194December 11, 2013

“Life is short, but Art is long.
And in the battle Life wins.”

-Dmitri Prigov

August 20, 2012

“I must confess to you that I wrote these songs to fill in the gaps in my personal life.”

–Manos Hadjidakis

Summer 2012


“My works were once compared to those of Hans Memling.”

“I used to look like Catherine Deneuve”

Considers herself a feminist

And she allows a female student scream at a teacher

“I demand you tell me what you think about my work”

“I pay your (meager) salary”

News November 29, 2010







“Admits murders”

November 13,

“Vamos”–young woman called her dog:

It was his name.

October 7

  • Marek Bartelik

  • In Conversation
  • with René de Ceccatty

Portrait of René de Ceccatty. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

René de Ceccatty was born in Tunisia. His French family moved to France when he was six years old. A renowned novelist, essayist, playwright, and translator, his interests in Italian and Japanese literature have resulted in translations of such important writers as Ôé, Abé, Sôseki, Mishima, Tanizaki, Yûko Tsushima, Ogawa, Pasolini, Moravia, Leopardi, Saba, and Bonaviri. De Ceccatty lives and works in Paris, where Marek Bartelik sat down with him last March on the occasion of the release by Flammarion of his latest non-fiction book, Alberto Moravia, and his appearance on stage with the Italian actress Claudia Cardinale during a festival devoted to films based on Moravia’s books.

Marek Bartelik (Rail): Do you remember the moment when you became attracted to Italian poetry?

René de Ceccatty: It was after I saw Teorema, by Pier Paolo Pasolini. I watched the movie with a friend in a film festival during the Easter holidays in 1969. I immediately bought the book the movie was based on. At that time, I was writing a novel that combined a love story between two adolescent boys with a kind of religious revelation. I felt that Pasolini’s imagination was mine! The next year, I decided to study the Italian language at school, instead of taking English lessons. Our Italian teacher made us read Cesare Pavese’s poetry, diaries, short stories, and novels. The poem La morte verrà e avrà i tuoi occhi (Death will come and it will have your eyes) was a true discovery. Our teacher taught us how Petrarch and Cavalcanti influenced Ronsard and Du Bellay in France. She explained the rules of dolce stil nuovo. I thought that the land of poetry was Italy. But the real beginning of my “becoming Italian” happened in Perugia, where I spent a month during the summer of 1970. I should say my “becoming myself,” as well, because I was writing a lot, feeling that I would like to dedicate my life to writing.

Rail: When we talked about Pasolini some time ago, you mentioned that you wrote to him when you were a teenager and that recently your letters were discovered in his archives in Rome.

Ceccatty: I wrote to him when I was 18 years old, almost immediately after I saw Teorema and read his novel. In my letter, written in Italian, I asked him if I could send him my novel I’d just finished. He answered immediately: yes, he would like to read it, but he apologized in advance for not being a good judge of my literary qualifications because he did not know French well enough. On February 26, 1970, I sent my manuscript with another letter. I can be very precise, because a young Italian writer found the second letter and my manuscript 17 years later in his archives and sent them back to me.

Perhaps it could be interesting to cite fragments of my letter, rather than just paraphrasing it. Here they are:

Dear Pier Paolo Pasolini, I am really thrilled to write to you in Italian. You know that it is not my mother tongue, and I know, as far as I am concerned, that seeing one’s own language misused by a foreigner is not very pleasant…Teorema is the most beautiful movie I have ever seen and the novel (did you write it before the film or after?) revealed to me the beauty of Italian language and the richness that words contain when the writer focuses on literary structure. L’Enfant unique [The Only Child, that is the title of my novel] is the story of a mystic revelation.

I described my novel:

The real torments of my main character (Yves) spring from how to express love. He thinks he is unconventional compared to others. He is convinced that he must accomplish some task, because he does not understand how to touch other people… When he is alone with his friend Robert on the road, he yearns to reach a union with him, but he fails. He hopes that his faith in God, the rites of the church, will bring him a real union with other men and with the Earth. When he meets a man who understands him—a priest—he realizes that he behaves as if he is on stage when he lives with another man. In Yves’s earthly feelings, God reveals the purity of his attachments. God makes him discover earthly things in a new way.

It is very strange for me to read this letter now. My novel as summed up in this letter resembles not only the plot of an old Graham Greene novel, but the early diaries of Pasolini himself, which I could not have known at that time, because they were published by his cousin, Nico Naldini, only many years later, after Pasolini’s death. I guess Pasolini’s nature and mine were almost the same. We were very similar teenagers, but, of course, living in two different periods of history, before World War II for him, and before 1968 for me. We had similar ideas about sex and religion.

Rail: “Sex and religion”—this is a very explosive issue nowadays. Could you explain how you understand this connection?

Ceccatty: I differentiate between “sex and religion” and “sex and mysticism.” The first one is related to organized religions. There is a strong connection between sex and Catholicism. When I took religion classes, I was surprised how often the priests talked about sex. In confession, we were obliged to speak about our sexual lives. I don’t say that sexuality was unknown to me at that time, but it was very different from that which the priests were talking about. My sexuality was difficult to describe, because it was just a fantasy with no action and no pleasure, except for one traumatic event: I was about 8-years-old when an older boy (of about 16 or 18) assaulted me sexually. He didn’t exactly rape me; in fact, he was gentle and sweet during his sexual play. The whole event was very strange, almost poetic. At that time I did not understand what exactly had happened; he seemed to belong to another planet, another world. He was a stranger; I was playing with my young cousin in a vineyard near my house. Why he chose me remains a mystery. He appeared like a character in one of William Faulkner’s novels or in “The Encounter,” a very disturbing story from James Joyce’s Dubliners. Back then I did not make any connection between the sexual interests of the priests and my particular experience. However, I realized that a certain type of sexuality was an obsession for some Catholic priests.

The relationship between sex and mysticism is very different. They both require a complete commitment to someone else, either another person or another way of living. A search of the inner self and illumination occurs in an encounter. That was the reason why I was attracted to Pasolini’s Teorema. Other writers wrote about it as well—D.H. Lawrence of course, as well as Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross. Those two saints created extraordinary poems about God, desire, flesh, faith, and sacred marriage. But their poetry has little to do either with Catholicism or the Pope, or the sexual frustration of priests.

Rail: Do you feel a similar affinity with Yukio Mishima, another writer whose books you have translated into French?

Ceccatty: With Mishima things are very different. Ryôji Nakamura and I, we have translated two of Mishima’s books, his great “gay novel” Forbidden Colors (Kinjiki) and a collection of early short stories. Mishima was an excellent writer, with a superior intelligence and a very deep understanding of the culture of his time. But his personality does not interest me, and I don’t identify with him and his world at all. He was a married man, very hypocritical, with a double life: a middle class wife and young male lovers. His admiration for the army, for the empire, and his right-wing sympathies, are anathema to me. But his way of describing the human mind, behavior, social life, as well as his mastering of style and language, are exceptional.

My favorite Japanese writer is Natsume Sôseki (1867–1916). We translated five of his novels, as well as a collection of lectures and conferences. His writings interest me immensely. In the way he perceived and described inner and social life, Sôseki was as innovative for Japanese literature as Henry James was for American and British, and Marcel Proust for the French novel.

We have also translated books by the Nobel Prize winner Kenzaburô Ôé (and we did it before he won the prize), Kôbô Abe, and Tanizaki. As much as I enjoy contemporary writers—for instance, Hitonari Tsuji, Kazumi Yumoto, and Nao-Cola Yamazaki—because their modern style is very easy for me to understand and to read, I feel particularly close to classical Japanese literature, such as the 10th century Izumi-shikibu Diary or Tosa Diary. The ancient Japanese writers teach me a lot about the relationship between psychology and poesis.

Rail: How do you collaborate on your translations with Ryôji Nakamura?

Ceccatty: Ryôji currently lives in Japan, after 25 years in France, so we work using Skype with webcam. Each of us has the same book in front of him when we are translating together. Of course, it is easier to understand the original for Ryôji. We read in Japanese loudly first (I can read Japanese, but when I don’t understand an ideogram, Ryôji tells me how it should be read and what it means), then we look for the right word or words in French, followed by the equivalent sentences and expressions. After we agree on the choice of words and sentence structure, together we come up with the final version. I write it down, e-mail it to Japan, and he further corrects it if necessary. When I work with him I feel that I am reaching something very special within me, in my inner life, my relationship with literature and the Japanese language.

Rail: Your range of literary interests is exceptionally vast, spanning continents, countries, and cultures. Women writers also occupy an important place in it.

Ceccatty: I feel very close to women writers. I wrote a book on the first Italian feminist, Sibilla Aleramo, and another one on Violette Leduc, a “female Jean Genet,” as she was once described. I feel close to Marguerite Duras, Nathalie Sarraute, and the French Canadian Marie-Claire Blais. As a publisher, I publish the work of many women, as well as gays. I enjoy discussing literature and life with my women and gay friends. For me a gay is not a “different person” who belongs to a sexual minority. It might surprise you, but I think that a gay writer is someone who is more sincere, more adult, has a deeper and more complete relationship with the world than straight people. A straight writer, it seems to me, often ignores the essential diversity of humanity. But “gay” and “straight” are not satisfying labels, inappropriate for classical writers. It is simply absurd to say that Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Horace Walpole, or Henry James were gay, or even that Proust was gay. They just knew what love between two men or two women means. Currently, I am writing a novel about the Italian poet and philosopher Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837). His greatest love was for his male friend Antonio Ranieri. But they probably had no sex. Sex was not the most important thing in their relationship; accepting their love was. The main thing was to be conscious of one’s feelings, rather than fighting them.

Rail: Various events from your life have played an important role in your novels. Could you talk about the way they shape your narrative and define your identity as a writer?

Ceccatty: I write only when I feel a true necessity to do so. I write when I need to help myself, not to survive—because I know that writing does not give that kind of support—but to understand myself. So every time I feel at a loss, every time a deep crisis happens in my life, I start writing. I don’t know if my action will result in a book, but I have to write and explain those very dark or very powerful moments. Working on my very first book, Personnes et personnages, which I wrote between 1969 and 1975, I dealt with questions about my childhood, sexual identity, my family’s departure from Tunisia. Having very strong memories and images still present in my mind, and experiencing my old anguishes, I described them in writing in a theatrical fashion. To do so, I used myths, the lives of the saints, Latin and Greek legends. Writing in such a way was very natural and clear to me, but the book ended up being quite odd, full of poems, descriptions of dreams and paintings, dialogues, fragments of diaries, and philosophical analysis. Although I wasn’t intending to recount my life, still the book is full of events from it—disguised as myths. With a more mature sexual and sentimental life, I wrote with growing directness. After I signed my first publishing contract, I felt more secure and self-confident. I put together two different love stories in one book, which was my second one, written partly during my stay in Japan between 1977 and 1979.

After my return from Japan, I tried to write another type of story, but I experienced writer’s block when I attempted to make it about Japan. So, instead, I wrote my first historical novel about Saint Francis Xavier’s travels from Portugal to India and Japan. When I wrote about him (L’extrémité du monde) or, later, when I wrote about Horace Walpole (L’or et la poussière) or Violette Leduc (La sentinelle du rêve), Galileo, Maria Callas, and other real characters (Le mot amour), I felt as if I was writing about myself.

But the strongest literary experiences, and the most difficult ones, occurred when I decided to write directly about my life. L’accompagnement tells a story of a friend who died from AIDS. Aimer and the next five novels (Consolation provisoire, L’éloignement, Fiction douce, Une fin, and L’Hôte invisible), are about friendship and love. But I decided not to publish Un père, which was a direct account of my relationship with a divorced father. Because the book was so personal, I gave my manuscript to him and asked if he objected to having it published. He could not make up his mind. I suspected that he could not bear seeing it published, so I decided not to, despite the fact that the book was already at the galley proof stage and had even been sent to critics for review. I asked my publisher not to print it. Antoine Gallimard understood and accepted my reasons.

It is impossible for me to make someone unhappy with my writings. My identity as a writer cannot impose itself against life and, above all, another person’s life. I know that it seems shocking for some other writers and artists, but I don’t think that we have the right to harm anybody with our art.

Rail: Do you have a particular interest in “gay” or “queer” literature?

Ceccatty: I don’t have an exclusive interest in gay, or queer, writers. As I mentioned earlier, Sôseki is one of my favorite authors of all time. And most of the great Japanese writers I like, read, and translate are straight. I have just written a biography of Alberto Moravia, who adored women, but who was totally gay-friendly. Pasolini was his close friend. In fact, Moravia wrote many novels and short stories, especially his last one a few days before he died at 83, about gay emotions. Still, I think that sexuality builds and determines a writer’s personality and, more generally speaking, everyone’s personality, sensibility, and perception. Important for being gay is the fact that it forces one to be true to himself or herself, to construct an honest identity, and to fight against social hypocrisy. It is a liberating experience that helps to understand others and differentiate between truths and lies in human behavior. That’s the reason why I like gay writers E.M. Forster, James Baldwin, Edmund White, Peter Cameron, Stephen McCauley. Obviously, there isn’t just one kind of gay people, as sexuality differs from person to person. There are other gay writers I don’t like, because I think that as writers they are shallow. Some can be vulgar. The main thing for me in writing is sincerity; I look for truth on both a personal level and in relations between people. Being gay may prevent one from being fake, but it is not always so.

Rail: You have many friends who are visual artists and your books contain some beautiful passages about paintings and painters.

Ceccatty: One example: in L’Hôte invisible, I tell a story similar to the one in my unpublished novel, but using a painting made by an unknown Slovenian painter of the 19th century, Josef Tominz. In that painting, the main character is absent. It portrays three women, drinking tea on a balcony; they are looking at us, but they appear to watch someone “off stage.” This invisible presence is like the man I loved and wrote about—but who forbade me to publish Un père. My literary reaction to this kind of blackmail offers perhaps the best answer to your question about the use of my life in my books and how my novels “shape my identity.”

Rail: You are a highly accomplished playwright. What is your relationship to theater?

Ceccatty: I wrote my first tragedy at the age of 15. In 1968, when I was 16, I wrote another play called Frühling (spring in German), which I performed with two female friends the next year during and right after the so-called Students’ Revolution. The plot is difficult to sum up: it is a kind of Ionesco or Beckett, expressing the impact of power and language on us, and the anguish before the unknown. We performed it in two theaters in Montpellier and in a bar in Avignon, where I rented a backroom during the 1969 Theater Festival. 17 performances in total. I remember our best performance was on July 21. Everybody was waiting for the first images of men walking on the moon, which was scheduled for broadcasting on French television at 2 or 3 AM. Waiting to witness that historic moment, many people came to see us in my play (our backroom was incredibly crowded!—for the first and last time…). I appeared on stage as an actor only once afterwards, in the Ionesco play Jacques ou la soumission.

My involvement with theater changed dramatically after I met the Argentinian director Alfredo Arias. In 1992, I helped Alfredo to write a musical called Mortadela, which became a huge success and had a long run of three or four years. Consequently, Alfredo asked me to write other plays for him, and up to now we have collaborated on about a dozen theater productions, most of them musicals. Alfredo also directed my La Dame aux Camélias, with Isabelle Adjani as Marguerite Gautier, performed at Théâtre Marigny in Paris during the season 2000–2001. (Recently it was staged in French at the Arclight Theatre in Manhattan with another team.) I also wrote several plays for other directors—a Polish one in Slovenia, for instance.

My collaboration with Claudia Cardinale is also very important to me. It started from my translation from Venetian into French of a famous, anonymous classical play La Venexiana, in which she performed at Théâtre du Rond-Point in Paris in May 2000 and then toured France with it the next year. This was her debut on stage, a big moment in her career. She spoke a lot to me about her beginnings in film. Since then, we became close friends. Last March, we read on stage at the Paris Cinémathèque fragments of her conversation with Moravia, who interviewed her when she was 23. I played the part of the writer. It was a moving experience for me, and for her as well.

Theater has been very important for me, also because writing is such a solitary experience. Working with and for actors gives me a strong feeling of communal experience. I like the smell of the stage, as well as the anguish of backstage and rehearsal. It is unforgettable.

Rail: You have mentioned Moravia several times in this conversation. Your last book, published a few months ago, is his biography. What motivated you to write about him?

Ceccatty: There are four different reasons for it. The first one is that I simply admire Moravia as a writer and person. I had known him for 10 years before he died. I have translated his books for twenty years. I think I know his work very well. I admired and admire his intelligence, his honesty, his culture, his curiosity for other people and other cultures, his lack of prejudice, and, last but not least, his friendship with Pasolini. Because his lifestyle and love was “foreign” to me, I have gained the right distance to him, based on sympathy and no identification.

The second reason is that I always wanted to write a book about Italy. I had translated many Italian writers, reviewed many of their books, and often met them. I had written two books about Pasolini and one about Sibilla Aleramo, but those two were very special writers, self-absorbed and very close to my sensibility. I wanted to write about someone different from me, far from me, who had been a witness and a sharp observer of contemporary world in every aspect of life: cultural, political, geographic, and social. Moravia was a great writer who had an insight into all aspects of personal (love, family, art) and social (professional, cultural, political) relationships. He criticized family, hypocrisy, and lies. He was a great reader, a great traveler, and a great journalist. So I knew that, when I would write about his life, I would understand not only a specific man but, through him, a world in its time.

The third reason for my interest in Moravia has to do with my knowing many of his friends, his widow, his ex-wife (they were not officially married), and many writers who were close to him. I know Rome and its literary milieu well. So it was not too difficult for me to speak with key people who knew Moravia.

Finally, the fourth reason is that, at the current stage of my literary life, I have difficulties with writing another “private novel,” a new autobiographical story. It is more interesting to immerse myself in another writer’s world and mind. I continue to be “blocked” by the problem I had with my novel Un père. Therefore, it has been the right time to write a long book on someone else and “forget” (if only one could forget) my own life.

Moravia’s life is fascinating. Born in 1907 in a half-Jewish family in Rome, he suffered from bone tuberculosis as a child. He began publishing very young (he did not lose time in school!). He became a witness and a victim of the spread of fascism in the 1930s. He belonged to Italian history of the first part of the 20th century and beyond. Moravia’s relationship to history was very profound: he belonged to and shaped it. I always admired his freedom and the way he protected it. To our day, he remains the sole Italian writer who masterfully used fiction to express himself.

About the Author

Bartelik is an art historian and art critic specializing in 20th century art and theory of art.

August 17,

Going home:

August 3

Winner Takes It All

They have no clue

Glitz and trash

On display

You might say

Victims of the system

Awarding vulgarity

Because they play well

They wear diamonds

You must be kidding


Or am I being unfair

Calling a foot fault?

November 6,

The Brooklyn Rail, November 2009 issue

“ANNIE FREUD with Marek Bartelik”

by Marek Bartelik and Annie Freud

While in his visit to London this past June, the writer/poet Marek Bartelik met up with the Annie Freud in a café in SoHo to talk about her art and poetry, and continued their conversation over the next few months via e-mail.Marek Bartelik (Rail): Your debut volume of poetry is titled The Best Man That Ever Was (Picador 2007), the next one has a provisional titleThe Mirabelles. How important are the titles of those volumes, as well as your individual poems, to you?

Portrait of Annie Freud. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Annie Freud: My title poem, “The Best Man That Ever Was,” did start out as “The Worst Man That Ever Was,” but it seemed a bit obvious. Calling him the Best Man that Ever Was made his identity more interesting and the woman’s story more convincing.

One of my new poems is called “The Mirabelles”; it is some ways a credo poem. I love the word Mirabelles for its suggestiveness. Mirabelles, as I’m sure you know, are those tiny sweet yellow plums used in France to make the most delicious of eaux de vie and tarts the size of cartwheels. And it is also an homage to William Carlos Williams for his lovely poem, “This is Just to Say,” a favorite of mine.

I love giving my poems titles. There’s something leisurely and luxurious about it. It’s like wrapping a present and then putting in the post, and I like to send parcels. I like poem titles to be eye catching and punchy. I have a lot of poem titles lying around waiting to be used.

I often use things that I hear people say to find them. There’s a Beatles song that ends with a chanted line that’s repeated several times like a scratched record, and that sounds like “It really could be any other.” People used to say that if you listened to it backwards—quite how that would have been done, I’m not sure—you would uncover some “truth” or at least something enjoyably shocking. It was the sort of “insider knowledge” that people used to enjoy flaunting. So I called a poem of mine about that time “Like What You Get When You Play It Backwards.”

I also like poem titles to be suggestive of earlier poems. A favorite of mine is Ashbery’s “Little JA in a Prospect of Flowers,”a weirdly post-Freudian take on Marvell’s “Little TC in a Prospect of Flowers.”

When I go into a bookshop to look for a book of poems, I look at titles to see if something grabs me. That’s how I give my poems titles—so that someone will pick up my book and say “Hey, that’s strange” or “I like that” or “That reminds of the time when I was.”

Rail: Your Mirabelles make me recall a summer I spent in France in the early 1980s. For two weeks, I worked on a farm picking those plums with such a sweet name. A lot of bending of my back in full sun for relatively very little money, but it was enough to pay for the rest of my vacation. I mention this because I would like to know about the relationship between the real events of your life and those echoed or mentioned in your poems. When do they merge, if ever?

Freud: All my poems are in some way autobiographical, triggered by the memory of an event, a relationship, something I heard someone say, a story someone told me about themselves, something I saw written on a wall, a phrase from a letter, something that kept happening to me again and again over a short period perhaps because of my attitude of mind at the time. Sometimes I use one of these fragments and the poem somehow accrues around it; sometimes I just tell the event as I remember it, using what I find useful, inventing other things and dragging in other memories or words that I’ve been waiting to use for years.

“The Ballad of Hunnington Herbert” is about a friend of mine but I have mixed in details of my own life. I wanted to convey the directionlessness of my generation. “1973”was about my first marriage. All the details in the poem are as they were. In the Champagne, where I lived, there was a tradition of couples going out into the fields in the early evening when the dew fell to pick up snails; they were then taken home, starved, purged with salt and prepared with butter and garlic to make Escargots de Bourgogne. Except we could never be bothered and the snails escaped all over the flat, much to my in-laws’ horror and amusement.

“My Bird”is a poem that came from a time when I was in court for a driving offence. My stepfather had kindly provided a chauffeur-driven car to take me there and home again after the hearing. When we got back into the car to go back to my flat, the driver switched on the ignition and the radio was playing “The Prisoners’ Chorus” from Beethoven’s Fidelio. How we laughed—it was so apt and so absurd at the same time. “Oh what joy to get out of prison” was how the poem began, but I wanted to make it as real as possible, like a real prisoner starting life again on the outside and reveling in the ordinary details of life.

Rail: I do see many of your poems as enchanting “miniatures,” full of wonderful details derived from daily life. I know you also make art. How much does your involvement with art relate to your family background?

Freud: During my childhood I often watched my father painting and sat for many pictures. It was part of my life. It intrigued me that he saw so much blue, green and yellow in people’s faces. He often took me to the Tate Gallery. In the second stanza of my poem Rare London Cheeses, I mention a painting of his called Wasteground with Houses that I’ve always admired; it has extraordinary grandeur.

If I mention London, it’s because of Delamere,
the sadness in the backs of terraced houses,
the chimney pots in attitudes of strife,
the feathered discolorations of the render
and the way each window seems to be leading
its own relentless Sickertian life.

Part of my childhood was spent in my grandfather’s (Jacob Epstein’s) house. His vast studio was at the back and I often played there while he worked. On one of the landings there was a huge glass case full of very weird and scary African pieces he had collected, animals and women carved out of dark polished wood, with elaborate hairstyles, distorted bodies, pointed teeth and glittering eyes. I particularly remember a young girl with wild black hair riding naked on the back of a bear. I used to pass it every day.

When I was young I always painted and drew. My mother was gifted artist and although she only began painting and drawing again much later in her life, she was always making wonderful tapestries for cushion covers and they were everywhere in our house. I began making embroideries on friends’ clothes when I was at university. My first big piece was a tablecloth embroidered with wild flowers. I embroidered table napkins and handkerchiefs with flowers, frogs, newts, birds and moths for Anthony D’Offay, my father’s dealer at that time.

For a long time, I was rather unfocused. I didn’t know what to do. I had lots of different jobs and tried all sorts of things. For some years I gave up the idea of being an artist of any sort. But eventually the pain of not trying was destroying me. I find with hindsight that I incorporated the pain into some of my poems, in particular, “A Voids Officer Achieves the Tree Pose”and“To A Window on the Caledonian Road.”

Later my confidence returned and I made a series of embroideries on commission. I embroidered a dog taken from one of the mosaics in Pompeii on the back of a cardigan. I embroidered a stag in silk pixels on a maroon cashmere suit by Versace for Graham Norton. I embroidered a pattern of flowers and leaves taken from a Gainsborough portrait on a waistcoat for Jon Snow. I also made a large tapestry of my mother asleep on a fur rug taken from a photograph and many other pieces. Some of these have recently been on show in a gallery in London.

Rail: I am currently writing an article on the Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli. Asked about his fascination with embroideries, he explained. “Maybe it’s an antidote to speed. After all, embroidery is a technique deeply connected to memory. There is a lot of pain in embroidery.” What significance does embroidering carry for you?

Freud: When I used to sit stitching day after day, often for as much as eight hours a day, it gave me a sense of self-worth. I would look over what I had done that day, see the beauty in what I had made and feel the reward of long hours of concentration and stillness. It was also terribly slow and frustrating. When I do it now, it is more for recreational purposes.
The relationship between embroidering and writing poems has to do with selecting and rejecting colors and words and the intense but controlled excitement that goes with it. I love the repeated triangular dynamic that goes on between the act of looking, my hand holding the brush, pencil or needle and the work slowly growing. The way I write my poems is related to that part of my life.

Rail: Let’s return to your interests in art: Which artists (apart from those from your family) have marked your artistic sensibility? Have they influenced your poems as well, and if so, in what way?

Freud: There are innumerable painters whose work I deeply admire but there are some whose work has taken root in my imagination and the states they evoke in me sometimes find their way into my poems.

There is a fantastic painting of a hunting scene by Uccello in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Once seen, it stays with you forever and no reproduction could ever do it justice. The curious way the artist has employed the technique of perspective to show the horses, hounds and deer all rushing towards a vanishing point in the dark forest is absolutely hypnotic. Something of that picture seeped into my poem “A Retreat in an Edwardian Manor House.”

I’m drawn to the paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, particularly by his portraits of women; they seem to emit a strange quality of ambivalence towards their subjects matter in a way that somehow heightens their beauty and the tenderness with which they are portrayed.

Another favorite of mine is Antonella da Messina’s painting of St. Jerome in his Study that hangs in the National Gallery in London. I love the feeling of watching him sitting at his desk, the quail in foreground, all his personal possessions—pens, books and pots—arranged on the shelves and the lion standing like a sentinel in the shadows.

I love the paintings of the Dutch painter, De Hooch, and the way the people are observed at their daily tasks in their ordered, calm domestic settings, every form and texture exquisitely rendered. They convey a sense of intense privacy.

Some years ago there was an exhibition of Chardin’s paintings at the Royal Academy. Seeing these paintings exhibited together gave me an insight into his work. The delicacy and reverence with which these still lives and studies of people were painted seems to communicate a sense of the highest moral value.

But the painter that touches me most is Velasquez. Look at his portrait of Aesop naked under his fustian dressing gown, his self-neglect, his unillusioned expression, his louche glamour, his oblique stance towards to world. Or the strange dignity of the Water Seller of Seville. Or the ecstatic expression on the Infanta’s face in Las Meninas. In my poem “The Symbolic Meaning of Things and Reasons for Not Dying,”I am looking at his painting of An Old Woman Cooking Eggs. It is so inspiring. Babette’s Feast, one of my favorite films, takes its inspiration from this painting and also its message about the relationship between the physical and spiritual aspects of life.

Rail: In this beautiful poem, W.B. Yeats speaks about making his “song a coat/Covered with embroideries/Out of old mythologies/From heel to throat.” He then asks the Song to allow the fools to have it – “for there’s more enterprise/In walking naked.” Returning to your poems and their connections to real and imaginary lives. Do you agree with Yeats that “walking naked” is a necessary condition for a poet?

Freud: I think what Yeats meant was the human desire for—and the romantic tradition of—adornment and embellishment and the modern poet’s desire for a sense of connectedness to the great stories of the past (in his case the heroes of Celtic legend) and their significance from a psychological, aesthetic and moral point of view to contemporary life: Icarus, Odysseus, Orpheus, Ariadne etc. And he is also talking about his position as a modern poet in relation to his time and the way that flowery imagery, the use of classical allusion and “beautiful” language as a prerequisite for poetry, began to be viewed as suspect, even redundant. When he says “there’s more enterprise in going naked,” I think he means having the courage to admit emotional truth and the willingness to question his ideals. And he had many.

T.S. Eliot was very much aware of the development of this aspect of Yeats. In his famous essay, he wrote about “the weight of the Pre-Raphaelite prestige” as having been “tremendous,” and how, as Yeats matured as a poet, he was only able to master the Celtic legend when he was able to use it as a “vehicle for his own creation of character.” Yeats must also have been increasingly aware of the destabilization of the idea of subject matter that was taking place in 20th-century poetry and wanting to find his own way of reflecting that phenomenon.

What do I think about “walking naked” as a necessary condition for any poet? What I look for in any poem is a quality of “meant-ness,” that some sort of truth is there, not necessarily true in a factual sense but something that strikes one as true. This is what I try for in all my poems.

Rail: You ground Yeats in his time, his history, his way of seeing. What makes poetry, including yours, so appealing to me is the fact that it comments on our reality with an insisting urgency and, at the same time, speaks about life with passion—as if the reader was a lover or an intimate friend passing by.

Two poems immediately spring to mind. “Treacle”by Paul Farley and “Ye haue heard this yarn afore” by Peter Reading.

When I first read Treacle, I had to go out and buy a tin of it and hear it “sigh” when I opened it, see the unreflectiveness of its surface for myself, feel its weight in my hand, read its endorsement and breathe in its scent for myself.

Funny to think you can still buy it now
a throwback, like shoe polish or the sardine key.
When you lever the lid it opens with a sigh
and you’re face to face with history.

I love this poem for its immediacy, the quality of its observation, its calm assured tone and the terrible irony of the use of the endorsement: “Out of the strong came forth sweetness” and its connection with the facts of the slave trade and the sugar trade. It is one of those rare poems that stands like a monument to personal responsibility. It leads straight back to Blake and Conrad.

“Ye haue heard this yarn afore”is a poem that takes many readings. It is a found poem, and it is clear that the source of this poem is an important book entitled The Adventures of William Dampier and a New Voyage around the World (published in 1697) by W. Dampier, one of the great explorers and scientific observers of the 17th-century, a buccaneer, sea captain and author. Much of the detail in the poem is lifted directly from Dampier’s text.

Why is it so powerful? In the first few lines of the poem, in which an old man looks back over a shameful event from its past, we know we are in the presence of history as something inescapable that cannot be suppressed: a sense of responsibility for acts of destruction and cruelty, bred out of boredom, the banality of evil. It has extraordinary breadth in that it makes the reader picture the underbelly of the “Great Discoveries” and call to mind their knowledge of other mass killings.

It is a contemporary take on Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and it is believed that Dampier’s book may have been the source for that poem.

The idea for my poem The Inventor of the Individual Fruit Pie came from a friend of mine whose father had invented the technology for the mass-production of individual pies. When I was at university, I used to eat them while walking around the campus. There wasn’t much else to eat. They were a kind of expression of the freedom of the 60s; for the first time I was away from home and sit-down meals. And as I was writing it I thought of the film Billy Liar and the image of Julie Christie sauntering along a street, escaping to the London and its “opportunity for careless satisfaction.” I sent the poem to my friend’s father, who was delighted with it and told me that he would use it to defeat his “detractors”! And it turned out that he adored Mae West! I was writing about my generation.

Rail: What do think about love poems? Do you write them?

Freud: All good poems are love poems. And I do write them. “The Best Man That Ever Was” is a love poem; so are “To a Coat-Stand, The Things We Do, The Green Vibrator” and many others.

Rail: How important is the English language to you? Have you written any poems in other languages?

Freud: When I’m composing a poem, I love using a word I’ve never used before, sensing its character and enjoying its allusiveness. But I don’t think about the English language much. I do think about the French language and its formal grammatical structure.

I wrote “1973,” the first poem of my collection in French. I sometimes find the relative absence of staccato in the French language useful in finding a kind of music for my poems, and in helping them find the form that suit them best. I read a lot of French poetry; at the moment I am reading Joachim du Bellay’s sonnets.

I love the possibilities of syntax. For me there’s something akin to the thrill of the chase in the making of a sentence in a poem; the way the clauses and sub-clauses compete for space and the metal excitement that goes with it.

Rail: In the last stanza of “The Last Words of My English Grandmother,” William Carlos Williams writes:

What are all those
fuzzy things out there?
Trees? Well, I’m tired
of them and rolled her head away.

Freud: That’s another of my favorite poems. There’s something so authoritative about it.

This poem represents the most inescapable of all subjects: the death of parents. All the things, the qualities, the distinguishing marks that made each thing itself, and which once mattered so much, cease to matter at the approach of death. And that the subject for poetry is not freely chosen; it decides that you will write about it.

Rail: What are you writing now?

Freud: I am writing poems for my next collection which be coming out in 2010.

The Best Man that Ever Was

I was never required to sign the register
as all was pre-arranged by his general staff,
but I did it out of choice and for the image that I made
with the stewards and the bellboys,
my gloves laid side by side, and his Party rings that I hid
from my family (it was torment, the life
in my family home, everyone smoking and rows
about guns and butter at every inedible meal
and my aunts in their unhinged state, threatening suicide),
and as I wrote my signature along the line
the letter seemed to coil like the snake
saying, I am here to be with Him.

There were always little jobs to do
in preparation for his coming – dinner to order,
consideration of the wine-list, hanging up my robe,
a dab of perfume on my palms.
But it was never long before I found the need to pay
attention to the corded sheaf of birch twigs
brought from home to service our love-making.
How he loved to find it, ready for his use,
homely on a sheet of common newspaper –
A Thing of Nature, so he said, so fine, so pure.
He’d turn away and smooth his thinning hair,
lost as he was in some vision of grandeur.

And having washed and dried his hands with care
and filled our flutes like any ordinary man,
the night’s first task would come into his mind.
He’d bark his hoarse, articulate command
and down I’d bend across the ornamented desk,
my mouth level with the inkstand’s claws,
my cheek flat against the blotter; I’d lift my skirts,
slip down my panties and sob for him
with every blow. And I saw visions of my own: daisies,
sometimes brown contented cows, dancers’ puffy skirts,
a small boat adrift on a choppy sea; and once a lobster sang
to me: Happy Days Are Here Again!

He’d tut at the marks and help me to my feet
and we’d proceed into the the dining room
and laugh and drink and raise the silver domes
on turbot, plover and bowls of zabaglione.
You’d think he’d never seen a woman eat. Once he took
my spoon out of my hand and asked me, Are you happy?
I’d serve him coffee by the fire and tend the logs.
He’d unknot his tie. I’d comb my hair.
He’d make a phone call to no one of importance
and we’d prepare for rest. There never was a man
so ardent in the invocation of love’s terms:
liebling, liebchen, mein liebe, mein kleine liebe!

and always the same – and in the acts: the frog, the hound,
the duck, the goddess, the bear, the boar,
the whale, the galleon and the important artist –
always in the order he preferred –
eyes shut and deaf to the world’s abhorrence
churning and churning in his stinking heaven.
It’s over. But it is still good to arrive at a fine hotel
and reward the major-domo’s gruff punctilio
with a smile and tip and let the bellboys slap my arse
and remember him, the man who thrashed me,
fed me, adored me. He was the best man that ever was.
He was my assassin of the world.


Annie Freud was born in London in 1948 and graduated in English and European Literature at the University of Warwick. She is the daughter of painter Lucian Freud, maternal granddaughter of sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein, and the great grand daughter of Sigmund Freud.

Marek Bartelik’s debut volume of poetry, East Sixth Street, was published by 7letras in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2007.


My lens can’t reach across

Either the time or the space

At 7 AM on Piotrkowska Street

72, local Grand Hotel

How can we comprehend?

The repeating finality of numbers:

70,000 in the Lodz Ghetto in 1944

30 % unemployed in 2009

There is no magic either-or

In the wounded cities of the world

You may only escape 365

By jumping into a promised void

7:15 AM:

A radio taxi arrives

Destination Warsaw airport

LOT 006 back to New York


Albertine’s mole

The vanishing point of her anatomized memory,

With the orthogonal wrinkles moving around,

Toward her chin to her cheek to beneath her eye,

And forward toward her complete appearance.

Writing about her required the shift in perspective,

Seeing as focusing on the sfumato of burning desire,

Veiling her face with the sweet infidelity to truth,

Focusing on the golden candle next to his sagging bed.

Sometimes, quite often in fact, we have no poetry in us. (Carla, thanks for the inspiration to write the poem posted above.) Que viva Puerto Rico.


Another silent morning frightens

The Wall Street vendors

Before yesterday night falls on pears,

Rue du Bac

A blind date

E-mails come and e-mails go

And nothing ever returns

Except a junk message:

“Seek pathetic help”

A broken vein in

Your disrobed Internet body

Requires much more

Than a blissful patch

Exposing your unsophisticated fears

Leaving no chance

To enjoy a long tonight

Before another quick day passes by

On snow-covered Lafayette Street

A man runs in New York or Rome

Robbed of his Russian overcoat

By the cloakless ghosts from the past

Madness coils like a surprise

No convex mirror can reflect it

The words attempt to capture your pain

Paid as a price for another poem to burn


January 13th is a day without a date

Another garden in another exotic place

Another hypnotic call: Touch hidden life

Leave the checkerboard of your tired mind

Under the shattering spell of the Moroccan sky

The brass telescope insists to be a snake

Indifferent to a prolonged cry

Coming from a sage calling distant stars

The illusion must be complete

Fabricated like the ashtray you bought the other day

With a geometric pattern swirling around its rim

It’s only through the kurham that the clay can speak

On the other side of the wall an ageing medina inhales

The thickening fumes of its past

Dust to dust: Oranges, bracelets, and rugs

With no apparent order they will fool your eyes

One has to remain cynical or blind

To self-indulge in such a dubious feast

Served by the anxious kids

In the overcrowded Casablanca streets

Has true passion left me for good?

Or it is a sudden drowsiness that captures my time

Washing away the same old dreams

As I feel the soothing sand running through my heart

To own a copy of East Sixth Street: 50 poems contact Marek Bartelik at bartel@cooper.edu

  • Describing a Christmas Eve
  • On such a dreamy night in Warsaw
  • People rush to attend the midnight mass
  • Awkwardly jumping over a pile of sorrow
  • Birds that did not migrate on time
  • Twenty-five years ago
  • A young boy climbs a Christmas tree
  • In his sleep on Warszawska Street
  • He was warned not to touch fragile ornaments
  • They might explode while falling on the floor
  • Shattering his belief: La vie est ailleurs
  • During this quiet night of rememberence
  • An angel whom I would like to call Sebastiano
  • Assists an altar boy in Argentina
  • To disappear in a dark confessional
  • Hidden behind a Caravaggio purple blush
  • I make my wish to be like him again
  • And it trails
  • Like a tail behind a star
  • Borges once described in a poem
  • And then — no trace left behind


Keep Rio always asa dream — he said not

Arriving there is what you are not destined for

But do not slow down the journey

Better if it happens by itself

So you touch wounds when you reach the place

Sunburned by all you have gained on the way

Not expecting the sea to make you last


  • To notice it

  • Is to search for transcendence

  • Behind the statue of Ghandi

  • In Union Square

  • An electricity transformer

  • Stands like an abandoned post

  • Its holiness

  • Questioned but not contradicted

  • By the proximity

  • Of a liqueur store

  • With a bright neon sign: unionsquarewines.com


  • Your apartment few blocks north

  • From East Sixth Street

  • on a meridian uptown-downtown

  • Fits into my deliberately limited world

  • A prewar brick tenement

  • No doorman Bob

  • Perhaps a Chiuaua named Corcovado

  • Beloved of the low-rent lady next door

  • The place appears small

  • One bedroom

  • Maybe two bedrooms if so

  • The second one transformed into a study

  • With no exchange of words

  • A new day starts in a yellow kitchen

  • At a round dining table confessing nothing in a corner

  • next to a curious window awaiting a useless renovation

  • It ends in a blue bedroom

  • Fenced with bookshelves

  • With lovers who stayed overnight

  • To end up as specters


  • After I write my fiftieth poem

  • I will deposit it on a pillow

  • kept safe in a corner of my imagination

  • Then I will count the words

  • One by one like rosary beads or sheep

  • To endow them with meaning

  • That will give a perfect form to your reading lips

Sur tes lèvres

Ecrire un poème est un geste littéraire ambigu : on s’installe dans une langue étrangère, une langue qui n’est pas la langue courante, la langue quotidienne, la langue de la survie, dont on fait usage pour s’exprimer et communiquer dans les situations les plus banales de la vie et même dans les situations les plus intimes ; et, dans le même mouvement, on retrouve une langue intérieure, celle qui, d’une certaine manière, précède la communication. Et lorsqu’un écrivain décide, pour écrire ses poèmes, de choisir une langue autre que sa langue maternelle, le geste devient encore plus spectaculaire. L’étrangeté de sa langue poétique est alors comme redoublée, sans pour autant nuire à l’authenticité de son intimité, à l’authenticité de sa langue intérieure. Or ce redoublement d’étrangeté accroît souvent la liberté d’écriture.

Marek Bartelik, de langue maternelle polonaise, est un immigré aux Etats-Unis, ce qui le rend, comme on sait, très profondément américain. Les Etats-Unis tiennent leur identité de la diversité des origines de ses habitants. D’une certaine manière, on ne devrait pas pouvoir dire qu’il y a des étrangers aux Etats-Unis. La plupart des écrivains qui se sont installés dans ce pays ont fini par changer de langue. On connaît bien sûr l’exemple de Nabokov. Klaus Mann est un des rares à avoir résisté à l’environnement linguistique quand il vivait aux Etats-Unis.

Bien qu’il parle parfaitement français, puisqu’il a vécu en France, c’est en anglais que Marek et moi nous sommes parlé les premières fois où nous nous sommes vus. Et nous avons, en général, maintenu cette langue commune qui n’est pas plus ma langue maternelle que la sienne. Moi-même ayant passé plusieurs mois en Angleterre, je ne suis pas tout à fait mal à l’aise en anglais, mais le parler ne m’est pas totalement naturel. C’est pour moi une langue littéraire, une langue de lecture plus que de vie quotidienne, encore que la lecture ne soit jamais entièrement cérébrale dans mon cas. Je ne crois d’ailleurs pas qu’une langue littéraire puisse jamais être entièrement cérébrale pour un lecteur sensible.

J’ai découvert New York en rencontrant Marek et je ne m’attendais pas qu’il devienne mon guide dans cette ville. J’ai mis les pieds aux Etats-Unis très tardivement. J’y étais invité par un ami belge qui vivait un deuil tragique et avait fui la France pour retrouver des amis new-yorkais, parmi lesquels Marek. Moi-même, je venais de terminer un roman autobiographique dont la rédaction m’avait laissé sans force, dans le doute le plus complet sur ma capacité à le publier. Je pensais qu’un environnement nouveau m’aiderait à réfléchir et j’avais besoin de la force de l’amitié de cet ami belge. J’avais laissé chez moi mon manuscrit, avec des recommandations écrites pour mon frère, au cas où je disparaîtrais dans ce voyage. C’est dire l’état psychologique dans lequel j’étais quand j’ai fait la connaissance de Marek.

Et la sensibilité de Marek, sa conversation, sa confiance en moi et ma confiance en lui, la conscience qu’avec des parcours très différents nous parlions finalement la même langue du cœur, ont fait que ce premier séjour a été marqué par son amitié. Il m’a parlé discrètement de lui, dans cette langue anglaise qui était pour nous deux une langue d’emprunt, mais que nous parlions avec assez de fluidité pour présenter l’un à l’autre une image qui ne nous trahissait pas. Marek évoluait et évolue encore dans un monde artistique de créateurs contemporains ou de créateurs assez récents, qui ne m’était pas familier. Je connaissais très rarement les artistes dont il me parlait et sur lesquels il avait écrit ou allait écrire des monographies. A Paris, j’avais, bien entendu, des amis artistes, mais qui, même s’ils avaient, pour l’une d’entre elles, vécu longtemps à New York, n’appartenait pas au milieu fréquenté par Marek. Marek connaissait leurs noms, mais ne les avait pas fréquentés personnellement. Ce n’est donc pas le terrain professionnel de Marek qui nous a réunis, mais sa sensibilité.

Je me suis rendu compte que Marek avait une manière de parler de l’amitié, de l’art, de l’amour qui, tout en étant différente de la mienne, me permettait de le comprendre très immédiatement, sans le moindre besoin d’une médiation supplémentaire. Nous étions, durant cette période, l’un et l’autre très tristes. Lui pour des raisons personnelles qui le faisaient presque douter de sa capacité à rester encore aux Etats-Unis, où il se sentait abandonné et incompris et où son travail d’enseignant lui paraissait trop précaire. Il n’avait pas encore acquis de certitudes pour son avenir académique et sa situation de critique d’art était encore fragile, bien qu’il ait été repéré, pour ses compétences et sa liberté de jugement, pour sa rigueur et ses enthousiasmes, par ses aînés. Moi, ma vie sentimentale était à un tournant que je venais de consigner dans mon roman.

Ce préambule personnel peut sembler déplacé pour présenter le premier recueil de poèmes de Marek Bartelik, mais c’est au contraire un ton impersonnel que je trouverais inadapté et, d’une certaine manière, mensonger. Je ne crois pas possible de parler de poésie autrement que sur ce ton-là. Car lire un poète est une affaire personnelle, qui engage la totalité de la vie intérieure d’un lecteur. Les quelques poètes (japonais et italiens) que j’ai traduits en français, les quelques poètes de langue française ou italienne qui sont mes amis font partie de ma vie. Je partage avec eux un rapport au monde, comme on partage une expérience ancienne sans toujours le savoir. Lire un poème, c’est avant tout se retrouver soi-même, renouer avec une expérience lointaine qui vous avait échappé sans jamais vous quitter.

C’est donc à la fois sur un terrain de familiarité (nous appartenons à la même famille intellectuelle et sensible) et d’étrangeté (nous sommes étrangers au monde, chacun à sa manière) que nous nous sommes rencontrés. Il est sans doute nécessaire de citer quelques-uns des poètes que j’ai traduits en français ou sur lesquels j’ai écrit (dans des articles ou des préfaces) et quelques-uns des poètes que j’aime, pour que le lecteur comprenne pourquoi ma rencontre amicale et littéraire avec Marek a été possible et pourquoi j’écris cette préface. Pier Paolo Pasolini et son cousin Nico Naldini, Sandro Penna, Patrizia Cavalli, Umberto Saba, Konstantin Kavafis pour ceux que j’ai traduits. Jacques Izoard, William Cliff, Silvina Ocampo, Silvia Baron Supervielle,Giuseppe Bonaviri, Susana Soca, Alexandre Bergamini, Rabah Belamri, Jean Sénac, Abdellatif Laâbi, Edouard Glissant, Derek Walcott pour citer des écrivains de nationalités diverses (Belges, Argentines, Uruguayenne, Italien, Français, Algériens, Marocain, Antillais). Et pour ne citer que des poètes du XXe et du XXIe siècles. Ces poètes définissent une constellation moirée et non une voie lactée de couleur uniforme. Il serait, bien entendu, possible de décrypter çà et là des points communs. Ils sont passionnés, solitaires, ironiques. Passionné et ironique, voilà qui me semble être un couple de caractéristiques essentiel.

Et il est certain que j’ai toujours senti, d’abord dans sa conversation, puis dans ses lettres et enfin dans ses poèmes, cette association de la passion (parfois désespérée, parfois désabusée) et de l’ironie (parfois un simple sourire, parfois un éclat de rire, parfois un trait incisif et mordant). L’ironie est une excellente manière d’atteindre en soi-même les travers que l’on révèle en autrui ou dans le monde extérieur. L’autodérision n’est jamais exclusive de l’élan passionnel. Parmi les poètes que j’ai cités, et qui sont les plus proches de moi, mais non les seuls, certains ont, ajoutés à ce couple de caractères, une forme de rigueur presque austère que je retrouve chez Marek Bartelik. Une précision, dans le cas de Marek, qu’il tient assurément de son habitude de regarder les oeuvres d’art et de son déplacement culturel. A force d’observer les tableaux, les sculptures, les installations des autres artistes et de tenter d’y trouver des clés qui permettront aux autres de parvenir à les pénétrer rapidement, Marek Bartelik a appris la concision, l’exactitude, le dépouillement dans l’argumentation. Et, en étant éternellement un étranger, donc un déplacé, même si le pays qu’il a choisi est tout entier un pays d’étrangers, il se sent contraint de démontrer qu’il mérite de s’y trouver et ne peut donc se permettre ni bavardages inutiles ni faux pas.

La langue anglaise frappe un lecteur français par sa concision, son âpreté, sa capacité à revêtir un double habit de cérémonial et de farce. De Shakespeare à Auden, on a appris cette merveilleuse ressource de cette langue qui concilie des tonalités qui, dans d’autres langues, pourraient être contradictoires. Je citerai en exemple de cette double tonalité, que Marek Bartelik exploite avec élégance : Naturalization Party. Dans ce poème, il est question d’une hantise que tout étranger connaît : les conditions légales de séjour. C’est un cauchemar et c’est aussi la possibilité d’une forme de bonheur. Etre naturalisé, c’est, au fond, oublier que l’on a une nationalité. Dans ce bref poème, Marek résume sa vie avec quelques mots-clés et quelques devises : « my adopted country », « Life is short / With prosperity », « Love holds still/ Being unfulfilled ». On pourrait, certes, y voir des traces du pessimisme mélancolique slave et il est certain que le polonais Marek n’échappe pas à cette tendance. Dans le poème qui précède, on peut identifier ces mêmes traces de sombre humeur que fêle un sourire ironique et désabusé : « Life is coming again/ The darkness is disappearing/ Patiently waiting for/ Those who dive by mistake // When you feel well/ You can see the squids/ Breathing in and out/ While producing a ribbon of ink ». Ce “ruban d’encre” sortant de la gueule d’une seiche est l’image concentrée de l’humeur même du poète, parti d’une image marine pleine de vitalité aussitôt transmuée en image d’horreur (« A gorgeous surfer bit by a shark ») et finissant par décrire l’acte même d’écrire.

Les visions de Marek Bartelik (car la plupart de ses poèmes partent d’une seule image, d’une scène très brève, d’un mot, d’une expression, d’une lecture, bref d’un élément déjà extrêmement bien cadré, qui n’est jamais lui-même flottant à la dérive, mais toujours fixé et immobile, même s’il s’agit d’une image apparemment mobile, comme des feuilles d’automne volant au vent par exemple) sont immédiatement transposées en deux langages : un langage abstrait, analytique, les images apparaissant donc comme des métaphores et un langage intérieur, sentimental, le plus souvent douloureux (sur un fond d’angoisse, toujours exprimé directement, comme dans le septième poème, September : « The burning anxiety returns/ To keep barbaric poetry/ Alive »). Ce système est appliqué dans plusieurs poèmes inspirés du Brésil (la si belle image de « living Pietà configured in reverse » du 16e poème, Rio de Janeiro).

La conscience politique n’est jamais absente de ces poèmes et il est symptomatique que cette conscience politique passe par la conscience linguistique. Un lecteur futur du premier recueil de Marek Bartelik aura une idée juste de la position internationale des Etats-Unis. Les guerres, hélas, y sont présentes, parce que la promesse de paix mondiale que la démocratie américaine s’était juré et avait juré au monde d’incarner, n’a pas été tenue. Cette alternative aux dictatures que les Etats-Unis s’étaient juré et avaient juré au monde de garantir n’a pas été réalisée. La guerre des Etats-Unis en Irak a, hélas, sa place dans ces poèmes pacifistes, que l’auteur regrette écrire dans une langue (l’anglais) dont soixante-dix pour cent des locuteurs soutiennent cette guerre…

Les poètes ont aussi leur place dans les poèmes de Marek Bartelik qui dialogue avec eux. Des poètes de son pays natal, mais aussi ceux qui ont représenté pour plusieurs générations déjà des idéaux, parfois bafoués, comme Alan Ginsberg (ironiquement et amicalement célébré par Pasolini).

Bien que le centre explicite des poèmes de Marek soit situé au cœur de Manhattan (comme le prouve la ballade si dure, si ironique, si cruelle qu’est le 13e poème « The richest country in the world… »), on se déplace avec lui au Brésil, autre rêve intérieur du poète (saudade est un sentiment qui lui appartient), en Argentine, et en Europe, en France, en Italie, au Portugal, et, bien entendu, en Pologne. Ces voyages sont pour Marek l’occasion de concentrés visionnaires, d’évocations fulgurantes (Noël à Varsovie, un été en Toscane, un cireur des rues à Buenos Aires) qui ne sont jamais des stéréotypes, mais d’ironiques vignettes, un peu à la manière du poète belge que j’ai cité plus haut, William Cliff, auteur d’un America, traversée analogue de l’Amérique latine.

« Between experiencing life/ And expecting death », écrit Marek en se palpant le visage et en touchant ses rides. Ce pourrait être, à condition d’y adjoindre le geste qui a fait naître cette pensée, c’est-à-dire le fait de toucher son propre visage, une formule résumant le recueil tout entier. Mais y manquerait une tonalité ironique et douce, qui caractérise l’ensemble.

On pense, surtout moi, à des haikus en lisant Marek Bartelik. Il se réfère parfois à des gravures japonaises et ses poèmes très courts ont, par leur construction et leur objet, des éléments qui peuvent le rapprocher de la prosodie japonaise (« It rains », par exemple, ou « A Shift »). Mais là-dessus, le poète s’exprime directement : « You are just a fool/ Who writes short poems/ Haikus of chaos and vulnerability/ Because you don’t know/ How to prolong pleasure or pain/ Because you are scared/ Of commitment». Il s’agit du 46e poème, qui contient deux qualifications, « chaos » et « vulnerability » auxquelles je ne souscris pas entièrement. Vulnérabilité, certainement : c’est un terme qui caractérise essentiellement le rapport de Marek au monde, à l’écriture, à lui-même. Mais « chaos », non. Ce terme d’autodépréciation est trop violent. La pensée de Marek est beaucoup trop structurée pour accepter ce terme, même quand elle est inspirée par une image de désagrégation. Mais la « peur de l’engagement », en revanche, est une bonne explication de la forme brève en poésie, comme métaphore d’un rapport au monde.

Je voudrais m’arrêter au 48e poème qui a pour titre Fiftieth Poem ! Il y a précisément dans ce poème un terme que les écrivains japonais aiment : « pillow », oreiller, makura en japonais. Le makura, lieu du sommeil et donc du rêve, est à ce point un terme révélateur en poétique japonaise que sont appelés « makura-kotoba » (mots-oreillers) les formules métaphoriques qui associent un lieu à un sentiment (dans de nombreux waka japonais, les noms propres de lieux représentent en effet, comme des sortes de litote, des sentiments qui peuvent être très violents, selon tout un système de correspondances). Et bien entendu on pense au livre de Sei-shônagon, Makura no sôshi (les Notes de l’oreiller), où la poétesse énumère ses préférences et ses rejets. Ici, dans ce poème, Marek imagine qu’il rassemblera ses poèmes et les posera sur un oreiller (tenu en sécurité, dans un abri de son imagnaire). Et cette première image en fait naître une deuxième et une troisième. Il comptera les mots, écrit-il, comme les grains d’un chapelet ou les moutons, c’est-à-dire, comme dans une prière et comme dans l’attente du sommeil. Ainsi, par cette sorte de geste conjuratoire, il peut, continue-t-il, s’adresser à un destinataire non précisé, le lecteur idéal donc, et charger les mots d’un sens qui dotera d’une forme parfaite les lèvres du lecteur. Le sens du poème, autrement dit, naîtra sur l’oreiller, dans un demi-sommeil, et les mots encore non prononcés par le poète se feront entendre silencieusement dans un mouvement silencieux, le mouvement des lèvres du lecteur. Sur tes lèvres. Y a-t-il plus belle définition de la lecture du cœur ?

René de Ceccatty

On Your Lips

Writing a poem is an ambiguous literary gesture: We place ourselves in a foreign language, one that is not our current, everyday vernacular, the language of survival that we use to express ourselves and to communicate in the ordinary situations of life and in the most intimate ones as well. At the same time, we rediscover an inner language, one that, in a certain way, precedes communication.When a writer chooses to compose poetry in a language other than his mother tongue, the gesture is even more remarkable. It is as if the strangeness of his poetic language is redoubled, and this without diminishing the authenticity of his inner life or of his inner language. Indeed this redoubling of strangeness often increases the freedom of his writing.

Marek Bartelik, whose mother tongue is Polish, is an immigrant in the United States, which makes him, as we know, very profoundly American. The very identity of the United States rests on the diversity of its people’s origins. To a certain extent, there should be no foreigners in the United States, and most of the writers who have settled in that country have ultimately changed their language. Nabokov is one well-known example; Klaus Mann is one of the rare writers who resisted the linguistic environment when he lived in the United States.

Although Marek speaks perfect French, for he has lived in France, it is in English that he and I spoke when we first saw each other. And we have, in general, used that common language, which is neither my mother tongue nor his, in our conversations. Having lived in England for number of months, I am not uncomfortable with English, but speaking it is not totally natural to me. For me, it is a literary language, a language of reading books rather than of daily life, especially since reading is never entirely cerebral in my case.Moreover, I don’t believe that a literary language could ever be entirely cerebral for a sensitive reader.

I discovered New York just as I was getting to know Marek and at the time I had no expectation that he would become my guide to the city. I set foot on American soil very late. I was invited by a Belgian friend who had experienced a tragic bereavement and had fled France to join friends in New York, Marek among them. I had just finished an autobiographical novel. Writing it had left me exhausted, and I profoundly doubted my capacity to publish it. I thought that a new environment would help me to think things through and I needed the support of my Belgian friend’s presence. I had left my manuscript at home with written instructions for my brother, in case I should disappear during that trip.This was my psychological state when I became acquainted with Marek.

Marek’s sensibility, his conversation, his confidence in me and my confidence in him, the awareness that even though we are on very different journeys we speak basically the same language of the heart—all of those things caused that first sojourn to be marked by his friendship. He talked about himself in a reserved way, in that English language that for both of us was a borrowed one, but that we both spoke with enough fluidity to present images to each other that did not misrepresent either of us.Marek circulated and still circulates in the world of contemporary art, of recent creators, which was unfamiliar to me. I seldom knew the artists about whom he spoke and on whom he wrote or was going to write monographs. In Paris, I obviously had artist-friends, even one who had lived for a long time in New York, but none among them belonged to Marek’s milieu. Marek knew their names, but did not know them personally. Thus, it was not the art world that brought us together, but his personal sensibility.

I realized that Marek had a way of speaking about friendship, art, and love, which, being different from mine, nevertheless allowed me to understand what he intended to say immediately without any need of additional mediation. During the time when we were becoming friends, we were both very sad; he, for personal reasons that made him doubt that he could stay longer in the United States, where he felt abandoned and misunderstood and where teaching seemed too unreliable as a profession. His academic future was not yet secure, and his situation as an art critic was still precarious, even though his colleagues were beginning to take notice of his expertise, his independence of judgment, his rigor and his enthusiasm. For my part, my personal life was also in turmoil, a situation that I had recorded in my novel.

This very personal preamble might seem out of place as an introduction to the first collection of poems by Marek Bartelik, but to me an impersonal tone would be inappropriate, and to a degree, false. I don’t believe that it is possible to speak of poetry in other than personally, for reading a poet’s work is a personal matter, one that engages the totality of the inner life of the reader. Some poets (Japanese and Italian) whose works I have translated into French, and some French and Italian-languagepoets who are friends of mine, are part of my life. With them I share a relationship with the world, as one shares an experience from long ago without always knowing it. To read a poem is above all to find oneself, to reconnect with a distant memory that has slipped away without entirely vanishing.

It was thus on terrain both familiar (since we belong to the same family of thought and feeling) and strange (since we are strangers in the world, each in his own way) that we first met. I should mention some poets whose work I have translated into French and about whom I have written in articles or introductions, and some poets whose works I like, so that the reader will understand why my friendship and literary encounter with Marek have been possible and why I am writing this preface. Pier Paolo Pasolini and his cousin Nico Naldini, Sandro Penna, Patrizia Cavalli, Umberto Saba, and Constantine Cavafy are among those whose work I have translated. Among the poets of different nationalities (Belgian, Argentinean, Uruguayan, Italian, French, Algerian, Moroccan, and Antillean) whose work I admire are such writers as Jacques Izoard, William Cliff, Silvina Ocampo, Silvia Baron Superville, Giuseppe Bonaviri, Susana Soca, Alexandre Bergamini, Rabah Belamri, Jean Sénac, Abdellatif Laâbi, Edouard Glissant, and Derek Walcott. And this is only to mention the poets of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These writers define a shimmering constellation, not a milky way of uniform color.Clearly, it is possible to find affinities among these writers: They are impassioned, solitary, and ironic—impassioned and ironic—these two qualities seem to me to be essential to all of them.

Certainly I have always sensed, first in his conversation, then in his letters, and finally in his poems, this same association of passion(sometimes desperate, sometimes disenchanted) with irony (sometimes a simple smile, sometimes a peal of laughter, sometimes an incisive and biting stroke). Irony is an excellent way of reaching within oneself the flaws that we reveal in other people and the world at large. Self-derision is never without passionate élan. Among the poets mentioned, and especially among those who are closest to me, but not only them, some have added to these two characteristics a quality of formal rigor, almost austerity, which I also find in Marek Bartelik’s work—a precision, in Marek’s case, which he owes to his habit of looking at works of art and to his cultural displacement. Looking at paintings, sculptures, and installations by other artists, and trying to find in them the keys that allow others to gain access to them quickly, Marek Bartelik has learned concision, exactitude, and interrogation through argument. And, by being always a stranger, a displaced person, even if the country he chose to live in is entirely one of strangers, he feels forced to prove that he deserves to be there and, therefore, does not allow himself pointless chat or mistakes.

The English language strikes the French reader with its concision, its acridity, and its capacity to wear a guise both ceremonial and farcical. From Shakespeare to Auden, we French have found in English a marvelous resource that reconciles tonalities that might be contradictory in other languages. An example of that double tonality, which Marek Bartelik explores with elegance, can be found in his Naturalization Party.This poem, explores a fear known to all aliens, that of legal status, which is both a nightmare and also a possibility of happiness. To become naturalized is, basically, to forget that we have a nationality. In this short poem, Marek sums up his life with few key words and few devices: “My adopted country,” “Life is short/With prosperity,” “Love holds still/Being unfulfilled.” Certainly we might detect here traces of the melancholic pessimism of the Slavs and it is obvious that Marek-the-Pole does not escape this tendency. In the preceding poem, we can identify the same traces of dark humor that provoke ironic and disenchanted laughter: “Life is coming again/The darkness is disappearing/Patiently waiting for/Those who dive by mistake//When you feel well/You can see the squids/Breathing in and out/While producing a ribbon of ink.” This “ribbon of ink” issuing from the mouth of a squid is the compressed image of the poet’s own nature, part of an marine image full of vitality transmuted into an image of horror (“A gorgeous surfer bit by a shark”), and ending as a description of the act of writing itself.

Marek Bartelik’s visions (for the majority of his poems contain a single image, a brief scene, a word, an expression, a reading, in short an element already extremely well framed, which itself never disappears, but is always fixed and immobile, even if it is an apparently mobile image, like that of autumn leaves blown by the wind, for example) are immediately transposed into two languages: an abstract and analytic one—the images appear, therefore, as metaphors—and an inner language, which is sentimental and very often painful (against the background of anxiety, always expressed directly, as in the seventh poem, September: “The burning anxiety returns/To keep barbaric poetry/Alive”). This system is applied in several poems inspired by Brazil (as in, for example, the very beautiful image of “living Pietà configured in reverse” of the sixteenth poem, Rio de Janeiro).

Political consciousness is never absent in these poems, and it is symptomatic of this political consciousness that it passes through the linguistic one. The future reader of this first collection of poems by Marek Bartelik will have a just view of the international position of the United States. War, alas, is present, because the promise of world peace that the American democracy promised to respect and have respected by others has not been kept. The alternative to dictatorship that the United States promised to respect and have respected by others has also not been realized. The American war in Iraq has, alas, its place in these pacifist poems, which the author regrets he is writing in a language (English) spoken by the seventy percent of Americans who support that war.

Other poets also have their place in the poems of Marek Bartelik, who dialogues with them. These include poets of his native country (Tadeusz Różewicz, CzesławMiłosz, Jan Lechoń), and also those who have already represented his ideals for a number of generations, sometimes ridiculed, like Alan Ginsberg (ironically and in a friendly manner celebrated by Pasolini).

Although most of Marek’s poems are set in the heart of Manhattan (like the so hard, so ironic, and so cruel ballad that is the thirteenth poem, This Land is Not Promised), we are also displaced with him to Brazil, another of the poet’s dreamscapes (saudade is part of his sensibility), to Argentina, France, Italy, Portugal, and, obviously, to Poland. These travels are for Marek an occasion for visionary concentration, for blazing evocation (a Christmas in Warsaw, a summer in Tuscany, a shoeshine man in Buenos Aires), which are never stereotyped, but are ironic vignettes, somewhat in the manner of the Belgian poet mentioned above, William Cliff, the author of a certain America, an analogous journey through South America.

“Between experiencing life/And expecting death,” writes Marek, feeling his face and touching his wrinkles.It could be—on condition that we add the gesture that gave birth to that thought, in other words the fact of touching his face—a formula that sums up the entire collection. But then the epigraph would lack the ironic and gentle tonality that characterizes this collection as a whole.

We all think, especially I, of haiku when reading Marek Bartelik’s poems. He occasionally refers to Japanese prints, and his short poems have, in their construction and their objective, elements that might bring them close to the Japanese prosody (It Rains, for example, or A Shift). In the later piece, the poet addresses himself directly: “You are just a fool/Who writes short poems/Haikus of chaos and vulnerability/Because you don’t know/How to prolong pleasure or pain/Because you are scared/Of commitment.” It is poem number forty-six that contains two qualifiers, “chaos’ and “vulnerability,” with which I don’t entirely agree. Vulnerability, certainly: it’s a term that essentially characterizes Marek’s relationship to the world, to writing, to himself. But “chaos,” no. This term of self-depreciation is far too strong. Marek’s thought process is much too structured to accept that term, even if it is inspired by an image of disintegration. But, the “fear of commitment,” on the other hand, is a good explanation for the brief form of his poetry, as a metaphor for a relationship with the world.

I would like to end with poem number forty-nine, which is titled Fiftieth Poem! It is precisely here that we find a term beloved of Japanese writers: pillow, or makura in Japanese. The makura, the place of sleep and thus of dreaming, is at this point a revealing term in Japanese poetry linked to makura-kotoba (pillow-words), the metaphoric forms that associate a place with a sentiment. (In numerous Japanese waka, the proper names of places are used effectively as litotes, standing for feelings that can be very violent, according to a conventional system of equivalents.)Of course, one thinks of Sei Shônagon’s Makura no soshi (Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon), where the poetess enumerates her preferences and rejections. Here, in his poem, Marek imagines that he will gather together his poems and place them on a pillow (kept safe in the shelter of his imagination), an introductory image that gives birth to a second and a third one. He will count the words he writes like rosary beads or sheep, as if in a prayer or waiting to fall asleep. In this way, by this gesture of conjuration, he is able to continue to address an unidentified interlocutor, that is, an ideal reader, and charge the words in such a way that they will endow the reader’s lips with perfect form. The meaning of the poem, in other words, will be born on a pillow, in half-sleep, and the words not yet pronounced by the poet will make themselves heard in the silent movement of the reader’s lips. On your lips. Is there a more beautiful definition of the reading for the heart?

—René de Ceccatty

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