Among Other Stones
Conversations with Yves Bonnefoy
by Susanna Lang


The Cricket, Etching by George Nama
from The Origin of Language, 1978

Head Note:   In 1976, I published a translation of Pierre écrite by Yves Bonnefoy (University of Massachusetts Press), with his help through the revision process and in securing permission from the French publisher, Mercure de France. I was a very young woman, still in college. I know that a colleague of my father’s at the University of Connecticut, Mortimer Guiney, had introduced me to Yves’ poetry, but I do not remember how it happened that such a towering figure in 20th century French literature agreed to collaborate with an American college student. I am forever grateful, though. Not only did the poems introduce me to an entirely new way of seeing the world and using language to find meaning in it, but Yves and his wife Lucy made me welcome during my year of study in Paris, when I often felt very much alone. I remember climbing the steep hill to his home on the rue Lepic in Montmartre, and the evening when Lucy served a roast leg of lamb and I thought it was roast beef because my family didn’t know that roast lamb should be rare. She also made brownies in my honor, and the other guests gushed over “these elegant little chocolate cakes,” while Lucy and I shared a secret American smile. I also remember the rigor he brought to his examination of my translations, as he did with all tasks he found important.
        I continued to work with Yves’ poems and prose during my graduate studies, but then teaching and other commitments closed in, and it was difficult for me to find time for my own writing, much less translation. Many years later, I found an email from Yves in my inbox—how I miss that blue-grey airmail stationery!—saying that he was thinking of me and had found me on the internet. He was 88 years old. It was heartwarming to hear from him, and when I was invited in 2014 to submit some translations to a journal that had published some of my own poetry, I asked Yves if I could once again translate his work. We collaborated on three more sonnets.
        Yves died in 2016. So many of the poets I revered have died in recent years, a whole generation disappearing. I was sad, and I reread his letters and poems, and then I moved on as we do. Recently, though, after I stopped teaching full-time, I started translating again, collaborating with two Francophone poets whose writing is very different from Yves’. However, the work itself has the same rhythm, and I found myself wanting to re-enter that exchange with a poet and a man who taught me so much. I found that his voice had only grown stronger within me during the years when I had not realized I was thinking of him. These revised translations and my poems, written during the COVID-19 lockdown, are the result.

SL, March 2021


A Stone - Bonnefoy | A Stone - Lang
Markers | Remains | Night Feeding
And Then My Name | Clay
What Will I Have Loved? | Snow | Porphyry
Last Full Moon of the Old Year | Vigil | Listen
A Stone - Bonnefoy | Sparrows - Lang

A Stone

Yves Bonnefoy

“Look at me down
There, in the river-mouth
Numbed by the rising of a sea, rapid and black....”

I invented you
Beneath the arch of a stormy mirror, which seized
A scrap of your red—indivisible—
And kindled the color “down there,” on the surge of death.

A Stone

I do not feel at home
here, in the center of the page.
I cannot speak, as you did, with a seer’s voice.

Look here instead,
at this stone found at the edge of an inland sea,
an extinct life embedded in its heart, circular imprint.
Listen to its silence.


            I held his steps back, but among other stones,
            In the endless flow of the day below all days.
Not all are of stone—
a slate gray heron, hunched into itself, waits
unmoving in the shallow water, while on the banks
dark shapes of trees bend under snow.

What has been lost
and who is grieving?


            Trees, smoke,
            Wind-lines and lines of deception....
Trees, smoke—fires
that erase an entire forest 
and then another. Trees
whose roots reached out
to touch each other, to share 
water, sugar, air.

When the body shatters
in an explosion of sparks
or fades as the rain stops falling,
no more words murmur in our ears.
Nothing remains to haunt us.

Night Feeding

            Pour out the night’s milk....
Night after night it is as if
I still listen for a baby’s cries from the other room,
as if his mouth still tugged at my breast;
his weight in my arms as we rocked
in the yellow light of the streetlamps.

Now I could sleep, no one calls.
He lies in another city, his bed always too short,
feet hanging off the end.
But the nights are long
and the city has installed new streetlights,
brighter, bluer, not as warm.


            For two years, or three
            I was enough in myself.
Goldeneyes dive
beneath the dark water, a gray falcon
flies into the still falling snow.
Shadows of trees along the path. The moon
like a curved blade rises in my kitchen window.
What am I without all of these?

Coyotes call, even in the city.
Raccoon kits cry, abandoned 
by their mother.
Occasionally an owl. 
I have not yet followed any of them.

And Then My Name

            At the light’s center, I abolish first
            My face pocked by the gas
            And then my name along with all countries....
In those old graveyards
the stones have been wiped clean.
No names, no dates, no Bible verses.
No one has planted a flag for years.
It is impossible to know
which side of the divide
a soldier died on,
what pain he suffered,
whose name he tried to call.


            Fall, but with soft rain, on this face.
            Put out the oil lamp, but slowly.
I am still
falling, I am filling 
the rivers.
They run to meet me,
the rivers.
Together we will put out 
your frail lights.


            Aglauros stood upright
            Among the dead leaves.
How many of the old stories end 
with a woman turned to stone?

Whether she stood between the god
and her sister’s body
or jumped to her death to save her city,
even if she opened a box she was told to leave unopened
and saw what she could not stomach or forget.

What if we changed a word or two?

Look, a woman presses the wet clay
between her warm hands.
She shapes her own form,
straightening the clay head on the slender neck.

What Will I Have Loved?

                                          The sea-spume
            Above Trieste....
The excitable waves of the inland sea
that lies against this city’s ribs—water and froth
bursting over our fortifications.
Receding, returning,
always returning.


            But the rains consoled the inconsolable earth....
Winters are colder here,
the air thick with snow for the past month.

Snow, not rain.
I do not know if the snow comforted the earth
though it nourished the lake and the river,
blanketed the roses against the wind,
brought its own light to our shortened days.


            The book Porphyry wrote about the sun—
            Look at it as a mound of black stones.
And now, having traveled beyond metaphor,
we’ve sent a machine, a made thing,
to explore a delta on Mars, an absent river
filled with rocks the color of porphyry, stone
that shares a name with the ancient philosopher.

Sunlight clouded by dust.
We do not know the language of these stones
but we are listening.

Last Full Moon of the Old Year

            You whom we name in a low voice among the branches....
Cold Moon
draw the ice out of our hollows

Frost Exploding Trees Moon
split the world wide open

Drift Clearing Moon
sweep up our heaping griefs

One-Eyed Moon
help us see the invisible ones

knocking at our door


            For a moment I glimpse your nape, your face,
            And then only the torch,
            Only the massive fire, the surge of the dead.
I walked in step with strangers,
each of us lighting another’s candle.
At different times
we came to mourn a death
or many deaths, or the deaths
that would come with war.

Once, my father walked with me;
once, my son.
Candle wax dripped on my coat.


            Will the day inside the day
            Save the few words that we were together?
Here on the white page, our voices join together
as they did so long ago, speaking your words
in our two languages. I could not always hear you
during the years that followed, and then
you traveled deeper into your back country.

But now we’ve started again
as if the conversation 
had simply paused for a while.

A Stone

Yves Bonnefoy

We used to cross these fields
Where at times an entire god stepped out from the tree
(And toward evening this was our proof).

I pushed you noiselessly,
I felt your weight against our pensive hands—
O you, my dark words,
Barriers across the evening roads.


Or a flock of gods
who gossip in the ivy, household guardians
commenting on our departures
and our returns; who count
the root ends of onions
we toss in the compost,
the packages left at the door.

They do not stand on their dignity,
they do not see the future—
gods nonetheless,
gracing our daily lives with laughter
and the lightness of flight.

Susanna Lang’s most recent publication is a chapbook, Self-Portraits, released by Blue Lyra Press in October 2020. Her newest full-length collection of poems, Travel Notes from the River Styx, was published in 2017 by Terrapin Books. A two-time Hambidge Fellow, she has published poems and translations in such journals as Prairie Schooner, december, New Poetry in Translation, The Literary Review, American Life in Poetry and The Slowdown. Her translations of poetry by Yves Bonnefoy include Words in Stone (University of Massachusetts Press, 1976) and The Origin of Language (George Nama, 1979). Her translation of Nohad Salameh’s collection, Baalbek, is forthcoming in 2021 from L’Atelier du Grand Tétras, and she is working now with Souad Labbize on translations of new poems. You can find out more about her life and work at:

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