poem index

sign up to receive a new poem-a-day in your inbox

About this poet

Born on July 4, 1900, in Paris, Robert Desnos was the son of a café owner. He attended commercial college, and then worked as a clerk before becoming a literary columnist for the newspaper Paris-Soir. He first published poems in the Dadaist magazine Littérature in 1919, and in 1922 he published his first book, Rrose Selavy, a collection of surrealistic aphorisms.

While on leave in Morocco from his mandatory two years in the French Army, Desnos befriended poet Andre Breton. Together with writers Louis Aragon and Paul Eluard, Breton and Desnos would form the vanguard of literary surrealism. They practiced a technique known as "automatic writing," and many hailed Desnos as the most accomplished practitioner. Breton, in the Manifesto of Surrealism, 1924, singled out Desnos for particular praise. The technique involved drifting into a trance and then recording the associations and leaps of the subconscious mind. Desnos' poems from this time are playful (often using puns and homonyms), sensual, and serious. The 1920s were an extremely creative period for Desnos; between 1920 and 1930, he published more than eight books of poetry, including Language cuit (1923), Deuil pour deuil (1924), Journal d'une apparition (1927), and The Night of Loveless Nights (1930).

In the 1930s, Desnos diverged slightly from his Surrealist peers. Breton, in his Second Manifesto of Surrealism, 1930, would criticize Desnos for straying from the movement and for his journalistic work. In part, Desnos had simply grown tired of his own excesses—both in his creative and personal life. It was at this time that he married Youki Foujita and took on more commercial writing assignments for French radio and television. His poems became more direct and musical, though still maintaining some of their earlier adventurous style. Desnos continued to write throughout the decade; in 1936 he wrote a poem per day for the entire year. His published works from this time include Corps et biens (1930), and Le sans cou (1934).

In 1939 at the onset of World War II, Desnos again served in the French Army. During the German occupation, he returned to Paris and under pseudonyms such as Lucien Gallois and Pierre Andier, Desnos published a series of essays that subtly mocked the Nazis. These articles combined with his work for the French Resistance led to his arrest. Desnos was sent to first to Auschwitz, and then transferred to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. Although the Allies liberated this camp in 1945, Desnos had contracted typhoid. He died on June 8, 1945.

His Selected Poems were first translated and published in English in 1972, (by William Kulik with Carole Frankel), and again in 1991 (translated by Carolyn Forché and William Kulik).

Identity of Images

I am fighting furiously with animals and bottles
In a short time perhaps ten hours have passed one
   after another
The beautiful swimmer who was afraid of coral wakes
   this morning
Coral crowned with holly knocks on her door
Ah! coal again always coal
I conjure you coal tutelary genius of dreams and my
   solitude let me let me speak again of the beautiful
   swimmer who was afraid of coral
No longer tyrannize this seductive subject of my
The beautiful swimmer was reposing in a bed of lace
   and birds
The clothes on a chair at the foot of the bed were
   illuminated by gleams the last gleams of coal
The one that had come from the depths of the sky and 
   earth and sea was proud of its coral beak and great
   wings of crape
All night long it had followed divergent funerals toward
   suburban cemeteries
It had been to embassy balls marked white satin gowns with
   its imprint a fern leaf
It had risen terribly before ships and the ships had not 
Now crouched in the chimney it was watching for the 
   waking of foam and singing of kettles
Its resounding step had disturbed the silence of nights
   in streets with sonorous pavements
Sonorous coal coal master of dreams coal
Ah tell me where is that beautiful swimmer the swimmer
   who was afraid of coral?
But the swimmer herself has gone back to sleep
And I remain face to face with the fire and shall remain
   through the night interrogating the coal with wings of
   darkness that persists in projecting on my monotonous
   road the shadow of its smoke and the terrible 
   reflections of its embers
Sonorous coal coal pitiless coal

Identité des images

Je me bats avec fureur contre des animaux et des bouteilles
Depuis peu de temps peut-être dix heures sont
   passées l'une après l'autre
La belle nageuse qui avait peur du corail ce matin s'éveille
Le corail couronné de houx frappe à sa porte
Ah! encore le charbon toujours le charbon
Je t'en conjure charbon génie tutélaire du rêve et da ma
   solitude laisse-moi laisse-moi parler encore de la
   belle nageuse qui avait peur du corail
Ne tyrannise plus ce séduisant sujet de mes rêves
La belle nageuse reposait dans un lit de dentelles et d'oiseaux
Les vêtements sur une chaise au pied du lit étaient
   illuminés par les lueurs les dernières lueurs du charbon
Celui-ci venu des profondeurs du ciel de la terre et
   de la mer était fier de son bec de corail et de ses
   grandes ailes de crêpe
Il avait toute la nuit suivi des enterrements
   divergents vers des cimetières suburbains
Il avait assisté à des bals dans les ambassades
   marqué de son empreinte une feuille de fougère
   des robes de satin blanc
It s'était dressé terrible à l'avant des navires et les
   navires n'étaient pas revenus
Maintenant tapi dans la cheminée il guettait le
   réveil de l'écume et le chant des bouilloires
Son pas retentissant avait troublé le silence des
   nuits dans les rues aux pavés sonores
Charbon sonore charbon maître du rêve charbon
Ah dis-moi où est-elle cette belle nageuse cette
   nageuse qui avait peur du corail?
Mais la nageuse elle-même s'est rendormie
Et je reste face à face avec le feu et je resterai
   la nuit durant à interroger le charbon aux ailes
   de ténèbres qui persiste à projeter sur mon
   chemin monotone l'ombre de ses fumées et le 
   reflet terrible de ses braises
Charbon sonore charbon impitoyable charbon.

Translation from Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology, edited and translated by Louis Simpson, published by Story Line Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Louis Simpson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Translation from Modern Poets of France: A Bilingual Anthology, edited and translated by Louis Simpson, published by Story Line Press, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Louis Simpson. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Robert Desnos

Robert Desnos

Born in 1900, Robert Desnos was a poet who belonged to the Surrealist movement

by this poet

No, love is not dead in this heart these eyes and this mouth
that announced the start of its own funeral.
Listen, I've had enough of the picturesque, the colorful
and the charming.
I love love, its tenderness and cruelty.
My love has only one name, one form.
Everything disappears. All mouths cling to that one.
So like a flower and a current of air
the flow of water fleeting shadows
the smile glimpsed at midnight this excellent evening
so like every joy and every sadness
it is the midnight past lifting its naked body above belfries and poplars
I call to me those lost in the fields
old skeletons young oaks cut down