Marilyn Hacker is the recipient of a 2013 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translation of Jean-Paul de Dadelsen’s The Bridges of Budapest. Read her introduction to the translation of Dadelsen’s work here


The Great Ledger

They’ll tell you that sunshine will follow the rain ; they’ll tell you
That a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
      Don’t believe it.
It is good that after the rain comes the deluge ; it is excellent
That a bird in the hand brings two wolves out of the bushes ; it is necessary
That for not having gone often enough to the well
     The pitcher be broken.

Erase and start again. They’ll tell you that after two 9s there’s often a 36
And that last summer at Evian zero came up three times in a row.
      It’s true
A colonel who’d gone to the Ecole Polytechique played the limit three times on zero ;
Five hundred thousand francs ; thank you from the employees, thank you sir from
The accountants of the great ledger where your military service record has always
      Been noted down. 

Campaigns under Charles known as the Wise, under Pyrrhus, under Ramses II,
Under Hamurabi ; nine wounds ; two dead on the scaffold ; 
      A suicide ;
A life wasted as a magistrate’s wife. As decorations
A child raised to hate everyone, a word kept despite common sense,
Three defeats by stubbornness against all evidence,
      Dishonor and fidelity. 

He says to her : So you stayed with him ? Well, yes, she 
Stayed with him,  got laid three times, of which the first
      Was spoiled for her 
And the third spoiled by him. But who knows on what grounds.
That was part of her own service record. And by what right
Did he feel himself so magnanimous, so generous, for having forgiven her ?
      She belongs to no one.

I don’t belong to myself. I don’t know where I come from, I don’t know
What is marked down in my favor or against me
      In the great account book.
I am not my forgetfulness I am not my laziness and am not
My sluggishness.  But from the depths of my memory I am ashamed
I am ashamed I did not cry out against you
      Eternal One.

The Eternal is within me and watching me, more useless
Than a breeze’s evening breath over water, calm
      And memoryless.
He watches from deepest within me my thoughts my graven images,
My puerile need for a God who has a given name
My demented desire for a woman who will love
      Only me.

Women are wise. They never love except across us, love
The idiot, the pig and the coward hidden in us, love only
      Our death
Which we hold as a plum holds its pit. Never keep their word,
Never are surveyed or measured, gather no moss, never
Fail to reward the fool who pretends to forget that they are
     Under orders. 

The madam who knew that politeness is a form of charity
Will be the great-grandmother of a novelist with a rare
      Refinement of thought.
Each day Saint Louis’ sperm flows like water
On the straw mattresses of Burgundy and southern Brittany.
Nothing has rhyme or reason, nothing is for our use.
      After us comes the sunshine. 


South America :
High Plateaus, Guitar

The undone tasks , they’ll be done later.
In secret , night reopens the doors of an ancient country.
Guitar, that the hand strums, that the palm lightly
     strikes, that the finger
         plucks to make it briefly moan and
             resign itself.
     Guitar, deep well.
To the man who throws a pebble in, it answers
with the always-widening wave of melancholy.
Melancholy is not a complaint but a place. 

     Did I say
the police who come for their bribes, the credit
and investment bank, the money lost throwing dice with
the whoring-son-of-a-bitch from the bus company,
the cornfields burned, the dead child ? Did I cry out ? Beg ?
     I say night, I say the absence
of even a breeze in the trees sleeping dreamlessly

different, in that, from men,  I say
the plucked string, that hollow slapped by the palm,
that moaning stopped, covered over by silence,
and just as when you  plunge a net in a stream
so deep that it flows making no sound whatsoever,
the guitar to the brim and then
overflowing in muted waves, the guitar that is now
     filled up with night. 


The Last Night of the Pharmacist’s Wife

The wind above the glaciers that rushed here from the desert
comes barely cooled to torment the tall pine-tree’s branches.
When everything is in labor, how can you sleep, how
can you die ? 

On the slow smooth waters, the flat boats,
the black boats are, like the soul 
almost permanently moored.

The year grows long before it brings back
the distracted daughter, the son loved from afar.
The children who laughed in her arms, on her breasts
rarely write to the pharmacist’s wife
even to ask for remedies.

Beauty is cheap, except
as a last appeal that will no longer be heard.  O captive
between the seasons, the barrel of fresh cabbages
cut in the cellar in October’s first frosts,
when with the swallows all at once departed, you
wake in the first silence of late fall.

Odile, the plain is merciless. At night
frogs at a loss to reproduce complain.
The stork plunges its long lecherous beak down other chimneys.

The clock with heavy wooden shoes, the heart with its heavy steps
measure the night which barely drifts. How hard it is
to break loose from the moorings ! How long it takes
for the water’s traction to tear loose
the chain that for so long grasped the riverbank !

The heart in its heavy clogs paces the nocturnal prairies,
stands shifting its feet on the shore of the water
which very soon it must cross.