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Poems say it all...

Pradeep Sebastian, Sep 16, 2012 :

Second take

Poetic: Claire & Yvan Goll; ‘Diary of a horse’, illustrated by Chagall

I stumbled on a slender, little known book of love poems recently that turned out to be quite extraordinary. A book of poems that a husband and wife wrote to each other through a 30 year period; from the time they were young lovers, through their marriage, and until their deaths.

It, of course, makes you straightaway think of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. 10,000 Dawns: The Love Poems of Claire and Yvan Goll, was written originally in German and French, and published first in 1951, and translated into English only in 2004 (White Pine Press) by Nan Watkins and Thomas Raine Crowe. Crowe translated Yvan from the French and Nan translated Claire from the German. The book even had original drawings from Chagall, done just for the couple. Who were Claire and Yvan Goll that Chagall would do this for them?

The poems, spoken to each other, transfixed me completely. Claire: “You are tender/As the fingerprints/Of birds in snow.” Yvan: “I wear you like a tattoo/Your smile on my eyelids/The acid of your tears/Is burning my shirt collars.” Claire: “Where are you my archangel? When are you coming/To lay an asbestos psalter/On my burning heart? The night buries me alive/And every quarter hour/Black trucks cart in/More truckloads of night.” Yvan: “In the desperate embrace/Between the two of us entwined/Stands our shocking solitude.”


I came across 10,000 Dawns in an indirect fashion — the little book I actually stumbled on first was Diary of a Horse by Claire Goll, tucked away in a cozy antiquarian bookshop. I had never heard of the book, or of Claire Goll, and would have skipped browsing further, but I noticed this tiny book was a first edition with the dustjacket intact and that it had original illustrations by Chagall! A moving prose fable, shot through with poetry, about a tired horse in Paris that pulls a cab. I decided to learn more about Claire and came next to 10,000 Dawns.

Claire Goll, it turns out, was Rilke’s lover for a time. They remained friends even after her marriage to Yvan, and kept writing to each other. She had sent him a book of her poems written when she was 28 and Rilke had admired them. He became her mentor, and dedicated the poem Liliane to her. In their introduction, Watkins and Crowe talk about how they came upon these poems and became interested in translating them. While researching Yvan Goll, Crowe came across his version of the poems, and notes he was at once “struck with the brevity and metaphorical candor and power of the poetry”. He then brought it to the attention of his translation partner, Nan Watkins.

To those with some familiarity with modern European art history, Yvan Goll will be famous as one of the founders of the French Surrealist Movement. He founded a press and a magazine whose pages were illustrated by Dali, Braque, Picasso and Chagall among several others. A close friend of Joyce, he played a part in publishing Ulysses in German. His plays had a deep influence on Ionesco and Artaud. He died of leukemia in 1951.

Claire and Yvan married in 1921 and the translators tell us the couple “remained together in a passionate, artistic stormy life of love and collaboration until his death in Paris. Claire outlived him by 27 years but she never married again, and also died in Paris in 1977. She published half a dozen novels, plus volumes of poetry and short stories, translations and autobiography.”

Yvan: “Sometimes you shiver/to the music of my metaphors/When I bend over you/the stars light up.” Claire: “We were quiet like two gardens at night/Listening to the whispering of the/Wellsprings of our hearts/There were only holidays in your eyes/And our hands were full of prayers/The birds sang nothing but hymns/So much did we love each other/Today I cry alone/The homeless animals sleep/In the sawdust of my hair/.” Yvan: “Rain strokes my hair/With widowed hands. Sister Sorrow, sitting on the boot of my car, Cry for me! Iron and lead /Are not as heavy/As love.”

The ecstasy of the first poems gives way to longing, sorrow and despair. They speak of unfaithfulness, and taking their love for granted — and the terrible loss that brings. Nan Watkins writes about Claire’s poems, how “the early poems are suffused in tenderness, sweetness, and innocence that approach fairy tale enchantment. Then the purity of their love gives way to animal passion, causing their poetry to flash bouts of surreal anger” — jealousies loom, other men and women appear, all met with stormy tears and conciliatory embrace… The later poems are a complex blend of both the tenderness and the turbulence, while accepting a new presence in their lives: Death.

Even after Yvan’s death, she “finds transcending reconciliation in the love that permeates all of her poems.”

One of Claire’s last poems speaks of this: “I wait for our death/As a child waits for vacation: We will have a twin grave/Your rain will be mine/The same climate will make/Our hearts bloom/In the gilt cage of our ribs/The same smile will garnish our skulls/Never again will I have to/Listen alone to the stars and birds/And the violet sighs/From the little mouths of the orchids/No one will disturb our hiding place anymore! I wait for our death/As a child waits for vacation.”

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