Translator's Note: San Biagio, at Montepulciano
This unrhymed sonnet belongs to a new and still unpublished series called "Presque dix-neuf sonnets" ("Nineteen Sonnets, Almost")—a cycle unprecedented in Bonnefoy's work. These poems reflect Bonnefoy's aesthetic maturity, deepening themes he's explored before; but they also demonstrate his unabated capacity to run risks. In France, after Baudelaire and Mallarmé, no other major poet has dared to practice the form with any consistency.
The church of San Biagio, in the Tuscan town of Montepulciano, is San Gallo's last and most extraordinary work. A paragon of Renaissance architecture, the building has fascinated Bonnefoy for decades; in an earlier free-verse poem, "La seule rose" ("The Only Rose"), he describes it as "the most intense of all interiors/That longing ever built." In this new sonnet, he echoes the austere, harmonious shapes of the nave in his versification: stripped down to a "coin with both sides bare," it resonates with a solemn music. Bonnefoy has often admonished that pure forms harbor a dangerous temptation: they accentuate our yearning for the absolute—for limitlessness, for immortality. They encourage us to deny the here and now, to neglect the fullness of presence. Like the "columns, arches, vaults" of an edifice, the abstract proportions of poetry—as of any art—make promises they cannot keep: a world of perfection, beyond chance and change. Yet that illusion and its denial, taken together, remain our fundamental truth. Art and nature, dream and reality, presence and absence, life and death, tension and release—all are indissoluble, like "the arrow and the bow."
The same goes for this poem and its watchful shadow, the translation. Bonnefoy, the leading translator of English poetry in France, knows all the problems we encounter journeying from word to word. But in this case, the translation almost seemed to be waiting, as though embedded in the original from the start. That should hardly surprise us, since Bonnefoy's most recent publication is a complete rendering of Shakespeare's sonnets into French. His recasting of those poems informed his creation of these "Nineteen Sonnets, Almost": turn each around, and an English obverse glints back at us, like the other face of an elemental coin.
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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine