Robert Melançon – Le paradis des apparences (2004), tr. Judith Cowan as For as Far as the Eye Can See (2013)

4 December 2015

Extraordinary is Montreal poet Robert Melançon’s 2004 For as Far as the Eye Can See in an exceptional translation by Judith Cowan. The original is titled Le paradis des apparences. The book consists of 144 12-line sonnets, intricately based upon the truncated form, the sonnets lacking a concluding couplet, but the book’s overarching structure of 12×12 invigorating.

Robert Melancon c Jean-François Dowd72

This is poetry with magnificent control of content, allusion, thematic integrations, form, metre, and of the sound of language; the fine interplay of sound elevated further, because unbound, by the coherence of form.

“On the table, the basket of fruit is / trying hard, without success, to look / like the one that Caravaggio painted.” From sonnet 89.

“You’ve got to tear up these drafts you’ve copied, / which are nothing now but the sum of the errors / and approximations that you’ve tried to correct.” From sonnet 143.

I lamented the lack of a bilingual text, but it appears an interlibrary loan from the University of British Columbia is to come to my rescue.

15 January 2016

My author’s recommendation for both Robert Melançon’s book and Judith Cowan’s translation of it was published in Susan Toy’s Reading Recommendations.

12 December 2015

Robert Melançon’s Le paradis des apparences arrived as an interlibrary loan from the Koerner Library at the University of British Columbia, and I read the first twelve sonnets in the original, with the Cowan translation and Larousse nearby. There’s a significant subtlety of nuance in the original that is difficult, if not impossible, to translate. Moreover, the repetition of images (not always an exact repetition) and of phrases cannot be caught in the English version.

par27 December 2015

From sonnet 36 of Robert Melançon’s Le paradis des apparences:

Tout doit tenir en douze vers – un sonnet allégé …
Je m’en tiens au paradis des apparences :
Je trace un rectangle de douze lignes;
C’est une fenêtre par laquelle je regarde
Tout ce qui apparaît, qui n’a lieu qu’une fois.

Which Judith Cowan translates as:


For as Far as the Eye Can See

It all has to fit into twelve lines—a lesser sonnet …
So I shall settle for the paradise of what I see:
I trace this rectangle of twelve lines and
make of it a window through which to observe
all that appears, and that happens only once.

It is a fine translation, but it is almost impossible to bring out fully the sense. My admiration for the literary courage of translators is unlimited – especially as my own work has begun to appear in translation.


Sonnet 78

La voix d’une contralto répond à une clarinette
Et on voudrait que ce duo dure sans fin,
Mais aussitôt que le disque s’arrête on entend

La voix innombrable des grillons dans la nuit,
À la mi-septembre puisqu’on retrouve le temps
En cet été pluvieux qui semble ne jamais finir.

De ces chants qu’on écoute de toute son âme,
Envirée de mémoire, étourdie de ce qui est là,
Perdue entre le proche et le lointain, et telle que

La mort, espère-t-on, la surprendra, tout abandonnée,
Lequel est le plus beau? On n’en sait rien,
Dans ce crépuscule rêveur qui est toute la vie.

A contralto voice responds to a clarinet
and we might wish the duet to last forever,
but as soon as the record stops, we hear

the myriad voices of the crickets through
the mid-September night, rediscovering time
and this rainy summer that never seems to end.

Of these songs one listens to with all one’s soul
drunk with memory, dazed by what exists, and
lost between near and far, so that death,

we hope, may seize it in all ravishment,
which is the more beautiful? We cannot say,
in this dreaming dusk that is all of life.


28 December 2015

Sonnet 87

Le vent disperse les feuilles dans la lumière
Tandis que passe un vol d’oiseaux noirs,
En désordre, semble-t-il, mais c’est une illusion

Puisque tout s’ordonne, même si tu l’ignores.
Tu vois la pluie mêler au torrent du soleil
Un tourbillon de lueurs, et tu constates

Que tout est musique, mobile, vivante;
Ce n’est pas un tableau que tu contemplerais,
Désoccupé, dans ton loisir, mais un fleuve

Qui t’emporte, qui est ce matin d’octobre,
Le premier et le dernier du monde.
Il n’importe pas vraiment que tu existes.

The wind scatters leaves into the light
while a flock of black birds passes over
in apparent disorder, but that’s an illusion,

since all is structure without your knowing it.
You see the rain mixing a vortex of glimmers
into the torrent of sunlight, and you realize

that it’s all music, moving and alive;
that this isn’t a picture for you to gaze at,
languidly, at your leisure, but a great river

sweeping you away, and that it’s this morning
in October, the first and last in all the world.
Your existence is not really important.


4 December 2015

Donald McGrath published his prize-winning translation of “Elégie écrite dans le parc Notre-Dame-de-Grâce” in The Malahat Review 188 (2014). It had an immediate impact on me, for I lived two blocks from the park for many years, and the poem spoke to me with the reality of the place and the effect of its actuality on one’s thought when there.

Elegy Written in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Park 

The park’s trees are still green, but fall advances
pushing night ahead of it. You see it
in the faces of people still surprised
to see evening gnaw away at the afternoon.
By six o’clock—no, earlier, and earlier still,
daylight flies off over the rooftops. You say
almost in silence to yourself: “Soon,
we’ll be plunged into icy gloom, Adieu,”
and the rest you know by heart. These words
twirl around the alexandrine the way
a tendril climbs a post. They come
in clusters—three, six syllables—blossom
in the rhyme’s bouquet of phonemes.
Even if we could, we wouldn’t dare
write today in this language of the gods.
The gods have fled into
the foliage overhead, while you
halt in the field, in the middle
of a patch of shadow, stuck there
like a boundary stone, gaping,
struck by the stupor of the elegy. Soon
We’ll be treading through wet leaves,
pushing what’s left of summer with a boot
in the immense twilight where we’ll come to feel
that life is but a matter of a day,
that all things born must perish,
that tasks are all in vain,
that one knows nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
What am I doing in this park,
trotting out these hackneyed tropes?
Fall, evening, the end of all of it….
It’s getting late, rain is on the way.
I’ll catch cold if I don’t go back home.

Parc Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montréal (Courtesy:

Parc Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, Montréal (Courtesy:


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