Saint-John Perse

Poetry on Peace

Saint-John Perse (1887-1975):

Oiseaux (Birds) (1962)

Edited by Peter Y. Chou


A man at sea, feeling noon in the air, lifts his head at this wonder: a white gull opened on the sky, like a woman's hand before the flame of a lamp, elevating in daylight the pink translucence of a host, a wafer's whiteness....

From the tragic shores of the real drawn silently to this place of peace and unity, as into a median point or "locus," the bird subtracted from his third dimension is nevertheless far from forgetting the volume he once had in the hand of his ravisher. Crossing into the interior distance of the painter, he follows him towards a new world without breaking any ties with the land of his origin, his earlier surroundings, and his deeper affinities. One very same poetic space assures this continuity. Such, for the bird painted by Braque, is the secret strength of his "ecology."

Man has rejoined the innocence of the wild creature, and the bird painted in the hunter's eye becomes the hunter himself in the eye of the creature, as it does in Eskimo art. Wild thing and hunter together cross the ford of a fourth dimension. From the difficulty of being to the ease of loving they move in step at last, two real beings who form a pair.

We are a long way now from decoration. Here is knowledge pursued as a research of the soul, and nature finally joined by spirit after surrendering all to spirit. A moving and long meditation has rediscovered here the immensity of space and time where the naked bird displays his length, elliptically shaped like the red cells of his blood.

Now that the hour of liberation has come, here is more than a rising flight of birds: it is a silent launching of great painted images, like ships on their launching ways... Consider them rather, amid the thirty-two points of the rose of the winds, on the incorruptible eye of the mariner's compass, as resembling the magnetic needle in trance on its pivot of blue steel.

Braque's succinct bird is not at all a simple motif. He is not a watermark on the page of day, nor even the fresh imprint of a hand on the clay of a wall... He lives, he takes wind, he burns— all concentration on being and constancy in being. He drinks like a plant the energy of light, and so avid is he that in the solar spectrum he sees neither violet nor blue... By sheer force of soul he breaks his thread of gravitation. His shadow on the ground is dismissed... It is a poetry of action that is entered with passion here.

Happy birds, ah, may they extend towards us, from one shore to the other of heaven's ocean, that huge arc of painted wings that will assist and encircle us! May they bear the full honour of it among us by strength of soul!

At mid-height between sky and sea, between the upper and lower waters of eternity, clearing the way of eternity, they are mediators for us and strive with all their being to the utmost of being...

Such are the birds of Georges Braque, whether sea birds or birds of the steppe, coastal birds, or birds of mid-ocean... Braque, you are sowing the space of the West with holy species.

Passing over the globe of the greatest Dream, which has seen the birth of us all, they leave us to our tales of cities... Their flight is knowledge, space is their alienation.

Mute they are, and high in flight, in the great night of man. But at dawn they come down to us, strangers descending: robed in those colours of dawn— between bitumen and hoarfrost— that are the very colours of the depths of man... And from that dawn of freshness, as from a very pure aspersion, they have preserved for us something of the dream of creation.

Washington, March 1962

Saint-John Perse (Alexis Léger) (1887-1975),
Oiseaux (Birds), translated by Robert Fitzgerald
in Collected Poems, Bollingn Series LXXXVII
Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983, pp. 607-639
pp. 611, 615, 619, 621, 623, 627, 631, 635, 637, 639

Notes: The word "paix" (peace) appears 6 times in the poetic works of Saint-John Perse: La Gloire des Rois (1), Anabase (2), Amers (2), and Oiseaux (1) [Eveline Caduc, Index de L'Oeuvre Poétique de Saint-John Perse, Honoré Champion Éditeur, Paris, 1993, p. 180]. The passages I've typed above convey a peaceful state of mind much like a bird soaring through space leaving no trace of its tracks.

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© Peter Y. Chou,
P.O. Box 390707, Mountain View, CA 94039
email: (3-24-2003)