March 2021 Poetry Feature: Sylvie Durbec

Poem by SYLVIE DURBEC, translated from the French by DENIS HIRSON

Sylvie Durbec was born in Marseille and lives in Provence, near Avignon. She writes texts in both prose and poetry, as well as painting and making collages. The many books she has published over the past twenty years include the prose-poetry memoire Marseille : éclats et quartiers (Marseille, fragments and quarters) which won the prestigious Jean Follain prize; Prendre place (Taking  place) concerning the internment camp at Douadic in France and Soutine, a prose-poem about the painter, published in The Common. This year she has published 50 carrés du jour (50 squares of the day) and Ça qui me poursuit (That which pursues me).

Denis Hirson grew up in South Africa and has lived in France since 1975. He has published nine books, several concerning the memory of South Africa under apartheid. The latest, both published in 2017, are Footnotes for the Panther, ten conversations with William Kentridge, and Ma langue au chat, in French, concerning the torture and delight of speaking and writing in that language.


Table of Contents 

  • The Ignorance of Beasts 



The Ignorance of Beasts

I still don’t know how to type a tilde on a computer keyboard

when writing the name of a Spanish or Portuguese writer I love.


Nor do I know what poetry is. 


I don’t know whether we need it. Or not.

And what we really need here.


Elsewhere, water, bread, milk.


But here.

I don’t know. 

The sky is calm, hardly any clouds. The rain won’t come today. 

The grass is tough under one’s bare feet. 

I don’t know what the future holds. 

For children, for those who are older. 

I see the map of migrations. 

I don’t know what pushes certain men to stay in one place. 

I don’t know why the hands of a working man have become the sick hands of one who has been forgotten.

How that active man turned into one without work, wandering around his village with no clothes on.

My ignorance is not unlike the ignorance of beasts. 

They don’t know why we kill them.

Why we get tired of them.

Why we abandon them.

I don’t know why Jean-Jacques Rousseau abandoned his children.

I don’t know why I don’t believe that story. 

On the island where he lived, in Switzerland, he gave shelter to rabbits.

Observed and collected plants.

I walked in his shadow along the paths of the island without seeing him.

I don’t know why I feel close to that man. 

Less than Walser. But close, just as one loves a brother. 

I don’t know whether he really abandoned his six children.


I don’t know, either, why I love poets who are always moving.

Walking, fuelled with writing.

I don’t know how to walk for a long time.

Nor what force pushes me towards some places like Switzerland.

And Portugal.

When I feel other places are prohibited to me.

I don’t know what it is that opens and closes a frontier.

Is it love or hate that pushes them open or closed?

I don’t know why I wanted to cry on touching the granite in Portugal after crossing the frontier.

And why I felt consoled.
I don’t know whether a frontier is like the gate to a pasture.

That must be closed behind one.

I don’t know why my head is stuffed full of forests and words. 

Some say: it is because of your name. 

I don’t know why I was given my name.

Some say: you are obsessed by names.

I don’t know whether this is true. But I know that a name is important.


Here people sometimes change their names. 

Some women do.

Young ones sometimes.

I don’t know why I have not changed names. 

Nor why I know I have no homeland. 

Here or even elsewhere.

I don’t know why.

Family trees intimidate and sometimes scare me. 

Like an X-ray of our skeleton.

I know it would be impossible to draw up our family tree.

Only one city, Marseille, and two family names. 

And the one I have is a real name, it is my father’s. 

I don’t know whether that name is sufficient when speaking to other people.

Whether for them the choice of a name is a simple question.

I don’t know why I feel a violent emotion when reading certain names such as that of Virginia in a book by Corinna Bille, or Moudon on the map of Switzerland. Or the Jorat region and Gustave Roud. I don’t know where this comes from. 

When it takes me without warning, just like this.

And Soutter and Ballaigues, the name on the map, up in the Jura.  


I don’t know why displacement takes up so much place in my writing.

A place to be. Or rather not. And as for places such as town squares where people assemble, I don’t know whether it would be suitable to mention them here.

I know that many people move around.

Come and go.

Looking for.

They don’t know what but they know what they are fleeing from. 

No homeland, no place to be. 

People tell me things that I then know.

Even if I don’t always know how to retain them, write them, conserve them.

Everywhere there are stories of people and beasts struggling against each other.

I know that war displaces people with their children and sometimes their animals.

I don’t know whether the Mediterranean will turn wine-red.

I know that I prefer this adjective to bloody.

I don’t know where in the Odyssey this adjective is used for the first time by the person whom, for the sake of convenience, we name Homer.

Nor what happens in a body like mine at the moment when I write.


I don’t know where the sun sets when one loses sight of one’s house.

I ask myself why the word season rhymes with the word reason. 

The one comes from stagione and the other from ragione.

I don’t know whether etymology and phonetics explain this phenomenon.   

Nor why season rhymes with treason.


I was about to write something birdbrained. 

My ignorance is like that of beasts.

Once again I stumble against what I don’t know.

Neither the names of stars nor those of wanderers who have disappeared in the sea of childhood.

I don’t know where in the body of the adult is hidden the body of the child.

Nor where those who almost die of fright crossing the black water end up hiding. 

Neither the names of survivors nor those of coastguards.

I don’t know how, starting with the impossible task of typing a tilde on a computer keyboard, I have ended up here.

A writing problem.

Today for the first time I baked two loaves of bread kneaded with my own two hands.

About 800 grams of flour. Two iron moulds. Two loaves of bread.

I did not know I was capable of baking two loaves at once.

The same day, in the same oven.

Now I know it’s possible.


I don’t know whether I will go and swim in the sea before the summer has ended. 


March 2021 Poetry Feature: Sylvie Durbec

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