Hypnos by René Char

$21 Seagull Books

A Surrealist poet throughout the ’20s, separated from the movement by the mid-1930s, René Char set aside publishing to join the Resistance in 1940 and command a parachute drop zone in southeastern France. Though refusing to disseminate any writings during wartime, he did write, keeping a notebook of short narrative prose poems and aphoristic meditations on the Occupation. Char would later publish them to great acclaim as Feuillets d’Hypnos (or, Leaves of Hypnos), with a nod to his military-underground code name: the Greek god of Sleep. These are beautiful pieces of solitude and solidarity, eloquent documents of uncertainty and illumination. They are, as Cid Corman identified in his 1973 Grossman edition, “cries of their occasion.”

 Translator Mark Hutchinson has reinvigorated Char’s originals under the simplified title Hypnos and provided an insightful introduction along with historically and critically relevant endnotes. As well, he has maintained the ascending numbered format and strung the 237 “leaves” together, several to a page, as a proper journal would have them. Here are altogether moving renditions of enigmatic poetry that has for far too long been unavailable in English.

 * * *


Redbreast, my friend, arriving this autumn when the gardens were deserted, a landslide of memories have been brought down by your song that the ogres would love to hear about.


The moment I yield to that foreboding which dictates man’s cowardice in life, I bring into the world a host of undying friendships that comes rushing to my aid.


Enthusiasm takes the weight of the years on its shoulders. It’s fraudulence that speaks of the century’s fatigue.


The counter-terror is this valley filling little by little with mist; these leaves rustling briefly underfoot like fireworks sputtering out; this nicely balanced load; these muffled movements of animals and insects drawing a thousand lines through the tender bark of night; this clover seed on the dimple of the face you kiss; this fire on the moon that will never be a fire; this tiny future whose plans are unknown to us; this brightly coloured bust that folds away with a smile; and this shadow thrown, a few steps further on, by a man who is briefly your companion and crouches there, thinking the leather of his belt is about to give…Who cares, then, what time or place the devil has fixed for the rendezvous?


I envy the child who stoops over the sun’s handwriting, then rushes off to school, brushing aside with a poppy the lines set as punishment and the rewards.


Posted by Alexander