French Book Week: From WOOD ASLEEP by Gérard Macé, translated by David Kelley

Wood Asleep

Castle of ferns and sleep in a nest of flames, the forest has closed in on a sleeping beauty with an ebony face, a dead woman with crimson make-up.

Virgin unknowingly pregnant, mother of daylight and the dawn which soon will awaken her, she sleeps dreamless and speechless at the heart of the half-open book, where the child who has just learned to read looks at her furtively, finger on lips, waiting for the kiss on the mouth.

He would like to tame the beasts with an edible heart, and thinks he can hear within him the bird whose song makes you blush, with hare-lipped tones and a voice half-hooting half-hissing between waking and sleeping, as familiar as poetry returning without warning with its rhymes and reminiscences: the bonus and the straight flush, double lilac on the edge of the meadow, the moon in a bilingual book. Poetry come to seek milk for the dead is startled away at the slightest confidence, and flees in a trice the house it haunts: a courtisan turning on her heels to hide the scar on her neck.

The echo coming from the Greek, the pebble at the bottom of the well have been enough for centuries to measure the reach of her voice. Before it broke preventing her from declaring her name – that of singer or spectre dishevelled by the air, by the wind rushing in between song and story.

Her lover who knows nothing of how she sleeps tells us nonetheless of illuminated nights, a living fur and a spelling where the words are joined up. The book of memory is an exercise book with margins embellished in red, where the hand of the child calligrapher wavers between wood and forest, brother and sister, suicide and death. At this very place, a little later, the reader slips a knife between the words.

Interpolation or caesura, the haloed heart of the dead wood opens up to memory tangled up in branches – the illustrated forest of childhood and the panelling of bedrooms: locked cabinets, fumbling in drawers in search of the futile, such as age-old coins or the ring that perhaps no one knew was lost – any more than the needle or the heel bone discovered by the archaeologist: was it the astragalus with its winged name, the invisible “padding” in a slightly lopsided sentence, or the redundant bone that trips up the species?

Bois dormant

Château de fougères et sommeil dans un nid de flammes, la forêt s’est refermée sur une belle endormie au visage d’ébène, une morte maquillée de vermillon.

Vierge enceinte à son insu, mère du jour et de l’aurore qui la réveilleront bientôt, elle dort sans rêve et sans parole au cœur du livre entrouvert, où l’enfant qui vient d’apprendre à lire la regarde à la dérobée, un doigt sur les lèvres en attendant le baiser sur la bouche. 

Il voudrait apprivoiser les bêtes au cœur comestible, et croit entendre en lui l’oiseau dont le chant vous fait rougir, l’accent comme un bec-de-lièvre et la voix qui chuinte entre veille et sommeil, aussi familière que la poésie quand elle revient sans prévenir, avec ses rimes et ses réminiscences: la prime et la tierce, le lilas double au bord du pré, la lune dans un livre bilingue. Venue chercher du lait pour les morts elle s’effarouche à la moindre confidence, et quitte aussitôt la maison qu’elle hante. Courtisane qui tourne les talons, elle cache ainsi la cicatrice à son cou.

L’écho qui vient du grec, le caillou au fond du puits ont suffi pendant des siècles à mesurer la portée de sa voix. Avant la mue qui l’empêche de déclarer son nom – de cantatrice ou de revenante ébouriffée par l’air, par le vent qui s’engouffre entre rime et récit.

Son amant qui ne sait rien de son sommeil nous parle pourtant de nuits enluminées, d’une fourrure encore vivante et d’orthographe où les mots sont attachés. Le livre de la mémoire est un cahier aux marges ornées de rouge, où la main de l’enfant calligraphe hésite entre le bois et la forêt, le frère et la sœur, le suicide et la mort. C’est à cet endroit précis que le lecteur un peu plus tard glisse une lame entre les mots. 

Incise ou césure, le cœur auréolé du bois mort s’ouvre à la mémoire encombrée de branches – la forêt illustrée de l’enfance et l’ébénisterie des chambres: meubles fermés à clef, tiroirs où l’on fouille pour trouver l’inutile, comme de la monnaie sans âge ou l’anneau qui ne manquait peut-être à personne – pas plus que l’aiguille ou l’os du talon retrouvé par l’archéologue: était-ce l’astragale au nom ailé, l’invisible «cheville» d’une phrase un peu bancale ou l’os en trop qui fait trébucher l’espèce?

By Gérard Macé

Translated by David Kelley

From Wood asleep (Bois dormant), dual language French-English edition, with introduction by Jean-Pierre Richard, published by Bloodaxe Books (2003). 160 pages, £8.95, 9781852244323

Thank you to Bloodaxe Books for allowing us to publish this extract.


Gérard Macé was born in Paris in 1946. He is a poet, essayist and translator. He published his first book Le jardin des langues in 1974 with Gallimard. His work challenges the barriers between poetry and the essay. This play between and within genres is essential to his writing – which has been called essay merveilleux – and derives from a questioning of language in its broadest sense. Gérard Macé received the Grand Prix de Poésie, given by the Académie Française for his life’s work, in 2008.


David Kelley (1941-1999) was Senior Lecturer in French and Director of Studies in Modern Languages at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was made an Officier des Arts et des Lettres for his services to French culture. As well as co-editing The New French Poetry, he translated two other editions of French poets for Bloodaxe, The River Underground: Selected Poems by Jean Tardieu (1991) and Wood asleep by Gérard Macé. He wrote and edited books on Baudelaire, Rousseau, French literary theory and modern European poetry, and his seminal edition of Baudelaire’s Salon de 1846 was published by Oxford University Press in 1975. He translated Théophile Gautier into English and David Gascoyne into French.

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