You are currently viewing I was perfectly calm before sinking

Language: French 
Poet: Max Jacob 
Translator: Sophia Lecker


I was perfectly calm before sinking

Two poems by Max Jacob translated by Sophia Lecker

Max Jacob was born on July 12, 1876 in Quimper, Brittany to a non-observant Jewish family. After studying law, he settled in the Montmartre district of Paris and knew Picasso, Braque, Apollinaire, Cocteau, and many other writers and painters of the French avant-garde. In 1916 Jacob self-published his best-known book, the collection of prose poems, Le cornet à dés (The Dice Cup.) Throughout his career, Jacob never identified with any movement. Instead, his prose poetry and verse moved freely through elements of symbolism, cubistic word play, and what came to be termed surrealism. Relying solely on his own belief that each poem must be situé or differentiated in terms of vocabulary, syntax, and tone, Jacob created an oeuvre notable for its piercing insights, audacious technique, and wide emotional range. He also published novels, essays, and exhibited paintings. After experiencing two visions of Christ, Max Jacob converted to Catholicism. Although he published and exhibited in the 1920s and 30s, Jacob continued to struggle with poverty and marginalization. In 1936 he moved to Benôit-sur-Loire, Loiret, living near the abbey there and leading a semi-monastic life. In February 1944, after the deportation and deaths of several family members, he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the internment camp at Drancy. Despite the efforts of Jean Cocteau to have his old friend released, Jacob died of pneumonia while at Drancy on March 5, 1944.
Sophia Lecker is an American translator and poet who currently lives in Canada. She recently discovered the work of the French poet Max Jacob while visiting his hometown of Quimper, Brittany. Since then, she has rendered a complete translation of Jacob’s book of prose poems The Dice Cup that is awaiting publication. Her own poetry has been published in Canadian journals such as Prism InternationalEvent, and others.  Several of her translations from The Dice Cup have appeared in a recent number of the Denver Quarterly.

Les Régates de Concarneau

Les noyés ne coulent pas toujours au fond. Il suffit même à un troublé dans l’eau de se souvenir qu’il a su nager et il voit son pantalon s’agiter comme les jambes d’un pantin. Aux régates de Concarneau, c’est ce qui m’arriva. J’étais parfaitement tranquille avant de couler, ou bien ces élégants des yoles qui passent remarqueront mes efforts ou bien…bref, un certain optimisme. La rive toute proche! Avec personnages israélites grandeur nature et des plus gracieux. Ce qui me surprit au sortir de l’eau, c’est d’avoir été si peu mouillé et d’être regardé non comme un caniche, mais comme un homme.

The Concarneau Regattas

Drowning people don’t always sink to the bottom. It is even enough for someone struggling in the water to remember that he knew how to swim and then he sees his trousers flap around like the legs of a jumping jack. That’s what happened to me at the Concarneau regattas. I was perfectly calm before sinking, or well those elegant people in their skiffs passing by will notice my efforts or well…in short, a certain optimism. The shore so close! With life-sized Israelite individuals of the most gracious sort. What surprised me in getting out of the water was that I was hardly damp, and that people looked at me not as a poodle, but as a man.

Le Fond Du Tableau

C’est une petite partie de campagne! une petite partie autour d’un puits. La pauvre enfant est seule sur la plage, sur les rochers en pente de la dune et on dirait qu’il y une auréole autour de sa tête. Oh! je saurai bien la sauver! moi, le gros boursouflé je cours, j’accours. Là-bas autour du puits on joue la Marseillaise et moi j’accours pour la sauver. Je n’ai pas encore parlé de la couleur du ciel parce que je n’étais pas sûr que ce ne fût avec la mer un seul tableau lisse couleur des tableaux d’école en ardoise souillée de craie, oui, avec une trainée de craie en diagonale, comme le couteau de la guillotine.

The Depths of the Painting

It’s a little party in the countryside! A little party near a well. The poor little girl is alone on the beach, on the steep rocky slope of the dune, and you might say there is a halo around her head. Oh, I’ll know how to save her! Me, the fat puffy one, I rush I run. Down there near the well they are playing the Marseillaise and I’m rushing to save her. I haven’t mentioned yet the color of the sky because I wasn’t sure that with the sea it doesn’t make a smooth painting the color of a blackboard smeared with chalk, yes, with a diagonal trail of chalk like the blade of a guillotine.