Not crazy, just happy

poem is on right-hand pole of soccer net

 

For the Moment

by Pierre Revardy

translated by Kenneth Rexroth

 

Life is simple and gay

The bright sun rings with a quiet sound

The sound of the bells has quieted down

This morning the light hits it all

The footlights of my head are lit again

And the room I live in is finally bright

 

Just one beam is enough

Just one burst of laughter

My joy that shakes the house

Restrains those wanting to die

By the notes of its song

 

I sing off-key

Ah it’s funny

My mouth open to every breeze

Spews mad notes everywhere

That emerge I don’t know how

To fly toward other ears

 

Listen I’m not crazy

I laugh at the bottom of the stairs

Before the wide-open door

In the sunlight scattered

On the wall among green vines

And my arms are held out toward you

 

It’s today I love you

 

 

*

There’s a line in Pierre Revardy’s “For the Moment” that stopped me in my tracks—

 

The footlights of my head are lit again

 

At first this brought to mind a man in a tin foil hat with a giant reflector beam. I connected it to another line in the poem—

 

Listen I’m not crazy

 

(says the crazy person, always). But then I began to see a stage in a theater. The poem brings me to that magical time just before the curtain rises. The orchestra has wound down its warm-up—

 

The bright sun rings with a quiet sound

The sound of the bells has quieted down

 

Then—the curtains open! Lights! Music! Laughter!

 

My joy that shakes the house

Restrains those wanting to die

By the notes of its song

 

The house, in my reading, works double-time here as both the house with stairs and a door the speaker lives in, and the seating area (the house) for an audience at a theater. The poet provides the lights so we can see beauty, and then the music so we can hear joy. (Of course, this poem is translated from the French, so the idea of the house as a theater house might be a stretch.)

 

The poet makes no claim to perfection. His song is off-key, his notes mad. It’s not the perfection of his art that keeps people from despair or spreads joy. It’s the very act of doing it, of daring to be off-key and perceived as crazy, the act of opening the door to life in all its beauty and absurdity, of embracing what’s on the other side of threshold.

 

Revardy’s description of the artist’s role will stay with me forever. Once more, with feeling!—

 

The footlights of my head are lit again

 

—and this time let’s look at that word “again.” Again suggests that the speaker has been depressed, unable to function; but it also suggests that he lives in a cycle of lights going on and lights going off. The very title tells us his upbeat mood is a temporary one—“For the Moment.” For the moment, Life is simple and gay.

 

A momentary happiness. A fleeting state, not a permanent home. In this long, difficult year of isolation and loss, we’ve had to learn to savor momentary happiness. When it arrives, Revardy tells us, open wide the door, laugh with joy, and hold out your arms to bring it close.

 

*

 

I taped the poem late last fall to a soccer net on an empty field and never got around to using it. Now I’m glad I didn’t. “For the Moment” is much better suited to March than November. The promise of spring . . . new life . . . hope. . . the earth re-born. . . Revardy’s poem sings out with a similar joy.

 

*

 

Now let’s look at the strange life of Pierre Revardy. Revardy (1889-1960) was born in southern France. His parents may have been married to other people at the time of his birth and married each other when he was still young. He was homeschooled by his father, a winegrower.

 

At age 21 he moved to Paris to be a poet. His father financially supported him. When his father died a year later, Revardy had to support himself as a writer, which, amazingly, he did. He published a book of his poetry, got to be well known, and hung out in a circle of the Who’s Who of bohemian Montmartre—Picasso, George Braque, Juan Gris, Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, André Breton. He founded the literary magazine Nord-Sud.

 

The Cubists considered him a Cubist writer and the Surrealist as one of their own, but Revardy considered himself neither, not liking to be confined. He influenced a generation of American poets, including Kenneth Rexroth, Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry, and Ron Padgett.

 

He was a spiritual man drawn to mysticism. In 1926, in a ritual to mark his renunciation of the world, he set fire to his manuscripts on a street corner in Paris in front of a crowd of admirers. Following the example of his friend, artist and poet Max Jacob, Revardy converted to Catholicism and moved near a Benedictine monastery. There he lived a semi-monastic life with his wife Henrietta for thirty years. In this purposeful retreat from society he eventually turned his back on organized religion as well.

 

During World War II, he worked for the French Resistance and refused to publish any work during the Occupation. After the war he published Le Chant des Morts (Song of the Dead) illustrated by Picasso.

 

His wife was a seamstress but his lifelong love was a seamstress of a different order, Coco Chanel. They had an intense affair for five years when he was in his early 30’s, and maintained a friendship throughout their lives after the affair was over. Some think he collaborated with Chanel on her famous aphorisms. On his deathbed he wrote a poem to her—

 

Dear Coco, here it is

The best of my hand

And the best of me

I offer it thus to you

With my heart

With my hand

Before heading toward

The dark road’s end

If condemned

If pardoned

Know you are loved

 

Revardy was known as a somber, serious man, but this description of his by his friend Mercure de France paints a more nuanced picture—

 

The man shone with health and love of life. His sharp and animated gestures, his voice, his Mediterranean verve, his nervous temperament, his child’s laugh, all were those of a man perfectly at ease with himself, who smiled on life and on whom life smiled. He loved to eat and drink, he adored women, the bustle of the street, café terraces, window-dressings, newspapers, books… and he displayed a passionate interest in art and its intimate relationship with poetry. And how he loved to get het up and hot under the collar, whether by an idea that had come to him, or by alcohol, and to lecture or even debate for hours and hours, a man quite at leisure, striding on tirelessly. Nothing in his appearance, in his curiosity always alert to all things, would have led me to believe that this man, so alive, so resplendent and handsome, concealed a wound in his side that he knew to be incurable, as his poetry would later reveal.

 

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