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Opening Invocation

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Translator’s Note: Marilyn Hacker

‘Opening Invocation’ grew from a short text in prose written and broadcast by Jean Paul de-Dadelsen for the BBC French Service on 11 November, 1950, in which he began by questioning why on that date the dead of World War I were memorialized, but not those of World War II. He then went on to remember his own comrades who had died, not in the war, but soon afterwards, of illness, or suicide. It was transformed into a poem of contrapuntal despair and spiritual questioning, whose movements are extravagant and musical. It shocks the reader that Maurice, the painter, identified as Jewish, ‘turned on the gas’ himself one night. The horrors of war do not end when the war ends.

The Invocation led the poet into his Jonah sequence, written in 1954-5: the poet-Jonah is in the belly of war, of sexual hypocrisy, of profound religious doubt, of death’s certainty. It was one of the few poems published in a literary magazine during Dadelsen’s lifetime.

  • Marilyn Hacker

They lived with us in the belly of the whale.
The whale spit them out on the other shore :
                                                                             The shy ones.
                                                               The left-handed.
                                               The one who was albino and stammered.
                                The nearsighted. The distrustful, the cunning.
                                And that tall boy who was always hungry,
      always sleepy.

Do they sometimes look over our shoulders?
                  Since they’ve gone, we’ve seen no one.
                       Are we blind? Or
                 ‘spiritualism, that negro religion’, writes,
             in some delightful periodical, a Reverend Father.
                                                             And yet
if they were looking, sometimes, over our shoulders?

Or otherwise, leaving the shore of the intermediate sea,
                 has it been a while since they’ve gone ahead
                             into the interior of lands of the spirit?
The black sorcerer knows how to call, knows, even when they want
                 to depart, how to call back shadows, souls.
                        Who among us would know how to call,
                                   know how to bring back
                                        the shadow of John,
                                        of Bernard,
                                                   of Maurice?

                      In honour of Monseigneur Saint Maurice
                      Roman colonel who commanded the Theban legion,
                                                   martyr, his feast on September 22,
the abbot of St-Maurice-en-Valais, bishop of Bethlehem
                         wears a ribbon of scarlet moiré.
                                                                                         But Maurice,
who no longer went to the synagogue, no longer painted flowers,
painted only a patch of wall, an open door, a bit
                         of the studio’s light through a half-open door,
                         verticals, the floor’s horizon line,
                         Maurice, who deprived himself of green, of blue,
who among our dead will serve as guide for Maurice?
                     Who among our living will know to light a flame for Maurice ?
                                                What will we burn of ourselves
                                                to feed the spiritual flame that will be able
                                                to warm, to deliver Maurice?

           (A tradition, do you remember, claims that suicides ,
           imprisoned in mental mirrors, suffer at length
           from seeing everything, never able to act, avert, aid.)■

Translated by Marilyn Hacker

To read more from ‘Opening Invocation’ you can buy the issue or subscribe.

For more After the War, read an excerpt from Lindsey Hilsum’s ‘The Rainy Season’, and listen to her talk on the Granta podcast, read Frances Harrison on a survivor of the Sri Lankan Civil War, new fiction from Valério Romão and an excerpt from Hari Kunzru’s ‘Stalkers’.

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