And so Desnos Night was on 17th May, a mid-month Tuesday, like our old meetings before the Bar des Arts became something different. We held it at the Keystone and we were not disappointed. Timothy Adés’ skilled translations and generous presence brought these free-ranging, playful, imaginative poems to life in the Keystone, to an enthusiastic audience.
Robert Desnos (his name is pronounced phonetically) was born in 1900, son of a Parisian stall-holder in the market of Les Halles. He was educated at a commercial college, then worked as a clerk before becoming a literary journalist.Through his writing he became friendly with the founders of the Dada and Surrealist movements, including André Breton, Luis Aragon and Man Ray.
He was reckoned by his Surrealist friends to be the most adept of them at “automatism”, the trance-like technique they used for accessing their dreams and unconscious thoughts.His mature work was more crafted. Between 1919 and 1944 he wrote prolifically: poetry; novels; scenarios; reviews of art, films, literature and music; thousands of advertising slogans and jingles; and several radio programmes. In one regular programme he analysed listeners’ dreams. He loved radio and enjoyed communicating directly with the public through the medium.
As an outspoken critic of the Nazis and the Pétain government, Robert Desnos was arrested by the SS in Paris in 1943 and sent to Floha concentration camp. In 1944, one day before the end of World War II he was part of a forced march to the camp at Terezin and collapsed there. Two Czech medical students recognised him from Man Ray’s photograph, which they had seen in a book. They couldn’t save his life, but they gave him back what he valued: freedom and his own identity. He died holding a rose they gave him, cherishing it to the last.
Timothy’s readings of the original poems in French and his own translations are totally true to Desnos’ literary voice, ranging from playful alliterative rhymes and chants for children to sensual love poems, passionate cries for freedom in the arts and for individuals, to dark poems towards the end when friends were being rounded up by the Nazi regime. Always Desnos’ wit and love of language is faithfully translated by Timothy Adés and read with all the ebullience, passion or gravity the words demand.
The open mic: a quick run-down:
Dónall paid tribute to four poets, in his introduction, reading poems dedicated to Robert Desnos, Timothy Adés himself, and the symbolist poet and holocaust victim Miklos Radnóti. He also read Dylan Thomas’ surreal “Love in the Asylum”.
Michael Cutchey’s “Asemic Dream” emulated the automatic writing of the surrealists, and Kyle McHale also had a surreal poem of his own: “Hanging Heart Dripping”.
Geoff Pimlott read three of his poems and Lorri Pimlott read some of her own excellent translations from Paul Eluard, together with the originals.
Alex Twyman read great poems by the American poet Joe Bolton, with huge conviction.
Ray Pool, after being Noel Coward for a moment, had a Danse Macabre, a park bench with a view and a Waiting Game.
Andy V Frost was a biker poet with maintenance expenses and a lovely route round Scotland.
Andy Low, complaining that being announced by Dónall is “like being introduced by your mother”, read of a horse and catching a train with “a hot drink in a hurry”.
We welcomed Bob Milton, a new reader who is also a mosaic artist. He read about a personal tragedy and a Cornish seascape.
I read about beginning and ending surreal affairs in the dark, advice on politics for animals, and a short walk through Paris with an (imaginary) ex-lover. And took some notes and thoroughly enjoyed the night.
Next at the Keystone on June 6th:
Chrys Salt and Alan Franks
with poems and songs
and of course the open mic
Sign up from 7pm for a 7.30 start
It's free and the Keystone does great food!