Night of Loveless Nights

The fiftieth-anniversary edition of New York School poet Lewis Warsh's long out-of-print translation of a major poem by Robert Desnos, pillar of French Surrealism, presented alongside the original text.

Desnos's Night of Loveless Nights—written in tribute to legendary French chanteuse Yvonne George in 1926—is a maelstrom of romantic despair, political upswell, and psychedelic irony. John Ashbery's claim that Frank O'Hara 1971 collected poems was "the founding of a new tradition" should be made for both Desnos's poem and Warsh's translation. Long unavailable, Warsh's Desnos stands beside Ron Padgett's Cendrars and John Ashbery's Rimbaud, a sublime translation experiment of letting the language speak for itself—as had the poem's author. Originally published in 1973 by poet and translator David Rosenberg in The Ant's Forefoot chapbook series, Warsh's translation is reproduced in this fiftieth anniversary edition alongside the French original, and with an afterword by Rosenberg.

"Warsh's translation of Desnos's dream-chant-poem-cloud testifies to translation as a mode of reading: we can only translate what we can read. Now side by side with Desnos's French, we see how Warsh alters words, misses pronouns, creates new visions out of the original at times but always captures its incantatory rhythm and beauty and starfulness, the grandeur of its lament... Around him fifty years ago, poetry translators were mostly academics and translation was a way to grasp a work already seen as past. Warsh, poet, translates Desnos to bring the poem into the present, his present and ours, feverishly alive, as poem not of the past but of the future. It is wonderful to have this celebratory volume and admire his work fifty years later."

—Erín Moure

"Lewis Warsh, always a delicate and romantic poet, writes with the speed of intuition. He captures in his translation of Desnos the same music, almost arbitrary in its liberties. Night is a cloak to compose such poetry in. And so it adapts to the conditions it is given, dark and wicked only to match the world at its worst... The poems here are like silhouettes dashing out of the past and passing. A sparkling and taunting dance before the shadow of Hitler takes form."

—Fanny Howe

"Desnos caught his night stunningly in formal and luxurious French pressing hard on Avant breakthrough, addressing the lover in tantalizing lament, flourishing insomniacal language. He suffered Nazi murder and I think Warsh, in his translation—a young evolving poet's tender cri de coeur on the back of Desnos—felt spirit connection to the Jewish poet. The new afterword by its original publisher, David Rosenberg, is a generous and brotherly asset. I love and lived this poem's untethered shadowing."

—Anne Waldman

"Robert Desnos was thirty the year The Night of Loveless Nights was first published. Lewis Warsh was very near the same age when he rendered it into English. Warsh was so in accord with Desnos's long, passionate work that his own version is as expressive as any poem he ever wrote."

—John Godfrey

"Desnos's poem, in Lewis's translation, must have influenced us all with its structural changes—stanzas, then none to speak of, prose interlude, line lists, then lovely curt goodbye. Its sense of a corrupt teeming world in which the only pure image exists in the lover's (poet's), heart though each member of the corrupt world is also that lover. I love this poem, and I salute the fiftieth anniversary of the translation's publication, remembering when Lewis was working on it in '71, deeply bemused by the fact of the undertaking. So he changed 'métamorphoses' to 'changes,' because we all spoke of our 'changes,' the 'change' in our pockets, 'all my changes' (Neil Young). And sometimes I know the translator's simply talking about himself. Is the poet doing that too? Is the reader?"

—Alice Notley

French poet Robert Desnos (1900-1945) was introduced to Paris Dada and André Breton through poet Benjamin Péret in 1919, and became an active member of the Surrealist group, known in particular for automatic writing. Desnos's circle included leaders of the literary vanguard Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, as well as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Antonin Artaud, and John Dos Passos. In 1929, due to political differences, Breton removed Desnos from the Surrealists' ranks. Desnos then joined Georges Bataille and Documents, signing an attack on Breton. Besides his numerous collections of poems, he wrote reviews of jazz and cinema, published three novels, worked in radio, and wrote the script for a film by Man Ray (L'Étoile de mer, 1928). During World War II, Desnos was an active member of the French Resistance. He was arrested by the Gestapo in late February 1944, deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally to Terezín where he died of typhoid.

David Rosenberg's books include The Book of J, with Harold Bloom (Grove), Lost Book of Paradise (Hyperion), A Literary Bible (Counterpoint), and A Life in a Poem (Shearsman). He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship for nonfiction, a PEN prize for A Poet's Bible, and a Hopwood Special Award in poetry, among other distinctions.

Night of Loveless Nights

2023, Winter Editions

Paperback 80pp