“Cities Without Names” and “Cities with Their Dead,” excerpted from Distantly
a bilingual collection of poems that offers a surreal perspective of urban experience
Quebecoise avant-garde poet, novelist, and essayist Nicole Brossard was born in Montreal, Canada, and educated at the Collège Marguerite Bourgeoys and the Université de Montréal.
Brossard’s work explores feminism, desire, and their connection to the structure and flexibility of language. Believer reviewer Kate Zambreno has praised Brossard’s “lyrical descriptions of lesbian desire coupled with a continued meditation on language. Brossard conflates writing with lovemaking …the poems forming a grammar of desire, like a diagrammed body.”
Brossard has published more than 30 books. Her poetry collections include Avant Desire: A Nicole Brossard Reader (2020), edited by Erin Wunker, Geneviève Robichaud, and Sina Queryas; White Piano (2013), translated by Robert Majzels and Erin Mouré; Nicole Brossard: Selections (2010), translated by Jennifer Moxley; Notebook of Roses and Civilization (2006), translated by Robert Majzels and Erin Mouré, which was shortlisted for the Griffin International Poetry Prize; and Installations (1989), translated by Robert Majzels and Erin Mouré. She is also the author of numerous novels, including Mauve Desert (1987), translated by Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, and Lovhers (1986), translated by Barbara Godard.
The editor of the anthology The Story So Far: Les Strategies du reel (1979), Brossard co-founded the Quebec literary journals La Barre du Jour and La Nouvelle Barre du Jour.
Her honors include a Lifetime Recognition Award from the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry, the Canada Council’s Molson Prize, the Prix Athanase-David and two awards for poetry from the Governor General. She lives in Montreal and is a member of L’Académie des Lettres du Québec.
Excerpt from Distantly, by Nicole Brossard. Translated by Cynthia Hogue and Sylvain Gallais
Villes sans nom
quand la réalité déferle
tu dis villes sans nom
arbres soudain trop grands
pour ta mémoire d’enfance
dans ton regard toujours
un présent d’absence déjoue
tes intentions les plus fleuves
Cities Without Names
when reality surges
you say cities without names
trees suddenly too tall
for your memory of childhood
in your eyes always
a presence of absence thwarts
your intentions those great rivers
Villes avec leurs morts
pas de cimetières vraiment que des morts
des mots pour ne pas dire, pas prénoms, pas son nom
pas encore un malheur, petits pas qui glacent
à chaque année je marche dans une ville neuve
avec des mots des os des cheveux des lunettes
je marche avec quelqu’un qui a écrit un livre
« puis s’en est allé sur la pointe des pieds »*
retrouver l’horizon le lendemain de l’horizon
Cities with Their Dead
no cemeteries really only the dead
words not to say, no first names no names
not misfortune yet, small steps that freeze
each year I walk through a new city
with words with bones with hair with glasses
I walk with someone who wrote a book
“then took leave on tiptoes”*
to meet the horizon the day after the horizon
* Anne Hébert
Introduction to the Translation of Nicole Brossard’s poems:
Nicole Brossard has been in the vanguard of the dynamic Francophone Canadian feminist and avant-garde writing community for over four decades. She founded the journal La Barre du Jour, was one of the co-founding members of the Union des écrivaines et écrivains québécois, piloted the Quebec dossier for the magazine Opus International, and was a member of the steering committee for the International Writers’ Meeting in 1975 (theme: women and writing). For her writing, she has twice received the Grand Prix du festival international de poésie, among many other honors. Brossard has published thirty books, including Lointaines (2010), from which the current selection is drawn, and a book on translation, Et me voici soudain en train de refaire le monde. In 2019, she was awarded the Lifetime Recognition Award from The Griffin Trust For Excellence in Poetry. She tweets at @NicBrossard.
Sylvain Gallais is a native French speaker transplanted to the U.S. seventeen years ago. He is an emeritus professor of Economics at Université Francois Rabelais (Tours, France) and of French in the School of International Letters and Culture at Arizona State University. His co-authored book in economics is entitled France Encounters Globalization (2003).
Cynthia Hogue has nine collections of poetry, most recently Revenance, listed as one of the 2014 “Standout” books by the Academy of American Poets, In June the Labyrinth (Red Hen Press, 2017), and Contain (Tram Editions). Her co-translations (all with Sylvain Gallais) include Fortino Sámano (The overflowing of the poem), from the French of Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy, which won the Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets in 2013, Joan Darc, by Natalie Quintane, and Distantly, by Nicole Brossard. Hogue’s honors include two NEA Fellowships and the H.D. Fellowship at Yale University. She is the inaugural Marshall Chair in Poetry Emerita Professor of English at Arizona State University.
Original French © Copyright Éditions Caractères 2010. Reprinted by permission of Éditions Caractères. English Translation © Copyright Sylvain Gallais and Cynthia Hogue 2022. All rights reserved.