not a pretty picture. not a good. not a bad. picture. but an argument.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

in search of the ferryman

"The Curved Planks" by Yves Bonnefoy (translated by Hoyt Rogers)

The man who stood on the bank near the boat was tall, very tall. Behind him moonlight nestled on the waters. As the boy approached the river in utter silence, he heard faint thumps: he knew the boat must be bumping gently against the dock, or a stone. He held the small copper coin clutched tight in his hand.
     "Hello, sir," he said in a clear voice, though it trembled. He feared he was making himself too obtrusive to the ferryman. The giant loomed there, motionless. He seemed to be distracted; yet he'd already noticed the child, under the reeds. "Hello, my boy," he replied.
"Who are you?"
      "Oh, I don't know," said the child.
      "What, you don't know! Don't you have a name?"
      The child tried to grasp what a name might be. "I don't know," he said again, quickly enough.
     "You don't know! But you have to know what you hear when somebody waves at you or calls!"
     "Nobody calls me."
     "Nobody calls you when it's time to come home? When you're been playing outside and it's mealtime, or bedtime? Don't you have a father, a mother? Where is your home? Tell me."
     Now the boy was wondering what a father might be, or a mother, or a home.
     "A father, " he said. "What's that?"
     The ferryman sat down on a stone near his boat. Though at first he had laughed a bit, now his voice came from less far away in the night.
     "A father? Well, he's the one who takes you on his knees when you cry, who sits down beside you in the evening when you're afraid to go to sleep and tells you a story."
     The boy didn't answer.
     "True, often children haven't had a father," the giant went on, as though reconsidering. "But then, they say, there are sweet young women who light the fire so you can sit down close to it, and who sing you a song. If they go away awhile it's only to cook some food; you can smell the oil heating in the pan."
     "I don't remember that either," said the boy in his light, crystal voice. He had drawn closer to the ferryman, who now fell silent; he could hear the man's breathing, slow and even. "I need to cross the river," he said. "I have enough to pay the fare."
     The giant bent down and scooped him up in his enormous hands. After setting him on his shoulders, he stood up and climbed down into the boat. It gave way a little under his weight. "All right, let's go," he said. "Hang on tight to my neck!" With one hand he gripped the child by a leg, and with the other he stuck the pole in the water. In a sudden movement, the boy embraced the ferryman's neck, and let out a sigh. Now the giant was able to grasp the pole with both hands; he pulled it out of the mud, and the boat slipped away from the shore. The water rushed more deeply under the glimmering, into the shadows.
     A moment later a finger touched his ear. "Listen, " said the child, "do you want to be my father?" But he broke off right away, his voice choked by tears.
     "Your father! Why, I'm only the ferryman! I never stray far from the riverbank."
     "But I"d stay with you here, along the river."
     "To be a father, you have to have a home, don't you understand? I don't have one. I live in the rushes along the bank."
      "I'd be so glad to stay near you, along the bank!"
     "No," said the ferryman, "it isn't possible. And anyway, look!"
     What must be seen is this: the boat seems to sink more and more beneath the man and the child, whose weight keeps increasing by the second. The ferryman labors to push the skiff forward, as water keeps pouring in over the sides. Currents swirl through the hull, reaching the giant's thighs. In his huge legs he senses that the curved planks are giving way. Even so the boat doesn't founder; instead it seems to melt into the night. The man is swimming now, with the little boy still clinging to his neck. "Don't be afraid," he says. "The river isn't that wide. We'll get there soon."
     "Oh please, be my father! Be my home!"
     "You have to forget all that," the giant answers under his breath. "You have to forget those words. You have to forget all words."
     He clasps the small leg - immense already - in his hand again, and with his free arm he swims in the limitless space of clashing currents, of yawning abysses, of stars.


  1. Interesting story--the title made me think about Herman Hesse's Siddhartha.

  2. paula rego created a series of etchings inspired by this bonnefoy piece and in response bonnefoy wrote a letter to accompany her etchings in publication. it can be found at the Fortnightly Review, the letter translated by Anthony Rudolf.

    Dear Paula,

    …the dark but tranquil waters of this lake or river – nothing but the sound of gentle splashing among the rushes by the shore, beneath the first stars – where the ferryman of my fable is waiting, begin to tremble, and soon there are waves, and behind these great waves, in the darkness of night already fallen, amid the din of what sounds like a landslide, I hear howling, barking, strange laughs, cries: so many people standing in their boats: young and old, men and women, ageless children, tormentors and victims, soon they will all parade before the little boy who is speaking shyly, sadly, to an unknown man whom he is gazing at imploringly and whom he fears but who, he senses, wishes him well. The hubbub grows louder, the shadows are already lengthening on the water, the first boats appear – and then, all of a sudden, the other world is there, our eyes have closed, we are sleeping, the most tangled and elusive part of our nocturnal dream possesses everything. Paula, you put speech to the test of night. The frail voice which sought the clearest and simplest truth in the relationship between people, you bury it, as a mountain crumbles, under the multiplying voices that you hear crashing around inside you, as they protest violently, crazily, angrily, in the abyss of the unconscious. Your dark revelations have become the entire sky, the entire earth. What will remain of the hope of this child who has arrived from nowhere, clutching in his clenched fist what he needs to pay for his passage?

    Everything, in my opinion. Against the mass of your whirling protean visions, the image of a young woman — rowing hard beneath a wild sky on a swollen sea — stands out quite clearly. And there is anguish on her face, and two or three children are holding on by their fingertips to the edge of her small boat, they are lost, they are going to die — but what is this boat? This particular etching and at least two others reveal that it is the boat which all children everywhere love to create out of nothing by folding, refolding and folding yet again a piece of paper, which they then, occasionally, throw on the water, but in that case it only lasts a moment, the paper is not made for water, the ship is waterlogged, it sinks. And so, how can this paper boat that you yourself have drawn not sink beneath all that weight, beneath the immensity of your imaginative power? How can we bring ourselves to believe it won’t sink? How is it possible not to think that you have no hope?

    1. But no! For who would risk everything, like this terrified young woman, amidst the hostile waters, and head for the unknown, if he had not locked within himself an indestructible hope? In truth, what emerges from this metaphorical etching, and from many others, is hope, in its purest form. Paula, I believe that you have perceived in that little figure of mine who suddenly appears on the shore the desire to give meaning to life; and you have imbued this desire with all the sadness and all the griefs of life already lived, but you do not deny this desire, you do not scorn this expectation. You love in them that moment when despite all appearances — all those obscure dramas, all those sorrows which your work evokes — we want to believe in another shore.

      At dinner, in Nîmes, after the opening of the exhibition of your prints which culminated in these ‘Planches courbes’ etchings, I found myself folding a menu absent-mindedly and making a boat out of it; then, seeing what I had been doing, I pushed the boat towards you across the table. There was a vase on the table, with red flowers. You took the boat, with one petal you loaded it up, and pushed it away, this time into a vast open space. Loaded it up? No, that red shape was, perhaps, a sail. “What is it?” I asked you. “A little girl seeking to be reunited with her father,” you answered.

      What is the father for us, orphans of meaning? It is this sombre mass standing in the rushes. This silence which, however, contains a few words, either in reply to a child’s questions, or, in the secret heart of your work, Paula, and this time in response to our adult fears.


    2. if it is the case that we are all "orphans of meaning," and certainly it often feels that way, then let there always be a father, a mother, or at least a ferryman.

      thanks ollie and sage:)

      sage, this is one that should be on my list, but unfortunately my list is loooong and i am so easily preoccupied.


"Words at the limit of hearing, attributable to no one, received in the conch of the ear like dew by a leaf." (philippe jaccottet) or even a quiet presence is appreciated))