Paul Valéry: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

Paul Valéry: Poetry in a Time of Dislocation

In this time of pandemic and great social and economic dislocation and pain, the place for art is critical. Art can soothe us but, more importantly, it can remind us that the love of ideas and beauty and the persistence of a humane spirit still matter. In fact, they may save us.

This month, I have been reading some of the great French poets and I propose to share them with you. In this series, I will choose one poem from each of my favorite poets and translate it for you. These poems will be illustrated with some of my fine art photography. I hope they bring you peace and joy. (Click here for previous installments: Charles Baudelaire and Guillaume Apollinaire.)

In the third essay, I bring you Paul Valéry. He was a polymath: a great symbolist poet, a philosopher, a prodigious diarist, a cultural ambassador. His poems are complex with cascading images, each beautiful but hard to translate. The work is worth the effort. Sometimes Valéry reaches the heights and it is a joy to see them through his eyes.

Photo: Fern Nesson

I especially appreciate Valéry for his insight about art. One phrase from his diary, Cahiers, impresses me deeply: “Seeing is forgetting the name of what one sees.”

As an abstract photographer, I find truth in this phrase. Abstraction seeks the essence, not the specific object. Too closely identifying an object with its “real” assigned function in the world can blind us to that essence, leaving us unable to see the deeper meaning of the scene before us. (And, as in art, so, too, in life.)

Valery’s lovely poem, “La Ceinture,” brims with metaphor and beautiful poetic images. Enjoy!

La Ceinture (1922)

Quand le ciel couleur d’une joue Laisse enfin les yeux le chérir
Et qu’au point doré de périr Dans les roses le temps se joue,
Devant le muet de plaisir Qu’enchaîne une telle peinture, Dans une Ombre à libre ceinture Que le temps est près de saisir.
Cette ceinture vagabonde
Fait dans le souffle aérien
Frémir le suprème lien
De mon silence avec ce monde…
Absent, présent… Je suis bien seul, Et sombre, ô suave linceul !

Photo: Fern Nesson

My Translation

At the golden dying hour of twilight when the sky turns rose pink
and at last permits the eyes to admire it
Then, mute with pleasure,
a scene captures me:
the shadow of a woman, her sash trailing, caught by the wind.
That drifting sash,
feather-light and tremulous,
forms my only connection to this world.
Absent or present, I am all alone and melancholy… oh beautiful shroud!

Lead photo credit : Photo: Fern Nesson

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Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Fern Nesson is a fine art photographer with an MFA in photography. She visits Paris regularly where she captures interior scenes. Her work is abstract, and brings fresh perspective to lovers of Paris, while also illuminating interesting museum exhibitions and cultural events taking place in the City of Light. She recently published a book compilation of the popular Bonjour Paris series "50 Things I Miss About Paris." Purchase this beautiful, photography-filled book on Amazon or contact Fern directly by email: fernlnesson [at] She's offering a special deal for Bonjour Paris readers: purchase the book at cost, a $25 discount.


  • Fern L. Nesson
    2020-06-29 05:49:41
    Fern L. Nesson
    Dear Karin, I am so sorry for your loss. I can't help but feel that you were (and are) a most wonderful sister to your brother. I truly believe he is now part of the light of the universe and that your chanting accompanied him on his way. with sympathy and thanks for your lovely, moving note to me. F.


  • Karin Faulner
    2020-06-26 16:24:09
    Karin Faulner
    Dear Fern Nesson, This is the 49th day since my brother died of covid-19. I have been doing the twice a day Buddhist meditation and chants to help him see the light through bardo. That all ends on 49th day. Another ceremony and feast on 100th day. But besides making an altar on my windowsill and adding more pix to the memorial site..... I don't know what to do. It feels incomplete. I feel incomplete. Last night I told myself several times, "You DO know what to do next. You do. You will know when it comes to you & it WILL come." A friend sent me a link to your page including Valery's poetry. There IT is. Valery says it. It would be my brother's wish that his very last connection to this world would be a particular ephemeral glimpse of a beautiful woman, in movement. Your translation is exquisite. Poetry, especialy the surrealists rides the line of impossibility. You carried it in perfection This is a lovely piece of healing for me. I put it together with an old photo of mine. Here is a link.