On Learning to Play Pétanque

Paol Keineg (to the right of me) with poet Jean-Claude Caër and his son. And sun hats.

Every evening, on my way back to my room in Brest, I see men playing pétanque in the park. They’re serious—sometimes, when the game is close, they take out a measuring tape to decide which team has rolled their ball closest to the jack. As in croquet, there is much potential for “accidentally” bumping someone else’s ball, and for wild gesticulation, but mostly the players seem intensely focused on gaining a few centimeters of advantage. And trash talking the other team, cigarettes hanging in the corners of their mouths. It seems you can politely say things in French you couldn't say in English. And the men laugh. And shake hands.

Some afternoons I walk along the castle walls, listening to the gulls scream and flap after dumpster baguettes. There are feathers in the air like snowflakes. One day, I get home to find that Paol, the poet I’ve been translating, has translated one of my poems into French. It’s called “Ransom” in English (“Rançon” in its French incarnation). Here are a couple of excerpts from the French:


Géraniums dans la jardinière et réveillée

par des chants d’oiseaux peu familiers, le soleil par les carreaux,

je n’arrive pas à l’écarter de mes yeux.

S. pleure à l’autre bout du fil. Il réclame

de l’argent. Il voudrait venir voir

La Nuit des morts-vivants.

Tu ne peux pas me laisser seul, dit-il.


Mon père et moi, nous avons trouvé un renard dans la prairie.

Il reposait dans l’herbe sur le rebord de l’ornière.

Je n’ai pas touché le poil qui brûlait devant moi.

On ne voyait aucune marque,

pas de sang entre les dents

« Ceci est la mort », a dit mon père.

J’ai observé,

les yeux plus sombres que des fleurs.

Nous lui avons fait une guirlande avec des suzannes à œil noir,

coupant les tiges avec nos ongles.

Je l’ai regardé étendu dans la lumière du soir,

le feu a pris dans sa robe

brièvement, et puis rien.


I’m so grateful to Paol for working on this, especially because it allows me to see connections and connotations that are amplified by another language. It maybe becomes a little more serious here, and the tone seems a little elevated to me by Latinate words. But for French of course that’s normal—there are no alternative Anglo-Saxon words.

When I started translating Paol’s poems, it was difficult to capture his humor—and stanzas like


it’s vulgar to speak of dogs, but some philosophers lived like dogs and think like dogs, the older I get, the more I shuffle and dance in place and move my arms

tossing everything on the floor, isn’t it a shame this literary aping, me I’m happy in the car, the Blue Ridge three hours away, a hundred miles an hour to keep big words at a distance,

ready to cry at a Cherokee sunset, the bad parts of the American sky, sad like generations of ancestors, catalogued, mustachioed, in their Sunday outfits...




their cries through the lowered window create an emptiness, damned pursuit of happiness, at night you hear the bear beget the bear, the fox beget the fox, all the social fauna drink from the brooks...


lose a lot if they aren’t playful in English as well as in French. So I work on the humor, the irreverence, trying to roll the ball a little closer to the jack. And sometimes those few changes, like those few centimeters, make a difference.

One afternoon, Paol is kind enough to take me to meet an old friend, a poet, on a farm that’s been in his family for years. There’s a beautiful stone house, a meadow, outbuildings covered in red and orange flowers. Kiwis grow on vines that lace through the blackberry brambles. And in front of the house, there’s a bit of flat dirt with boules in a bucket. We drink rosé in the shade. Paol gives me a crash course in pétanque.