Alparegho, like nothing else

Ann Cefola translating the French of Hélène Sanguinetti

click here for the French text

"There was a day, one time, now, the day of the King who lies, and his wife the Queen with the striking huge pupils. They surrounded their heads with streamers, put a little chair above above and a veil of orange skins on their teeth, and played fools. The people were hungry hungry hungry.

At this time the men took forks, the women had prepared flasks, and they entered in the park after having bent the high bars with their fists of rage, starved, “Justice! Justice! Treacherous you are!”

And again: “Justice! The treacherous, may they perish!”


Suddenly, someone, neither old nor young, left the crowd of those oppressed, he was not really really handsome, and even his body, in a bad sense human, only shoulder-height, on the right was a bit twisted and a little curved. He had a funny pickaxe with a golden edge and so small that it should have belonged to a child to play with in the sand, or had been made especially for a dwarf, or a sort of tool of a clockmaker or tapestry-maker? From what era? He turned it around in his hand with much dexterity despite his sick appearance and, with the other hand, easily opened a passage-way through the fury.

“I forgot my flute,” said he in a small voice that each one heard deep in the ear. It was a little golden voice, a little voice that insists on itself, and came from far away. He was standing at the foot of the park’s great bent grill and looked toward the house, on the balcony of honor, the royal couple decked out with ribbons and staggered before the extent of such a disaster. Because the Majesties’ beautiful garden had been devastated: crushed the flowerbeds, strangled the water jets, filled in the ponds, pulled out the varied magnolias and the-happiness-of-apes pines, suffocated the fountains. Worse than if a herd of wild boar had descended from the mountain.

Much worse!


It is said that sometimes, the eve of their death, the eyes of the great princes see the earth in its entire detail, and understand all that they never understood, but that this stays stuck under their tongue, or that they can’t manage to translate what they’re thinking for the first time in this totally new speech which has suddenly come to them. The king, above all, was affected and had a hard time battling this type of exhaustion which took all his body and spirit on this balcony! But the queen, like a little girl, shook her fists.

“I forgot my flute.”


The man advanced all alone in the walkway edged with well-pruned trees, still spared by the crowd which was still growing, and he apologized with this voice pure and hoarse at once which came from behind the mountains and from deep within himself, and he waved his pickaxe in rhythm with his steps. Soon he was under the balcony himself, as if he had wanted to eye the queen’s underwear, which did not show that day precisely, because it happened that, in order to play the fool, she wore an old pair of trousers.

“I forgot my flute.” He raised his head, the sovereigns lowered their eyes, obeying their ears, “I need your fingers, your Majesties, in order to play.”

This was scarcely murmured, gently requested.

The King, the moron, grew quiet, the Queen his wife stretched out her hands and the man, seizing them, jumped on the platform where already the moist shadow of evening was replacing the light, effortlessly he jumped up there, and smiled at the Medusa who stared at him, where existed such pupils, taking you down to the powder of your soul, down to the unreadable signs of the hear, Who could resist such a call from nothing, call of self across self, and from thousands of thousands of tons and tons of night, but her hands were soft and hot, like the air below, amidst the grasses of the great meadow, and the living water of the river. And still he smiled, responding to the pressure of the sovereign’s fingers and saying in his little voice, little golden voice that insists on itself and came from far away:

“I forgot my flute, but I will play on your fingers, Majesty.”

And the crowd grew more silent than silence in this instant. Only a child violently sneezed, or perhaps it was a train that passed just at this moment, shattering the evening.


Then the man with the slightly twisted shoulder bent a knee on the stone, put his mouth in the offered hands and we heard this: the voice of the queen with the striking huge pupils! Accusing:

- Who crushed the flowerbeds?

- Who strangled the water jets?

- Who filled in the ponds?

- Who pulled out the trees from two Jubilees?

- Who suffocated the fountains?

This is worse, much worse than if a herd of wild cats had swept through my country. Our country, Mister-Little-Pickaxe who forgot his flute!

But the queen, all the while scolding, held his hands, shaking them as if they were dancing a round.

Then we heard this:

“We’re hungry, Madame, more hungry than hungry, and you forget us.”

And the man put his mouth in her hands once more.

“You forget us! Forget us!” reprised the people, touched, in one voice, and this offered relief to hearts too hardened to let even a cry escape.


The queen understood none of this and threw her husband a brief look that informed her very quickly the type of help he would be able to provide her in such a thorny situation.

She did not understand what with so much rice distributed, so many gallons and gallons of oil, more virgin than the Virgin, so many miles of sugar cane, bags and bags of flour, so many bales of cotton…. No, she did not understand. They were hungry! Never had the country recorded such opulence. They were hungry! And didn’t the progress realized in only six months’ time account for anything? The communications between the seas and the mountains, the new train that seemed to fly it went so high, and hygiene, the new hygiene plan, and the cock fights, and the police who walked barefoot and could recognize, even sing, the most beautiful operatic arias, was this worth nothing? Who had ordered that people could leave their cars and front doors open from now on, dismissed the local rulers and their servants, allowed four dogs and three cats per family and a portion offered of sgnult (yes, of Sgnult!) once a week, they were hungry!

“Yes, we are, Your Majesty, more hungry than hungry, Majesty, understand!”

It was then that these hands started to speak, or this mouth in these hands, each person shivered in hearing the very soft voice come round to the deep ear, as if made uniquely for each one.

“Yes, more hungry than hungry, immeasurably hungry, and however, it’s true, we lack nothing, neither food, nor drink, each person has the portion that he needs, even more than he needs, each person is sensitive to the socio-economic progress, so evident and needed, Great Sovereign-on-the-Balcony, and each person is unhappy.”

The shadow now occupied all the sky and this was the exact moment of evening when cascades of swallows suddenly grow quiet, leaving a great damp silence, a very strange and beautiful moment before the bats’ troubled flight starts.

“Why are we so unhappy, Majesty?” reprised the voice light and grave, “why are we so heavy and empty? so heavy from emptiness that the earth may soon capsize, so heavy that we will not be able to walk anymore, and even our looks will not serve us under melting eyelids, they are going within where nothing more pushes or passes. The women have brought their flasks, flasks full of the last air that remains for them, an air it is said made to purify the blood, to make it more shining, more alive than the sun. If you do nothing, they will open the flasks to the air and this will be the atrocious death that you will have caused. The men have brought forks, to resemble the Wicked in Pictures but they have no more strength, or enough that’s needed to kill, when one is already dead, an arrow planted in our back during the round that night on the ramparts. If you do nothing, what will they do?

“They all came here they saw you playing, because they believed that you think of us behind your office, that you invent plans for love, meetings of looks, naïve days, great balloons of youth climbing the sky, ah Majesty, I am afraid very afraid suddenly of You and of the Words which are in me, informed from my depths and already ready for an unbelievable shape, so pure and so just that it will ravage time and space, and the world will be totally shaved, totally bared and no person will live, but an other universe would somewhere begin. It may be, do you know such pride? Or is it the fear of becoming the tip of an arrow blackened in the blood of the donkey asphyxiated by his ribs and flies, because I forgot my flute and I needed your fingers, majesty, to play, to give back the mysterious sense, thirst, hunger, the burning at noon under the roof’s wisteria.”


Everyone looked at the queen, at least the one who stayed during the night, on the balcony, and each person thought this sovereign had been very moved to a great degree because a mass like her head had collapsed, had slipped toward the bottom of her body that almost rendered it tiny, really child-like. How to speak of the king who did not leave any trace, or was it this odor of powder that rose timidly from the ground and went away amidst the crowd then the sky?

The night was blue, silent and blue and immense.


When the little man woke up on the balcony, he clasped in his fingers a flute so beautiful and shining that he had the impression of holding a beating heart, or perhaps it was the beating of his heart that was the source, and so glittering, really so glittering this flute that it resembles some material from the night sky mislaid on earth, humbly illuminating its dawn. “It’s dawn,” he said to himself.

And he bent over the balcony, flute mixed with fingers, and he bent over almost to the point of falling to witness this day, to be the mute child who traverses the voice of the world.

Ann Cefola’s translation of Hélène Sanguinetti’s second book appears as Hence this cradle (Seismicity Editions, 2007). Ann is the author of Sugaring (Dancing Girl Press, 2007) and the forthcoming St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped (Kattywompus Press). She also received a 2007 Witter Bynner Poetry Translation Residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute and the 2001 Robert Penn Warren Award judged by John Ashbery.

Hélène Sanguinetti is the author of De la main gauche, exploratrice (Flammarion, 1999), D'ici, de ce berceau (Flammarion, 2003), Alparegho, Pareil-à-rien (L’Act Mem, 2005) and Le Héros (Flammarion, 2008). Her poetry also appears in 49 Poètes, un collectif (Flammarion, 2004), Du Pain, a collaboration with artist Anna Baranek (Espace Liberté, 2006) and L'Année Poétique 2005 (Seghers, 2006).