Old age should burn and rave at close of day,” screamed Dylan Thomas, but he was only 37. W. B. Yeats’s “Old Pensioner” “spit into the face of Time/ That has transfigured me,” but Yeats was just 27. Shakespeare, dying at 52, knew better: his Lear and Prospero, in aging, grow not angry but gently wise. Lear would “play, and sing” and “take upon’s the mystery of things.” Prospero asks to “be relieved by prayer/ Which pierces so that it assaults/ Mercy itself.” In his own poems, Jean Mambrino, a French Jesuit poet soon to turn 83, stands firmly in Shakespeare’s tradition of gentle wisdom.
In his recent collection, Land of Evening, Mambrino never complains about old age but, like Shakespeare, offers its perspectives, its insights, its peace. “A Golden Beetle” evokes a boyhood memory:
Where are the glances of children preserved?
That of the little boy
marvelling at the splendid gift
(where did it come from?) of a golden beetle
to the eyes of an old man
“Crossing the Frontier” muses in hope:
You feel the quickening as your body fails.
Something quite other will be its splendid sweetness.
Behind your bodily eyes you will see its glory burning.
And in “Communion,” sundry creatures bid the old to attend to them and heed their “messages/ whose meaning I do not know”:
One must continually be on the watch, in the evening of life
for everything summons us.
Mambrino has given his life to poems, translations, essays and literary and theater criticism. Honored by L’Académie Française, in 2005 he received two lifetime-achievement awards, the Prix de Littérature Nathan Katz (for the body of his work) and the Prix du Cardinal Grente (for his poetry). Of Italian and Andalusian heritage (hence the name Mambrino), he was born in London, grew up in Paris, became a Jesuit in 1941, served in the French army in World War II, was ordained in 1954 and for 15 years taught literature and directed plays in Amiens and Metz. In 1968 he returned to Paris to work at the Jesuit monthly études, traveled throughout the world and wrote some 30 books. His 1980 translation of Gerard Manley Hopkins won the Prix du Meilleur Livre étranger.
In Land of Evening (London: Enitharmon, 2004), translated by the late Kathleen Raine, his friend and fellow poet, Mambrino muses on nature, stars, children, family and the interrelationship of just about everything. Even computers and television make an appearance, as does the mystery of love in “The Most Mysterious”:
...Two bodies mingle
with adorable precision. Delight
sinks voluptuously into the flesh of tenderness.
‘What I find most mysterious’
(she says) ‘is that the body of each
has its place in the body of the other. Leave
the future to God. Let us be thankful. All is well.’
Such tranquility epitomizes Mambrino’s tone. His is a rich, modernist art of image and implication, with gentle images, vivid yet never assertive: “an enormous dragon-fly is poised in profile,” “the impregnated earth smells of salt, star-dust, white horses,” a child cries “as he falls asleep/ at the other side of the earth,” a blue “scentless saladelle” grows in the Camargue. His style is likewise unassertive: the English translation uses a loose, unrhymed iambic pentameter.
Mambrino has a social conscience, too, especially concerning children, and his religious imagination is unusual. Avoiding saints and churches and liturgies, giving equal mention to Augustine and Héloise, he looks to “God,” “Love,” “an Other,” “the Unfathomable,” “a Source,” “time and eternity,” “the other side,” “Someone...sitting behind the lowered Venetian blinds.” Ahead is “the Crystal City/ where all tears will be wiped away. And the tenderness/ closed in picture books/ will reveal the childhood of eternity.”
In his 80’s, Jean Mambrino enjoys a serenity and a wisdom that the young Dylan Thomas and the young W. B. Yeats could hardly imagine. It is time, surely, for Americans and America to encounter Jean Mambrino, man of letters, man of God.
There have been so many nights on planet Earth
through the millennia, lit by the inhuman plains
of the moon, while the sons of Adam
in turn are muffled by sleep! On
one half of the world only dreams reign,
where souls move slowly, get up,
rousing their spiritual bodies to labour
of another kind. In that dense city of shadows,
shadows prepare their departure, which they forget
on waking. Millions of suns, in the depth of infinity,
light other worlds which do not know
(or perhaps they do) that we exist together,
kneaded up from the same light, from he same night.
In a little cemetery on the side of the mountain
A ray lights on a cross the name of a forgotten
child, today majestic in a different time,
to whom little by little are revealed the secrets
of all worlds, carried by the round of Love
‘that moves the sun and the other stars’.
Through the Stitches
A long poppy stalk wavers in the light shade of a lime-tree,
whose leaves are lit up at the lightest breath.
In the midst of the heavens that little flame takes its place as a sacred night-light.
A cackling jay scatters in the russet poplar the blue flash of its feathers,
to compare with that of the delphinium at its foot. The pale azure of evening
brings them together. Everything wants to be loved for itself alone, or simply to be noticed with pleasure.
It is good, too, to admire such things (as He does) through the stitches of the universe, without being seen.
All children do it, unnoticed by us. And the lizards in the crevices of the wall.