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In Timbuktu with Jean Paul de Dadelsen

Two thousand and eleven, when palm trees without number
Rustled, shading tomatoes and cucumbers
All around Timbuktu,
And mental trees, planted by the town council,
Offered orchards to every studious sibyl
And to sleepers too!

This is the opening stanza of “The Orchards of Timbuktu” by Jean-Paul de Dadelsen, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker. In the preface to That Light, All at Once, a new collection of Dadelsen’s poetry, Ms. Hacker describes the body of work as marked by “hybrid energy, breadth of imagination, and audacity.” In “The Orchards of Timbuktu,” one experiences this breadth of imagination in stanzas that seem to bubble up from the poet’s dream world. These verses introduce the reader to Dadelsen’s poetic landscape of wit and wonder where “mental trees, planted by the town council” offer us a figurative realm that is not an escape from the world, but, perhaps, an intensification of our own. In this playful world of the mind, ideas and thoughts become features of the outer landscape. Exterior and interior fuse, the colloquial and magical intermingle, and everything seems possible. 

In the middle of the poem, Dadelsen writes, 

Sleeper,
I will keep the spirits of the futile dead far from you,
And the thoughts of distracted travelers, the desires
Of old men afflicted with mental incontinence.
Sleeper, come
And join me under the meeting tree.
I will carry you on the green wave of my breath.
I will unbind you in the yellow light of my rest.
Tomorrow you will awaken 
Content.

Dadelsen summons us directly into his poem with the promise of rest and freedom. We are carried “on the green wave” of the poet’s breath to a “tomorrow” in which one may be content. The audacity of this poem is its challenge to join the poet under the “meeting tree,” to leave the world of the everyday and journey to the imaginative realm of Timbuktu. Yet, the promise of contentment, as in much of Dadelson’s poetry, is always tentative. His poetry does not attempt to ease as much as it aspires to unsettle. We end the poem not “under the meeting tree” but where all poets sit: “under the melancholy tree.” 

With playful humor, Dadelsen frames the poet as an old professor with the power to heal us from our constrained, narrow ways of thinking and living. The poet, having paid his dues, journeys alone “beyond the boundaries” with no sustenance or guidance to the “melancholy tree.” While this final line suggests the emotional burden of a poetic sensibility (for it diminishes / The power to be indifferent to tomorrow), the poet also finds a place beyond the parameters of convention and “acceptable” modes of perception. The poet is not a “sleeper” even though he exists in a place the crowd might call a dream. “Beyond the boundaries,” in the realm of imaginative possibility, the poet is free. 


The Orchards of Timbuktu

Explanatory Note

Two thousand and eleven, when palm trees without number
Rustled, shading tomatoes and cucumbers
All around Timbuktu,
And mental trees, planted by the town council,
Offered orchards to every studious sibyl
And to sleepers too!

I emerged from my sleeping body,
I was standing under the dream tree
Near the memory tank.
The watchman reminded me that it wasn’t
Fishing season, and that reveries had to
Ripen.

Handsome tree I planted, answer tree,
I’ve often watched a witty breeze
Flutter your doubled leaves that resemble
The dark and light leaves of the aspen.

It’s unwise to stay out too long at night
Letting down your sensitive hair under the word-tree.
You learn too many things. In the long run it diminishes
The power to be indifferent to tomorrow.

Sleeper,
I will keep the spirits of the futile dead far from you,
And the thoughts of distracted travelers, the desires
Of old men afflicted with mental incontinence.
Sleeper, come
And join me under the meeting tree.
I will carry you on the green wave of my breath.
I will unbind you in the yellow light of my rest.
Tomorrow you will awaken
Content.

Small souls love the tree of lies,
Small souls go to it to dry their small tears.
With small excitements small souls postpone
The growing season.

Past thirty, don’t plant any more mirror trees,
Past forty, prune back the fame tree,
Past fifty, water the tree of silence,
So that one morning, when you come to the orchard,
The flowers of tranquillity will rain down on you.

I waited for you under the fidelity tree,
I hoped for you under the memory tree.
Forgive me. I was stupid. O sweet, O wise one, I will
Find you again under the tree of sleep.

Somnus the ill-named, who escaped from sleep,
Despite the mental traffic code and without provisions,
Was walking his unduly plaintive soul
Under the poem tree.
He was brought back with a firm hand, it was high time:
During his absence his somnoactive pen had
Inscribed on the electronic songwriter the program of
An ode which had instantly driven up
The graph of passionate vagrancy,
The curve of oscillating irresponsibility,
The statistics of illicit prophecy.
His fine: eight days of obligatory sleep.

Poetic leave will be granted
By special dispensation of the college of the ancients
To every poet having cured seven cases of mental deafness.
The poet, then, having almost exhausted his capital,
Will go alone beyond the boundaries, with no food, no guide
To sit under the melancholy tree.

From That Light, All At Once by Jean-Paul de Dadelsen. Originally published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.


Jean-Paul de Dadelsen (1913–1957) was a journalist, soldier, teacher, and civil servant. He joined de Gaulle’s Free French Army in London during World War II. Marilyn Hacker is an American poet, critic, and translator.


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