Jacques Prévert
"Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau"

translated from the French by Jacqueline Michaud

"Pour faire le portrait d’un oiseau"

A Elsa Henriquez

Peindre d’abord une cage
avec une porte ouverte
peindre ensuite
quelque chose de joli
quelque chose de simple
quelque chose de beau
quelque chose d’utile
pour l’oiseau
placer ensuite la toile contre un arbre
dans un jardin
dans un bois
ou dans une forêt
se cacher derrière l’arbre
sans rien dire
sans bouger . . .
Parfois l’oiseau arrive vite
mais il peut aussi bien mettre de longues années
avant de se décider
Ne pas se décourager
attendre s’il le faut pendant des années
la vitesse ou la lenteur de l’arrivée de l’oiseau
n’ayant aucun rapport
avec la réussite du tableau
Quand l’oiseau arrive
s’il arrive
observer le plus profond silence
attendre que l’oiseau entre dans le cage
et quand il est entré
fermer doucement la porte avec le pinceau
effacer un à un tous les barreaux
en ayant soin de ne toucher aucune des plumes de l’oiseau
Faire ensuite le portrait de l’arbre
en choisissant la plus belle de ses branches
pour l’oiseau
peindre aussi le vert feuillage et la fraîcheur du vent
la poussière du soleil
et le bruit des bêtes de l’herbe dans la chaleur de l’été
et puis attendre que l’oiseau se décide à chanter
Si l’oiseau ne chante pas
c’est mauvais signe
Signe que le tableau est mauvais
mais s’il chante c’est bon signe
signe que vous pouvez signer

"To Paint a Bird's Portrait"

to Elsa Henriquez

Paint first a cage
with the door open
next paint
something pretty
something simple
something lovely
something of use
to the bird
then put the canvas near a tree
in a garden
in the woods
or in a forest
hide behind the tree
say nothing
don’t move…
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but it can just as well take many years
before deciding
Don’t be disheartened
wait years if need be
the pace of the bird’s arrival
bearing no relation
to the success of the painting
When the bird comes
if it comes
keep very still
wait for the bird to enter the cage
and once it has
gently shut the door with the brush
paint out the bars one by one
taking care not to touch any of the bird’s feathers
Next paint the tree’s portrait
choosing the loveliest of its branches
for the bird
paint likewise the green leaves and fresh breeze
the sun’s scintillation
and the clamor of crickets in the heat of summer
and then wait until the bird decides to sing
If the bird does not sing
that’s a bad sign
A sign the painting is no good
but if it sings that’s a good sign
a sign you can sign

• • •

Jacques Prévert (1900-1977) was a French poet whose poems are often about life in Paris after the Second World War. He also wrote several classic screenplays for film director Marcel Carné, the most famous of which, Les enfants du paradis (The Children of Paradise, 1945), is considered one of the greatest French films of all time.

Jacqueline Michaud’s poems have appeared in New England Review, New Laurel Review,Florida Review, and American Letters and Commentary, among others. Her recent work includes translations of Francophone poets, as well as a major collection of poems by Prévert.


LaChacel said...

The last three lines of the poem are missing:
-Alors vous arrachez tout doucement
-une des plumes de l'oiseau
-et vous écrivez votre nom dans un coin du tableau.

-Then you pull out very gently
-one of the bird’s feathers
-and you write down your name in a corner of the painting.

Anonymous said...

Can anyone tell me who Elsa Henriques is? I am doing a school project on this poem, analysis etc. so I thought if I found out who she was, it would give me another persepective to analyse this poem. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Elsa HENRIQUEZ is a painter who illustrated the cover of this poem

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Anonymous said...

Is there a Prevert poem about a bird arriving into a classroom while the children are being led by the teacher in reciting the times tables?

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Anonymous said...

"Is there a Prevert poem about a bird arriving into a classroom while the children are being led by the teacher in reciting the times tables?"

(who knows?)

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