The dress and the ladder

I wanted to share a song that I’ve been preoccupied by a little. It’s a song by the French singer-songwriter Francis Cabrel and, when put prosaically, couldn’t be more French. An adult looks back at a formative sexual experience of his adolescence, when he – basically – looked up the dress of a girl who had climbed up a tree ahead of him. Put like that, it sounds prurient and a bit pervy. So far, so middle aged French singer-songwriter.

But it’s sheer poetry, which I’ve attempted to translate below, although translating poetry is always going to be a rewriting of sorts. I find it a goosepimple-inducing meditation on life’s most precious and beautiful moments, youth, the meaning of life, what one person can give another, the game of love and desire, and how both physical and visual sensuality is built incontrovertibly into the human experience.

T’avais mis ta robe légère
Moi, l’échelle contre un cerisier
T’as voulu monter la première
Et après

Y a tant de façons, de manières
De dire les choses sans parler
Et comme tu savais bien le faire
Tu l’as fait

Un sourire, une main tendue
Et par le jeu des transparences
Ces fruits dans les plis du tissu
Qui balancent

Il ne s’agissait pas de monter bien haut
Mais les pieds sur les premiers barreaux
J’ai senti glisser le manteau
De l’enfance

On n’a rien gravé dans le marbre
Mais j’avoue souvent y penser
Chaque fois que j’entends qu’un arbre
Est tombé

Un arbre, c’est vite fendu
Le bois, quelqu’un a dû le vendre
S’il savait le mal que j’ai eu
A descendre

D’ailleurs en suis-je descendu
De tous ces jeux de transparence,
Ces fruits dans les plis des tissus
Qui balancent ?

J’ai trouvé d’autres choses à faire
Et d’autres sourires à croiser
Mais une aussi belle lumière

A la vitesse où le temps passe
Le miracle est que rien n’efface l’essentiel
Tout s’envole en ombre légère
Tout sauf ce goût de fièvre et de miel

Tout s’est envolé dans l’espace
Le sourire, la robe, l’arbre et l’échelle
A la vitesse où le temps passe
Rien, rien n’efface l’essentiel

J’ai trouvé d’autres choses à faire
Et d’autres sourires à croiser
Mais une si belle lumière

Et voilà que, du sol où nous sommes,
Nous passons nos vies de mortels
A chercher ces portes qui donnent
Vers le ciel


You’d put on a light dress
I’d put a ladder against the cherry tree
You wanted to climb up first
And afterwards…

There are many ways
To say things without speaking
And, since you knew exactly how,
You did it.

A smile, an outstretched hand
And through the play of sheer fabric
Fruit swaying in the folds of material

I didn’t climb very high
But when I stepped onto the first rung
I felt the cloak of childhood
Slipping away.

We didn’t set anything in stone
But I admit, I often think about it
Every time I hear that a tree
Has fallen.

A tree is easily chopped down
Someone must have sold the wood.
If only they knew
How hard it was for me to climb down.

Did I ever really climb down?
From that play of sheer fabric
Those fruits that swayed in the folds of material.

I found other things to do
I met other smiles.
But never again
Such a beautiful light.

At the speed that time passes,
The miracle is, that nothing wipes away
That which is eternal.
Everything flies away in soft shadows
Everything except that taste of fever, and honey.

Everything has flown away into space
The smile, the dress, the tree and the ladder.
At the speed that time passes,
Nothing wipes away
That which is essential.

And, from the ground where we stand
We spend our mortal lives
Looking for doors
That open onto heaven.

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