From Slightly Moving Figures


Coming back in the fall with colors the names of trees the bushes
the perfumed calm of a familiar season around the house
still the same with its red roof long ago
how all that past so far away crowding
the heart and the countryside with words
how does it make the space a little bigger
like a shoe that’s too big with your heart in it?


Next to the spot where I work a little every day
the day can be a horse standing there white fences trees
little by little the seasons gets rid of colors finally
it’s more like a drawing
the air is colder it keeps on going the same way in fact
the horse will come back in the closed time the dying trees.
What’s embarrassing is not to remember what you’ve already said
in other poems for example last year
at the same time of year next door in short the trees
there again in it is true a slightly different fall
it’s been cold the colors have become more quickly like
paths I know in France although in a richer way
so all those poems repeating it’s a little like big chests of drawers piled up in an attic
from time to time they’re taken out and set up outside
in a New England field antique fair
it happens every fall it keeps on going.


Sometimes it rains it’s late you’d think that a poem
even if it wasn’t such a big deal the same slightly
vague phrases about fall with a red period
bright slightly like say a childish picture of a heart
just that well it feels a little better
even if the whole thing suddenly touches the silence the rain
that you hear outside in the night a dishpan rusting away.


from American Solitudes

to David and Nicole

A house like so many others,
Not exactly at the end of a street, which
Then continues in a semi-circle there it is almost touching
The slope all weeds and branches
Going down to a big stretch of water.
House like so many others, and not:
I’m there because the friends who live there have gone away
Got to feed the old cat, seventeen years old, she’s coming in
(Where she’d been to get the sun, against
A frail fence painted white):
Cross the lawn; the wooden steps of the back porch; slowness as she meows.
I put her food there in a plastic bowl now
I’ve got to take in the mail, I like
The silent spaces of the house. The sleeping books.
The sound of the heat or the water. It’s winter now
All the big trees outside are transparent, the sky cold and light.
Nothing. I have the feeling of being
(Because of the familiarity of the place, my pleasure in doing this job as if
It were my brother’s house or my parents’)
A French American without importance or any kind of problem;
The ordinariness of my gestures coincides
With the little bit of color (restful), and with time, which keeps going.


James Sacré was born in 1935 to a farm family near a tiny village in western France. “Since I was a peasant’s son and did well in school, the guidance counselor thought I’d make a good schoolteacher,” he once told me (in French, which he prefers to speak). But he turned away from that, turned to America, earned a Doctorate in French Literature at Boston College, and, above all, turned to poetry. He has published over seventy books of poetry with big trade houses and small art publishers, his poems have appeared in every major literary magazine in France and in major anthologies of French poetry. He has won two major literary prizes for poetry and three smaller ones. Three university colloquia have been devoted to his work. In 2001 he retired from the Doris Silber Chair in the Humanities at Smith College and turned back to France, where he lives in Montpellier with his American wife and dozens of objects turned by the hands or lathes of Native Americans in the Southwest.

I was playing with the word “turn” in that short bio, but it is precisely true that the poetry of James Sacré turns and turns constantly. Not one major turn, but constant slight ones, often turning back to a previous image before expanding or completing it in yet another turn. In 1978 he published Slightly Moving Figures (Figures qui bougent un peu) and that, or “Figures Turning Slightly,” could serve as a title for any one of his books. Often his poems turn from the landscape of his childhood to the scene in front of him to the act of writing to a reflection on the nature of poetry, from focus on the signifier to the signified or to the referent and back again. Just look at Slightly Moving Figures “6.” And note that The Fox is a Cunning Word (Le Renard est un mot qui ruse) is the title of one of his books. The turns in “A house like so many others” are less abstract. “House like so many others, and not” (my emphasis); then a turn to the cat and the sounds and sights of the empty house; then to “the feeling of being/ . . . A French American without importance or any kind of problem”—a disarming self-portrait of the poet—and finally the expansive turn that brings out the melancholy note behind this peaceful poem: “The ordinariness of my gestures coincides / With the little bit of color (restful), and with time, which keeps going.”



David Ball has published nine book-length translations from the French (four in collaboration with Nicole Ball); his Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology won the MLA’s prize for outstanding literary translation in 1994-95. His own poems have appeared in eight small chapbooks and many ephemeral journals. He is Professor Emeritus of French and Comparative Literature at Smith College. 

“6” is translated by David Ball from Figures qui bougent un peu (Gallimard, 1978). Published in The Massachusetts Review, XIX, 2, 1975. to David and Nicole

“A house like so many others” is translated by David Ball from “Où ça chez soi?” America Solitudes, André Dimanche éditeur, 2010.