Robert Desnos’s “The Night of Loveless Nights” was originally published in 1930. The poem was first published in English in 1973, in a translation by the poet Lewis Warsh in issue #10 of the little magazine The Ant’s Forefoot. A beautiful, angry, raw poem from one of the greatest Surrealist poets, the piece has sadly been out of print for decades. Winter Editions’ publication of The Night of Loveless Nights now brings this foundational poetic work, and Warsh’s masterful translation, back into print. Air/Light is thrilled and honored to present excerpts.
Robert Desnos (1900–1945) was introduced to Paris Dada and André Breton through poet Benjamin Péret in 1919, and became an active member of the Surrealist group, known in particular for automatic writing. Desnos’s circle included leaders of the literary vanguard Louis Aragon and Paul Éluard, as well as Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Antonin Artaud, and John Dos Passos. He was arrested by the Gestapo in late February 1944, deported to Auschwitz, then Buchenwald, and finally to Terezín where he died of typhoid.
Lewis Warsh (1944–2020) was a writer, editor, publisher, educator, visual artist, and the author of over thirty volumes of poetry, fiction, and autobiography. He was co-founder, with Bernadette Mayer, of United Artists Magazine and Books; and with Anne Waldman, of Angel Hair Books and Magazine. A lifelong teacher, he was founding director of Long Island University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing (2007–2013). His posthumous collection of poetry, Elixir, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2022.
from Night of Loveless Nights by Robert Desnos
There are terrible hands Hand black from the ink of a sad schoolboy Hand red on the wall of the room of crime Hand pale as death Hands which hold a knife or a revolver Hands opened Hands closed Wretched hands grasping a pen holder O my hand you too you too My hand with your lines and yet if it is so Why do you stain your mysterious lines Why? more handcuffs more mutilation more more Write write for it is a letter that you write to her & this impure way is a way of touching her Hands that stretch hands that soften Is there a sincere hand among them Ah I no longer dare to shake hands Lying hands loose hands hands that I mangle Hands clasped in the prayer of one who trembles when I look him in the eye Is there still a hand I am able to shake with confidence Hands on the lover’s mouth Hands on the heart without love Hands cut by false love Hands founded on love Hands closed to love Hands dead to love Hands straining for love Hands rising for love Hands held for love Hands high on love Hands tender towards love Hands open with love Hands happy from love Horrible hands stained for love only Hands tied by eternal love Hands washed by loves’ relentless waves Hand to hand it is love which prowls Hands full again for love Hands armed it is true love Hands of the master hands of the lover Hands warm from love Hands open to love Hand of justice hand of love Hand strong from love!
Wild dog rose withers among grass sheds O yellow leaves All crackle in this room Like grass snapping underfoot in a dark alley. Great invisible wings immobilize my arms and the echoing of a distant sea reaches me. The light rolls until the edge of dawn froths and dawn does not appear Nothing appears. Ground glass, decaying woodwork, endless dreams, withering flowers A totally white hand rises through the shadows of my forehead And I will listen to the improbable day To fly and knock myself against the walls and the furniture, a bird of paradise, a bird which I have inadvertently locked away Only closing my eyes. If ever dawn to great cries turns the bathing houses blue The dawn, soap soaked in the water of black rivers, Dawn will not sparkle on this gray night Nor on the trembling fingers nor on the empty glasses. It is the night without frontier and fir trees Who grinds at the chain of the anchor at the port Night of nights without love strangled from the dream Night of blood night of fire night of war without truce Night of a lost path among the stairs And of the feet falling too heavily onto the landing Night of luxury night of the fall into the abyss Night of the chains ringing in the room of the criminals Night of naked ghosts gliding in the beds Night of waking when the sleepers are weak. To feel the blood pass into their thin chests And to shower their teeth with the spittle of the heart In the shadow they caress a hairy vampire And are unable to distinguish of the greedy monster Is not their own heart thrashing in their soiled sides. Night of indistinct echoes and wet charcoal Night of fires sparkling in the mirrors Night of the blind looking for some sous in the drawers Night of nights without love, where the bedsheets slip away, Where the police whistle on the boulevards O night! cruel night where the rustling of the robes Where the whispering of the voices at the bedside of the sick, Night closed forever by a steel bolt Night O lonely night without star or anchor! In your eyes, in your heart and in the sky also I see suddenly the stars of the impressive universe, The crack growing narrow and luminous As if some wild animal with sluggish claws Had embraced the night and mangled it (But the gleam will be pale and the tide slow) From nerves running in the fragile crystal Cracks miming the agile grass snakes Who run and become one with the light Pale from a strange dawn. Thus when The tired player turns the symbolic cards To see the cruel morning light from the porches Many a thought and many a desire almost forgotten Many a withered fan falls on the landings.