Poem of the Week

A Monstrous Ant and a Poem That Was Never Really Written

Surrealist Robert Desnos worked for the French anti-Nazi Résistance by forging papers – and writing poems to amuse frightened children

An ant that’s eighteen meters long / Wearing a hat upon its head / Doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist.
Ayala Tal

The Ant

Robert Desnos (1900-1945)

An ant that’s eighteen meters long
Wearing a hat upon its head
Doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist.
An ant that pulls along and tows
Penguins and ducks in a carriage load
Doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist.
An ant that speaks French, if you please,
An ant that speaks Latin and Javanese
Doesn’t exist, doesn’t exist.
Eh! And why not, indeed?

1944, from Chantefables et Chantefleurs

Translated from French by Vivian Eden

Behind Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, on a wall at the memorial to the 200,000 French deportees to Nazi death camps, visitors find lines once known as “The Last Poem” by surrealist poet Robert Desnos:

   I have dreamt so very much of you,
   I have walked so much,
   Loved your shadow so much,
   That nothing more is left to me of you.
   All that remains to me is to be the shadow among shadows
   To be a hundred times more of a shadow than the shadow
   To be the shadow that will come and come again into
   your sunny life.

Purportedly, the manuscript was found in the poet’s pocket following his death from typhoid, after the Red Army liberated Terezin. A newspaper obituary for the famous Parisian writer, whom someone on the nursing staff had recognized, included lines in Czech translated from a love poem Desnos had published back in 1930, which was – as literary scholars found – subsequently mistranslated back into French as the poem inscribed on the wall of the memorial President Charles de Gaulle inaugurated in 1962.

Robert Desnos.
Menerbes, Wikipedia

Thus, though Desnos never exactly wrote it, this text acquired an honored place in the Holocaust canon.

Desnos was, however, indeed a poet hero. In the Résistance, he specialized in forging identity papers. In testimony at the Paris memorial in 2013, Jacques F., who was a young boy from a non-practicing Jewish family in hiding during the occupation, recalled that Desnos, a family friend, would visit and amuse the child with stories and poems. After Liberation, Jacques encountered the last book Desnos had sent to his publisher before his deportation in 1944 for his activities in the Resistance – rhymes now known to every French child.

Many poems in the collection have double meanings, Jacques explained: “La Fourmi is a poem of the Résistance. Fourmies is a town in the north of France  where locomotives are manufactured. In railroad circles these locomotives were called "fourmies.” Such a locomotive pulling a train carriage, he said, is what Desnos meant by “an ant 18 meters long.”  He added: “When he talks about the people in the train who speak French, Javanese and all the other languages, it is now evident that these people are all the foreigners, all the Jews, who were taken away in these carriages.”

*Musing: Does the background to the poem in the Parisian memorial change its impact?

*Bonus: Juliette Greco sings La Fourmi

   La Fourmi

   Une fourmi de dix-huit mètres
   Avec un chapeau sur la tte,
   a n’existe pas, ça n’existe pas.
   Une fourmi tranant un char
   Plein de pingouins et de canards,
   a n’existe pas, ça n’existe pas.
   Une fourmi parlant français,
   Parlant latin et javanais,
   a n’existe pas, ça n’existe pas.
   Eh! Pourquoi pas?

Steam locomotive. Imagine this as a huge ant wearing a hat.
Wikipedia