Friday, July 26, 2013

Set Me Back in Your Sky, Poems from The Creatures' Choir and Prayers from the Ark

...pour m’incruster de nouveau dans Votre ciel?

from The Prayer of the Sea Star

an angel
could root me up
from the bottom of the sea
and set me back
in Your sky.
Oh! One day
could that be?


from Prière de L’Étoile de Mer

un ange
ne m’arrachera-t-il pas
du fond des mers
pour m’incruster de nouveau
dans Votre ciel?
Ah! qu’un jour,
                              ainsi soit-il!

Photograph of the sea star from


You may be familiar with Carmen Bernos de Gasztold's volume of poetry Prayers from the Ark, which were written during the war in German-occupied France. Now I want to introduce you to a companion volume, entitled The Creatures' Choir, that she penned while she was living at a Benedictine Abbaye. 

In the Forward to The Creatures' Choir, Rumer Godden said, "Again and again Carmen de Gasztold shows that, in a few lines, she can catch the essence, the être of a creature, and without sentimentality..."

Some of the poems in Prayers from the Ark were published as early as 1947.  Thirteen years later, in 1960, the French edition of The Creatures' Choir was printed. The poetry in this companion volume flow easily from the first---the same bestial charm, the same insight into human weakness, the same reverence for the Creator, and, above all, the same desire to be reconciled to God.  


Merci de m’avoir créée pour ne faire peur à personne. 

from The Ladybird

Dear God,
I belong to Our Lady, Your Mother.
That isn’t hard to believe;
It’s written in my name.

Thank You for having made me
so that no one is afraid of me:

from Prière de la Bête a Bon Dieu

Mon Dieu je Vous appartiens!
Ce n’est pas difficile à croire,
c’est écrit dans mon nom.

Merci de m’avoir créée
pour ne faire peur à personne.

The name of the little critter that we call "ladybug" in French is called "la Bête a Bon Dieu", which could be rendered in English as "the Beast of the Kind Lord". This name has reference to a medieval legend about a good king--a medieval lord--who released a condemned prisoner because of his kindness in saving a small beetle as he was brought to the executioner's block. 

This little beetle, our "ladybug", is called "ladybird" in England, and these names also have medieval derivation. The "lady" is Our Lady, or the Mother of Christ.  Ladybirds are commonly red with seven black spots, and in medieval art Mary is often shown in a red cloak, a royal color, and the seven spots were seen as a reminder of the "seven joys" of Mary--from the old carol and legends. 

A more literal rendering of the French version of this poem would open with "My Lord, I belong to You...because it is written in my name", which takes the "Dieu" in the creature's name and relates it to God.  In the English translation Rumer Godden changes the focus of the poem slightly to honor Mary, "Our Lady, Your Mother."  This is wonderfully apropos because of the association that Carmen Bernos had with the Catholic Order of the abbaye where she lived and wrote. 

Photograph of ladybird with child from


Je les garderais bien sous mes ailes
(I should like to keep them always under my wings)

from The Mother Hen

Oh!  What a worrit!
All these chicks
to cherish and protect—
can’t shut an eye
even for a moment!
That one strays too far,
those two big ones quarrel,
and this tiny one isn’t strong.
I should like to keep them always under my wings,
but they must learn how to live.

my heart is so choked
with loving care,
how can I say



In the Forward to The Creatures' Choir, Rumer Godden also said, "I am aware that I have not captured the poems in their original worth.  There is an elusiveness, too, about these voices that led the poet to write the fleeting small poem at the end of this book.  Yet, elusive or not, I feel Carmen de Gasztold has been able to find for each beast its authentic voice..."

Little song,
where is your heart?
In passing 
you throw me a quick word
and escape on the wind.
I wish I could catch you 
by the tip of a wing ...

Carmen Bernos de Gasztold

Carmen Bernos de Gasztold was born in Arcachon, France, and spent a large part of her childhood at the Jesuit College of Sainte Marie at Neuilly. After the war she became ill and went to the Benedictine Abbaye of Saint Louis du Temple at Igny, and there, with the help and encouragement of the nuns, she regained her strength. She worked in the Abbabye library and as a fitter on the stained-glass windows, and wrote her wonderful poetry.

Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Louis-du-Temple

Rumer Godden was the best-selling author of An Episode of Sparrows, In This House of Brede, and Black Narcissus, as well as the children's titles The Story of Holly and Ivy and Listen to the Nightingale. She was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1993. She lived in Scotland, in Moniaive, and died there in 1998 at the age of ninety-one.


Cover for Viking edition 1965

The Creatures’ Choir
by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold.
Translated by Rumer Godden.
1965, The Viking Press, New York.

First published in France under the title: Choral de Bêtes
1960 and 1965, Editions du Cloitre

A French edition

Penguin paperback dual edition 1976

This is a perfect edition of the poems: both books in one paperback volume

The British edition

About Prayers from the Ark
by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold
Translated by Rumer Godden

1962, The Viking Press, New York.

First published in France under the titles, 
Les Mieux Aimé, and Prières dans L’Arche, 
1947 and 1955 by Èditions du Cloître, Paris, France.  

Permission to quote excerpts from the Penguin edition of Prayers from the Ark was denied

Excerpts from the French edition---

from  Prière de Noé  (Noah)

Le temps est long.
menez Votre arche à la certitude,
au sommet du repos,
et que l'on en sorte enfin
de cette servitude animale!
Le temps est long.
conduisez-moi jusqu'au rivage de Votre alliance.
                                                                Ainsi soit-il!

 from Prière de la Tortue  (Tortoise)

Un peu de patience,
mon Dieu,

 from Prière de L'Abeille  (Honeybee)

Que ma petite parcelle d’ardente vie
se fonde dans la grande activité communautaire

pour que s'élève à Votre gloire
ce temple de douceur...

Follow this link to hear some of the prayers in their original language:
Prayers from the Ark in French                                                                                      

Prières dans L’Arche, 1955 by Èditions du Cloître, Paris, France  

The Viking Press, New York, 1962

Paperback edition, Penguin Books, New York, 1976
(reprint: 1982) This edition may still be available

Paperback edition, Penguin Books, New York, 1976

Picture book edition, Viking Penguin,
New York, 1992

I believe that this newest Viking edition, with illustrations by Barry Moser, is still in print, but it has only a selection of the poems. 

To purchase copies of the French editions apply to:

Éditions du Cloitre
13490 Jouques
C.C.P. Paris 12 175-18 V

A good source for out-of-print books online is Better World Books

No comments:

Post a Comment