Article - Winter 2023

Foreign Af fairs

The many lives and loves of the mysterious Saint-John Perse

By Rosanna Warren | December 29, 2022
In December 1960, Saint-John Perse departed for Sweden, where he would accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Keystone Press/Alamy)
In December 1960, Saint-John Perse departed for Sweden, where he would accept the Nobel Prize in Literature. (Keystone Press/Alamy)

From early childhood, I used to haunt my parents’ bookshelves, leafing through “grown-up” works that I couldn’t yet understand. By the time I was 15 or so and could read French, I was particularly drawn to the bookcase that held my mother’s French and Italian editions. It was up in what we called the gallery: the old hayloft of the Connecticut barn that my parents—Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren—had converted into our family home. The gallery served partly as a guest room, partly as storage space. One afternoon, we were both up there, my mother and I; she was folding sweaters and tucking them away in a bureau drawer, and I was, as usual, examining her books. It was then that I started pulling several musty volumes off the shelves, all of them by the French poet Saint-John Perse.

I had been puzzled before to find so many of Saint-John Perse’s books in my mother’s collection. In my adolescent bluestocking fashion, I had a vague sense of his being Important. I must have known that he had received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1960, and I myself owned, I’m not sure why, the ultramarine paperback of his Anabase, translated by T. S. Eliot (also Important)—I’d even read some of it, awed and not a little mystified by its oracular largesse. Now I began examining the other works, most of them frayed, tattered, yellowing: a journal called Lettres Françaises, published in Buenos Aires in 1943; the Quatre Poèmes (1941–1944), also published in Buenos Aires; a second paperback copy of Anabase, published by Brentano’s in New York in 1945; and a copy of Exil suivi de Poème à l’Étrangère, Pluies, Neiges, but this one, ah, published by Gallimard in Paris in 1945. And there were other relics: slim booklets of individual poems in French and English; the poet’s Nobel Prize lecture, translated by W. H. Auden (1961); copies of the Nouvelle Revue Française from 1953, with his long poem “Amers”; and a majestic hardcover tome in English—Winds, translated by Hugh Chisholm and published by Pantheon for the Bollingen series in 1953.

I weighed in my hand the hefty edition of Perse’s Collected Poems (Princeton, 1971) and the Gallimard paperback of his Oeuvres poétiques, volume one, from 1953. But it was the older books that attracted me. I hadn’t looked closely at them before. And now, turning their pages, I discovered something strange. That 1943 issue of Lettres Françaises, which included Perse’s poem “Pluies” (“Rains”), was inscribed in large, armorial handwriting in blue-black ink, “Pour Jennifer,” from “Diego, Washington, D.C.” The P towered like a palm tree above the line; the J and the f  plunged down like fishing spears. The copy of Exil from 1945 was sumptuously inscribed in the same calligraphy, “À Jennifer, Être de très grand luxe, et qui a droit à tout, même à la rime: ‘Juniper’, St. J. P. Washington, 1946, 3120 R Street.” (For Jennifer, a Being of great luxury who deserves everything, even a rhyme: Juniper). Just inside the cover, the same hand had written, “Édition interdite par l’auteur– 1946” (“Edition prohibited by the author”). Anabase was offered “À Jennifer, Duchesse de Shepang, St.-J. Perse, Washington 1945.” And in a 1945 translation of Perse’s “Neiges” (“Snows”), Perse had written this mysterious message with his same arborescent flourish: “Pour Jennifer, en souvenir d’un fer à cheval et d’un papillon mécanique” (For Jennifer, in memory of a horseshoe and a mechanical butterfly).

My mother, across the room, was scattering mothballs in the bureau drawer. She wore her usual faded jeans and man’s work shirt. “Ma,” I said. “Who is Jennifer?”

“What?” she replied, turning to me in surprise.

“This Jennifer. All these books inscribed to her. Who is she?”

The oddest look crossed my mother’s face. She stood for a moment, contemplating me. A ghost of a smile hovered on her lips, then vanished. Very quietly, she said, “I am Jennifer.”

I was thunderstruck. In my childish egotism, it hadn’t seriously occurred to me that my parents had lived as adults before they became my parents. And now my mother, whose only role in life, as far as I was concerned, was to take care of me and my brother, Gabriel, and our cats and dogs (and yes, to write books—that was part of the deal), had suddenly turned into a different person, someone with a different story, and even a different name.

I was sitting on the creaky wooden floorboards; she was standing by the bureau. We stared at each other. Then I scrambled to my feet, and she came over to me. I think now that she was considering how much to tell me, if I was old enough to hear. She was, in any case, a discreet person, with a severe, queenly beauty, then in her mid-50s, never wearing makeup, her light hair brushed back from her face. We sat together on the guest bed, and she began to tell the story, mother to daughter, of her affair with Saint-John Perse, the French poet exiled to Washington, D.C., during World War II.

In the first place, she said, his name wasn’t Saint-John Perse. It was Alexis Leger. “I have always practiced a strict doubling of personality,” I would read, years later, in one of his published letters. Indeed he did. Leger wrote poetry under the invented name of Saint-John Perse. He was also a highly placed diplomat, my mother told me, so highly placed that he was third on the Nazis’ list of people to capture when they marched into Paris in June 1940. He escaped on a ship to England, then to the United States. In 1943, he met my mother in Washington, where she was a young writer and translator working for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), for what was called “the war effort.”

I worked it out later: she was 30 in 1943, and he was 56.

“Did you love him?” I asked. Again, that fleeting smile. She had translated some of his poems, she said. And why did he call her “Jennifer”? “It was a game.” Another nonanswer. As if to explain, she said that he told her he couldn’t marry her “because he had to marry a rich American wife”—the Vichy government had stripped him of his French citizenship and confiscated his assets. Their affair remained secret.

This seemed bizarre to me, at age 15. Her tone was serene, matter-of-fact. I heard no regret, no old sorrow. The romance, for her, lay closed in the past, between the fragile pages of old books and journals.

And then I remembered an earlier afternoon. When I was 12 and my brother 10, we lived for a year and a half in the South of France in an old manorial farmhouse outside Grasse. There Gabriel attended a Catholic boys’ school, and I went to the lycée de jeunes filles. During those summers, our family settled into an honorably shabby stucco hotel—an old hospital for tuberculosis patients—on the island of Port Cros in the Mediterranean. Off the coast of Hyères and Le Lavandou, the island was small, wooded, and quite wild—it had been declared a nature reserve, and as we roamed among the twisted pines and cork trees, we sometimes found entomologists crouching in fierce concentration to examine rare bugs. It was nothing like the rampaging Côte D’Azur, with its discothèques and swarming beaches.

In this paradisal retreat, our parents kept their regular routine: writing every day from nine until two, our father at a metal table under a fig tree, our mother in a donkey shed, leaving my brother and me to wander in the woods and along the shore, to read and draw, to invent games, and to play with the French children also staying at the hotel. Lunch—that gloriously long, lazy, serious French meal—was served under eucalyptus trees and palms on a terrace overlooking the harbor. But one day, our parents announced that we would be going to the mainland. My mother, who rarely dressed up, donned a light linen dress; my father made himself respectable in his summer trousers and even went so far as to put on a sand-colored sport coat. And off we went, walking the dusty path to the port to meet the passenger boat that chugged to the mainland and back several times a day.

It took about an hour, smacking through choppy waves, to reach Le Lavandou. There we piled into our car and drove along the coast, our parents informed us, to visit le grand poète Saint-John Perse. We were to behave ourselves, our mother said sternly, “like French children, bien élevés.”

This visit now surged back into my mind as I sat with my mother on the guest bed in our house in Connecticut. I remembered the large, formal villa where Monsieur and Madame Leger—I think that’s how they were introduced—received us. It was all very august. Their house perched on a low cliff surrounded by the twinkling, emerald sea, out on the peninsula of Giens.

Monsieur Leger, le grand poète Saint-John Perse, stood erect, with piercing eyes, a high forehead, and not much hair. He and his decorous wife—American, we discovered—seemed agelessly old, in that category my brother and I used to joke about: les grandes personnes, the adults, or, translated literally, the Big Nobodies. They showed us the house. On the walls hung many prints and paintings of sailing ships, sailboats, the sea. My brother, already mad about sailing, pointed out that in one painting the sail was set at the wrong angle for the way the wind was supposed to be blowing. “What do you mean?” demanded Monsieur Leger. Gabriel explained, and the two examined the painting more closely; le grand poète pursed his lips and, a little grimly, agreed.

Lunch was a long affair, at the long dining room table. An endless array of courses appeared. The grownups discoursed in their grownup way in French and English, and my brother and I, following instructions, stayed quiet and remembered not to put our hands in our laps. We paid little attention to the conversation. But at one point, Monsieur Leger interrogated us about our studies in Grasse. My most vivid recollection of Saint-John Perse is his breaking into laughter when I repeated to him the algebra lesson I’d had to memorize and recite to the class: “A fraction is a number / composed of two numbers / separated by a horizontal line.” And he laughed even more when I described to him the objet de fantaisie we had to make in art class, a pincushion we assembled according to strict rules, gluing a styrofoam hat, pink checked fabric, and a strip of lace on a plastic cup.

The afternoon concluded with a swim off the rocks, lavish, courteous farewells, and our drive back to Le Lavandou to catch the boat.

All this came back to me as I sat with my mother. What did my father feel about that lunch? What did the American wife, Madame Leger, feel about it? (Was she “the rich wife” Saint-John Perse had intended to find?) What did my mother and Perse feel about it? I didn’t ask her.

Among the many photographs Walker Evans took of Eleanor Clark is this one from around 1946, with the writer on the rooftop of a New York City apartment building. (© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

I left my parents’ house, as children do. Years passed: a long marriage, children, teaching jobs, a divorce. My father died in 1989, my mother seven years later, and when my brother and I had to sell the old family house, I took my mother’s French and Italian books, carrying them with me from one house to another, one city to another. And always, the story of her affair with Saint-John Perse lived in a corner of my memory, until this year, when finding myself not only a grande personne but also an elder, I decided to learn more about it. I looked in the Pléiade edition of the Oeuvres complètes of Saint-John Perse, and in the “Biographie” that opens the book, under “1967,” I found a description of our lunch:

Le poète et romancier américain Robert Penn Warren accompagné de sa femme, l’essayiste et critique américain Eleanor Clark, traductrice en anglais d’un poème d’Éloges.

Who was Saint-John Perse/Alexis Leger? There turns out to be no easy answer to that question. The “Biographie” he composed for his complete works is larded with half-truths and downright fabrications. The four books about him I’ve read might as well be about four different people, except that this fact tells us something about a man who lived so plurally, so secretively.

The biographers can’t even agree on the place where Perse/Leger was born, let alone on his name. The first book I read, Saint-John Perse by René Galand, was published in 1972, while Perse was still alive (he would die three years later), and obediently follows the line the poet laid out in his Pléiade. So does Erika Ostrov-sky’s Under the Sign of Ambiguity: Saint-John Perse/Alexis Leger, published in 1985. At least the date of his birth seems uncontroversial: May 31, 1887. Galand and Ostrovsky have Perse/Leger being born on the tiny, supposedly ancestral island of Saint-Leger-les-Feuilles, off the coast of Pointe-à-Pitre, a port town in Guadeloupe. The third biographer, Renaud Meltz, takes a prosecutorial tone even in the title of his 2008 book, Alexis Léger dit Saint-John Perse (Alexis Léger, Known as Saint-John Perse). Meltz is more interested in the diplomat than in the poet, but he accuses both of overweening ambition and opportunism. Meltz relentlessly catalogs Leger’s embellishments, not only in the Pléiade biographical sketch but also in a panoply of other documents and interviews. From Meltz we learn that “Alexis-Marie-René-Auguste Léger” was born not on the island of Saint-Léger-les-Feuilles but in prosaic Point-à-Pitre; the family surname, moreover, wasn’t the exalted Saint-Leger Leger, as claimed in the Pléiade, but simply “Léger.” (Meltz oddly insists on an anomalous accent aigu on Leger.) He demolishes Leger/Perse’s fantastical genealogy, which had located aristocratic ancestors on both the maternal and the paternal sides in the Antilles of the 17th and 18th centuries. Not one of these people was a “noble”; they were notaries, shopkeepers, a sea captain. And the first to immigrate to Guadeloupe arrived in 1750, the others considerably later.

Meltz’s dislike of his subject, whom he calls by his first name, Alexis, with an edge of disrespect, seems to grow with each turn of the page. Henriette Levillain, in Saint-John Perse (2013), takes a different tack. She gives even more detail about Perse/Leger’s genealogical fabulations, but she’s writing about the poet, not the diplomat, and she’s willing to let a poet who dwells in the realm of the imagination invent himself. “Who still knows the place of his birth?” cries the speaker in Perse’s 1942 poem “Exil.” He was born as a poet, Levillain suggests, when at the age of 17 he signed his poem “Images à Crusoé” with his first made-up name, Saintleger Leger, a pseudonym he would use for his poetry until the publication in 1924 of his startlingly original and visionary lyric-epic Anabase. That’s when he settled on Saint-John Perse.

Tracking down Perse/Leger is no easy task, since he revised and redated a lot of the letters printed in the Pléiade: his whole life appears to be a massive act of creative writing. I’ve sifted through books about him, some hostile, some sympathetic. I’ve read Lettres à l’Étrangère, his letters to his great love, Rosalía (Lilita) Abreu, a trove found and published after her death and his. I’ve read the published journal of his patron and friend in Washington, D.C., Katherine Biddle. I’ve pondered his inscriptions to my mother. I’ve swum in the great sea of his poems.

He disguised himself in that poem as l’Étranger, the Stranger, a persona he would present to lovers for years to come.

The brute facts, determined by the birth certificate cited by Levillain: Marie René Alexis Leger was born in Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, in 1887. His father was a lawyer, and his relatives on his mother’s side owned two small plantations, one for coffee and one for sugar, so they belonged to the “white Creole” caste of the colonial bourgeoisie and were anxious about “race” and “purity,” words that recur obsessively in Perse’s poetry. In 1899, because the plantation economy was failing, the father moved his wife, his mother, his three daughters, and Alexis to the town of Pau in the French Pyrenees—a shocking change of climate and culture. Alexis finished the lycée there and enrolled in law school in Bordeaux. His father’s death in 1907 left Alexis to care for his mother and sisters and to manage the tattered family finances. He meandered for several years through the university, finally earning his law degree, in the meantime making friends with the elder poet Francis Jammes and, through Jammes, with the poet-diplomat Paul Claudel. In 1910, the Nouvelle Revue Française published his lush, dithyrambic hymn to his boyhood in Guadeloupe, “Pour fêter une enfance,” its cadences and vision owing a good deal to Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations and something to Claudel’s Cinq grandes odes: “Palms! so / a sea more believing and haunted by invisible departures …” Perse would always be a poet of departures. The following year, the Nouvelle Revue Française (the publishing house, not the magazine) brought out his first book, Éloges. He was taken up by André Gide, Paul Valéry, and their crowd, but he had to make a living and support his mother and sisters, and in Paris he met Philippe Berthelot, a powerful official in the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign office.

So began the double life. Saintleger Leger published his dreamlike, sensuous, and sometimes violent poems; Alexis Leger passed the arduous exam for the foreign service in 1914 and began a dazzling diplomatic career under Berthelot’s tutelage. When world war broke out, he was exempted from military service as the sole supporter of a family. He frequented fancy salons and became famous as a tombeur de femmes, a lady-killer, known for his mesmerizing eyes and tales of the islands. From 1916 to 1921, he served in the French legation in Peking; had innumerable adventures, including a love affair with a Chinese general’s wife; rode horseback in the desert; acquitted himself honorably as a diplomat through the convulsions of China’s nascent Republic, a coup d’état, and a plague; and wrote Anabase, which would, much later, impress the Nobel Prize committee. He disguised himself in that poem as l’Étranger, the Stranger, a persona he would present to lovers for years to come.

Upon his return to France in 1921, Leger rose through the hierarchy of the Quai d’Orsay to become one of the most powerful men in the country, first the chief of staff to Prime Minister Aristide Briand and eventually the secretary general of the Quai d’Orsay and a plenipotentiary ambassador. In 1925, he helped Briand craft the Locarno Conference in Switzerland, at which France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, and Italy signed agreements to prevent another European war—a promise that depended, alas, on the goodwill of the signers. Through various administrations, Leger pursued Briand’s ideal of peace, even as he argued for rearming France—just in case. Along with Prime Minister Édouard Daladier, he represented France at the infamous Munich conference in September 1938, where he got into an argument with Hitler over the dismembering of Czechoslovakia. As secretary general, he continued to run the Quai d’Orsay right up until May 1940, when the new prime minister, Paul Reynaud, fired him for quite extraneous reasons having to do with Reynaud’s jealous mistress. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, 1940. On June 17, Leger fled to England on a ship. He stayed there for a few weeks, saw Churchill, agreed to use his contacts in Washington in a nonofficial capacity to persuade Franklin Roosevelt to enter the war, and arrived in New York City on a British ship after a dangerous crossing, dodging submarines, on Bastille Day, July 14, 1940.

The charming Frenchman my mother met in Washington in 1943 was a stateless exile. The Vichy government had revoked his French citizenship, expelled him from the Légion d’honneur, and confiscated his property, while the Gestapo ransacked his apartment in Paris (though a friend eventually negotiated the reinstatement of his ambassador’s pension to support his mother and unmarried sister). In his first months in New York, and then in Washington, he would have no contact with the Vichy representatives; neither did he consort with the Gaullist factions, since he feared the autocratic ambitions of Charles de Gaulle, then leading the Resistance from abroad. A circle of wealthy American Francophiles supported him. The remarkable Beatrice Chanler, a former actress he had known in Paris, now took him under her wing and invited him to spend summers on her island in Maine. He met Katherine Biddle and her husband, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle (later the principal American judge at the Nuremberg Trials), who became his main friends and supporters. At their suggestion, the poet Archibald MacLeish, director of the Library of Congress and already an admirer of Perse’s, arranged his appointment as a consultant in French literature at the library. MacLeish waved his magic wand, and literary friendships with Allen Tate, Denis Devlin (an Irish poet-diplomat who would begin translating Perse’s work), and others followed. As did publication in Poetry, The Sewanee Review, Partisan Review, and the Bollingen series—a path that led, no doubt, to the Nobel committee in Stockholm. Through the Biddles, Perse found lodging with their friends Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss at seigneurial Dumbarton Oaks and found friendship, sympathy, admiration, and love affairs in the liberal salons of Washington, D.C.

And it was through the Biddles that the exiled, humiliated diplomat Alexis Leger renewed his acquaintance with the poet Saint-John Perse. In the summer of 1941, Perse spent weeks with the Biddles at their vacation house on Long Beach Island in New Jersey, and there, rising at dawn to walk on the beach alone, he heard the stirring of the mysterious voice long suppressed by political strategy. His seven-part poem “Exil” shudders with the violence of new beginnings, rebirth.

“Doors open upon the sands, doors open upon exile,” the poem begins. Anabase had unfurled a dreamscape of Asiatic conquests, the founding of cities, and restless expansion. “Exil” rises from the void: “To no shores dedicated, to no pages entrusted the pure initiation of this song.” “I have built upon the abyss.” Now the poet who had called himself the Stranger imbued that word with a new and tested meaning: “And who was it then,” he asks an unnamed muse or sibyl, “that night, who, in spite of me, tore from my stranger’s lips the use of this song?” That stranger had to invent himself all over again in a strange land. “ ‘I will dwell in my name,’ was your answer to the customs officials.” The poem ends defiantly: “And it’s time, O Poet, to state your name, your birth, and your race …”

I went looking for my mother in the story of Saint-John Perse, and I found five great ladies. Two of them, Marthe de Fels and Rosalía (Lilita) Abreu, were heroines of the most important love affairs of Perse’s life, dating to the 1920s and early 1930s in Paris and lasting (in some form) past the end of World War II. The three others, Beatrice Chanler, Katherine Biddle, and Mina Curtiss, were his American patrons and confidantes. Perse, the practiced seducer, specialized in beautiful, wealthy, married women who presented little danger of wanting to trap him. Marthe de Fels and Lilita Abreu both fit this pattern. Marthe was married to the Count André de Fels, a prominent politician of the Radical party. Perse met her in 1929 (perhaps earlier) and carried on with her for decades while her husband winked. She visited Perse in the United States after the war, and their friendship outlasted the romance; a photograph shows her at lunch with Perse and his wife at their villa in Giens in 1963. Such grace was hard won. In 1946, Lilita told Katherine Biddle that Perse had other mistresses and had made Marthe de Fels extremely unhappy: “She was sick, in a sanatorium: One should never hurt others! He loves no one.”

Lilita Abreu, who met Perse in Paris in 1932, suffered even more, and I think her presence in his life must have overlapped a little with my mother’s. From a rich Cuban family and born in Paris, Lilita, with her pale oval face, raven hair, and mournful eyes, had been painted by Édouard Vuillard and courted by Jean Giraudoux and most of the straight male intelligentsia of the capital (she made a list of 70 suitors). In 1921, she married Adal Henraux, president of the Société des Amis du Louvre, and the couple gave brilliant parties where Perse/Leger shone. He and Lilita recognized each other as children of the islands and fell into tempestuous love. He called her “Liu,” and he was, for her, “Allan,” one of the nicknames his mother gave him as a boy.

It was to Liu that he reached out for companionship in his early, disorienting months at the Shelton Hotel in New York in 1940: “My Liu … who has been given to me, as solitary and stubborn as myself, so that for the rest of our lives we may smile at our strange alliance … what are you waiting for to come here and cast off all lassitude in my arms?” It was no small thing he was asking, but when the Blisses gave Dumbarton Oaks to Harvard in 1940 and Perse went into a panic at having to move, Lilita left her husband and her glamorous social position in Paris and joined him in Washington. Joined him, that is, after a fashion: they lived in Georgetown, she in a little house on P Street, and he in modest rooms nearby on R Street. Perse had been brought up as a prince, the only son in a household of adoring parents, two grandmothers, and three sisters. Throughout his life, he found women to care for him, and Lilita now filled that sacrificial role for about three years, comforting him, helping to translate his works, and feeding him when he wasn’t gadding about with the Biddles, attending parties, and seducing younger women. One of those women was my mother.

Perse’s letters to Lilita make painful reading. So does the “Poème à l’Étrangère,” the lyric he composed for her in 1942 evoking her hideaway on P Street. In it he gave voice to her suffering: “You who sing—it’s your song—you who sing all the banishments of the world, won’t you sing me an evening song on the scale of my pain?” The poem ends in the voice of the Anabase wanderer, off to new conquests: “Off I go, O memory! with the pace of a free man, without horde or tribe.” He tossed the poem to Lilita when she came over to make his bed on R Street. She sat and read it, recognized herself as l’Étrangère, and broke into sobs. The poem, she wrote in her journal, was an adieu.

Yet she stayed for another year and a half tending the “free man.” Only in January 1944 did she tear herself away, leaving no address, at a time when Perse himself was absent. He tracked her to a hotel in New York. For the next three years of her stay in the United States, his letters to her fluctuate between scolding her for her departure, lamenting her mistrust of him, professing love and fidelity to their “exiles’ pact,” and asking for help with translations and, at one point, for the gift of a dictionary. Lilita left for Havana and then Paris in 1947. She cut off communication with Perse in 1949 and died in 1955.

Katherine Biddle kept a diary from 1940 to 1970, recording her and her husband’s friendship with the complicated French poet they had adopted. Perse warned her, early on, she noted in June 1941, that “a poet, a creative spirit, must necessarily live in his own universe in a place no one else can penetrate.” It’s clear that she was infatuated with him and that he flirted with her, but she was protected by her strong bond to Francis Biddle and eventually by her own lucidity as she began to see how he treated Lilita Abreu and Marthe de Fels.

The other great lady in Perse’s life, Mina Curtiss, a biographer and professor of French at Smith College, entered his story only in the late 1940s, after the affair with my mother. Curtiss was a widow, wealthy enough to travel often to France. For some years, she and Perse maintained a sophisticated friendship verging on the erotic, and he loved staying at her estate in the Berkshires. She turned out to be the “rich American lady” who bought him the villa on the Presqu’île de Giens but not by marrying him. So thoroughly did he enchant her in an act of incredible prestidigitation that she found, purchased, and prepared the villa in 1957 for his first return to France since World War II—then stepped out of the way the following year, when he married Dorothy Russell. Dot Russell Leger, an athletic lady whose New England genealogy is scrupulously noted in the Pléiade, was our hostess the day of our visit to Giens.

And where does my mother fit in this saga? She was no lovelorn victim, that I can tell. If Perse was a “free man,” she was a free woman. She was born in 1913 to threadbare New England gentility. Her father, a mining engineer, abandoned the family when she was four and her sister five; their mother brought them up alone on a failed chicken farm in Connecticut. But my grandmother had done graduate work in comparative literature at Columbia, and with iron resolve and, no doubt, financial help from family, she took her daughters to France as young children and placed them for a year in a Catholic boarding school. My mother attended Vassar College in the thick of the Depression along with Elizabeth Bishop and Muriel Rukeyser. A good recipe for producing a radical: poverty, education, and an economic crisis. My mother became a Trotskyite and for a while lived in Trotsky’s household in Mexico, translating revolutionary tracts from Italian and French into English. There she met the Czech Trotskyite Jan Frankel, whom she married in 1937 so that he could enter the United States legally to spread the revolution.

She had a few years, then, living in New York City, working at odd jobs, writing, beginning to publish stories and reviews in Partisan Review, The New Republic, and elsewhere. By the time World War II flared up, she had cooled on the Trotskyite dream and was already working on her first novel, The Bitter Box, a skeptical book about radical politics in New York. She went to work for the OSS in May 1943. This I learned from her 146-page record of employment at the OSS: I waited three months for the hefty envelope from the National Archives to arrive. Her job, as described in these old, typewritten, administrative, photocopied pages, was “the collection and analysis of highly confidential social information and data from various sources” about “the attitudes, sentiments, movements, and activities of foreign nationality groups in this country as they relate to international situations in both war and postwar periods.” The Report on Efficiency Rating proclaims her work “outstanding” in almost every category (“accuracy of judgment or decision; effectiveness in presenting ideas or facts,” etc.). In a rare sign of human attention, a supervisor appended this note by hand: “Miss Clark does political reporting of a highly intellectual and individualistic style.” As of December 1944, a photocopied envelope informs me, she was living at 1729 G Street NW in Washington.

I don’t know how she met Saint-John Perse. Perhaps it was through her friend Denis Devlin. Her job for the OSS involved interviewing European intellectuals opposed to fascism: these included Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. The first trace of Perse I pick up is the copy of Lettres Françaises from October 1943, printed in Buenos Aires—because of the war, it couldn’t have been printed in France. Inside, I find a page in my mother’s energetic penciled script: a list of French words: argile (clay), embrun (spray). And there is Perse’s long poem “Pluies”: he must have proposed that she translate it. And there is the poet’s masterful inscription taking up the whole page preceding the poem: “Pour Jennifer, Diego, Washington, D.C.” “Diego,” I learned from Meltz, was another of Perse’s mother’s intimate boyhood nicknames for him. So already in the early fall of 1943, while Lilita still patiently waited on P Street, “Jennifer” and “Diego” had begun their affair. It was disguised from others. Perhaps the fantasy names disguised them from each other.

So much I can’t know. I respect my mother’s silences. But the dates tell a kind of story. He gave her the little copy of Quatre Poèmes (1941–1944), introduced by MacLeish and published in Buenos Aires, containing the poems “Exil,” “Pluies,” “Neiges,” and the heartbreaking poem for Lilita, “Poème à l’Étrangère.” And there’s the fraying copy of Anabase (the Brentano’s edition) inscribed “À Jennifer, Duchesse de Shepang,” from “St.-J-Perse, Washington, 1945.” Love, for Perse—perhaps for all of us?—flourished in and through fantasy; here he brought my mother into his dream of China and gave her an aristocratic title. They were still, as the euphemism has it, “seeing each other” in 1946, because there’s the illicit Gallimard edition of Exil inscribed to “Jennifer,” with Perse’s address at “3120 R Street” carefully marked, with the date, “Washington, 1946.” By this time, Lilita had been living in a New York hotel. “Jennifer” has become an “Être de très grand luxe.”

Love, for Perse—perhaps for all of us?—flourished in and through fantasy; here he brought my mother into his dream of China and gave her an aristocratic title.

At first, when I began learning about Perse’s career as a Don Juan, I supposed that my pretty mother, 26 years younger than he, must have been simply an hors d’oeuvre or amuse-bouche he snapped up. But I suspect that there was more to it than that. My mother was keenly intelligent, politically sophisticated, and independent, and she spoke beautiful French. Inside the French copy of Exil, I found the typescript of her translation of “Berceuse” and the printed page torn out of that issue of Partisan Review marked, in Perse’s handwriting, “Sept.–Oct. 1946 translation by Eleanor Clark.” It’s a strange poem in his oeuvre, one of the only ones in verse as opposed to extended prose versets. It has 11 stanzas, each containing five (mostly) eight-syllable lines, unrhymed: a mysterious piece about a girl-child born, to the consternation of warriors, gods, and priests, and embalmed and laid in a tomb with cricket cages while the poet commands the Kings to sing of “the sons to be born” and “the Scribe tidies his earthen loaves.” (Perse tidying his poems? Poems written in cuneiform on clay?) Alexis Leger’s lost world of “the council of ministers” and the “expounding of doctrine in the halls” have been reduced here to an obscure, antique lament with a bitter jab at the end. The title, “Berceuse,” is untranslated: it means lullaby or rocking chair, both of which work in this context. Is this a fable about frustrated male power? In September 1945, Perse wrote to Lilita about it: he has composed a song, he tells her, that he hopes will puzzle his friends.

Perse had always been a poet who fantasized about power: storms, conquests, migrations. “Jennifer,” it turned out, had her own power. In 1946, Doubleday published The Bitter Box. The following year, she received a Guggenheim grant, and she then spent two years in Rome writing a book that is still in print today, Rome and a Villa. In 1964, she won the National Book Award for The Oysters of Locmariaquer, a book so original, the jury wasn’t sure in which category to place it. I wonder if Saint-John Perse, so wrapped up in his own glory, even knew about these books. Perhaps he did. The later works of his in my mother’s collection are ceremoniously inscribed to “Robert et Eleanor Penn-Warren en fidèle affection” and signed not Saint-John Perse but Alexis Leger.

Saint-John Perse’s later poems, “Pluies,” “Vents,” and so forth, are swollen with flatulence. The physicality, surprise, and animal energy of the early work have given way to a feverish repetition of claims about “grandeur” and “height.” The diplomat had made himself irrelevant by refusing to support de Gaulle; the poet patiently constructed a monument to his own monumentality.

What I see in his inscriptions to “Jennifer” and what I remember of my mother’s smile suggest an earlier, tender experience. Two gifted people, displaced in different ways by war, met in a perturbed city and shared a small poetical-erotic adventure. It must have had its own intensity and playfulness. Perse was an artful lover, and my mother had been married, however conjecturally, and had had a few affairs: she was neither naïve nor ignorant. The fact that the adventure had no future must have lent it special piquancy. They had their own private language and games: the horseshoe and the mechanical butterfly keep their secret.

But there are loves that put down deep roots and do promise a future. My father was the consultant in poetry at the Library of Congress in 1944–1945 and came across my mother briefly there; he “noticed” her, he later said, and caught her flash. They were both friends of Denis Devlin’s. My father was married at the time, and my mother had other things on her mind. When they met again after the war, they were free. They “fell in love”—I think this means that they dreamed a life together, not just a game. They were married in 1952, however improbably: she an ex-Trotskyite, he an ex-Southern Agrarian. They turned a barn into a house, and years later, in the hayloft, I found the archive of an old French romance. A closed book. Whose pages I disturbed, ever so lightly.

—Saint-John Perse, tr. by Eleanor Clark
(reproduced with permission of the Fondation Saint-John Perse)

Girl, first-born—oriole season,
First-born—the millet in bloom,
And sound of flutes in the kitchens …
But grief at the heart of the Great
Who have only girls to their bow.

There will be gathering of the war council,
And expounding of doctrine in the halls …
First-born, grief of the people,
The gods grumbled in the wells,
The women were hushed in the kitchens.


Disturbed the priests and their daughters,
Disturbed the council of ministers
And the astrologer’s reckonings:
Will you confound order and rank?
This is the error to correct.

From Queen’s milk soon weaned,
For euphorbia milk soon fated,
For you no more the pout of the Great
Over the honey and the millet,
Over the bowl of the living.

Bearing a cicada and an oriole,
Under the gilded ceiling the ass-driver wept:
For whom now, my pretty cages,
And the water of snow in my leathern bottles,
Ah! for whom now, daughter of the Great?


Was embalmed, was washed in gold,
Laid in a tomb in the black rocks,
Where the agave grew, on a clear day,
With her cricket-cages
And the jaded sunlight of Kings.

The ass-driver is gone, the King is come!
Let them paint the bed-chamber bright
And the male flower on the forehead of Queens …
I have dreamed this, said the oriole,
Infant queens a hundredfold.

Weep, ass-driver, sing, oriole,
Girls sealed in jars
Like cicadas in honey,
The flutes stopped in the kitchens
And the expounding of doctrine in the halls.


Had only a dream and a young goat,
—Girl and kid of one milk—
Had love only of an Old Woman.
Her drawers of gold went to the clergy,
To the Old Woman her white shirts.

Very old woman on a balcony,
In her rattan rocking-chair,
And who will die on a fine clear day
In the district of green clay …
Sing, oh Kings, the sons to be born!

In the rooms white as semolina
The Scribe tidies his earthen loaves.
Order resumes in the great Books.
For the oriole and the kid
Inquire of the Chief Cook.

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