Derek Kannemeyer translates Rutebeuf


Rutebeuf’s Wintertime Blues (adapted from “Le Guignon d’Hiver”)

In this season of the year when the spent trees shed their leaves
To the last spent leaf, I come, stripped by poverty to a similar nothing,
    to sing my wintry tale.
For I would tell you of the small glory I have from God, the King of Glory:
The wits He has given me to live by are not much,
    nor have I much
Vigor of heart to call mine. What I have’s the cold of my body
When the winter wind blows: cold hands, cold ass, cold comfort;
    cold nothing and a cold
Not much to brave the turnings and the buffetings of the wind.
Bad luck keeps its promises; for a lost dime it gives back
    tenfold of dolor.
It sends poverty to glaum onto me again, saying, “Come on in, brother,
My door’s always open, my house is your house and don’t
    you forget it.
Come be drenched by the rain, come swelter in the sun—
It’s what you were born for. God set up the seasons
    so the black fly
Might nip at you all summer, and the white fly in its soft flocks all winter:
Come on down to the bare, brown fields and read your fortune
    in the fallen leaves…”
And so I’m like the willow tree, or the bird on its branch:
From the jig and itch of June to the shiver and moan of January,
    there goes Rutebeuf,
Plucked to the whimpering short hairs with the first hard frost.
The trouble with me is I’m such an innocent—and the tricks 
    I think I know
Get me in deeper faster. You know what they say—
You win some, you lose some? Not at my table.
    The dice don’t like me,
And with their little beady eyes they see me coming. The dice
And the dice rollers, their minions with the nimble fingers.
    So I’m tumbled till the
Lint’s torn from my pockets and the shirt from off my back and I’m
Tossed out on my numb ass in the street and dumped into the sewers,
    where I’m sinking fast,
And who knows if I’ll make it through till spring.
The view from here is that the world’s a pretty foul place.
    All you strutters of your stuff,
How am I to compete, I who have to show for my best efforts
Only the weight of my nothing? On my way to be less than nothing.
    Bad luck and the wintertime blues
Have me and they won’t let go, bad luck and bad company
And the sweet talk of the dice, and what I say now is,
    no more, that’s it.
Because you’d have to be crazy to keep listening to them—
Because don’t think it’s any kind of way up out of debt—
    because what’s bad now
Can get worse. There’s always more threadbare; more barren of hope;
The last door turned away from and not one friend left. Your hurt
    made harsher and your heart hardening.
For how can you love your neighbor when there’s no love for you,
And you’ve no strength to care? The man who used to call you brother
    laughs and says, “So now
You can’t even feed your habit? Well, maybe if you could muster
Some faith—the faith you owe our Savior and the blessed Virgin Mary—
    you might go to market
And ask for a bedsheet on credit; and if they refuse you, maybe 
Trot off to the bank and explain yourself, swear by the archangel Michael
    that all you want’s
The money for the shirt you don’t have on your back and they’d believe you—
Because you’re such a fine, upstanding citizen. And then you could 
            skip on home
In fine new clothes with money in the pockets… Or maybe 
Slink back bare-assed and empty-handed to some hole in the alley wall; 
            which do you think?”
That’s how you’d be talked to eventually. That’s how I’m 
            talked to now.


Song of the Street People of the Place de Grève (adapted from “Le Dit des Ribauds de Grève”)

Guttersnipes, God has heard our prayer:
winter’s back. A breeze sifts the trees
for more rags of leaf. On the bare
limbs rain-buds ice-petal a frieze.
Quite the show, if we’d duds to wear—
a fur coat; socks; a new chemise!
All summer, we lolled and took the air;
now, winter’s back! We hunch, we sneeze,
we rub up our poor feet like a pair
of shoes, and rise—to beg, and wheeze.
Farewell, black flies, you’ve had your share
of us. The white ones swirl in their
swarms now, nipping our nose and knees.


Translator’s Note:

Any good poet’s work invites discussion of how to read it. With a 13th century writer like Rutebeuf the questions can be unanswerable. We know so little about him! His work is varied. The scholarly pieces would seem to indicate that the “personal” poems, the so-called “Poems of Ill Fortune,” are persona poems. But even if so, in what tone? My grad school professor dubbed Rutebeuf “literature’s first stand-up comedian.” Maybe! But he also means it. The versification is spritely, the tale-telling is rich in sardonic wit, but the humor is fashioned to withstand and deflect mockery, not to invite it. Rutebeuf may well have been of humble origins; he understands the outcast’s suffering; he makes us feel it. My adaptations, as they must, take an interpretive stand. I ignore the long poem’s technical bravura and focus on conversational flow, and on the complexities of voice. In “Guttersnipes,” I imitate the form, but identify the speaker. Critical opinion on this is divided! (Rutebeuf uses “you.” The lines are stripped and the tone uncertain.) Is he a guttersnipe? I say yes. There is critical support for this view. But might he not be the mocking friend from “Wintertime Blues?” In which case, shouldn’t my tone be cutting? I think not; but listen:

Guttersnipes, it’s time. This is where
the leaves get stripped off of the trees.
Your limbs already are that bare?
You’ve shivered? Now it’s time to freeze.
Summer, you lolled and took the air.
Winter—no coat, no fine chemise,
no shoes, only this broken pair
of feet—you hunker down and wheeze.
So long, black flies! They’ve had their share
of you. The white ones swirl in their
swarms now, nipping your nose and knees.

Rutebeuf wrote in a 13th century northern dialect; in grad school, we leaned on the modern French translations by Jean Dufournet. But we did also look at the original texts, which are (with help) not impenetrable, and I went back to them when I constructed my freer versions. The French title “Le guignon d’hiver” is from Dufournet. I don’t think I even read his version of “Ribauds.” My English title for this second poem, giving “dit” as “song” instead of just “poem,” is another interpretive choice. 

Rutebeuf was born some time before 1230, and the year of his death is usually given as 1285. We know little about him. His name is thought to be a nom de plume, though he refers to himself by it quite often in his work. His roots were in the Champagne area of France; he may have been around to watch Joan of Arc liberate Troyes in 1249 (he wrote about it); he lived for many years in Paris. Though he also wrote plays, satires, and hagiographies, he’s best known for the “personal” poems traditionally grouped as Poèmes de l’infortune.


Derek Kannemeyer was born in Cape Town, raised in London, and lives in Richmond, Virginia. (While studying in France, he married an American girl who said, “I’m going home, are you coming?”) His degrees are from the Universities of London and Virginia. His writing has appeared in publications from Fiction International to Rolling Stone; his books since 2018 include a prize-winning poetry chapbook, the full-length Play of Gilgamesh, the poetry collection Mutt Spirituals, and a hybrid photography/non-fiction tome, Unsay Their Names, about Richmond’s 2020 Lost Cause statuary removals. Forty of its photographs are on display at Richmond’s Black History Museum.