June 26, 2024

Photo credit: Noah Rawlings
A Lost Love Poem
A poem by Greta Knutson, translated by Noah Rawlings
If first the bus,
If then the train,
If insidious chance
Don’t pile up
Unforeseen obstacles, I
Will go Wednesday and you
Will come too?

Translator’s noteThe painter met the poet in the Provençal town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Their affair began in the traditional manner of great pre-war artists — by way of a first husband. Like Jacqueline Lamba and Frida Kahlo, like Gala and Salvador Dalí, they were introduced by a male spouse who had ceased, alone, to satisfy.

The poet was René Char, an ex-surrealist and soon-to-be maquisard in the French Resistance, who believed “in the power of beauty / to write all wrongs” (per William Carlos Williams). He was friends with the husband. The husband was Tristan Tzara, a Romanian Dadaist who “always wore a monocle and had a headache” (per Ernest Hemingway). And the painter was Greta Knutson, a polylingual Swede who created hallucinatory cubist landscapes, serene still lives, and vibrant works of abstraction — bands of paint that could suggest botanical luxuriance or nocturnal tempests or wavering currents of pure color.

Husband and wife visited Char at L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in April of 1935. Whether romance between Char and Knutson fully flourished in this first spring together, we don’t know. But the trip left its mark: in 1937, Char sent Knutson a collection of postcards and poems subtitled Souvenirs of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. He remembered. She did too. By 1938, their love affair was in full swing, and they were writing each other almost every day.

Char wrote Knutson letters that were like “forests” in which one could get lost. “Sweet trap[s],” Knutson called them. Knutson wrote Char letters that were energetic, effusive, imperative. “WRITE TO GRETA” she insisted in one. “Never doubt yourself,” she enjoined in another.

Though her primary medium was paint, Knutson also practiced an artform that in our age has shriveled out of sight: love poetry. On a rainy day in February, in an archive in New Jersey, I came across one. It was in a blue envelope, written on blue paper. It was the envoi to a letter that begins and ends with the sentence, “René, I love you.” Written on a Monday in 1938, accompanied by a sketch of a Provençal town at night, the poem urges on their next tryst.

Greta Knuton (1899-1983) was a Swedish modernist visual artist, art critic, short story writer, and poet.

Noah Rawlings is a writer and translator from North Carolina.