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NWS Teacher Releases Book of Poetry and Translates Robert Nash Collection

By ​Francoise Besnard

Many know Françoise Besnard Canter as a gifted French language and Humanities teacher and as a sage and revered member of the NWS community. Françoise, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, also writes and translates poems in both French and English.

In the fall of 2017, she released a book of poetry titled Liminal Voices. Most recently, she authored Winter Leaves / Feuilles d’hiver. The illustrated book of poetry chronicles her trip to Vietnam along with her partner, architect and artist Kim Pham, and his daughter Camille. Illustrated by Kim (in simple, elegant brush strokes), the book is a charming, poignant, and romantic reflection of their journey and of their love for each other as they experience Kim's home country. From Water to Hanoi to My Pictures from Ha Long Bay, her poems are a celebration of nature's elements, of the beauty of the inner and outer landscape, and of life's sweet and simple pleasures. 

"I define my work as a work in translation because I navigate both languages, and the poetry is in between," says Françoise. 

The author, teacher, and poet just completed a translation of a collection by Robert Nash entitled When the Blue Goes. The collection was gathered from three previous bilingual editions published in France. The book, which she translated back into its native English, will be released in May, and is already available for pre-order on Amazon. 

The book's preface, below, provides the context of her journey with Robert Nash and with the translation (or rather, the re-composition). 

Preface: When the Blue Goes 
by Françoise Besnard Cante

In the spring of 2017, Jean-Claude Tardif, a poet, a writer, and the editor of the French poetry revue À L’INDEX, e-mailed me a few poems by a Robert Nash along with these enigmatic lines: “As I was cleaning the basement of my parents’ house in Brittany, I found these old papers in a trunk. I realized they were poems mainly in French sent to my father (who didn’t speak English) by an American friend. These poems reflect 40 years of friendship between the two men. If you like them, would you like to translate them into English?”

The depth of Robert Nash’s poems, his profound solitude and his intimate and healing relationship with nature immediately moved me. Right away I found myself swept into the sorrow of a man who has lost everything and has only his words left. I was also intrigued by the story of the poems’ discovery and by the lifelong friendship between Nash and Jean-Claude’s father. I wanted to know more. However, aside from what emerges from the poems, so little of him is known. The mystery captivated me and stimulated in me a strong desire to follow in Nash’s footsteps, to embark on the unique, almost musical, experience of re-composing his voice. But how? This was new to me. I write poems both in French and English and I translate them from one language back to the other, but here, I had to revive a voice that was not mine. I took the challenge to heart and embarked with Jean-Claude on this incredible journey which gave birth within five years to three bilingual volumes published in France: Maine (2018), Poems to a French Friend (2020) and Scattered Poems Gathered in a Green Folder (2021). These three volumes are now combined, in the order of their original publication, into this US edition: When the Blue Goes.

With each collection, new pieces of the puzzle of Nash’s life come to light. It is important to note that the three collections do not follow Nash’s life in a chronological order but rather the order in which Jean-Claude discovered the poems in the old house. From Maine, the first series of poems Jean-Claude found, we understand that Nash’s family emigrated from Sussex when he was a child, that his son Lee died in Vietnam in 1974 and his wife Catriona two years later. It is also in this first collection that we learn of Nash’s disappearance in May of 1995, just a week after he wrote his last dated poem. Poems to a French Friend tells us that Nash and Jean-Claude’s father, who shared the same (very common at the time) first name Robert, met in the north of France in the early fifties and that Nash and his family lived in Delaware. We also see that both Nash and his wife Catriona were fluent in French and that it was Catriona who had originally wanted to move to Maine, a wish fulfilled by Nash after her death. In Scattered Poems Gathered in a Green Folder, we meet his faithful friends from Maine: Ours Bleu, the Algonquin, who rescues him when he is sick, feeds him, and interprets his dreams; Randall who comes to repair his old Chevrolet; Emerson, the badger, his silent companion from the early days, the fox, the racoon and Jack Brent, the last-mentioned friend in this collection. With each poem, new questions emerged, enlarging the scope of what has become a never-ending mystery.

At the end of my first adventure with Robert Nash, as I was writing the forward to the first bilingual volume, I promised myself I would go to Maine to explore the landscape and to discover something of the voice that had lived with me for more than a year. In April 2019, my friend Sarah Porter and I went to Augusta in the footsteps of our friend. With the help of librarian Julie Olson, we organized a reading at the Lithgow Library, and we tried, while in town, to find tangible traces of Nash’s existence. We went to City Hall to see if there were any record of the purchase of land or property in the early eighties by a Robert Nash. We went to the oldest hardware store in town, most likely to be the one mentioned in Nash’s poems. We Googled “Robert Nash” to see if he had published anywhere. We even tried to find his son’s name on the official list of soldiers who had died or were reported lost in Vietnam. We found Nothing. I knew, then, that what we know and will continue to discover of Robert Nash will only come from his words. As a poet and translator, my curiosity stops here. Robert Nash’s voice in his poetry is enough for me.

My journey with Nash transformed me. He became my friend. I walked with him in the intimacy of the woods of Maine. I felt the light and the brisk winds of spring. I climbed Maine’s mountains. I followed the flights of ospreys and wild geese. I saw the clawed tracks of a badger. I met the light-grey eyes of Catriona and felt the sorrow of a mother and father who have lost their son, and I got closer and closer to the poet, his death becoming more present with each new poem until the last. Sometimes, I catch myself reciting bits of poems as if they were mine. The metamorphosis Nash’s words offered me is now an intrinsic part of my writing. I became Nash.

Nash’s evocations, observations, and silences linger in my thoughts long after their translation. They bring purpose and joy to many of my days. During these past years of confinement and political turmoil, I found solace in reviving his words. Ultimately, I know that the woods of Maine, with their trees and wild animals, were for the bereaved Nash, a place of solitude, a place of friendship, a place of healing and a home for his poems. WHEN THE BLUE GOES is the fulfilment of my journey with Robert Nash. I hope to transmit to every reader who enters Nash’s poetry the pleasure and the magic languages sometimes accomplish.

September 5, 2021

Bio

Françoise holds a B.A, M.A., Ph.D., (Literature), University of California, San Diego; D.E.U.G. Diploma Program in Psychology, National Social Work Diploma, University of Paris VII, France; Advanced Preparatory Program in Literature, Language and the Humanities, Lycee Camille Jullian, Bordeaux, France; Secondary Education Baccalaureate Diploma in Philosophy, Literature and Foreign Languages, University of Poitier, France.