By Peter Riley.
This isn’t of course entirely true, not even of the three poets under review, but it does relate to a certain cluster of French poets active in the latter part of the twentieth century who have become modern classics, and whose work is associated with Provence and attached alpine zones.
I think Jaccottet and Jourdan are at the core of this southern anchorage, since they will write about nowhere else. But others share this enthusiasm in at least an aspect of their work — Yves Bonnefoy, Francis Ponge, Lorand Gaspar, André du Bouchet, and others, perhaps even René Char later on. They represent a turning away from the unsettled atmosphere of Paris and in their lives and work there is a sense of creating a space aside from a lot of the harsher and more public events in the world, of being free to pursue personal and landscape meditations in peace. This is not to say that the poetry is placid or complacent, but the violence and anguish it reaches come from within, or if from the world indirectly, mediated by immediate individual perception, and the vocabulary rarely extends far beyond landscape, art, and general ponderings.
They have no use for scientific terminology, nor names or events from the world of current affairs; indeed politics is more-or-less a closed book, and the poetry does not pursue singular ideological objectives such as feminism. If there is an ecological concern in all the landscape writing it is not emphasised and indeed I don’t think there is except in the most general terms, in the intense personal and intuited value attached to this favoured zone. The wilderness (the mountain) and the cultivated (the vineyards) are not symbolised. Neither is there any interest in a poetry of the life lived from day to day: home, children, cars, vacuum-cleaners etc. etc. The work undertaken is essentially solitary, occupying pauses in an unmentioned continuum of domestic and public business. As the meditational sequences fall to their closures, it is usually with an annotation of death as loss, rather than any historical impaction. And always there is that distinctive landscape holding everything together: vineyards, cream stone villages, marine skies, aromatised air, cicadas, mountainous horizons — and wherever in the world they may dwell or travel, there is a gravitation towards the areas presided over by the iconic Mont Ventoux (two of the three poets under review live or lived within sight of it). Like most parts of the Mediterranean climate zone it especially attracts the northerner with a promise of warmth and ease, and northerners is what most of them are, and have gained this little intoxicating archaic paradise by adoption.
THE IMPRESSION OF some kind of solidarity among these poets is strengthened by the mutual agreements they seem to hold. There is, especially in the prose and journals, a lot of citation of poets, and we meet the same names again and again: Hölderlin, Rilke, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Éluard, Daumal, Georges Perros, and the Argentinian Roberto Juarroz… (but Anglophone poets only individually and minimally). There is the same selective orientalism: Tao, Chan Buddhism and haiku; the same artists (especially Matisse and Giacometti); Heidegger seems to be important to most of them but I don’t recall seeing any other such writer mentioned. It is as if they inhabit an artistic society which is somewhat removed from the world in an environment of art, landscape and thought, with its own limited library.
Stylistically, there is hardly a trace of the importance Parisian poets in the earlier twentieth century gave to transgressing accepted literary usage through grammatical disjunction, colloquialisms, nonsense, sound-effects and all kinds of outsider language as well as typographical experiment, newspaper techniques and technical jargon. Indeed Parisian culture is explicitly rejected, especially by Jourdan, who speaks of “…abstruse Parisian intellectualism”. What we get instead is a normative language of reflection and declaration, enumeration, description, which nevertheless reaches some surprising places. It is as if the whole of Dada and Surrealism, and the work of Apollinaire, Tzara, Cendrars, Reverdy et al. had never existed, indeed were not necessary, and poetical succession is taken back to the nineteenth century “symbolistes”, especially Mallarmé.
Thus in current English academic (sometimes referred to as “Bolshevik”) terms, they are “pastoral” poets, and I would suppose them to be of little or no interest to most of the battling poets in our heavily politicised zone. But perhaps the most significant, and in some cases worrying aspect of these “pastoral” poets is a tendency, which seems to get stronger as they get older, to retreat from poetry itself, and become principally prosateurs. It is sometimes as if the demand poetry still seems to make of a distinctive and intensified structure is too disruptive of the meditative life weighing inwardness against rural percepts.
There must be several hundred valid objections to this thesis especially biographically, for some of them fought in the resistance or spent most of their lives in Paris office jobs, though you would hardly know from their poetical works. Certainly major exception is needed for at least Ponge and Gaspar as regards the focus of attention in their writings. But I feel that the general identification rings true as pointing to a cultural accord most evident in language use, and it was this that particularly struck me, having been away from this ambiance for some years, on opening And, Nonetheless to release an overpowering aroma of thyme and rosemary.
JACCOTTET IS THE epitome and possibly the founder of this cult of southern ecstasy, perhaps all the more so since he is in fact Swiss by birth and moved to Provence in 1953. The book is at least 80 percent prose; the remaining 20 percent is in the early part, but if asked to decide how much of it is “prose poetry” I would have to say that most of it is. The sense of relaxation and spare time I have mentioned is strong, but it is important to note that the earliest texts in the book were first published in 1990 when Jaccottet was 65 and the latest in 2003 when he was 78 (and he has not finished yet) so any sense of someone enjoying permanent retirement might be no more than natural. The poetry prior to 1990, which is more energised, is felt to have been adequately served by existing translations. But anyway, the impression of ease and leisure proves irrelevant when you attend to the text.
The prose is set into sequences of paragraphs or short passages in which the commonest narrative is to work tentatively from a singular perception of landscape or a natural object towards a greater scale of utterance contained within the singularity. The writing is thick with simile; everything is “like” / “as if” / “seems to” [comme, comme si, sembler] and it is often by this means that the initial perception is extended, sometimes into an elaborate structure as simile piles upon simile. It is a way of building a perceptual theatre tentatively and modestly, almost disclaiming responsibility, and indeed sometimes actually doing so:
(The poet’s tomb)
Make no mistake:
it was not I who traced all these lines
but rather, on a given day, an egret or the rain,
on another, an aspen,1
provided that a beloved shadow cast light on them.
A progression through stronger and stronger figuration leads sooner or later into a sense of yearning for an elsewhere imminent in nature, associated with innocence and grace — “…another world seems almost to appear…” and “…a semblance of metamorphosis”, but also “…aimed at convincing me that I was indeed in the world, and the world was indeed around me”. So there is no departure from the real, and the course is most likely to conclude with Jaccottet’s refined account of the apprehension of death, instantly delivered from and returned to. The discourse ranging slowly in this way from image to image and question to question partakes of all the advantages of a guarded artistic space to achieve a free range of thought, and to meet the world’s threat in a calmed, personal and resolved way, but the route to that confrontation has many forking paths, and the rationality and purposefulness of the discourse are both treated with some disrespect. Jaccottet normally writes as if taken by surprise at most of what he sees or thinks.
A ROBIN COMES and perches a few feet away while Jaccottet is digging in his garden in the evening.2 But prior to that there is a short and dense preludial paragraph concerning the skies on winter evenings, “that flame up almost tenderly, like a blushing cheek” while the upper sky retains a “vivid transparency” close to being nothing, “…since nothing else can be spotted through it”. This structure with its surely deliberate premonition of the robin’s red throat is then figured, via a reference to de Nerval’s “El Desdichado”, as the “bringing together of fairy and saint [a female saint — la sainte].” This develops into a figurative proposition that “…here in my own garden am I somehow watching the still rose-coloured still incarnate fairy being transfigured into her own wholly pure, now weightless soul?” This religion-laden fancy is immediately rejected as too attractive and too close to his own dreams. “Instead I think it was only something like a very pure water”. It is a quite mysterious paragraph, building, without his usual slowness, a transformational structure out of an atmospheric phenomenon (the red sky ceding to the darker transparent sky above) which he seems deliberately to make an entirely feminine transaction and which might figure death as a dissolving into nothing. But it is immediately cancelled as too much willed, and the scene is returned to physics. The preludial question is, I suppose, “What, then, will furnish such a theatre?”
Then he notices the robin, and this launches two pages of prose, describing and pondering in no hurry whatsoever, beginning with a wish to define precisely the kind of red — “brick-red”, “domesticated fire”, “a somehow friendly colour”, “the colour of the sky at sunset”, “no longer possessing any of the cruel, burning, warrior-like or triumphant qualities of red” — and then emphasising the diminutive size of the bird and of its signal feature, its red throat. It wears a red “scarf” 3 which is “nearly nothing”. While the bird is in a way being characterised here, there is no anthropomorphism. The slightness is also that of the thought, and the prose. The sense is, as it were, furnished by the bird and then taken in to the poet’s understanding. All we can say of the bird is that it is still there –“We attend to our affairs” which are also almost nothing. What we are moving towards is a principle, which will not be established until the sources, robin and evening, are exhaustively dealt with.
The protagonist’s pronoun moves to the impersonal vous momentarily, as he is briefly aware of a minimal context: a wind rustling leaves on nearby trees, the “almost prudent” “humming of the invisible” which seems protective to author and robin, “But the lantern-bearer [the robin] is also reckless [imprudent] if a cat is on the prowl”. A little six-line Jaccottet paragraph which almost surreptitiously achieves the image presiding over the rest of the text: the robin as informant, “lantern”, teacher…
And so the writing pushes on, calm but determined, indulging next the temptation to imagine the bird “as a friend or even a partner [complice]”… “so near to our hearts that we would willingly consider it to be the reincarnated soul of a child”, a child returning to its familiar haunts. The perceiving agent is now further depersonalised — “we” in English, “one/ l’on” in French — this seems to happen each time there is a comforting percept which the poet then rejects, which is what happens here.
THE ISSUE NOW swiftly resolves into one of old age and death, in the rejection of the false emotions that have accrued to the robin. It will not, he says, guide me at the end of the day, will not help me in need; it helped me now, “simply by being there”, alive and visible under the alive and visible sky, in the “involuntary words” of its red patch, “which I read with surprise” without understanding them. “I must write down this message — which is not one — exactly as I received it.” The event here, which occurs many times in Jaccottet’s writings, whether we call it epiphany or not, remains basically undefined but seems an act of thought rather than an act of understanding, a pitch attained rather than a donation. But the unspoken “message” is not the end. It leads into the principle, which is stated several times, most forcefully as “Putrefaction should not be allowed to speak”. It is a plea to let the shadowed sense of the dying remain private and not damage the “clarity of the world as I saw it so many times”. For “a living person was first and foremost alive, and a robin — a tiny feathery ball with a heart — seemed to speak to him.” This speech can only be represented as the principle and the doubts that descend from it. The properties of the poem are recapitulated (robin, rustling leaves, sky, and the whole scene in the garden, here fully enumerated for the first time) and represented as a web, with the impending death of robin and author possibly at its centre, but the principle is maintained: “The right to speak must be reserved for the living” [à ce qui vit / that which lives, extending that right to the robin and its context].
I hope this sketch of one of his shortest pieces has shown that terms such as “quietism” do not begin to cope with the range of Jaccottet’s quests when they get going, and that the singular can be made to open into first and last things, in spite of the absence of any of the temporal or polemic notions which might invade any Anglo-American poet confronted with the idea of a robin.4 No external consideration is allowed to intervene; the world, consisting of “things as they are”5, is entirely here.
AS WELL AS several single poems there are over 20 of these sequences in the book, mostly longer than “Robin”, only one of them entirely in verse. Each begins from a distinct act of perception in the surrounding area — tree, flowers, mountains, dawn, rivers, hamlet, wild carrot, kingfisher, robin, nightingale, weeds, clouds, death, soil etc. — none of these, be it understood, constituting the subject of a sequence. They are focused on until they fade into the whole. The list is also deceptive because once launched the thread can pick up quite different foci. There is one, “Fragments stirred up by the wind”, which contemplates actual, literary, pastoral as a theatre coeval with his own enterprise, and playfully—
Orders for absent shepherds
that they hold back fleeing does
ill-advised by the clouds,
that they unknot one by one the brook’s braids,
that they spare the scarce grass of the high hollow
and that they make the ivory of the rocks ring
in the mountain where every tree is twisted into a lyre.
and any direct perception may intervene as a momentary source of illumination.
For all the iterated local trajectories there is no self-repetition; the course of verbal events follows its own path on each occasion and confirms only the rightness of his scrupulosity. The creative pressure on the discourse is impressive, and even a passing journal-like notation of a natural event which he chooses not to elaborate or connect in any way can show his fund of poetical resource—
Extremely rare that during an entire night and on all horizons the thunder kept rolling. A long relentless percussion passage played by some orchestra of the Orient.
Or like the noise of bones being stirred.
The lineated poems, when they occur, are what you would expect from Jaccottet, and seem to act more swiftly and directly than the prose and to move the action further on at each stroke. As a devotee of the poem itself I could wish there were more of them. But I am particularly glad to have discovered several late and more extended prose sequences in which the proximity of death is felt, such as “Notes from the Ravine” (2001) where the act of visiting dying friends is starkly presented with minimal stress (nothing “Romantic” about Jaccottet) among passages of description and question in mid-winter, balanced between relevance and accident, especially the distant snow-filled ravines of Mont Ventoux. In these late sequences, he allows the textuality to relax into that of a journal or commonplace book, as if in following a quest of understanding concerning death and decay he calls upon help, as it were, by quoting and referring to poetry and music (always classical), though the relevance is by no means always obvious, and sometimes these citations seem to enforce and extend the entire meditational tone rather than any thematic pursuit.6 Indeed readily as his work seems to lend itself to thematic exposition, I think the strength of the poetry lies more in the execution than the ideas (anti-materialism, etcetera), which are normally questioned if not erased and many of which never really get off the ground.
JACCOTTET IS PROBABLY thought of and admired as having “turned uncertainty into a literary virtue” as the Introduction says, and quite famously represented himself in an earlier poem as “The Ignoramus / L’ Ignorant”. 7 But I find that he shows a distinct confidence in his own abilities as a writer and the objectivity of his own experience which allows him to pursue a poetical possibility through thick and thin, towards an “uncertainty” which is a form of authenticity.
Rather than some of his image-laden landscape writing, of which there is so much of such quality in the book, I quote finally a passage setting a different kind of scene, with all the skill and acuity a lifetime of poetical concentration has won him. From “Notes from the Ravine”:
An old man with his emaciated body, his mind troubled by illness and sorrow; his mouth rarely forming even the shadow of a smile, stumbling upon shadowy memories, a shadow of a man himself, sitting at home with his back to the open door, to the world, to the spring light; to the year’s last snow.
Next to him, his lifelong companion, who is younger than he is, flung down by cancer, knocked senseless: like the victim of an accident in the middle of the street or alongside a road; a boxer battered silly, his temple beaten black.
When you touch human misery in its totality, it is like a creature inducing an aversion that the heart must bear and overcome — if it can.
PIERRE-ALBERT JOURDAN is closely associated with Jaccottet as friend and neighbour; a Parisian but a native of Provence, and owner of a summer house in the Vaucluse not far from Jaccottet’s home, where he probably did most of his writing. The Straw Sandals is almost entirely prose arranged in short sections, rarely as long as a page, assembled into books or sequences of various lengths, and resembles Jaccottet’s writing in obvious ways, especially the sense of a stasis occupied by acts of noticing details of the area. But I think that Jourdan’s relationship to the concept of poetry was more troubled than Jaccottet’s, and produced a different trajectory. The older poet, in spite of his latter leaning towards prose, could slip into or out of poetical writing at ease, whereas Jourdan began with a heavy commitment to the poetical and ended almost reneging it. There is a considerable contrast between the manner and writing attitudes of the earliest work here collected, and the last, which I find forms a fascinating course of events perhaps not always within Jourdan’s control.
“La Langue des fumées / The Language [Tongue] of Rising Smoke” (the text is included in The Straw Sandals; the reference is to the burning of vine shoots alongside the vineyards) dates from 1961 and is one of those early works (Jourdan, born 1924, was a late starter) which plunges into poetical writing without reserve, willing to take on all the risks in spite of inexperience and its resulting clumsiness or lack of control (like, perhaps, a lot of Rimbaud). It is a metaphor-based prose-poetry which allows itself to make intuited connections of great disparity while remaining continuous and balanced, in statement form, often like aphorisms or brief descriptions which struggle to escape from rationality. It is in 53 numbered sections, mostly very short, which sometimes form a sequence but there does not seem to be any over-all narrative movement beyond the temporal — it calls itself “Calendar of a summer month”. Mainly we are in the hands of a companion through the Vaucluse countryside, pointing to this and that and reflecting freely, speaking in poetical figures and liable to mood swings — contrasting fits of contentment and alienation. A restless, troubled spirit, happy to embrace paradox—
The solar ladder up which the lizard climbs; we forget its shadow on the wall as we build our homes: shut up inside, we scream; outside we are scorched.
The curse lies in the threshold being laid like this.
Light has no arms to carry us.
Solitary oak and almond trees rustle among grandiose looming shapes near which no village ventures any more. Minds are dominated by a mountain stretching out like a fabulous bird. It wears a petrified waterfall up there as a gown. A genuine [vrai: real] stone path surrounds the birth of the heart.
The mountain, which must be Mont Ventoux, recurs again and again, adding up to a symbol only in a sense which is left to the reader’s intuition.
The ending is, as might be expected, a lapse into a gentler tone suggestive of death but avoiding all sententiousness and maintaining a fine play of delicately touched images–
Shapes leap forward once again, their silhouettes measured against towering architectures. Beneath an archway of plane trees, a man gently touches the grass of memory with the tip of his cane. I remain silent when I go by, for we are gathered here with him, around the source as if it were a fire.
“The Language of Rising Smoke” seems to capture a great deal more than the peace and relief of the longed-for landscape. Rather it is an opportunity to approach the real, an opening onto the world grasped in poetical figures reacting with and against each other, all within the compass of a particular place. There are moments of clumsiness and bald transcriptions of oriental philosophy, but he has here grasped the workings of poetry and done things which only poetry can do. It is difficult to say that he ever did this so consistently and devotedly again, in spite of a lot of fine writing; if we turn to the end of the book the picture is quite different.
LATE IN 1980 Jourdan was found to be suffering from cancer of the lung, from which he died a year later. His final text, “L’Approche / The Approach” is a journal or day book from April 1981 almost to the hour of his death. Unlike all his previous books the writing is prolific, with pieces of much greater length, less focused and much more willing to express outright opinion. There is a new inclusiveness: things are recounted which neither he nor Jaccottet would have admitted to a poetical writing: Paris, politics, television, symptoms of his illness and treatment, the behaviour of cats, domestic business…
A far greater variety of reading is evidenced, well beyond the former rather minimal honouring of mainly French poets: Germans, Russians, even a couple of Anglophone (Coleridge and Frost), philosophers, scientists, and a lot of French essayists, aphorists etc. whom we do not normally hear about across the Channel. Provence is not neglected — indeed there is still a lot of consideration of its effects, mostly from a distance, and there are statements of purpose and belief as there always have been, but the sparse, concentrated theatre of the earlier writing gives way to an urgency to record whatever he can of his thoughts and experience in this count-down of the days. And as might be expected, it ends mid-flow.
There is at one point a declaration concerning the apparent “pastoral” remoteness of this kind of writing–
Don’t tell me that I am forgetting slums, cold, hunger, deep poverty, tortures, and massacres of the innocent. These constitute a totally different kind of problem. A problem at our level. […] I am referring instead to an insoluble problem — boundless evil — that goes beyond politico-economic realities. A problem that derives from nothing other than the despair of a fragmented self. [etcetera — it is quite a long passage]
This kind of protestation has a feel of insecurity, a worried self-inquisition concerning his life’s work. But mainly, this is not the kind of writing he has established as his, and which he is supposedly defending here, and although I don’t know all Jaccottet’s prose, I doubt if he ever issued a statement such as this. And yet at any moment Jourdan will suddenly say something like—
A luminosity making distances gleam. Gems scattered over the land. In this light you discover the true layout of this immense landscape. Light that is cast, or so it seems, from inside. An effect recalling the spirituality of certain faces that shine just as mysteriously. …
and he is back where he belongs. But elegant as this prose is, apart from the numerous quotations there is little in this work that could safely be called poetry. It is as if there is not time for it.
BETWEEN THESE, HIS first and his last works, there is a whole oeuvre, represented in The Straw Sandals by five books, two of them complete. Very soon after “The Language of Rising Smoke” Jourdan seems to accept his principal role not as poet, but rather as the purveyor of maxims, aphorisms, reflections, the quest for a fragmented wisdom in short accounts of realisation, often based on the southern environment. This is reinforced by the periodic honouring of French writers who were unwilling or unable to create formal wholes or fulfil the demands of genres in either poetry or prose, but wrote what came to them in brief sections of journal-like prose, such as La Rochefoucault, Joubert, Perros, and others. So he does not follow Jaccottet’s procedure of fixing on initial perceptions and pursuing them through to conclusions. Rather his pieces are completely disparate, or sometimes retain certain image groups or concepts for some time before passing on to new matter. There is a sense that he considers that he possesses forms of wisdom which can only be articulated haphazardly, motivated by meditations in the Oriental modes. This forms an elegant, striving prose, too fragmented to amount to prose-poetry. But he also displays more uncertainty than Jaccottet does, and at times some kind of existential melancholy in connection with self-doubt. He is in confrontation with world and language and not always confident of his powers. “Are we so miserable that a single word sometimes suffices to make us despair?” … “The human being who invented singing was walking with bare feet over brambles.” … “Communing with the world means taking on incurable wounds.” There are hundreds of sentences like this and many more of a more buoyant and questing nature, his most confident writing often taking the form of nominal phrases without active verbs, like items in a list of perceptions or abstracted thoughts. But there are also passages such as this, one of his quite proud rejections of the metropolitan alternative—
Shades of grey, sometimes the subtlest refinements of an ingenious painter’s palette. Imperceptible nuances blending into each other. And example of the finery of this City, otherwise submerged in daily chores and worries. No time to lift your eyes. And the urge to do so almost gone.
Strolling [Flânerie] — a suspicious, Baudelairean word. Cloud fetishism. A silken-gloved sky. Shaky, high-swirling hairdos.
Modern times, gangrene-stricken prophesies.
I’m not investing a penny in this dream of wealth and ease.
Is this retraction, along with the near constant tone of threat, the price paid for rejecting his own perceptions of urban beauty and constructing a divided aesthetic which made poetry impossible? The very same sensitivity shown elsewhere to natural coloration, here made to acknowledge an attraction in the townscape and casting it aside? Jourdan was a fine and unjustly neglected writer but I find his development casts a shadow over the French pastoral enterprise.
Quand la nuit déploiera
ses grandes ailes de granite
quand les maisons rouleront
comme du gravier
dans un ciel distendu
je m’en irai
toutes mes affaires
dans la brouette du vent
When the night unfurls
its big granite wings
when the houses roll
in a distended sky
on the quiet
I will slip sway
all my belongings
in the wheelbarrow of the wind
I will go away
THIS IS WHAT José-Flore Tappy’s writing is like. She is not obsessed with Provence and does not (as far as I know) have a house there. Sheds / Hangars presents and translates her entire published poetry, none of which is in prose. There is no emphasis on walking around viewing nature and there is no sense of an enclave of artistic leisure. But I feel her poetry belongs in some degree in the company of the Provençal specialists. Like Jaccottet she is Swiss, and there are signs in her work of the southward pull (to Spain and Portugal). But the main connection lies in the way her language use bears a kindred purity of resource, a rhythmic ease and a clarity of figuration which is capable of running into disturbed, violent, or even (as above) apocalyptic passages. It is “pastoral” in a more technical sense, of a writing which separates itself from the ever-shifting usages and novelties of the centre to occupy a kind of contemplative niche in which self and world can be made to collaborate, amicably or antagonistically. Most modern poetry which is worth a glance does these things, or at any rate it is one of the major choices offered us.
These short, unpunctuated poems are set into six books, most of them holding two or three sequences of varying length, none of them greatly long, which have a marked sense of narrative, but a hidden, or rather a masked one. The tone encourages us to interpret these narratives as events of the author’s personal life, but public as well as private material is folded into these sequences and masked into anonymity. The earlier books (1980s-’90s) are, with exceptions, more static and momentarily descriptive, and allow recognisable items of, for instance, “love poetry” or emotional declarations of other kinds. The narrative becomes more insistent in the late work, the emotions stronger and the sense of event more dramatic, but always subsumed, decontextualised, and the reader’s curiosity about what may have occasioned these verbal constructs is constantly thwarted by, among other things, shifted pronouns — the “I” who should be giving the account suddenly becomes “she”, or the ever nascent “subject” may disappear completely, to return later in a different formulation.
The point is that each tiny poem is entirely self-sufficient and discrete and this can sometimes apply too to the normally short sections within the poems — paragraphs of three or four short lines. All the features of the writing — the absence of punctuation, the priority given to sonic qualities, the spacing, the sometimes extravagant figuration, the displacements, the moments of semantic instability — all these things create a suspension by which the content of the poem is held apart from the singularities of the life lived, but thereby enters more deeply into the experience while opening itself all the more to the reader once the demand for gossip is dropped. There is finally no guarantee that a narrative occurring in actuality is being represented, as against one created by the writing, nor that the actual progress of the sequence, which tends to move towards a sense of resolution by image, corresponds to anything that necessarily happened. But in either event the writing remains deeply informed by the poet’s responsiveness. This process is not generalisation: every move made is specific to an occasion however subsumed in poetry.
AS AN APPENDIX to the book there is an interview with the poet from 2012 in which various remarks show that she has a clear sense of this process, the product of which she says is properly “poetical rather than philosophical or psychological.” She speaks of how “poetry occupies space in a certain manner”, of her desire “to keep only indispensible words” and of the sequentiality as “almost a story” or an itinerary, in which the first person singular is “personified but not individualised”. All these point to the balanced suspension of the poems, their aloofness which itself articulates an involvement. She also says, significantly, “I dread both order and disorder, or rather I dread facing one without the other.” This is more than a sense of balance, it is also a sense of risk, and corresponds to the poetry’s freedom to move from strong figures (“night unfurls its big granite wings”) to the calm placing of simple gestures (“on the quiet / I will slip away”) as they blend into and support each other.
The poems which form the twenty sequences in the book all share these qualities without damaging the particular ambiances. “Shadow Poems” is openly emotive to the point of an anguish which seems to have infected all perception of time and space, and which reappears in later sets. “The Island” has a much weaker sense of story, and relies on the image progressions from poem to poem and on repeated syntactical gestures to establish a sense of progression. Here particularly there is a concomitant sense that the “story” is created in the act of writing; and is more a set of place invocations, of an unidentified island, in a manner quite reminiscent of Lorand Gaspar. 8 But within this framework there are individual items which defy context almost completely—
Seven strokes seven silences
what is near riveted to what is far
stick the light
to the sands of the night
before the numb mauve mouths
of the gillyflowers
Supposing that the “strokes” [coups] might be of church bells and integral to the invocation of what is probably a Mediterranean island, is really very little help. This is a particular and unique poem event which is set where it is because, presumably, that’s where it happened. The perception of distance and proximity in league with each other is clear, and can be recognised in neighbouring poems without ever becoming a “theme”.
SO IT IS through the remaining sequences, which include the darker poems of two sets of “Lunar Poems” and the shifted tone of the three sets in the book “Hangars” — harder, more elemental, sky and stone, glimpses of remote or obscure places. The book concludes, as do both of the other books under review, with writing which faces the fact of death. The sequence “Tombeau” (tomb but also memorial or homage) is clearly concerned with a bereavement, though typically the relationship of the lost one and the author is not declared. It is a mourning more than an elegy, for there is nothing actually about the deceased. As would be expected, a depth is attained again and again through thoughtfully conceived metaphorical writing, but there is also room for an utter simplicity which I think might have been difficult for her in the earlier books —
Where has he
without taking his coat
and his keys?
which extends into pieces of more extended line and more sustained discourse than has been usual—
Far from the explosive nights
and below the stones,
far, very far, from where they are stacked,
below the naked feet and below the noises,
off to the side, far from any light,
in a place no star
can reach or disturb,
you are sleeping, covered with feathers,
thin skins of shadow, layers
and layers of shadow, a black-petal
which may perhaps indicate something of the possible future or her work.
If you prefer your wire barbed there are no doubt formulations in Tappy’s poetry which you will find nostalgic or mechanical , such as metaphors which are set up deliberately using “of” as a link word, a usage accepted by all these French poets: “the wheelbarrow of the wind” … “Let me strike the match of my voice”… etc. I don’t find this in the least damaging; one can get very tired of swift and slick displays of poetical dexterity. The most surprising of her metaphorical strokes betray the fact they have been arrived at thoughtfully, though not necessarily in thought focussed on the specific junction. They arise from a surrender to experience by which the most extreme conditions are weighed against the world at large. The last poem of the first part of the anguished sequence “Gravel”, closing the narrative at a stark questioning of the reach of the act of writing—
I write with burned hands
while sitting on a bag
I write nowhere
far from everything
and from myself
with no moderation
I write against oblivion
the grass can no longer be heard breathing
ALL THREE BOOKS under review here have been edited and translated by John Taylor, a very experienced translator with an expert knowledge of French idiom (and a contributing editor of the Fortnightly), whose approach is to seek the valid English text, the paragraph, poem, or line, which can stand in its own right as a satisfying thing. This will make him sometimes prefer the secondary meaning to the primary and bring him in some details close to paraphrase, but as a way of representing the full semantic load, the poetry before the text.9 This is excellent for an independent reading of the English, but I was sometimes glad that the parallel French text was there to show exactly what was happening in details which interested me.
All three poets can produce impossible problems and Tappy is a translator’s nightmare, where almost every phrase raises questions of implication and ambiguity. My only complaint with the book production is that in the Chelsea Editions books it can be difficult and sometimes near impossible, to relate the notes to points of the text without a great deal of searching, in the absence of any numerical identification of either note or page.
Peter Riley, the poetry editor of The Fortnightly Review‘s New Series, is a former editor of Collection, and the author of fifteen books of poetry – and some of prose. His latest book is The Glacial Stairway (Carcanet, 2011). He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Revised after publication to correct an editorial error.
- From “Fragments stirred up by the wind”. The French for “aspen” is tremble, but the verb “to tremble” is trembler, which restores a connection which I feel is important to Jaccottet. This whole sequence has a rather elusive erotic sub-text. All quotations in English throughout is of course of John Taylor’s translation, in which I have occasionally intervened to highlight a particular point otherwise not evident in a short or fragmentary passage, sometimes by quoting the original French. All such intervention is in square brackets in-text or in a footnote. ↩
- “Rouge-Gorge”, pp.242-245, from Et, Néanmoins (2001). ↩
- “Scarf” is Taylor’s version of foulard, which I think is strictly a silken scarf or cravat, something a little less commonplace. ↩
- These agonistic opportunities might include, as they occur to me at the present time, (1) Christmas cards, (2) The legend that the robin burned its chest by flying too close to the fires of Hell, (3) the British government, which is said to have been advised by a statutory advisory body to remove all protection from robins and some other common birds, and indeed to encourage the killing of them and the destruction of their nests and eggs, for reason of a “public safety issue” which has not been defined. The advisory body, “Natural England”, is believed to consist mainly of such people as Tory donors and its chairman to be a venture capitalist connected to property companies, and the real reason is to remove legal hindrances to brown field development. ↩
- The phrase recurring in “The Man with the Blue Guitar” by Wallace Stevens. Stevens strikes me as a poet who could be compared to Jaccottet for his ability to reach the uttermost real through poetical language, without having to drag the world in as an informational, thus anti-poetical, resource. ↩
- Jaccottet explicitly disavows the word “meditation” in the last sequence, “Earth Colour”, but I think he is treating it as part of a belief structure: “No trance, no ecstasy, outcry, prayer, or ritual; not even a second of meditation. No deprivation, no sacrifice. (Which is perhaps to avow how much seriousness all this lacks).” In the general and secular sense of a free-ranging thought process initiated by a singularity I find the word perfectly appropriate. But the lack of seriousness is essential in the long run. ↩
- Book and poem title of the 1950s. Another early poem, “Autrefois…” in Lessons / Leçons (1967) explicitly admits the whole question of a sheltered condition of writing: “At one time /I, frightened, ignorant, hardly living / covering my eyes with images … I, sheltered poet / spared, hardly suffering…”, but as a condition renounced for the future. (My translation). He repeats the accusation some forty years later in “Afterwards / Après coup” : “These rough drafts of an ignoramus”. This seems to be a necessary periodic renunciation of authorial authority. ↩
- See for instance the similarly discrete assembly of place invocations and poetical declarations in the late sequences “Patmos” and “Seascape” (Four Poems translated by Peter Riley, Oasis Books and Shearsman Books 1993). ↩
- A lecture on just this subject by Anthony Barnett has just been published: InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation with some reference to Umberto Eco’s Experiences in Translation. See Allardyce Book ABP. ↩