André du Bouchet
Openwork: poetry and prose.
Selected, translated and presented by Paul Auster and Hoyt Rogers.
By PETER RILEY.
ANDRÉ DU BOUCHET’s is the most difficult poetry to describe or characterise; it eludes identification from start to finish and you’re liable to end up speaking entirely in negatives. The poetry doesn’t describe or recount or expound; it doesn’t narrate or philosophise; it never touches politics or society and is essentially a poetry of the self but it also never declares the self intimately or circumstantially and the poet defines it as a poetry of the non-self; it isn’t (or is it?) abstract or minimalist or surrealist or symbolist; it isn’t formal or lyrical or rhetorical or experimental; its language is both articulated and disjunct … And then you notice that in fact the poetry can and does do most of those things, but in a particular way which prevents an actual discourse from forming in the sense of a relationship with the world. But looked at differently, a discourse is exactly what it is. What then is the poetry like, what does the poet do?
Mostly he goes on walks, and the walks are real walks but the area in which he walks — and where the poetry takes place whether walking or not — is a narrowed, enclosed territory. It clearly is the real world but reduced to a prescribed selection of entities heavy with unspoken implications, as if the real world has become a set of illegible signs. The most obvious indication of this is the way the poetry is dominated by a small number of words which become something like the poet’s personal iconostasis: mountain, air, stone, wind, fire, sun, white, wall, light/dark, footstep, ground, room, and others including some which only dominate one poem or a phase of the poetry. Many of them can be variously interior or exterior, static or dynamic, can be the starting point or the goal of a poem’s progress. There is hardly a poem not founded on these entities, and the greatest among them is the word “mountain”.
These are not, I think, symbols, or not exactly. They occur definitively (always “the”, never “a”) in a way which may suggest interior or transcendental significance, but which also ties them down to a particular occasion, a particular walk, and for all the lack of context they remain the real thing. They are not named or particularised: the mountain is never more than “the mountain”; lesser and singular entities may be scattered by the wayside but I doubt if a proper noun occurs in his entire oeuvre. In fact what they are is words, and that’s where du Bouchet goes walking.
DU BOUCHET (1924-2001) was a highly respected poet in France, seen as a pioneer modernist in various ways, especially in the spacing of words on the page. The poetry is very French: he gets from Mallarmé the elusiveness resulting from the transference of the poetry to a self-defining elsewhere (some call this process “pastoral”), but he also had a great interest in Baudelaire which I think brings a more robust quality to the page with quite a lot of ennui but none of the diabolism, and it is never an urban poetry except perhaps in rare stray moments. It is meditational, a contemplative sequencing of words or word groupings in suspended animation, which avoids the particular, and in which words and things are treated as an experiential unity. But the inertia implied in all these descriptions is offset by a great deal of action which is made possible by a tenuous connection to the anecdotal which is maintained sub voce and can result most impressively in a confrontation with the paradoxes of being and creating. One of the early poems begins with a particularly clear notation of his aesthetic practice…
But first a caveat. I have found quoting du Bouchet in English to be problematic for two reasons. One is the periphrastic or even metonymic mode of translation adopted by Hoyt Rogers and Paul Auster, which can make it difficult to be confident that what you are quoting is exactly du Bouchet. This approach is expounded in the introduction and I shall discuss it later; meanwhile I adopt the strategy of interpolating the original French wording wherever I think there could be doubt, occasionally accompanied by my own preferred rendering. The second is du Bouchet’s increasingly extravagant use of blank space — in his late work there can be just two or three words somewhere on a page. This too I want to discuss separately and have adopted the expedient, which will shock some, of modifying or even eliminating it in my quotations, on the grounds that what the poem does as a linguistic entity is what we actually read and is what I want to talk about, at least initially, and whether a space is four or six lines deep is not going to make a lot of difference. This hardly affects the first quotation, which is only slightly compressed —
Everything becomes words
in my mouth and under my feet
man given back [homme repris]
currency [monnaie] of words and steps
what I say makes you laugh
gold that barters me [qui me monnaie: that coins me]
THE FIRST FOUR lines state his case quite categorically; in later work the equation would be taken for granted rather than declared. But it is a fundamental condition of his poetry. There is a constant equation of thing and word, which is not to say an identification. Things like earth and pebbles are treated as words and this realisation opens for du Bouchet all the doors (“door” is another iconic word for him) to an investigation of both processes, creative and physical, and a serious play with the resulting paradoxes. The absence of connectives and the rarity of verbs allow stones to simply become gold coins from one line to the next, because both are words and they stand in simple apposition: mentioned one after the other with no logical structure to explain or question the pairing. But even at this formative stage the parallels are not so cut and dried; the absence of punctuation and the spacing leave open a strong suggestion of reciprocal process, earth in the mouth as much as pebbles under the feet. And this, of course, signifies more than just going for a walk.
What this process makes possible, throughout the book, is texts which are poetical structures as such, first-person accounts which show their origins in reality (earth, pebbles, experience) but are refined and shadowed until poetry itself predominates, and what is said, especially at endings, gains all the stature of an abstract or symbolised event, without entirely being either. In the rest of this poem what the thing/word equation leads into is a transformative narrative in which the human is realised, “returned to itself” through the agency of words and realities (earth, stones, steps) in mutual accord, (also “redeemed” according to the translator),1 in which stones “become” coins which “pay for” the act of self-creation. He is not saying that the stones are “like” coins but that they are coins in the sphere of the poem, which knows only the written space it occupies – they become a transcendental (nameless) “money” which “coins” (creates) the self on the page and guarantees the worth of that self as a living thing. The quite jubilant tone here is not regularly maintained; many later pieces set up a paradigm of experience which is distinctly gloomy in tone and outcome, the final gesture increasingly tending to invoke death.
But the most interesting line in “Term” is “what I say makes you laugh”. This steps outside the inherently symbolising or abstracting processes of the poem and interrupts the purposive development of the terms with an aside, a second person, a sheer particular, reminding us that it is a telling of experience rather than a symbolic thesis, and releasing the poem momentarily from the self-absorption of a minimal, isolating vocabulary. He acknowledges that it is of course absurd to be talking about stones becoming gold coins, except in fairy tales and poems. The poem is as separate from the real world as that, but is aware of a tension in the process; everything else in the poem becomes more tentative in the light of this line. Du Bouchet’s poems frequently have one or more of these disruptive interpolations, often amounting to singularities which cannot be absorbed into the definitive theatre of elemental entities, or in extenuated form a hinted undercurrent of personal or intimate event or converse running though the poem. In fact one of the defining, narrowing aspects of the texts is that the narrator is always “I” and “you” is always the French “tu”, the “you” of intimate address, and at times the whole project might seem to be a poeticised version of intimate or domestic events or communications or everyday experiences. Some of this is inevitably lost in English, where we only have one “you”, though there are ways of suggesting it. It is difficult, though not impossible, for du Bouchet’s “tu” to represent the reader, but it can be difficult for an English poet’s “you” not to.
OPENWORK IS IN three sections: early and late texts translated by Hoyt Rogers, and between them a revised re-issue of The Uninhabited, a selection of middle-period poems translated by Paul Auster, first published in 1976 2. The early section is more notebook entries than poems. The difference can be hard to see, for the notebooks which du Bouchet accumulated throughout his life were clearly from the start notes of verbal events which interested him more than anything else, and most entries are spaced and lineated. But they are marginally more explicit; you can see conflicts and decisions taking place and there are statements of intent here and there. He can be seen working out a position for himself in which poetry begins as a negative impulsion, a refusal of saying, a silence, something which has nothing to do with the poet’s need to speak, what he wants to say, or his person at all.
‘Two forms of poetry: the one that takes shape while the poet says nothing, words made of much silence; and the one that molds its words around the hero.’
‘Instead of creating words and sentences, I begin by imagining my silent connection with the world.’
‘Poetry: losing your personality’.
It is important that the poet has nothing to say: “Writing when all we find before us is this mute wall that does not answer. Writing because there is nothing left to say; that is the moment, the worst moment of all, when we have to say it.” This negation of self-expression is also seen as a release into the world:
‘The poem has broken this casing, this wall, which atrophies the senses. For an instant we can grasp the earth, grasp reality. Then the open wound heals over. Everything goes deaf again, goes mute and blind.’ ‘We are only prisoners of this life’.
The equation of experience and the word, so that the one is a constant substitute for the other and we might at any moment be reading of a reality or a word which comprehends it, is, of course, integral to this.
These ideas are not unusual, in fact they are quite a commonplace of modern poetry, as a way of defining what counts as truly modern poetry or all poetry which actually is poetry, insisting that poetry is more than an articulation of a pre-existing intent or an expressions of the self, whether the scope of it is large or small, whether the distinction is made with the help of formal procedures or not. This ethic is, for instance, the main basis of most complaints against a lot of popular poetry, that the poetry is used to enwrap and vaunt the heroic self. In France, through du Bouchet and others, this insistence was given a particular emphasis, centred on the words “silence” and “nothing”, and probably an air of Catholic spirituality, but it is part of a widespread reaction against poets thought of, often unfairly, as romantic or bourgeois. But it is important that du Bouchet does not say that poetry is silence or nothingness or that they constitute its thematic substance; they are only the source or base layer of the act of true poetical creation, the state of mind which facilitates the emergence of a real poem by eliminating temporality. It has, of course, a distinctly Buddhist air to it, though I know nothing of any authorial belief.
DU BOUCHET’S CONSOLIDATION and extensions of his position regarding poetical language, once established, inform all his subsequent work, from poems of two or three words (and a great deal of space) to book-length texts. As noted for “Term” the poems are, in spite of the sense of meditational suspense, not philosophical in cast; they are interested in action, which takes the form of the adventures of “I” within the verbal landscape. They behave like scenarios, narratives, or sometimes framed discourses, in a richness and tension made possible by the never complete divorce from the world of particulars and personal events which we are always drawn back to, if only by hinting, of only reluctantly. The texture also becomes more complicated and can be singularly difficult, though I think that all problems should in principle be dissolvable by coming to an understanding of the words as simultaneously referred and unreferred agents. The central section of the book opens out into a rich poetical writing acutely aware of the ranges of reverberation, tension, and lyricism (especially at endings) now made possible.
The most substantial work in the book (though not the longest) is “The White Motor”, a sequence of fifteen poems in which he goes through his usual procedures with his distinctive vocabulary, the “big” terms (mountain, wind, stone, light etc.) walked though in the company of unforeseen details, pushed forward into wider spaces and pulled back towards home, with an additional sense of sequentiality. “White” is a major term which he seems to use as a sign of motivation, as the desired or sometimes dreaded thing which impels him to walk/write, sometimes perhaps the empty paper page. But the set also involves us in a hinted narration of more intimate events or situations. We start off as usual with “I”, again walking, again beset with nouns and verbs great and small which have to be navigated through, celebrating or lamenting (or both at once) the loss of self; “we” is introduced in poem 10; “we” is a divided entity in poem 14, where a “you” [tu] enters, and the last poem has a strong feeling of aftermath and ending (“the silence that claims us, like a vast field”). The scattered hint of a personal story doesn’t prevent this ending from suggesting death, as most of du Bouchet’s endings do because of the totalising effect of his mode. Poem 6 —
I walk, joined with fire, in the uncertain paper mingled with air, the unprimed earth. I lend my arm to the wind.
I go no farther than my paper. Far before me, it fills a ravine. A bit
farther, in the field, we are almost level [à égalité]*. Knee-deep in stones.
Nearby they speak of wounds, and a tree. I see myself in what they say [Je me reconnais]*. That I not be mad. That my eyes not become as weak as the earth.
[Note—à égalité: yes, level, but horizontally, “neck and neck”
*Je me reconnais: surely not! Auster adds “in what they say”. My sturdy dictionary assures me that “Je me reconnais” is “I pull myself together”, “I gather my thoughts”, which makes a far better sequence into “That I not be mad”. Du Bouchet’s wording is always more likely to be rational than irrational. The irrationality lies in the refusal of identifiable context. —P.R.]
THIS IS A fine, and typical, piece of middle-period du Bouchet. Does it need explaining? Is help called for? “I walk, joined with fire.” The answer to “What does this mean?” is “This is what happened.” It’s not literal, otherwise it would be an early cinema comedy routine, but this is poetry, which is not necessarily literal in a rational sense which would not admit figuration, and yet it is perfectly literal in the sense that nothing is being coded or concealed. As far as I can see, once the status of contextless language is understood, there should not be any major problems, especially as a fragmentary context is interwoven. It is not necessary to translate any of the terms; nothing “stands for” anything else.
It does seem reasonable to read “paper” as referring to the act of writing (also “white” and “snow” when these words occur) and du Bouchet himself seems to suggest as much. But the connection cannot be fixed, especially when the “paper” is so volatile: first he walks in it (and fire does not, apparently, burn it), then it is a long way in front of and below him in a ravine, then it is alongside him in a race. Stages of the creative process? Perhaps, but the correspondences cannot be fixed. There is often this kind of doubt in du Bouchet’s texts about the status of dominant terms, whether they should lean towards symbolism or not, and this may be the poet’s own doubt.
Neither can we interpret all the events of the poem as inner, or psychological, events, for they do not lend themselves to the process, being mostly too pure, and the processes they undergo not sufficiently conflictual. To some ears the tone, of the opening of Poem VI for instance, might sound “apocalyptic” 3 and reminiscent of the much dreaded British “New Apocalypse” poets of the 1940s (who interest me very much) and indeed there is a similarity in the independent lives the images live, but there is also the counterweight to remind us that as against all those fireworks all that is happening here is that the poet is going for a walk, as usual, and the deliberation of the tone assures us of that.
The third paragraph is of course the section which lifts itself out of the quasi-symbolic arena, not in a highly contrastive manner, but I read it as the introduction of a real, experienced, event, a fragment of conversation overheard, perhaps, during the walk, which brings out the dramatic quality so easily overlooked in his writing. It is a brush against objective reality at which the poet recoils, pulls himself together, as if the essentially solitary and disconnected trajectory, with its separation from human concourse, is threatening his mind, and diminishing his vision.
THE WORK OF this middle period (about twenty years centred on 1960) made du Bouchet’s name and remain for me probably the richest period of his writing. This is partly because the texts still generally look like, and read like, poems, especially those from Dans la Chaleur Vacante (1961). The spacing is generous but not excessive and there is a compactness in the writing. In the next book, Où le Soleil (1968), even just skimming through shows at once an increase in blank space, and in that respect the “Late Poems” section really begins here, though the emptiness is not fully dominant. A particular format which he used more and more consists of one to four “lines” spaced down each page, each forming a sentence or phrase but divided into smaller units by mid-line spaces or dropped lineation. The book Rapides (1980), one work in nearly 200 pages, is entirely in this format, which is more one of interrupted and spaced-out prose than poetry.
The question of blank space in du Bouchet’s poetry and that of his followers is fraught. In his late phase he was composing on the drawing-board, creating a typescript and then cutting it up into mostly short verbal units which he then pasted onto a fresh page. A great deal has been claimed for his excessive spacing but I remain convinced that blank space cannot in itself bear semantic substance. It is essentially a pause even if it takes the whole page. Hoyt Rogers speaks of it in his Introduction4 as a transformative and extending medium. The blanks are “teeming”; they “denote the poetic process in itself”; the “seething silence that underlies speech”. But with what can they “teem” except silence and nothingness? (“silence” and “nothing” have “special meanings” in French poetry, of course) What all this unprinted paper certainly cannot do is make du Bouchet into some kind of visual artist, in “a fusion of painting and literature”, “approaching sculpture”. Like most other twentieth-century French poets he was very involved in the visual arts, especially his friend Giacometti, whose portrait drawing of du Bouchet forms the frontispiece. You could try likening du Bouchet’s spaces to the way the lines of the drawing let through the light because there is no block shading, or the drawing seems to hover on the edge of script, but those tensions in the drawing are created by the lines, which are entirely responsible for the open texture. I prefer to think that du Bouchet’s use of space is more like a representation of the slow thinking and meditating process of composition, as if a half-page blank represents a particularly tough process of locating the next word, whether the representation is of actual or fictional writing experience. You might say there is representation of thoughtfulness in the spacing, though it could as easily be representation of waiting. But all that really occupies that emptiness is the tension between the word before it and the one after it whether that is felt in a positive, patient sense or not.
There are changes in the late poetry, notably of a greater fluidity, a less categorical apportioning of language between different semantic functions. What I have called the “realistic” interventions become woven into the fabric of the entire piece. There is also a kind of lightness, especially in handling endings, which could be called lyrical, and is often laden with regret. Here is the poem “Flash of Light”, outrageously compressed from its original three-page length—
[most of first page blank]
______I was a flash of light: you told me so._______at the end of
the other day, your lips called me
_______________________a flash of light
____________________________…in the day,
of daylight.___each flash, buried in the scumble of mountains
—is a cheekbone of the face turned towards the air
coming at me …
_____before our eyes_____before our eyes.
… I go back – for there I turn to dust – back to the denseness
where you called me a flash of light
_______as, the other day, the daylight’s thirst.
[very big space]
____________________________…in the day, the flash
_________I merge with its denseness where, a cutting-edge
laid flat on its blade, you said that to me.
[Note—scumble: l’amas, which is a heap rather than an applied layer. Rogers slipping in a bit of Art here?—P.R.]
THERE SEEMS HERE to be not so strict a separation of the anecdotal and the symbolic (which I shall continue to call it, with various cautions understood), in fact the entire piece starts in the anecdotal mode and ends there; he sets out from that world, as if off on another symbolising walk, but returns to the real world, the world of mutability and of mortality — “I go back — for there I turn to dust”. He returns from the ethereal world of words to the “denseness” of the actual and “merges with it”.5 His technique for handling non-contextual language has been turned, almost, into a metaphorical technique for representing the contextual sphere. The world he previously departed from to reach his poetry is becoming where he lives. The final epithet for that world, “a cutting edge laid flat on its blade” is exactly the kind of “impossible” formulation you can get when words are allowed to live their own lives, not subject to the rational demands of a sense of reality. The text has become more like a figuring of the contradictory qualities of this lower world, where, perhaps, the words spoken to him form a “cutting edge” which is not at the edge but on the flat “blade”, as if nowhere is safe. When those words were first spoken to him he seemed glad of it, but now he seems to realise that a “flash” is a very temporary thing, lost in the breadth of daylight. Interpretation of the details of modernist poetry almost always ends up with a “perhaps” structure. Whatever we make of that phrase it is admittedly strange to end a quite substantial poem with an impossible image and leave the reader to sort it out.
Du Bouchet became prolific in his later years, and from the large quantity of books and notebooks he produced we obviously have a judicious and varied selection in the final part of the book. Most of it gives the impression of a merging of the spheres, of his poetical technique turned towards immediate perception of the world at large (though without much, or any, particularity) rather than inhabiting its own distinct zone. The tension was present in his earliest work, and there are still resurgences of his central technique; simply there is less walking (and what there is of it is not so steadfastly solitary, “I” giving place to “we”) and less of “the mountain”. There is a more diverse or scattered texture, a sparseness in the vocabulary, and more echoic repetition of terms within a piece, some of which, at beginnings and endings, suggests the echoes of a formal framework.
We are in what he calls “the given world”, the world of mutation and mortality which reacts almost physically to our perception (or artistic perception) of it – “this is how the given world’s fatigue, its freshness, cracks and flowers” (p.219). The poem is called “Painting” and the scene, not described but partly enumerated, could be real or painted, and the agent whose perception of contraries activates this world could be the poet or the painter. It ends
that, once we have reached the thing we desired,
it may slip away into an infinite otherness.____________no
illusion if the window returning the color of its light to the
blue we do not see, is for ever merged with
that blue. who, then, will say the name of recognised things?
already, through our waiting, they have flowered.
This poem shows not only the more reflective nature of much of the later poetry, but also the compaction of the action into something like a scenario, or a discourse recognisably concerned with one subject or cohered quasi-formally by repetition (as in “Flash of Light”).
There is also a lot of thinness, a lot of reduction of the world to bare categories floating in space. I was drawn fortuitously to the short sequence called “Crete”, having shortly returned from there when the book arrived, anticipating some shareable local colour, a thing I always appreciate, but there is no chance of that. Colour is, after all, absorbed into the invisibility of the idea of itself. The set contains one vaguely local word, the first: “Byzantium / in this rock [le caillou]” . This is followed by six extremely sparse pages of abstract terms, generalised landscape and isolated particulars, all meticulously set against each other as signs of perceptual process, before coming, after an immense blank space, to this tender, lyrical and wistful ending —
to leave, then, like the snow.___without seeing
It was of course the poetry which erased sight and sound, not only in his departure from Crete but during his presence there. This is one of the gloomiest lessons of du Bouchet’s poetry, that the text erases the poet and everything he experiences, replacing it with a written absence. It could be objected that it is thus because du Bouchet makes it thus. But it is nevertheless a touching notation of the loss of experience as a natural process.
“MODERNIST” SEEMS A good category for du Bouchet, placing him in such wildly disparate company as Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Wallace Stevens, Paul Celan and many others, all arguably united in spite of everything, by some kind of prioritising of the word which disrupts articulation. The main trouble is that that prioritisation is taken as more than descriptive but also prescriptive, and poets not committed to it wholeheartedly become “compromised”. But it is not a revolutionary ideal, it is a literary technique and can not appropriate modernity to itself. The anonymity or impersonal authority which modernists sought can be reached by other means.
My purposes in writing about a modernist poetry are always the same: to point to what is actually going on in it and suggest ways of reading it, to set yourself the task of focus, to labour at the possibility of enjoying it, and then to note the problems that come with it. For they always do – creating problems is part of the job description of the modernist poet. There will be technical problems, of which du Bouchet has plenty, especially when his verbal formulations are drawn so far from practiced language use as to become unreadable however much we strain to sympathise with the ethic of paradox. Du Bouchet said in a 1953 notebook, “Readable / poet … / I no more ask to be read / than reality” showing a typical modernist poet’s contempt for the reader (and a rather strained analogy); this is the sort of thing that gets him defined as “a poets’ poet” (like Mallarmé), whatever creature that is, as if poets have privileged access to forms of wisdom from which the rest of humanity is excluded. But it is also a necessary withdrawal from ambition in order to achieve an objective poetical modernity, hermetic not in the sense of sealed or concealed, but in the sense of “I want to keep myself in a state of poverty and not of knowledge in relation to the world,” as du Bouchet wrote in his notebook.
This all makes it difficult to know what is the final value of a body of work such as du Bouchet’s and to remain in a state of uncertainty about it seems to me a perfectly acceptable response, perhaps a necessary one, regarding most Modernist poets. This might involve getting excited about the inventiveness while getting tired of the perversity. In du Bouchet’s case I don’t think there can be any final definition of a totalising discourse in which every graspable positive is also a negative sooner or later and vice versa. The editors both emphasise the negative side of du Bouchet’s “message”. Very aware of the climate of French poetry in the last century, Rogers invokes terms such as silence, nothing, absence, as necessarily fundamental conditions of human understanding, relished as negatives, and sees du Bouchet’s work as a quest to reach “outside” — outside the limits of language, outside the constraints of human consciousness, and finally outside existence itself, in a state of “breathtaking purity”. “All he professes is that beyond our limits there is otherness”. These are surely religious concepts, for if we are addressed from beyond existence where but Heaven or Hell can that be except for some simulacrum of these other worlds in the mind?
Paul Auster similarly (in the Preface to his 1976 translations) says things like, “Born of deepest silence, and condemned to a life without hope of life […] the poetry of André du Bouchet stands in the end, as an act of survival,” and that the poem occupies “…space: that is to say, this void this nowhere between sky and earth, rediscovered with each step that is taken.”
It is not that I think such statements, from either editor, are wrong – they come out of the most thorough knowledge of the poet’s works, can be perfectly justified with reference to the texts and du Bouchet would probably endorse them. Indeed they emphasise the ennui which underlies his writing. But I don’t think they are the end; there must be more. Reading through this book I seem to have witnessed many signs of pleasure, especially the craftsman’s pleasure at a task satisfactorily completed, and over and above the poet’s statement that “there is no hope” the denial of that in his own breath.
This collection is both necessary and overdue. It is an introduction which will hopefully lead people to be aware of the extent of du Bouchet’s work and the inexhaustible mass of intelligent perceptual investigation it passionately delivers.
A postscript concerning translation.
I HAVE MENTIONED that I have had problems with the translations and indeed I have. But they are not reading problems – they are citation problems, for when quoting I need to be sure I show exactly what the poet wrote as near as possible, and that is not always what we get on the rectos. We sometimes get differences, which are not mistakes, for both translators are French linguists of the highest degree. They are deliberate shifts and replacements which relate to a theory of “creative translation” which is common to modernism everywhere, reaching in its most extreme manifestations as far as “Whatever you do don’t let anyone know what the words say”. Rogers speaks of this in his Introduction, with reference to du Bouchet’s own translations from German, which were wrongly criticised for “minor semantic shifts”.
“Whereas conventional translation starts with source language and aims at a target language, for du Bouchet both source and target lay elsewhere: in the unspoken, at the threshold where poetry begins to form,” he writes. It is one of the sad, and elitist, conditions of modernism that honest painstaking work towards accurate cross-language representation should be automatically labelled “conventional” and “slavish” on the basis of chthonic fantasies of mystical inspiration, dark etymological zones which underlie languages. If you cannot bear not to be a poet then of course you must create your own poems instead of translating, which is fine except when you’re supposed to be helping someone to know what’s going on. The translators of du Bouchet make a fine job of this, but both are happy to enrich the text by allowing secondary senses to accumulate onto the word, which can easily happen when working from French to English, neglecting a sparseness which is an important feature of the originals. One is reminded that Beckett chose to write in French because it was more cut and dried than English. Thus “jusqu’à nous” becomes “up to us” which includes a sense of responsibility absent from the French, “le vent plie”, the wind folds, becomes “the wind buckled under” and quite a few more of this kind. Auster is particularly liable to a cavalier dealing with such things as definite articles and relative pronouns, as if they make no difference. There is even an occasional habit of donating a religious overtone. In “Crete” concerning a stubbed toe, “L’ongle incarné” which is plain French for an ingrowing toenail, becomes “the incarnate toe”, which sounds rather like a small detail of the Trinity.
Du Bouchet apparently himself subscribes to these ideas about translation, for in conversation with Hoyt Rogers he recommended the translation of “hier / un instant / et / les rêches” – yesterday / a moment /and // [rêches: harsh, rough things, as applied to surface, wine, character etc.] – as: “yesterday / through and through / riddled // rough”. The equivalence of French and English in such passages is a theoretical matter. It all depends, of course, who the translation is for, those who know French or those who don’t. The latter are liable to get not so much short-changed as over-paid.
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 (including The Glacial Stairway [Carcanet, 2011]) – and some of prose. He lives in Yorkshire and is the recipient of a 2012 Cholmondeley Award for poetry.
Note: Updated 14 April to reflect two minor alterations to correct editing errors.
- The religious implication here seems to me intrusive; “tendu” is the past participle of a much used verb with many definitions, mostly involving extending, installing, offering, leading… The word comes within one letter of being “tenu” which could mean “redeemed” in the sense of a promise fulfilled. ↩
- The Uninhabited: Selected poems of André du Bouchet; Living Hand Press, NY. ↩
- In view of a fortuitous verbal echo from Twin Peaks perhaps I should assure everyone at this point that there is no mysticism involved, neither actual nor stage-and-screen. ↩
- An adaptation of the Introduction appears in The Fortnightly here. ↩
- Having written this, I notice that in the poem the direction of “there” is entirely ambiguous, in French as in English. There, where I turn to dust, could indicate “where I go back to”, and it could as easily indicate the opposite, “where I was going to go”. The mundane home, or the outer spaces of poetry, either of these could be where we turn to dust. The latter conveys of course the complete opposite of my interpretation, but is slightly more logical. I can only look upon this crux as a fault in the decontextualising system. ↩