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Bonnefoy: Image and poiesis.

Commentary on The Arrière-pays and The Present Hour
Two new books by Yves Bonnefoy.



IT IS POSSIBLE that our earliest image-making efforts were mnemonics for survival. That in holding so vividly certain images in our head we stood a better chance of withstanding or eluding the powers those images embodied. Amnesia here could have been death; effective mimicry survival.

Then at the other end of our tradition (in modernity) a different sort of survival comes to be at stake: the survival of imagination, without which mechanization does indeed take command; without which we become neither more nor less than the automatons of our own alien creations, puppets of an alienated productivity. Without this pulse of imagination passing through it, the organism risks being rendered sterile and thing-like, the situation so brilliantly parodied in Chaplin’s Modern Times, when Charlot is swallowed by the vast machine he is meant to be tending, as the midnight shepherd tended sheep. Our creations consume us and we are smothered by the very atmosphere we have fashioned around ourselves.

Mandelstam in the transit camp composing in his head verses which the machinery of destruction around him did not permit him to write down; or Blake no sooner reading Ezekiel’s words on the page than seeing him on the far side of the table, hearing his ancient voice as clearly as Catherine’s – these figures might connect us to prehistory, and the terms of our precarious survival in it. Such freaks of modernity could be read as traces of the preternatural image-making gift that we find traces of in Le Chauvet or Lascaux. On this reading, Blake’s eidetic faculty might be seen as more recursive than eccentric.


Dossier: Yves Bonnefoy. Commentary and translations by Anthony Rudolf, Alan Wall, Hoyt Rogers, Beverley Bie Brahic. Index.

IMAGES ARE AT the centre of the dynamic of both poetry and painting. The image, as Pound understood, is a vortex into which manifold energies flow; those energies fuel its vibrant form. The vortex is singularly appropriate as an image to encapsulate image-making because it absorbs energy, expresses energy, and simultaneously sustains energetic form. Poets and painters have often fed off each other’s work. Sometimes, as with Blake and David Jones, the poet and painter cohabit in one person. Blake was perhaps the greatest illustrator who has ever lived, because his obsessive literalism as he read, for instance, Shakespeare, was matched by a visual precision which could translate the lines into visual images. Shakespeare’s congeries of images can seem like an exploding emblem; Blake painstakingly puts the emblem back together, image by image.


presenthour150BETWEEN 1890 AND 1922, developments occur in manifold fields. In science we have the movement known as Descriptionism, which insisted that science explained nothing, but simply had to find the most economic and lucid way of describing its observations. Science was to be, in Karl Pearson’s formulation, the ‘economy of thought’. During the same period the quantum is discovered, and the implications of discontinuity in the physical world require a whole new manner of exploration. The ‘physical world’ is no longer to be viewed as a field of infinite attenuation and gradation, as classical physics assumed; it is quantized. It takes this form or that, nothing in-between; there is no in-between for it to take. In painting Picasso moves from the convincing realistic superficialities of his paintings of the 1890s to the radicalism of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon, where form asserts its supremacy over any scheme of finely attenuated detail. The medium starts to be foregrounded. We move from Rodin’s Kiss to Brancusi’s return upon it, which celebrates the limestone into which the images are cut, rather than pretending it might be seen as flesh. The linguistic turn insists on the materiality of language, and how all thought expresses itself through linguistic structuring and entanglement. And in the midst of all this the two movements Pound was associated with, Imagism and Vorticism, try to cut away all that is inessential from the poetic image (the sculptural metaphor feels unavoidable). Let the image stand alone, expressed through a syntax of muscularity, with no spare word, and no rhetoric to distract from the supremacy of its form. If science in Descriptionism is economy of thought, the image here represents an economy of formal presentation. One of its most famous examples is Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Pound explained that he had started with something much longer, more entangled in discourse and rhetoric. He cut away until he was left with this. He wanted only the essential statement, as Wittgenstein sought it in the sequence of propositions that constitute his Tractatus. Only that which can be said precisely should be said at all.


CAN AN IMAGE stand alone? If an image is alone it is because it is really in the midst of a silent or invisible constellation. An image alone has no inherent meaning. The image of the sun in the Ptolemaic schema was a big bright planet orbiting our own; in the Copernican schema it was the centre of our local astronomy. In both cases, the image of the isolated sun might well have been identical. Its significance changed according to what it signified within the new system. Augustine reminded us that the hippogriff means what it means, not because of its provenance, but because of its function. Signs gain their meaning inside a signifying system.


THE POET OBSESSED with painting often engages in ekphrasis; which is to say the translation of the visual image into the verbal image. This translation is from one language to another, and like all translation worthy of the name, it starts from an admission of impossibility: you cannot in fact translate from one language to another. The words, the syntax, and the forms of life, are so very different. And yet we try. The better the poet, the more fascinating will be the transposition of images out of the picture frame and into the sentence.

The images in The Arrière-pays are…points where the compass quivers, so that we might locate ourselves the more surely.

Jean-Luc Godard in his Histoire(s) du Cinema marvels at the way in which Hitchcock so floods a filmic image with luminosity that it effectively floats free of the narrative out of which it arose, its original diegesis. These cinematic moments become luminous with preternatural power: they transcend. They correspond to Wordsworth’s spots of time, vortices in which chronology dissolves, and chronos becomes kairos, the mere succession of time transmuted into transfixed moments. Bonnefoy describes the same moment in Yeats: ‘Illuminating, transfiguring, with Yeats beauty gathers into an image, in a brusque and transitory flare…’ Here Yeats stands together with Pater, and they are both of them staring at a picture, in whose implicate order time has transcended mechanical chronology, and become intense and concentrated with significance. All the images in The Arrière-pays (translated by Stephen Romer and published last year by Seagull Books) are of this order. They are points where the compass quivers, so that we might locate ourselves the more surely.


THE POSTCARDS WHICH Walter Benjamin kept close at hand were emblematic moments of topographic and temporal significance; spots of time in a new form of reproduction that had come into existence at the same moment as Benjamin himself. These pictorial cards that meant so much to him uttered a world in a specific moment, through the specificities of printed form. Bonnefoy seems to feel the same way about the images he meditates on here. He also seems to feel pretty much the same way about the images he creates in words, in his own poems.

The twentieth century was the century of the postcard, as it was that of the cinema. What does it mean for a poet to live in a world so bespattered with images, so inescapably imagistic? The inescapability of the image in modernity is one of the conditions of life. A little while back an icon meant a sacred image revered by worshippers of the Orthodox tradition. You might wish to revere it; you might wish to smash it to pieces. Then it came to mean a glamorous figure in the world of showbiz, generating photographs like confetti. Now it means a little emblem to drag your cursor over, before clicking on your mouse. It might even provide you with emoticons, smiling or frowning faces, often as yellow as the sun’s disc, which recapitulate the masks of comedy and tragedy in antiquity. So, no escaping images then, even in the midst of our word-processing.


In The Present Hour…the abstract signs of language are employed to evoke specificities: images, memories, complex constellations of animus and desire.

IMAGES CHANGE THEIR mode of production and reproduction. The first two poems in The Present Hour (translated by Beverley Bie Brahic and to be published by Seagull Books in November 2013) deal with old photographs, interrogating them and the memories they embody and evoke. It is the weird entrapments of the present in a photograph that snags Bonnefoy’s mind. Here appears a present that is now past, and yet a glimpse of the presentness of that long-gone instant remains, even if it is no more than a tatter blowing in chronology’s wind. There is still a truth to be found in it, however problematical and elliptical. We can only find it in the image itself through an exploration of that non-sensuous mimesis which is language. The abstract signs of language are employed to evoke specificities: images, memories, complex constellations of animus and desire. That is the work a poem does.


BONNEFOY IN HIS poems and prose is often inside a De Chirico painting. Surreal successions of events and images succeed one another, without the customary requirements or expectations of verisimilitude. They have a dream-like vividness and immediacy, and as in a dream each figure announces its own reason in the mere fact of its arrival. We have the same sort of succession of images in The Arrière-pays: the images are there in the sequence in which they occur because that was memory’s requirement, not chronology’s. In the poems Greek gods and goddesses step out of the shadows, often with a certain amount of erotic promise, and then disappear again.


THERE IS NO photograph of Wordsworth, though he lived until 1850, well into the age of photography. Presumably he didn’t wish to be photographed, any more than he wished the railways to cut a route through his beloved Cumbria. These were aspects of modernity he could do without. He was very fond of a particular  engraving of himself in old age, so it wasn’t any form of iconoclasm. Perhaps he didn’t believe enough truth could find its way into those few moments of exposure. Art needs to see more than a single monocular blink, with or without a neck-brace. Perhaps he regarded the mechanization of image-making as one more wave in what Yeats called ‘the filthy modern tide’. The spots of time did not have time to intensify and develop on those old developing plates.


METAPHOR WE ARE told is at the heart of poetry. Poetry is committed to metaphor, as prose is committed to metonymy. The latter makes its way along its syntagmatic highway, putting one foot after the other. But poetry leaps up the stepping-stones, from noun to noun, in a paradigmatic bound. Keeping the nouns lithe and versatile, pushing them endlessly towards verbs, rather than settling down into any nominal contentment, with a circle of smaller nouns gathered round, ready to call you father. Or even ask your name, as Moses asks Yahweh in Exodus. To which Yahweh replies, ‘I will be what I will be.’


EZRA POUND CAME to believe that the twentieth century died on the day that Henri Gaudier was killed on the western front. This figure, brilliant sculptor that he was, represented for Pound the new Renaissance. His death was western civilization’s reply to what it would do with such a Renaissance man: kill him. Turn him from verb to noun, from living force to the inhabitant of a coffin, that most static noun of all: a corpse.


Poetry keeps prizing open the coffin lid.

Dead eyes. Bonnard. Hitchcock

My eyes are dead.
Not blind. I’m not.
But my eyes are dead.

Some skimping electromagnetic devil’s
stripped their colours
the way you steam glue from an envelope.

So, that’s me. Opened and read
if clearly colourless.
One dead letter landed at GCHQ and decoded.

Pierre Bonnard
in all his self-portraits
painted his eyes blank

as though a ravening rainbow
had clawed them
vengefully, to keep him honest.

Like the neighbour in Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Dead himself, but not nearly as dead as his eyes
ravaged by fresh furies; one posthumous meal

before they fly away
to another kingdom.
(This last line is missing, the same as his eyes.)

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, lives in North Wales, and studied English at Oxford. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester. His book Endtimes has just been published by Shearsman Books. and a collection of his essays is forthcoming from Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review‘s publishing imprint.

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