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Pierre Chappuis. 6 January 1930 – 22 December 2020.

In Memoriam.

 

By JOHN TAYLOR.

.

WE HAD BEEN in touch for a month when we shook hands on 10 March 2012. I had translated six of his poems for the anthology Modern and Contemporary Swiss Poetry (Dalkey Archive) and we had corresponded about my versions. In the process, I had become acquainted with Pierre’s rigor, frankness, wry humor, and fraternal openheartedness. If many literary relationships remain strictly professional and are all the better for that, Pierre, a discreet man who eschewed hypocrisy and avoided literary socializing, had spontaneously opened his door to a deeper dialogue.

Even if the anthology was not ready to be printed, it was going to be presented at the 4 + 1 Translation Festival in Vevey. The editor of the anthology, Luzius Kellar, the translator Donal McLaughlin, and I were invited to talk about it during a roundtable discussion at the local theater. Characteristically, Pierre took the trouble of making the day trip, by train, from Neuchâtel to Vevey so that we could meet. He got up very early to arrive in time for the event, scheduled for mid-morning. Just before the discussion began, a tall man with short white hair entered the back of theater, sat down, and waved a sign of acknowledgment to me, already onstage. Afterwards, we shared a very good bottle of white wine from a Lavaux vineyard, which was Pierre’s knowing choice. Two other fine Swiss poets also translated by me for the anthology, Sylviane Dupuis and François Debluë, were sitting with us in the well-lit café not far from the marketplace. Pierre and I, catching each other’s eye across the table—and we confirmed our mutual impression at a later date—knew that our relationship would go beyond those six haiku-like poems with their titles at the end, not the beginning, of each piece. As we were taking leave, Pierre somewhat shyly gave me a signed copy of Pleines marges (Full Margins), from which the six pieces had been chosen, as well as a paperback volume comprising Soustrait au temps (Abstracted from Time). He commented: “Because you told me that you were interested in prose poetry. . .”

Pierre was intent…on a multilayered translation of such phenomena in stylistic ways that engage the very rudiments of language, notably sound, rhythm, and word order.

Not long after that meeting in Vevey, I began translating the Schumann-inspired poetic prose texts of Abstracted from Time—Pierre was a knowledgeable music lover—as well as all the other short poems of Full Margins. The latter remains, arguably, his best-known book. Among other themes, the title observes the plenitude that can be experienced in the margins, at the edges of natural phenomena, on the sidelines where the poet stands, separated by a gap that he must endeavor to narrow with language. Pierre was intent, not only on an evocation of, but indeed on a multilayered translation of such phenomena in stylistic ways that engage the very rudiments of language, notably sound, rhythm, and word order. In our early correspondence, as I was rendering his poetic prose, Pierre explained to me that my semantic interpretations were “judicious” and “convincing” but that I had not yet found an equivalent for his syntax, which, he reminded me, often reflects the multifarious “flow” of water. To his ear, my initial versions were too “smooth.” In one of the succinct notes of The Proof is in the Void, a collection of critical remarks many of which I would also translate, he writes: “May words, sentences, sounds, movements, ruptures, appeals, oppositions, whirlpools, should they fail to be the respiration, the life of the water itself, find a way to be—indeed, by mimesis—the verbal equivalent.”

“Chappuis’s sentences,” as I was to add in my translator’s introduction to his Like Bits of Wind: Selected Poetry and Poetic Prose 1974-2014 (Seagull Books), “are like watercourses that are subject to counter-currents and eddies and yet they remain fluid in the reader’s mind….His poetic prose attempts to render this aqueous complexity,” I continued, “appealing not only to sometimes uncommon arrangements of words but also, characteristically, to parenthetical incises. Such inserts, at times italicized, enable him to reproduce the intricate, discontinuous, movements of thinking, of sensibility (for emotion is intimately engaged in the process)—and, ideally, the prose poem, taken as a whole, also forms a kind of music.”

The challenge was one of the most difficult that I have encountered as a translator. I needed to bend and pry and sometimes break and re-construct our English syntax into poetic prose that would be faithful to Pierre’s meaning and “music” but that would also avoid convolutedness. Pierre kept telling me how little English he knew. Chuckling, he would declare that my versions were reviving his school-learnt English going back some seventy years. He was being overly modest. His English was in fact quite good and he liked to drop colloquial expressions into his correspondence or conversations with me, otherwise exclusively in French. When we were debating a word choice, one of his favorite quips was “It’s up to you!”

He shared a quest with his friend, André du Bouchet, to bring words as close as possible to the intricacy of the primary perception.

This said, it is true that his references tended to be French, though not exclusively so. He would bring up the German romantic authors, some Chinese and Japanese poets as well. In his collection of prose texts Muettes émergences (“Mute emergences,” published in France by José Corti, as many of Pierre’s books are), appear French writers and poets ranging from Ronsard, Stendhal, Nerval, Rimbaud, and Proust to Gustave Roud, Julien Gracq, Anne Perrier, René Char, and Christian Hubin. Pierre Reverdy often crops up in Pierre’s writings. But I especially remember him evoking Mallarmé and Ponge, their respective meditations on the abstractions of poetic language, at desirable or undesirable removes from down-to-earth reality, and, in contrast, in regard to the latter poet, the possibilities of approaching things-in-themselves. However, it is very possible that our conversations encompassed no representative sampling of all the “influences” that Pierre had studied deeply and then perhaps countered or ultimately rejected while he was forging a path to his own distinctive poetics. One might be tempted to compare him stylistically to Mallarmé, in particular the poetic prose, but it seems to me that their approaches are otherwise diametrically opposed. In any case, Pierre’s poetics of perception had been “encouraged”—I think that this was his term—by the example of his friend André du Bouchet’s poetry. Both poets shared a quest to bring words as close as possible to the intricacy of the primary perception.

The competence in English of his wonderfully gentle and bright wife Geneviève, who died in November 2017, was even better. She would read my translation manuscripts on which I would explain tricky decisions that I had made and raise queries about particularly resonant polysemic words or phrases. Pierre and Geneviève would also make comments and ask me questions. Although I would ultimately make the final translation decisions, I welcomed this opportunity to learn from Pierre’s insights and intentions, especially when confronted with a poetry of such linguistic intricacy and occasional intertextuality. Our back-and-forth commentary by e-mail, or our tête-à-tête talks about such matters, led us into other realms: how strolling or hiking had been important to his literary inspiration; his love for art and his search for what artists can teach us about perception; his special affection and admiration for the paintings of his close friend André Siron (1926-2007), one large canvas of whom illumined a living-room wall with lovely shades of green; or our common Protestant background, whose teachings Pierre rejected all the while acknowledging their probable effect on his personal makeup. If a metaphysical horizon seems absent from his poetic and philosophical outlook, ever oriented towards life in the here and now, it can be said that he shares with other French-language poets from the same generation—Yves Bonnefoy, Philippe Jaccottet, André du Bouchet, and Pierre-Albert Jourdan come to mind—a scrutiny of what might be termed “the nature of Nature.”

PIERRE ESSENTIALLY WIELDED two different writing styles. His verse poetry is very short and elliptic, like mysterious brushstrokes capturing fleeting sense impressions. As I have pointed out, his somewhat more expansive poetic prose often departs from colloquial naturalness in order to create certain effects; the very order of the words attempts to mirror the rhythmic variability and the disjointedness or fragmentation at the very heart of our fugacious perceptive experience.  For the selection published by Seagull, I ended up translating six of his books—Full Margins, Blind Distance, Abstracted from Time, The Black of Summer, Within the Voice’s Reach, and Cuts—plus a sampling from The Proof is in the Void, a key book for understanding his literary ideas. Just before finishing my manuscript, I decided not to include some excerpts from a different kind of book, A Notebook of Clouds—about which more below.

Beginning two years after my first meeting with Pierre in Vevey, and after I had spent a few hours with him twice in Paris, my wife Françoise and I would sometimes detour up to Neuchâtel on our long drive back to Angers, after visiting her mother in Aix-les-Bains. We would stay for a night at the Hôtel des Arts, around the corner from Pierre and Geneviève’s ground-floor apartment on the rue des Beaux-Arts. The first time we made this trip we discovered, upon entering the hotel room, a bouquet of pink hortensia flowers. The bouquet was accompanied by a card featuring three horses, an illustration taken from one of the ceiling panels of the twelfth-century Saint Martin’s Church in Zillis. On the back, Pierre had jotted down the words: “Welcome! Take a rest and refresh yourselves a little and then join us whenever you wish—let’s say, after the siesta!” It was Pierre who had gone to the hotel before our arrival, asking the employee at the reception desk to place the flowers and card in our room. The big luminous flowers came from his own hortensias, which grow near a back porch, in fact a kind of perron, enabling one to go down a few steps, from the apartment, into an enclosed garden with a lawn and flowerbed. Pierre was intrigued by the fact that the hortensias, planted there by the previous owners and being a plant that normally grows only in half-shade, prospered so well in direct sunlight.

We often talked about gardening with him. Upon returning home from Neuchâtel that first time, we too planted some hortensias in our backyard, though with less success than Pierre. We kept him informed about their growth. For us, all our hortensias (for we have added still other specimens) are grouped together under the appellation “Les Hortensias de Pierre.”

The enclosed garden in Neuchâtel is lined on three sides with a tall dark-green shrub called “laurier palme” or “laurier cerise” in French. (The scientific name is prunus laurocerasus.) When I told Pierre that we also had some cherry laurel in our backyard and that I would prune the quick-growing branches with electric shears, he immediately admonished me: “Mais cela n’est pas dans les règles de l’art!” “But that’s not respecting the rules of the art (of gardening)!” He reminded me that cherry laurel should be pruned with hand shears, branch by branch, in a way guaranteeing as many flowers as possible in the spring. Near the hortensias and rising in front of the back perron there are some grapevines whose bunches of unripe grapes he would cover with special sacks to protect them from the wasps. This precise attentiveness was characteristic of Pierre in many facets of his everyday life, not just when he was writing.

His friendships with others constantly involved such attentiveness and subtle touching gestures. On one occasion, when I was alone in Neuchâtel, a stopover that I had made so that I could see Pierre on my way to Biel for another writing project, I found waiting for me in my hotel room a prose poem that Pierre had had printed up, in a shop, in the form of a greeting card for me, José-Flore Tappy, and Pierre Voélin, two other essential Swiss poets whose books I had translated for The Bitter Oleander Press. We all had an appointment in the late afternoon at Pierre’s apartment. José-Flore would be arriving by train from Lausanne and Pierre driving over from Fribourg so that we could have dinner together. On the greeting card, next to the poem, there is a drawing by Paul Klee of a juggling tightrope walker perched dizzily on a kind of house of cards rising from the shoulder of a second fairground performer who, in turn, seems to be holding a piece of paper or is perhaps reading from it. Or is the house of cards actually the “double” of the second acrobat? Pierre’s poem evokes the scene and, implicitly, his own “juggling” with syntax. On the back of the greeting card, he had penned a dedication that evokes still another kind of juggling or acrobatic performance: translation. “To you, John,”, he wrote, “who have known so well how to be a tightrope walker while bringing my texts into English.” Here is my version of the prose poem:

Paul Klee once again,

his fairground entertainers (1916, 66, drawing), brothers of the tightrope walker (1923, 121), pen strokes by the same light hand, so light, the juggler similarly perched at the top of a most fragile construction (barely a house of cards) held up by two acrobats (or perhaps only one, in double), feet on the ground. Like this, figuratively—not a representation—on the slightest paper support, a wobbly construction, even if it responds to nothing that is possible, it holds together, makes a marvelous scaffolding of itself. Lifting ourselves landing by landing to the unsteady plank where the performer, with one foot in the air, tosses his juggling balls from one hand to the other, we have nothing at all to take up again, to prop back up, we are won over, immediately convinced. Acrobatics, with the weight on one hip: saltimbanque syntax (in Italian saltimbanco, “leap onto a bench”).

On another one of our trips to Neuchâtel, Françoise and I had dinner with Pierre, José-Flore, and Pierre Voélin. We had gone early to Pierre’s apartment to chat with him. A little later, as we were waiting for the two others to arrive for an aperitif before we would all drive out to an open-air restaurant at the far end of Lake Neuchâtel, Pierre got up from his armchair and began the preparations: covering a table, which we had carried out onto the perron, with a finely ironed tablecloth; setting out chinaware plates, crystal wine glasses, and a few small bowls containing nuts, olives, and, in two of them, little melon balls that he had scooped delicately from the fruit as if they were poems. The wine was an excellent Neuchâtel white, made from chasselas grapes. Upon our departure the next morning, as with every one of our departures from Neuchâtel, he gave us a bottle of that wine, commenting that his friendship would travel with us on our way back home. Before heading out of Neuchâtel, we lingered in his apartment until about ten, having a cup of coffee and one last conversation with him. Almost invisibly, Pierre was one of those hosts who made sure that every guest has what he or she wished or needed.

Indeed, when Pierre learned that Françoise was interested in Jean-Jacques Rousseau (of whom he was also a keen reader) and that she had hoped to see, but had missed, an exhibit featuring the philosopher’s herbier, the original pages of which are housed in the Neuchâtel University Library, he arranged a private visit for us. He had already donated some of his letters and literary papers to the library and thus knew the librarian responsible for such archives. But this privilege was exceptional. Accompanied by Pierre, the librarian ushered us down to the library basement, where we were able to admire the fragile pages on which Rousseau had attached botanical specimens and noted his observations. Pierre’s papers are housed on a shelf not far from the room where Rousseau’s papers are kept. This is where I would like my own voluminous correspondence with him to be filed.

After Seagull published Like Bits of Wind in 2016, I moved on to other translation projects, including Pierre Voélin’s poetry and two books by Philippe Jaccottet. Pierre and I remained in frequent contact and saw each other a couple of times during the following months. One day, as I had become a little nostalgic for our work together and remembering the several translated, yet unpublished, excerpts of his Notebook of Clouds—a rare and unusual book from 1989 that had never received the attention it deserved—I again leafed through it. In no time, I was translating the rest of those perceptions, odd facts, quotations, diary-like jottings, aphorisms, and poetic fragments all gathered around the theme of “clouds.”

While I was doing so, a word kept surfacing in my mind: “ridges.” The word had fascinated me ever since my childhood in the flatlands of Iowa. And this is how, while I was translating Pierre’s texts about clouds, I began filling a notebook with my own thoughts, memories, perceptions, and fragments—about ridges. At first, I jotted down memories deriving from hiking in the French Alps and then, after another two-week summer stay in an alpine village, on-the-spot perceptions which, in turn, induced still other memories of ridges, this time from the Rocky Mountains. Some of the ridges were real, others metaphorical. The notebook genre that Pierre had chosen for his cloud theme, and the various literary forms that he had employed while dealing with it, thus came to me as a gift, a liberation from literary habits and self-imposed strictures. By no means a provocateur by nature, Pierre nonetheless provoked. He provoked one to read differently, anew, not least by means of those italicized titles in parentheses at the end of his verse poetry and the spellbinding aqueous nature of his poetic prose. In the process, he provoked his reader to see reality anew.

Coincidentally, our mutual friend Marion Graf, the editor-in-chief of La Revue de Belles-Lettres, then asked me for a contribution to a special feature on Pierre which was to appear in the autumn 2017 issue. Our choice was a selection of my “ridges,” in a French translation and presented as a tribute to Pierre. We kept the secret until the issue was published. This is how Pierre learned that his notebook had stimulated me in an unexpected way. Not long afterwards, I confessed to him that I had an “idée farfelue,” a harebrained idea. What would he think about putting together our two notebooks and making a “double book”? And about trying to find an English-language publisher for it? He was enthusiastic. A little later, he came across a second notebook, also devoted to clouds; he had long thought that it had been lost. He photocopied it in the same shop where he had produced the Paul Klee greeting card and sent the pages to me. I typed them up and we made a selection, titling it the “Preliminary Notebook for the Notebook of Clouds.” To make a long story short, The Fortnightly Review published all of this, in 2018, in the Odd Volumes series, as a book called A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges. In his last message to me, Pierre reiterated his hope to see a French version of our “double book” appear one day. I responded that I would be making an inventory of what needed to be done. Sadly, this is where our correspondence ended.

Of the many fond memories of Pierre that emerge as I write this, let me recall the last time we saw him, on the morning of 20 June 2019. Françoise and I had a 750-kilometer drive ahead of us, but once again we lingered with him in his apartment, in fact longer than usual, drinking coffee and chatting. This time, he had led us onto the back perron, but then to the right into a veranda-like room in which we had never been before. The weather had been scorching hot and Pierre remarked that the relative coolness of that room would be pleasant. We must have talked for more than an hour. When Françoise and I finally resigned ourselves to leaving, so as to make sure that we would be able to make the long drive home in one day, Pierre guided us over to a table. Near it were countless books aligned on shelves, as well as a stereo music player and hundreds of CD’s, also carefully aligned, perhaps in alphabetical order. Yet this was not his study, which adjoined the living room and which was another book-filled space full of studious serenity, as the entire apartment in fact was. A calmness full of gentle light and generous friendship.

On the table, a wrapped package awaited us. Pierre’s present was a livre d’artiste consisting of one of his poems and an engraving by André Siron, whose work, thanks to Pierre, we had come to admire deeply. The engraving shows thin leaves as if rising in a gust of wind; but the leaves are also reminiscent of flames; or a flock of white terns suddenly taking wing, ascending; or a school of fish swimming up to the sunlight. As his translator, a question that I would like to ask him is whether he uses the word “feuilles” in this poem, not only in its obvious sense of “leaves” but also to suggest “sheets of paper,” a potential double meaning which, Whitman’s “leaves of grass” notwithstanding, remains much more possible in French than in English.  Perhaps this was Pierre’s intention. But it is doubtful. He was by no means inclined to draw attention to himself, let alone to himself as a poet. It was what lay outside the ephemeral self that mattered. It was the manifestations of Nature—of Being—that engaged his concentration. The poem points to the shimmering sense impressions that constantly urged him to approach their mystery through writing, to let them fertilize his sensibility and thereby his oeuvre, in itself a “vivier végétal,” as he puts it, a vegetal breeding ground or spawning pond, what I’d like to render here as “a spawner of plant life”:

With all its leaves,
a spawner of plant life.

Utterly,
squeezed together, impatient,
they are stirring,
quivering, countless,
flank against flank.

Utterly,
leaps and scintillations.

A spawner of plant life.

—John Taylor


John Taylor and Pierre Chappuis were interviewed by Laura Marris, for the website Reading in Translation, about A Notebook of Clouds & A Notebook of Ridges . Taylor’s most recent translations include Philippe Jaccottet’s Ponge, Pastures, Prairies (Black Square Editions) and Patches of Sunlight, Or of Shadow (Seagull Books), as well as two volumes of Italian poetry: Franca Mancinelli’s At an Hour’s Sleep from Here (The Bitter Oleander Press) and Alfredo de Palchi’s Terminal Events (Xenos Books). His first two books of short prose, The Presence of Things Past (1992) and Mysteries of the Body and the Mind (1998), have recently been republished by Red Hen Press. Among his many collections of poetry and short prose is Remembrance of Water & Twenty-Five Trees (The Bitter Oleander Press).

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Peter Larkin
Peter Larkin
5 months ago

A fascinating memoir. I have particularly enjoyed John Taylor’s invaluable translations of a number of fracophone Swiss poets.

John TAYLOR
John TAYLOR
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter Larkin

Thank you, Peter Larkin, for these kind words.

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