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A prevailing darkness.

A Fortnightly Review.

Selected Poems
by Jean-Paul Auxeméry,
translated from the French by Nathaniel Tarn.

World Poetry Books 978-0-9992613-9-2| 280 pp. | $16.00


Jean-Paul Auxeméry (b. 1947) stands apart in contemporary French poetry. One reason is biographical: he often lived outside of France during his formative years (when he was in his mid-twenties until his mid-thirties), departing for long stays in Africa (Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Morocco), Mexico, and Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, Belize).

Auxeméry has assimilated and then developed in his own manner a poetics which—at least in my reading and translating experience—is far removed from many postwar French poetic itineraries.

Secondly, and more importantly, as one of the most active translators of American poetry (to mention only a few names: H.D., Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Charles Reznikoff, Robert Creeley, William Carlos Williams, Clayton Eschleman, and the poetry of his own translator, Nathaniel Tarn), he has assimilated and then developed in his own manner a poetics which—at least in my reading and translating experience—is far removed from many postwar French poetic itineraries.

The differences are visible in his uses of history, autobiography, narrative, and the long-poem form (as opposed to long sequences of interconnected short pieces). And special attention must be paid to his imagery which, in its realist propensities (with respect to the more symbolic or semantically polysemic orientations of other French poets) and in its fragmentary flashes nonetheless suggesting an underlying story or—perhaps more accurately— subterranean layers of relics and remants, sometimes recalls the kind of imagism that Pound employs, especially in The Cantos. Take these opening lines from “Brandberg,” in Tarn’s translation:

And night/fire
& wind of the Brandberg

…… wind’s fire
on our tent’s canvas

& the sound of tongues:

red stone’s sound
painted caves’ sound

centuries’ sound

sound of beginnings:

—Africa’s crickets
under the green grasses’ cover of Damaraland. . .

As is already evident in the above passage, the kind of inserted citation through which Pound juxtaposes mythology, historical facts, precise personal memories, and foreign words, expressions or place names, also comes to mind. Here is a second passage from the same long-poem:

. . .We’ll run down the spine of the red mountain

Hephaistos hiccup, amid high plains

mid-point on a plateau of absolute grass.

—So that, from the hollow in the red rock
………under the crazy fire wind’s wing

ti abbraccio, ti abbraccio

far friend in time, Helen

white lade black youth ochre
legs gloved with milk, running
before the herds

who was also with my shadow
on Tulum’s ramparts
above the Caribbean,

—overexposed photograph—. . .

In such long pieces, the reader will perhaps apply him- or herself to extrapolating trying to trying to extrapolate a pellucid “whole” from the shards and shadows—one again thinks of Pound and his anxiety about “coherence”—yet it seems to me that Auxeméry has constituted a poetics in which such a goal would be inappropriate. Surely mysterious, intriguing, vivid vestiges are excavated and brought to the light of the printed page, but equally visible, as it were, remains the prevailing darkness. “The point of application of poetic speech,” he writes toward the end of “Brandberg,” “follows the sense line of bodies involved / in reading the world’s accidents: / scars signed by human time / on stone lips and grass plains / I shall never be more than this shadow speaking / in places exposed to the acid salts of the real.” In another long-poem, “Al Kemit,” Auxeméry offers this insight into the difficulties of “naming”—the poetic act par excellence—amid inevitable darkness, what he calls “l’obscur de l’obscur” with its double meaning of “darkness” and “obscurity”:

where are we?

leopard of Delos, your load of grapes, and you
Delphic crow waiting for the libation,
Golden lyre at rest on the musician’s thigh,
I name you once again, I am on the threshold
…………..I have given names to things, he said again
……………………….and sometimes I guessed the thought
……………………………………that inhabits them

we must have stepped into the darkness of the dark

I name you nonetheless, leopard, and you
……………Falcon of the Two-Lands. . .

It must be said that in this same poem, Auxeméry also inserts a distich in the form of a question, which, arguably, nears him to the ontological explorations of a Bonnefoy or a Jaccottet, with Hölderlin (or perhaps Nietzsche) as the probable presiding spirit: “and how is it that you only frequent / places where gods became silent?” But here the similarities end, even as Auxeméry’s poetry of movement and displacement (on several levels) starkly contrasts with, say, Bonnefoy’s much more succinct meditations, often on a handful of recurrent symbolic objects and themes, or Jaccottet’s at once pensive and contemplative strolls in the post-1990 prose pieces he published in Notebook of Greenery and subsequent volumes. From this common necessity to confront a landscape from which the gods have withdrawn, Auxeméry takes a different path and discovers other possibilities.

This generous Selected Poems displays the disparities with such postwar poets from the preceding generation, given the formal expansiveness, multi-layeredness, exoticness, and narrative impetus in Auxeméry’s oeuvre. All these qualities participate in the poet’s vision, both in its particularisms and in its effort to make very specific personal perceptions and memories stand for our own multifaceted adventures, however more geographically constrained ours probably are. We are all engaged, as the poet puts it finely in “Stem,” with “l’ouvrage de vivre,” a transposition of the title of Cesare Pavese’s journal Il mestiere di vivere and rendered by Tarn as “working at life.” Finally, in a short piece, “Salt of the Real,” he offers this admirable guiding principle, which sums up well his poetic oeuvre, now welcomely available in English for the first time: “aimons notre naufrage,” “let’s love our shipwreck.”

JOHN TAYLOR is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His most recent translations include Franca Mancinelli’s The Butterfly Cemetery (The Bitter Oleander Press), José-Flore Tappy’s Trás-os-Montes (The MadHat Press), and Philippe Jaccottet’s La Clarté Notre-Dame & The Last Book of the Madrigals (Seagull Books).

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