Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008. Edited and translated by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer. Anvil, 2009, 335 pp. 17.80 euro
with thanks to Poetry Ireland Review 101, where this piece first appeared.
How do you go about presenting a selection of French poets to an English-language readership? One method might be to try for a generous inclusivity, hospitable to the full range of what is on offer. Another might be to isolate a trend, a set of affinities between poets, and represent that. This anthology takes the second approach, bringing together Jean Follain, Henri Thomas, Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Réda, Paul de Roux, Guy Goffette, and Gilles Ortlieb. The idea is that this is the line of Follain, a loose notion of elective affinity rather than a school or tradition. Follain’s brief, intense poems are a fixed point around which many of the poems here constellate themselves. The constituent parts of a Follain poem are concrete, material but they serve very different ends than they might in another poet’s sensibility, or in a poem in English. Very often Follain seems to sever the link between one part of a poem and the next, so that a lot of the reading work is to establish the connection between the various parts. There is also the importance accorded to memory, a memory from which, often, all context has been removed, leaving a frieze of details mysterious in their isolation. Follain’s was also an imagination haunted by the first world war – especially evident in a poem like ‘Life’ or the final poem given here, ‘The War’. In the latter the child’s eye view of the moment of departure of his father for the front is stark and moving:
A few drops of coffee laced with alcohol hung on his drooping moustache, his naked heart was bleeding, he asked the child’s forgiveness for unfair bouts of anger, an entire and incredible lover coming to light; an hour later the winter sun had shone, putting bright touches on birds’ plumage and the bayonets of columns of men: they were marching down the frozen road.
Follain might be too elusive, too distinctively particular a poet to spawn a school, but the poets here might be said to share with him a modesty of means, a tendency towards compressed forms, a surface clarity and a preference for the material over the abstract or idealised. A clue to his influence on later generations of poets might lie in the remark by Jacques Réda quoted in Romer’s introduction, on Follain’s ‘magical art of contiguity, his ability to set a current running between objects in juxtaposition, in the absence of any single governing metaphor.’ Apart from Follain, the other presiding influence is Réda, who published many of them in the Nouvelle Revue Française and whose interests in jazz and the possibilities of prose for the poetic imagination are also shared by this group. One of the formal interests of this collection is precisely the easy continuity between poetry and prose. As Romer puts it: ‘The poets here switch from one to the other rather as a musician might switch from a flute to a clarinet...’ Prose here means multiple genres: the selections include prose from novels, notebooks or carnets, as well as prose poems. It’s the kind of fluidity that can regard Jacques Réda’s Les Ruines de Paris, a wonderfully inventive and restless set of responses to Paris, as a collection of poems, though its English translation, part of Reaktion Books topographic series, is presented as straight prose.
However they are lineated, the different works of these poets have their own strong internal unity. Unlike the prose excursions of poets in English, the journals, novels or other prose of these poets fit comfortably within a single aesthetic range. This is not entirely surprising, in that French publishing is hospitable to more adventurous or genre-bending prose than its more commercially focused English counterpart.
The notebook, by now a well established form in its own right as well as the foundation upon which many of the poems are built, is accorded an especially privileged place in the selections. If this suggests both an interest in process, the carnet as a serial engagement both with the primary material and the mediation by which the apprehension of that material is transformed, it also means that a great deal of the impetus in these poets is provided by keen attention to what is close at hand –
I observe the day through the window. This will turn out to be the most constant of my activities. (Paul de Roux, Au jour le jour, 3: Carnets 1985-89)
Seated at the same table as me is that character I always meet in the cafés on the Boul’Mich, ever since I’ve been taking that sad and weary walk from the Observatoire to the Seine. He is remarkable for the red hair that flows down his back and runs over each shoulder, part of it joining his beard in front which is equally red and unkempt. . . (Henry Thomas, Carnets 1934-1948)
Getting used to the new noises: the heels upstairs, the door down below, the neighbour’s piano, the blinds opposite, the grunts coming from a nearby gym at the end of the day. Moving from flat to flat, from district to district, as if to outwit the different storeys of the self. (Gilles Ortlieb, ‘Moving’, Carnets de ronde, 2004)
Before everything goes the way it came, for all of it will go, and all good things come to an end, as they say; before this journey we’ve shared is over for Partance and me, I’ll say something about her in simple words that will also go one day, like everything else. Describing is an act of love, to quote a poet.
The interior is modest, like a cockpit, four metres by two, though as I’ve said, I’m not good at figures, and enthusiasm doesn’t help. Let’s say three by one-and-a-half, give or take a decimetre. In any case, I wouldn’t wish for more. On the orchard side, a narrow seat for afternoon rests; on the meadows side, two more with cushions, and a folding table that brings them together to make a single comfortable bed. In the middle of the side wall, opposite the door, an aluminium sink with shelves above it. I’ll put some books there, the essential ones, not more than about ten, for something to dream on at leisure. (Guy Goffette, Partance, v)
The contingent can be grounds for a kind of comedy of self-awareness as well as a love affair with the manipulation of the observed world into language, or, in the case of Jaccottet, the basis for a scrupulous examination of the natural world which is also necessarily a scrutiny of the examination itself. If that sounds problematic it’s because it is; the tightrope walk between the observing consciousness and the consciousness of the observing is always precarious. The more self-conscious the scrutiny, the more the world, and the poem, shrivel and disappear. The sense that language disguises the world underlies lines like ‘From now let our life be told to you by birds..’ (‘Letter of 26 June’) yet it never dissuades the poet from the effort. Jaccotet’s scrutiny can produce the lightness, and light-heartedness of
Walking by the meadow today heartens me, cheers me.
It’s full of poppies in among the wild grasses.
Red, red! It’s not fire, certainly not blood. Much too cheerful, too slight for that.
Don’t they look like so many little flags barely attached to their poles, cockades that a breath of wind might carry off? or bits of silk paper tossed to the wind to invite you to a fête, the festival of May?
The extract from ‘The Word Joy’ provides a striking image for the poet’s struggle: he is ‘like someone digging through mist/in search of what slips away from mist,/having heard footsteps just further on/and words exchanged by passers by. . .’ In another prose piece, ‘Early Spring in Provence’, an austere landscape furnishes a further image of what Jaccottet wants from writing: ‘No luxury, no excess, no cushioning, nothing that dissembles or distorts: earth alone, from which all emerges, and into which all will return.’
This could function as a description of the collective aesthetic of the poets here, as well as a reminder that, for all that the title of the anthology suggests that ‘the city street is the place where the inner tension and outer vision of the poets seem chiefly to collide’, a good deal of the poetry is enacted far from what Jaccottet has called ‘l’ébranlement des villes’: Follain’s Normandy, Jaccotet’s studied concentration on the landscape of the Drôme, Guy Goffette’s Lorraine belge, Gilles Ortlieb’s Luxembourg and Lorraine.
The tendency to separate themselves from the metropolitan, as well as from the mainstream, can be read an indicator of a certain independence of spirit – Romer cites their sauvagerie or a solitariness of feeling which all seven share. Part of that cultivated solitariness is a gentle but consistent undercutting of the importance of self. The self, maybe, is like the small drama in Henri Thomas’s poem of that title which recounts the loss of a notebook on a march; it ends up ‘in the mud/black and formless’, and is accompanied by other small dramas, birds coming down ‘to peek at oats and droppings’ and pale puddles reflecting ‘without illusion/a pale November in Lorraine’. The poet’s conclusion –
and in a barn I think– perfectly enacts the dissolution of the self into everything around it. The gesture is replicated in ‘Vain Rampart’ as the poet sits beside a mother and her child. Again, nothing happens and exactly that becomes the site of the self’s merging with everything around it:
about everything, and shrug.
in a while the chestnut trees will flower,
the three of us deep in the day,
and how many others. . .
of the self
when you crumble
it feels so good
in the light.
Guy Goffette’s breakthrough volume was Éloge pour une cuisine de province (1988) and the poems taken from it here testify to a resolute belief in the significance of the small drama, the remembered provincial childhood, a neighbour’s ladder
The neighbour is dead but the ladder
still leans against the tree that with the sun
sinks deep into the firm flesh
of apples and the young raiders’ throats.
His poetry is playful, subtle and deeply interested in the releasing possibilities of strict forms. His ode to his caravan is a celebration of a certain kind of solitariness ‘I will be humble and learn with her, from the inside, how to weather the cape of illusions and. . .catch up with life as glimpsed in that childhood garden.’ Like him, Gilles Ortlieb seeks out the company of small gestures and studied concentration: the act ‘of running the back/of the spoon across the rim of the plate or soup bowl/so it won’t drip on its way to the mouth. . .’ , observing disused/blast-pipes from the furnaces’ or ‘The mist [that] has concealed the mist that hides the three lights level with the water at the café Jean le Pauvre.’ Objects come into sharp focus as they are relished for their material unshakability, as in his ode ‘to the small enamel mug edged in blue/and its metal that burns if you seize it/distractedly by the sides. . .’
Many of these poets have been translated into English before. Selections of Follain’s poems have been translated by W.S. Merwin and Heather McHugh. Jennie Feldman has published an excellent translation of Réda’s early books; Marilyn Hacker has published a book length selection of Goffette. Derek Mahon and others have translated Jaccottet. It’s probably true to say that the nature of this strand of poetry in French lends itself well to translation in English. If the impulses seems very recognisable it is not least because many of the poets are very taken with poetry in English. Réda has translated Frost, among other Anglophone poets. Goffette has expressed his admiration for poets like Auden, Larkin, Frost, for what Marliyn Hacker identifies in her preface to her translations of his poems as the specificity and concreteness of English language poetry. English poetry appeals to him, he has explained, ‘because of its grip on reality’. Hacker also identifies Seamus Heaney as a reference point for Anglophone readers, citing, among the things they share, ‘a solidity of place, and of objects, with an emphasis on the perceived material thing’.
One of the key figures in the anthology is Jacques Réda, both as an encourager and as a brilliantly adventurous poet. His achievement is too protean to be easily condensed into an anthology selection. The earlier work, available in English in Jennie Feldman’s translations from the first three books, is densely textured and richly musical.Feldman quotes his insistence that poetry, if it is to survive, must have ‘rhythm, or better still, le swing.’ He is a serious jazz fan and there is a jazzy unpredictability to his work:
To my left, the city that was a maze of stone
is now an airy monument of ash or dust
sinking without a sound beneath the weight of mist
and reappearing further off, but fainter,
like something dreamt in a fever-tossed sleep,
between the long groping hands of bridges.
And on I go among other shapes unravelling
on snowy embankments, towards gardens with no end.
(‘Pont des Arts’)
Paris is what he writes with, providing subject and technique. The poems are often grounded in the city which he explores obsessively, traversing vast tracts of it on foot or on his Solex, especially in The Ruins of Paris, which is one of the major works of recent French poetry. He reinvents the tradition of the flaneur, prowling the streets, noting and observing enough to release the stream of images and reflections that are the real core. His city is, therefore, free of cliché; he sets himself afloat to drink in the sense data of the streets and deploy it for his own ends.
The one brief sample here gives a flavour but the curious reader will want to seek out Mark Treharne’s translation of the book. The selection from his work includes wonderful moments from his wanderings in both city and countryside. whether setting out to discover the source of the Seine or catching someone’s eye as his moped slows in traffic, his reports from ‘infinitesimal drop[s] of time’ are unmissable.
Most things in this anthology are worked from a concentrated alertness to the subject in hand, from stumbling against the immediate, to paraphrase Paul de Roux. The quality of attention might be familiar to English readers, but it is the way the attention is deployed that constantly strikes, the unusual cast of the minds processing the immediate. It isn’t, of course the whole story of contemporary French poetry, or even an exhaustive version of this strand – it would have been interesting to have Claire Malroux, another Follain admirer and another poet deeply influenced by Anglophone poetry. But as a window into the work of seven interesting poets this bilingual selection is invaluable. The translations themselves are subtle and resourceful. Jennie Feldman characterises their aim as trying to recreate the ‘acoustic inevitability’ of the original and she contributes a very useful essay on the detail of the translation challenges. Both translators have flexed enough creative muscle to make convincing English poems out of the originals, but the dual-language format allows the reader to let the two poetries talk to each other across the spine. Feldman ends her piece on the translation with an image from Paul de Roux of the ‘cold and heavy bricks’ of words that are chosen and piled on top of each other: ‘In metamorphosis, the wall takes flight, each brick suddenly winged.’ Her hope is that translation might provide a like metamorphosis, and acquire wings, and this book certainly provides ample evidence of flight.