By Jim Kates
Take the poems slowly, enjoy the Cage-y silences, the concentrated words as they appear.
Outside: Poetry and Prose by André du Bouchet. Translated from the French by Eric Fishman and Hoyt Rogers. Bitter Oleander Press, 215 pages, $28
After the Liberation of France, French poetry bifurcated, even among those writers who had come up under the prewar influence of Surrealism together. The divide was as much political as literary — those poets who had fought in the Resistance one way or another remained engagé and their language took on a directness and a tolerance for sentiment. They planted themselves firmly inside their society. They valued communication above all else in their use of words, taking their cue from the dictum of Robert Desnos, the former Surrealist who had died in Theresienstadt, “One thing for sure — it’s not verse which must be free; it’s the poet.” Others invested in more experimental language: fragmentation, abstraction, innovation in form (in France, these tended to be, perhaps only coincidentally, those who had not faced the Occupation head-on). They took their cues from those who felt language itself had been shattered by the previous decade.
In spite of this split, the concerns of both sides remained very much the same: the role of the poet in the world and the importance of language itself. Both disciplines (if we can call them that) were compelled to examine the function and relationship of words themselves.
through the hole in the conductive weft through to silence
as to sight of
the thing itself through to silence, the piercing cry
of the swallow
André du Bouchet, born in 1924 into a uniquely international family, was able to get to America and did not return to France until 1948, just in time to move into the artistic ferment of postwar Paris. But he retained his outsider’s perspective. And Outside is the name that Eric Fishman (an Arts Fuse contributor) and Hoyt Rogers have chosen to give to their new selection and translations of du Bouchet’s poetry and prose. This is not the metaphysical “outsider” of Camus’s L’Étranger, but more literally someone standing outside — dehors — looking in.
It is not easy to choose samples from Outside to print in a review. So much depends on all the white space between the words. “To draw a correlation with music,” the translator Hoyt explains, “silence will take on a thousand different nuances, according to the context.”
When you look through a window from the outside, you’re not supposed to notice the mullions and the sills, but straight into and past the transparent glass. In a review like this, du Bouchet’s framework of words all too often collapses into a pile of painted sticks lacking assembly.
Fishman and Rogers have translated the lights as well as the window frames. Their workmanlike English captures the careful carpentry of the original. “More than with most authors,” Fishman details, “English renderings of du Bouchet need to draw on the concrete Germanic roots of our language, as opposed to their more abstract Latinate counterparts.” Let’s take almost at random a single passage — a single line actually, long as it is:
“A single line” — the energy and momentum of the French confirms that reading, and the English admirably echoes it, turning, for example, the hectic repetition of “sautant sur place, faisant sur place de grands bonds” into “hopping up and down, bounding up and down,” while leaving in place the cognate “reclusion,” which hardly exists at all in spoken English.
Like Supreme Court justices, the two translators have written their separate concurring introductions to the work, Fishman’s as a foreword, Rogers’s as an afterword. Both are informative. They provide both context and analysis.
But in between, there are the poems. Take them slowly, enjoy the Cage-y silences, the concentrated words as they appear:
blueas if violent
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia. His latest book is Paper-thin Skin (Zephyr Press), a translation of the Kazakhstani poet Aigerim Tazhi.