Poetry Review: Pierre-Albert Jourdan — Writing that Wagers on Beauty

For French writer Pierre-Albert Jourdan, paradox and its close kin aphorism were ways to approach the ineffable, the infinite, the immanent, and above all the state of unity between self and world that he devotedly, passionately sought.

The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Poetry by Pierre-Albert Jourdan. Edited, introduced, and translated by John Taylor. Chelsea Editions, 334 pages, $20.

By Kate Schapira

Some poets try to make the leap through metaphor. Some, notably the Surrealists, try to make it through juxtaposition and “bad” combinations. Some, like the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, don’t appear to want to make it at all. The leap is between what is written and what is read; it is an appeal to surprise, an attempt to startle language and its participants into some other state; it is how to express in words what can’t be expressed in words. The second part of that sentence is a paradox, and it is another way that poets who want to make the leap—including Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924–1981), whose poems and other writings are selected in The Straw Sandals and edited, translated, and introduced by John Taylor—attempt it.

Rather than provoking the mind to figure out how it could be true, the hope of paradox is that it will catapult the mind into experiencing it as true. For Jourdan, paradox and its close kin aphorism were ways to approach the ineffable, the infinite, the immanent, and above all the state of unity between self and world that he devotedly, passionately sought: another kind of leap, a leap out of the self and into unity. He craves

All contrasts erased. A shared sky.

A language in which there is no partitioning off, no emptiness.

As you stand there, aren’t you overwhelmed, reduced to nothing, jubilant?

Looking at that sky, he wants us (or himself) “to sign your name to this canvas” and “to vanish into it.” Of the grass, he writes, “I lend my voice to it; more truthfully, I give my voice over to it completely,” and later adds, “Leave me to my wandering, my face in the grass. Forget me so that I, too, may forget myself.” He wants to be entirely immersed in the natural world, its plants and weathers, the rises and falls of its ground; the three lines separated out above were provoked by, respectively, “the flight of a magpie,” “the welcoming light of fennel along the path,” and this particularly observed scene:

The bees get busy. They make the rosemary bush come alive. The meaning of all these blue flowers—their blossoming out—lies in a sort of squandering, be it studious. The soft buzzing makes all space quiver: you walk a little further, you sense this, but is it really so?

In his reverent introduction, Taylor’s notes on the leap of self (as distinct from the leap of language outlined above) refer to it in Jourdan’s work as “a quest to surpass—or efface—the self,” and add, “Yet this ‘leap’ may well be impossible, and in a certain respect undesirable . . .” Jourdan seems to feel that it is particularly impossible for a poet. If you startle yourself into some other state, who will write down what you see there? If you completely enter it, will you be able to get back? If writing is your lifeline, is it also your yoke? Again and again in his earlier collections and notebooks, Jourdan writes, sometimes with warmth and gentleness, sometimes with violence and disgust, of the impediment that words become:

What needs to be restored speaks an impoverished language.

Words persisting in their silence, having nothing to add to the errors of the day.

To give a name to this joy would be to mislay it.

I have so many things to tell you. May you stick them, one after another, back into my throat, reducing them to this plaster cast, this bandage.

“It is always in you that everything is degraded,” Jourdan writes, apparently addressing himself, seeing his self and even his writing as blocks on his path to merging with the world. In his view, writing is helpful or harmful only as it gets the writer—or possibly the reader—closer to or further away from unity. He notes multiple times that he is not patient, that he’s impatient, that patience would get him where he wants to go, that he should’ve been more patient: “The landscape watchman must hand over his identity before opening his eyes.”

But does becoming part of the unified world require an effort—and if so, who makes the effort?—or does it require the abandonment of effort? “Open up the path (chemin) for it, open yourself up like a path (t’ouvrir comme chemin),” he writes. He wants to go where he cannot, “With, for a companion, the curve of a hill in the evening haze. Make yourself vanish as you face it. Make an effort to return this completely natural courtesy, without an effort.”

Pierre-Albert Jourdan -- writing should be obsessed with the search for unity. Photo: Gilles Jourdan

For Jourdan, are the two kinds of leap the same leap? The leap of the mind over paradox, the leap of the self into not a void but into the landscape, from which only humans are excluded—from which he excludes himself every time he makes an effort, through language, to reach it? It makes sense, at least, that the form of language he favored is one that seems to undo itself. Even to write of silence has a paradoxical quality, and he returns to it throughout:

We think we are present, believing we had detected silence when actually it is only a narrow margin through which the silence flees.

The pauses or blank spaces between fragments, maxims or notes whose words form, to recall French poet Yves Bonnefoy’s phrase, ‘the ridgeline of a silence’: you could say that these silent blank spaces expand your lungs (as when you breath [sic] in again) and are thus necessary. Without them, that is without the emptiness, you could not read and understand the words.

Yet this book contains over three hundred pages of purposeful writing—Taylor notes that Jourdan wrote much of The Straw Sandals/Les Sandales Pailles systematically, methodically, before going to his job at the Societé Mutual de Transports Publiques—and much of what’s here is excerpted from larger groupings, books or journals.

Clearly, words are real and necessary for him: he’ll dwell on a word as if it, just as much as a rosemary bush or cliff face, could provide a gateway out of the self and into the world: “‘frémissement’—trembling, an admirable word dressed in leaves and flesh, in wind and love,” or “The plant world has given me a new boost…I have just thought of the word ‘roulier,’ ‘cart driver.’ A cart full of grass? In order to make you sneeze as he drives it past, to shake you up a little.” Later, he addresses the paradox of words and silence more painfully:

Simplicity would mean getting along without words. They are such fragile barriers. We use them only because it seems impossible to stop speaking: we have to justify ourselves. But Good God, justify ourselves for what? Simplicity would mean enduring what we undergo in silence—a barrier-shattering silence. But such silence, which emerges from the darkest depths, cannot be assimilated without reacting, without crying out. Though it is useless to do so. Remaining speechless erects still another barrier. It is up to you to bring it down, O Impatient Death.

When Jourdan wrote the above words, he knew he was dying. Before he knew it, he had written of the sense of processes going on without him, asked questions about what endures. At the beginning of L’Approche, his last book, presented here in its entirety, he adds,

Somewhere in me indeed dwells gratitude. Like a sunlit plant wavering, the curve of a hill, a pine tree swaying.
A feeling that remains remote from vicissitudes, will always be there, and can be verified. Even without me. Especially without “me.”
A support, like a baton handed on in a relay race.

It almost seems that death is going to offer him what he wanted: a chance to abandon, relinquish, his self. But he fears, too, that dying will not unify him with the world but will separate him from it. Perhaps because of this fear, in this last book words begin to serve him differently, to be more than stumbling blocks or fetters:

From now on, I will content myself with setting down on paper a few notes, like markers staking out ground already engulfed by the sea.

Writing shaped like tiny wads of bread, so that you swallow the fish bones stuck in your throat.

A painting of Mount Venoux by Pierre-Albert Jourdan

Most revealing, perhaps, is “This writing is meant to carry us” when compared to his first group of poems, in which he asserted that “Light that has no arms to carry us.” And later still, it is the land that carries him: “I remain faithful.”

Jourdan strove in his poems, in spite of his poems, to surmount the separation between his human self and the beauty of the non-human world. “Producing literature is not at stake,” he wrote firmly, impatient with poetry, with the modern human-made world, with the “masturbatory speculations” of contemporary poets (although he makes loving reference to poetic contemporaries, as well as to poets of other times and places). What is at stake is his beloved landscape, the gateway to the abandonment of the self, or the healing of the “distance” between the self and the world: “…it would be possible for us to bandage certain wounds and reestablish an equilibrium. This would presuppose a fair amount of disinterestedness and a wagering on beauty that we dare not even imagine.”

There is tension throughout with regard to who Jourdan asks to make this wager: himself or us. Taylor writes about his choices in translating the nonspecific French third-person pronoun “on”, sometimes translated as “one,” instead as “‘we, a non-specific ‘you’ or a passive verbal construction.” The translator goes on to note that Jourdan “increasingly appeals to the colloquial use” of the pronoun “on”, rather than the words for “I” or “you,” speculating that this is another one of Jourdan’s attempts to take himself out of the equation.

Pronouns have a lot of power in French, and they seem particularly fraught in writing that attempts to dismantle the self or call it into question. When Jourdan writes tu (the more intimate and direct “you”), he may be addressing himself. But if his desire for unification goes beyond himself, then it may be that he’s also talking to us, insisting that we make (or abandon?) the effort, attempt to heal the wound, break down the barrier, cross the distances he refers to as “deadly (meurtrières) and relinquish the self that, after all, is neither as beautiful nor as harmonious as what we can see all around us if we look:

Pierre-Albert Jourdan -- a writer who champions gentleness. Photo: Gilles Jourdan

The almond tree this morning is a-buzz with bees. This is calmness, the deepest expression of calmness. It sinks in deep, through the walls. There are no more separations. As barriers become so marvelously fragile, it seems to us that wounds vanish. It is what we could call the honey of a gentle death. Producing literature is not at stake, but rather drawing in and on this gentleness. And it changes nothing that gentleness is not granted to us. We feel it. How cannot one dream of having such an ally?

Between moments of disgust with the human (and human-made) world, moments of rapture for the natural world, and, at the end, moments of fear at losing that very self’s ability to sense, he writes in hope that the paradoxes he has provided will help to free us as well as himself: “Writing throws out a bridge that it destroys with every page.”

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