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When Night Forgets to Fall

The Curved Planks

by Yves Bonnefoy, translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers, with a foreword by Richard Howard
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 229 pp., $24.00

There was a time in this country when every poet and student of literature read some French poetry. To both sophisticates and provincials, Paris was the eternal capital of everything that was new and exciting in the arts. Modern poetry was unimaginable without Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, and many lesser figures whose poems were imitated and continued to be read. Pound, Eliot, Stevens, and other modernists, one learned, owed an immense debt to French poets. Fifty years ago, almost everyone one met in literary circles had some familiarity with the work of Apollinaire, Saint-John Perse, and Paul Valéry. Young poets read Wallace Fowlie’s Mid-Century French Poets, where they encountered the poems of Max Jacob, Jules Supervielle, Andre Bréton, Paul Éluard, Robert Desnos, and Henri Michaux. New translations kept appearing. I recall a volume of poems by René Char that came out in 1956, which listed W.C. Williams, Richard Wilbur, William Jay Smith, Barbara Howes, W.S. Merwin, and James Wright as translators. Yves Bonnefoy’s own poems came soon after. In 1968, the Ohio University Press published On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, his first book in English translation.

Later all that changed. In the 1960s, American poets discovered Spanish, German, Polish, Russian, and South American poetry and stopped reading the newer French poets who were nowhere as interesting as Neruda, Vallejo, Parra, Milosz, Herbert, Brodsky, Enzensberger, Ritsos, Holan, Szymborska, Celan, and good many others. While history and the fate of the individual human beings caught in its turmoil mattered for these poets, the same cannot be said for the French. Preoccupied with the very act of writing, convinced that words only speak themselves and have no hold on reality, their anxieties had more to do with the theories of language then in fashion among literary critics in France, for whom the study of poetics was more fascinating than the finished poem.

To think of writing as merely a game of language may seem like a bleak prospect, and yet the delightful poems by Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, and other members of the experimental group Oulipo demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be. Still, a view that regards poetry as a closed system, a private language, and an autonomous reality, is not only extremely limiting, but mistaken. The surprise is that so many French poets in the generation after René Char were attracted to academic theories that reduced their mother tongue to little more than a dead language. Not Bonnefoy. For him, poems do take us beyond words in their capacity to recall to us the life we share and the experiences we have in common.

Bonnefoy was born in 1923 in Tours. His father was a railroad worker whose job involved assembling locomotives and his mother was a teacher, as her own father had been. Although he started to write at an early age, he went on to study mathematics and philosophy at the University of Poitiers and the Sorbonne. In Paris, after the war, he became involved with Surrealist circles, met André Breton, and published his own work in their reviews. His first important collection of poems came out in 1953, and ten more have appeared since. In 1967 he founded, with André du Bouchet, Gaëtan Picon, and Louis-René des Forêts, L’éphémère, a journal of art and literature. Among his books are studies of Rimbaud, Miró, and Giacometti, a scholarly two-volume account of mythologies of the world, which he edited, and a spiritual autobiography. The Lure and the Truth of Painting (1995), a collection of his essays on classical, modern, and contemporary art, is a great book. Like Baudelaire and Pierre Jean Jouve before him, Bonnefoy reads paintings with the eyes of a poet and the mind of a philosopher. Immensely learned and beautifully written, the essays on Mantegna, Morandi, Giacometti, Hopper, Balthus, and on such subjects as humor and the shadows in the work of Piero della Francesca and Giorgio de Chirico and Byzantine art, often read like prose poems.

Before the appearance of The Curved Planks, there were seven other collections of his poems in translation. This book of his most recent poetry comes with an astute foreword by Richard Howard and two valuable essays by the translator, Hoyt Rogers, who found himself with an arduous task. Bonnefoy, who is renowned in France for his translations of Shakespeare’s plays, describes, in an essay on the poet, the problems a translator encountering two such distinct and philosophically incompatible poetic vocabularies faces: one which tends to tone down and dim the particular reality and another which seeks to describe what consciousness perceives:

If, as I have tried to show, every language has an individual structure and the linguistic structure of French poetry is Platonic while that of Shakespeare’s English is a sort of passionate Aristotelianism, then every true translation—and this quite apart from accuracy of detail—has a kind of moral obligation to be a metaphysical reflection, the contemplation of one way of thinking by another, the attempt to express from one’s own angle the specific nature of that thought, and finally a kind of examination of one’s own resources…. Translation becomes a language’s struggle with its own nature, at the very core of its being, the quickening point of its growth.1

The essay from which this quote comes, “Shakespeare and the French Poet,” was first published in France in 1959. In it, Bonnefoy confidently predicts that French poetry today will be much better prepared than it has ever been to wage this struggle with its own language. He writes:

…There is another, more recent poetry which aims at salvation. It conceives of the Thing, the real object, in its separation from ourselves, its infinite otherness, as something that can give us an instantaneous glimpse of essential being and thus be our salvation, if indeed we are able to tear the veil of universals, of the conceptual, to attain to it.

I imagine it must have seemed that way at the time with poets like Francis Ponge around who had already made that discovery.2 A poem of his would consist of a meticulous description of an oyster, a candle, a loaf of bread, a cut of meat, a bar of soap, a snail, a potato, or a cigarette. For Bonnefoy, the fundamental error of Surrealism was its lack of faith in the real, preferring the marvelous to the ordinary, the peacock’s fan to the stones on the threshold. There were other poets in France, like Jean Follain and Guillevic, who in their own distinct way also sought the ordinary, but that is not the direction French poetry, or even Bonnefoy’s own, would take, despite eloquent passages in his essays about the need to pay attention to the rough, coarse reality of life. Here is how he sounded in his first major collection, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, in Galway Kinnell’s translation:

THEATER

I

I saw you running on the terraces,
I saw you fight against the wind,
The coldness bled on your lips.
And I have seen you break and rejoice at being dead—O more beautiful
Than the lightning, when it stains the white windowpanes of your blood….

III

It was a wind stronger than our memories,
Stupor of clothing and cry of rocks—and you moved in front of those flames,
Head graphlined, hands split open, all
Bent on death on the exulting drums of your gestures.
It was day of your breasts:
And you reigned at last absent from my head.

IV

I awaken, it is raining. The wind pierces you, Douve, resinous heath sleeping near me. I am on a terrace, in a pit of death. Great dogs of leaves tremble.

The arm you lift, suddenly, at a doorway, lights me across the ages. Village of embers, each instant I see you being born, Douve,

Each instant dying….

IX

White under a ceiling of insects, poorly lit, in profile,
Your dress stained by the venom of lamps,
I find you stretched out,
Your mouth higher than a river breaking far away on the earth.
Broken being the unconquerable being reassembles,
Presence seized again in the torch of cold,
O watcher always I find you dead,
Douve saying Phoenix I wake in this cold.
3

Notwithstanding the ambiguity of the poems, the book was well received. The most obvious question was: Who or what is Douve? In The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy, John Naughton enumerates some of the possibilities: a mysterious feminine category; the poetic process itself; death.4 The epigraph to the book provides the best hint: “But the life of the spirit is not frightened at death and does not keep itself pure of it.” This comes from Hegel. The idea that the poems attempt to work out poetically is that the life of the spirit does not flee from death but, rather, maintains itself in death. The voice in the poems often sounds like that of a bereaved lover lamenting the loss of his beloved. It’s all very poetic, very theatrical and mystifying. We have no clear sense where any of it is happening, or what it is all about. Some of the imagery is surrealist and kind of wonderful. “Great dogs of leaves tremble” is my favorite. Bonnefoy will not write like that again. He will denounce the cult of images, even going so far as to say that he defines truthfulness of speech as the war against the image. Why? Because, images are delusions, he will say, a veil which hides the true reality. Philosophically, one can agree with that view, but can one be a poet and believe that? Bonnefoy’s answer is that poets must both accept and refuse the image.

Even in On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, there are poems that anticipate the mise-en-scène of his later work. “One must picture everything in the world as an enigma,” de Chirico writes.5 An ambiguous, elusive something that cannot be named is a constant presence. Bonnefoy’s untitled poem awaits its guest. Who is this visitor, but the reality outside the poem. Every poem is a house made ready in anticipation that the world beyond it will pay it a call:

UNTITLED

Let a place be made for the one who approaches,
He who is cold and has no home.
He who is tempted by the sound of a lamp,
By the bright threshold of only this house.
And if he stays overcome with anguish and fatigue,
Let be uttered for him the healing words.
What needs this heart which was only silence,
But words which are both sign and litany,
And like a sudden bit of fire at night,
Or the table, glimpsed in a poor man’s house?

I should like poetry,” Bonnefoy has written, “to be above all a ceaseless battle, a theater in which being and essence, form and formlessness wage strenuous war.” This is a fine sentiment, but as a prescription, it is dangerous if it leads to a single-minded pursuit of that and nothing else. All poets repeat themselves, but Bonnefoy more so than others. Without too much exaggeration, one can say that all his life he has written the same few poems. In his new book, there are nine with the identical title “A Stone.” In an earlier collection, Words in Stone (1965), he has many more named “Stone.” He is like a painter of serial still lifes, one who paints from memory the same pitcher, bowl, and wine bottle. For him poetry is not an account of the world. He is a poet of a small number of experiences which he endlessly mulls over, puzzled by their subtle variation in his remembrance. Here is how Bonnefoy explains his narrow range of subject matter and vocabulary:

  1. 1

    Yves Bonnefoy, The Act and the Place of Poetry: Selected Essays (University of Chicago Press, 1989), pp. 18–19.

  2. 2

    See James Merrill’s essay on Ponge, “Object Lessons,” The New York Review, November 30, 1972.

  3. 3

    New and Selected Poems, edited by John Naughton and Anthony Rudolf (University of Chicago Press, 1995), pp. 3–7.

  4. 4

    See John Naughton, The Poetics of Yves Bonnefoy (University of Chicago Press, 1984).

  5. 5

    Giorgio de Chirico, Hebdomeros(Exact Change, 1992), p. 185.

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