Edited by Rosanne Wasserman and Eugene Richie, the two-volume set of Collected French Translations by John Ashbery gives us a glimpse of a major influence in his life that I hope will also become part of ours.
Nevertheless, when review copies from Farrar, Straus and Giroux arrived, I eagerly received Ashbery’s translation of French poetry but did not look forward to prose essays in any language, so I started with that book to get it out of the way! What I found, however, was a delightfully colorful, eclectic mix of prose written over the centuries by French poets, artists, musicians, novelists, and other creative persons who have much to say to creative persons now.
“From To Oneself,” for example, the French symbolist painter, Odilon Redon, wrote, “There is something in the heart which dries up when one reads pages written too close to human nature. The fault of certain writing is to have stripped it naked, made it cynical and abject; it would have been better to reveal it in what it possesses of grandeur and consolation.” Repelled by those who speak of nature “with greedy mouths, and nothing in their hearts,” Redon contrasted that perspective with his view of Michelangelo of whom “I would have spoken of his soul. I would have said that what it is vital to see in a great man is, more than anything, nature, the force of soul which animates him. When the soul is powerful, the work is too…. His life is beautiful.”
In a similar vein, artist Giorgio De Chirico wrote an essay on the nineteenth century French realistic painter “Courbet,” saying “The sense of reality is always linked to a work of art. The deeper it is, the more poetic and romantic the work will be. Mysterious laws and reasons of perspective govern such facts. Who can contradict the disturbing relation that exists between perspective and metaphysics?”
And what a perspective we see from poet Pierre Reverdy, whose thought-provoking words managed to impact major art movements. In “Haunted House,” for example, Reverdy writes – or, perhaps, rails, with these highly visual words and images: “What are you doing there, you, skyscraper without hope or life, empty nest, without satisfaction, amid rectilinear forms, cast shadows, streets without atmosphere, drunken sidewalks, abandoned windows, uninhabited water drops, songs without light, heads with no price on them, hearts without matches, portraits without models, drawn and quartered nudes, advantages of integrity, speculations on the stock market of health, poorly ventilated neighborhoods, and finally migraines of overheated poetry, before a jury of robust men covered with feathers, sharpened into penholders in the form of skeletons, men of letters, actually? What are you doing?”
What indeed, as this “silence I have kept for thirty years” explodes, pummeling readers with his beautiful words and wisdom where “All the unhappiness of the intelligence resides in its inability, beyond a certain degree of development, to enjoy the present moment.”
I could go on and on quoting Pierre Reverdy, but the words of French playwright and poet Antonin Artaud in his “Correspondence with Jacques Rivière (1886-1925)” drew me to keep reading. On May 25, 1925, for example, Artaud wrote, “Dear Sir, Why lie, why seek to place on the literary level a thing which is the very cry of life, why give the appearances of fiction to what is made of the ineradicable substance of the soul, which is like the plaint of reality?”
These poetic arguments and insights among earlier artists continue to inform our work and ourselves. For instance, French poet and art critic Jacques Dupin, whose father was a psychiatrist, sees into the artistic impulse, saying, “It begins with the painful awareness of solitude, a desire to communicate with others, and anguish before the recognized impossibility of that communication.”
Besides that small beginning most of us share, this highly recommended book once again raises the standard of writing, poetry, and other artistic endeavors that have, quite possibly, sunk to a new low in light of self-publishing ventures gone rampant.
After years of writing prose and fiction for traditional publishing houses, I’ve turned my focus back to poetry reading, writing, and revising, which returns me now to my primary interest in the poetry part of Collected French Translations. Beginning with an excellent introduction to Ashbery’s work, written by the editors, the book proceeds to the poetry of Jean-Baptiste Chassignet (1571-1635), whose sonnet “V” begins:
Seat yourself on the edge of a wavy river;
You’ll see it flow in a perpetual course,
And wave upon wave rolling in thousands and thousands of turns
Release among the meadows its damp career.
But you’ll see nothing of that first wave
Which flowed once, water changes every day,
Every day it passes, and we still name it
Same river, and same water, in the same way.
Jules Supervielle (1884-1960) most likely wanted a changed way of looking at the same things, and so in “47, Boulevard Lannes” he takes the familiar and writes:
Since I recognize the front of my house at this height
I am going to hang up the portraits of my father and mother
Between two trembling stars;
I shall put the antique parlor clock
On a mantel carved in the hard night
And the astronomer who will someday discover them in the sky
Will whisper about it to the end of his days.
Admired earlier for his prose, Pierre Reverdy appears here, too, for example in “That Memory” where “The star came out of the water” and “A ship passed flying low,” but for all the surreal moments, he admits to hearing “in the midst of everything that lives and wakens/ The same and single voice persisting/ in my ear.”
I could go on and on quoting the poetry of Reverdy where “Everything is clenched in that hand that never pardons,” but we’d miss so many other amazing artists of word pictures featured in this book.
For example, in prose poem “The Cloud Distributes Its Rain Impartially…,” Maurice Blanchard writes of “this alternating chorus of a world made and a world rejected, this battle in shadows, this irresolvable symphony, these rendings and these smiles will pass slowly into darkness and solitude. In autumn the horizons disappear, hollows appear in the surface of the earth, and we perceive that the world has changed.”
In the long poem “Prose Des Buttes-Chaumont,” Pierre Martory (1920-1998) gives us a glimpse of just how much the world of the earlier French poets and artists has changed from ours, and yet the problems of art and life remain the same:
A book begun in manuscript by a monk
And finished on the screen of a computer terminal
In a bruised language like overripe figs
Where the perfume of a little-known alphabet stagnates…
Nothing stagnates, however, in “Fords, Channels” by Frank André Jamme (1947) who, along with the remaining poets in this fine book, challenge us in their own creative ways to:
“Drink the living water,” she said, “animate the drum. Get your things together too, so that their voices may be heard: the conch shell and the lance, the letters of light. Listen again to what nurses us, the fire and its venom, the pearl that sleeps in the echo. And only then, look at me, walk at last on the glitter. Look me in the eyes for a long time: You’ll see, I’ll catch fire.”
© 2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, reviewer and poet-author of Living in the Nature Poem, published in 2012 by Hiraeth Press, and Outside Eden, published by Kelsay Books, 2014
Collected French Translations: Poetry, John Ashbery, hardback
Collected French Translations: Prose, John Ashbery, Kindle e-book edition