The French-language poets Philippe Jaccottet and Pierre-Albert Jourdan are not well-known names on this side of the Atlantic. Though a former French instructor, I was myself barely familiar with their names. But to our great good fortune, the publisher Chelsea Editions now offers us two beautifully designed, bilingual books editions of two major twentieth-century Francophone poets, translated magnificently by John Taylor.
And, Nonetheless by Jaccottet and The Straw Sandals by Jourdan were published in 2011 and include selected prose and poetry, with introductions by the translator. Born in 1925 in Switzerland, Jaccottet is better known than Jourdan. Among the former’s influences are the poets he has translated from ancient Greek, Italian, German, and Spanish; Oriental philosophies; and his Protestant upbringing. A similarity to French poet Yves Bonnefoy’s vision is also noticeable, particularly in Jaccottet’s sensitivity to what in philosophical language is called “la présence”—the presence here and now of some kind of a transcendence. Therefore, we could talk of a strong spirituality in Jaccottet’s writings, if this word weren’t so deeply compromised by so many seekers of fast-food enlightenment. Jaccottet’s spirituality is accompanied—or offset—by an equally strong skepticism and doubt, which often translate stylistically into a more prosaic writing. His writing oscillates between, at one end, a haiku-like quality, and at the other, a convoluted, deliberately prosaic style.
Most of the selections in And Nonetheless are fragments. The fragment, it should be noted, is a genre in itself in contemporary French literature, and corresponds roughly to what in contemporary American literature would be called by most writers “prose poems,” though their tone and underlying creative impulse are different. Many American writers of prose poems see themselves as descendents of the Surrealists, while most French writers of fragments have a more analytical mind and are often readers of German philosophy. Another important difference is that, like most French poets, Jaccottet has authored numerous book reviews and journalistic and critical essays. This is less common in the States, where the distinction between “writers” and “poets” underlines a fundamental separation between two different types of discourse (and thinking), a boundary that is more fluid in France.
A symptomatic example of Jaccottet’s poetic prose is Blason Vert et Blanc/Blazon in Green and White, in which his reflections on these two colors shift in various directions, recording their presence in famous paintings, musical pieces, and literary writings. Such cultural markers are emblematic not only for Jaccottet, but also for many French writers of his generation. With one exception (a Noh play by an unmentioned Japanese author), all the references here are from the classical tradition of Western Europe. In literature: an Italian (Dante), a Spaniard (Cervantes), a Frenchman (Verlaine), and a German (Hölderlin); in music: two Italians (Monteverdi and Masatto); in painting: an anonymous Greek and an Italian (Botticelli). Equally typical is the framing of the piece, “while daydreaming, while reflecting on these two colors . . .” For a French writer, daydreaming is never a state of laziness of the mind; it is accompanied by a philosophical impulse, which occurs within a very specific frame of cultural references. (It’s almost impossible to read an essay by a contemporary French poet without running into a reference to Hölderlin.) It is also common for French writers to exalt their enjoyment of nature by quoting a canonic scientific or literary text. The lyrical mood and the analytical experience are never entirely separate. Thus, when in Sur les Degrés Montant/Ascending the Steps Jaccottet talks about the meadowlark, he reinforces his statements by quoting the 18th-century French naturalist and mathematician, Buffon.
So, while daydreaming about green and white, Jaccottet takes us on a journey, which could be a lecture on the theme of these colors in art. The way his reflection develops is very much in the tradition of Montaigne’s Essays, in which the writer embarks on a subjective (that is, pertaining to the Subject, or the I) exploration of personal preferences and impressions, all the while peppering it with “objective” (that is, canonized) cultural notes. Here is Jaccottet’s very subjective conclusion about the above-mentioned colors:
Green and white: among all the colors, the most felicitous ones, yet also the two that are the closes to nature and the countryside. Feminine, deep, fresh, and pure. Colors less dull than shy; colors that seem somewhat peaceful, reassuring . . .
Of all the colors, green may well be the most mysterious and, at the same time the most appeasing. Does it perhaps, in its depths, harmonize day and night? Going by the name “greenery,” it expresses all foliages and pasturages of the plant world, thereby implying shade, coolness and a temporary shelter for us as well.
As peaceful as nature may be, it never lets the poet forget that death is always nearby. The last fragment of Blazon in Green and White is both a reminder of the ending awaiting us all and an assertion of nature’s divine essence:
Before you enter the community of ghosts once and for all, write down that there is no higher heaven than this grass-colored spring.
Or, one could say just the opposite: whenever death is nearby, the poet answers by taking refuge in nature. Mulling over a friend’s increasing senility and approaching death, Jaccottet finds the only answer to this horror in the beauty offered by three colorful flowers, all the while acknowledging that such an “answer” is highly questionable: “As an answer along the path: / groundsel, hogweed, chicory.”
Both Jaccottet’s and Jourdan’s poetry is grounded in nature, yet it is far from being “nature poetry.” It is not “inspired” by nature the way some melancholy, idle observer watching a garden from behind a lace-curtained window might be. It is a poetry born out of the desire to cross the line between nature and the invisible beyond it; it is a poetry both thought and felt. For Jaccottet, as for Jourdan, looking at nature is never simply an act of letting your eye/I touch the surface of things; rather, it is an act through which your eye/I relearns how to see.
Both poets cultivate assonance and metaphor, felicitously translated by Taylor.
Aiguillée d’eau dans l’herbe déchirée
A thread of water needling through the torn grass
un seul éclair plumeux
a feathery flash
La lumière tisse son châle de frissons.
The light weaves its shawl of shivers.
Petit jour naît dans un envol d’ailes brisées.
Dawn is born in a soar of broken wings.
The best pieces in Jourdan’s Straw Sandals are from Fragments, most of them one or two-line notations in which poetic perception and reflection merge in concentrated gems:
Le regard transcrit; la main, elle, froisse les parfums.
Looking transcribes; as to hands, they crumple sweet smells.
L’infusion de silence, sans oublier l’active médisance des mouches.
Silence steeping, not to forget the nasty gossiping of the flies.
Ce sont des approximations parce que le mystère reste entier.
These are approximations because the mystery remains whole.
The same awe before nature as in Jaccottet is at play here; the “mystery” is that which in nature resists our desire to understand and appropriate it.
Le silence sculpte les visages, l’abondance de paroles les masque.
Silence sculpts faces; too many words mask them.
A force de l’expliquer on le détruit. Il vaut mieux s’y glisser.
By explaining it, you destroy it. It would be better to slip inside.
Many of Jourdan’s fragments have an aphoristic quality, and are constructed on paradoxes:
Le dieu est mort mais il n’est mort que de mort d’homme.
The god is dead but only of a human death.
Parce que le regard tue aussi le regardant.
Because looking also kills the looker.
Ce léger crissement des siècles dans l’oreille du rien.
This soft rustling of the centuries in the ear of nothingness.
Occasionally, Jourdan uses wordplay, and Taylor finds ingenious ways of recreating it in English:
Toute forme selon l’heure est accusée. Accusée de quoi ? D’être forme.
Depending on the time of day, every shape is pronounced. Pronounced guilty of being a shape.
Or, charming witticisms:
Les chats et les boîtes. Ces individualistes les adorent mais ils gardent, dans une position parfois invraisemblable, l’œil ouvert sur le monde.
Cats and boxes. These individualists adore them, but they keep, sometimes remaining in incredible positions, an eye open on the world.
But the most touching pages from The Straw Sandals can be found in the last section, Approach, written in 1981, the year of Jourdan’s death. These pages record the writer’s physical decline and the pain caused by an illness he doesn’t name. This particularly strong excerpt reveals the difference between Jourdan’s approach and the numerous illness memoirs the American market is saturated with these days:
Something almost monstrous, in any case very difficult to bear: anything can prove useful and perhaps exists only for the use that we will make of it. Hence: pain, illness, degeneration—instead of slinking (or sinking) away, you can view them as solid steps enabling you to continue (or begin) to rise.
Jourdan calls “monstrous” the very thing that in contemporary American culture provides the impetus for the success of the memoirs about such “degenerations.” In a society in which Protestantism—even secularized—infuses everything (including illness, pain, dependency, or abuse) with the sufferer’s desire to “use” it for a “better” purpose, that is, as “solid steps” to “grow,” such “degenerations” become occasions for redemption. French (high) culture, on the other hand, built on an aristocratic mentality, despises “usefulness.”
In spite of the focus on the author’s own misery, the pages from Approach are still rich in descriptions of nature, and are underlined by the same unity between the mind, the spirit and the natural world:
C’est cela la littérature: un arbre foudroyé dont l’essence vole partout.
This is what literature is: a lightning-struck tree whose essence sprays out everywhere.
Daniela Hurezanu’s book reviews and translations from the French and Romanian have appeared in numerous publications, including Words Without Borders, Rain Taxi, and Three Percent.
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