Second Simplicity, the first compilation of Yves Bonnefoy’s work since 1995, samples from seven previous collections, representing verse and prose emblematic of the major themes of the past two decades and showcasing Bonnefoy’s range, including his experimental prose poems and a sui generis genre called “tales within dreams.” The collection is well curated, cohesive and various, and gifts English readers with indisputable pearls: many of these translations have not appeared in book form; some are printed for the first time.
The book’s titlemeans, in part, getting to the “sheer essence of each text.” It is a process of returning, clarifying thought and expression, working through delusions, mirages, and chimeras. For Bonnefoy, the term originally called forth late Baroque masters who simplified the excesses and departures of their predecessors, revivifying the forms, continuing the cultural conversation, and enacting how themes and ideas evolve generationally. The concept of a ‘second simplicity’ could also be applied to translation itself: returning, rethinking, and revisiting the source text to get to its sheer essence.
Hoyt Rogers, who edited and translated this volume, says that Bonnefoy has “attained a luminous plateau, not unlike the light-washed settings so frequent in this latest chapter of his work.” For a writer at a different career point, attaining a plateau, regardless of how well lit, may not be the praise that most delights, but for Bonnefoy, it indicates a vista gained through rigorous climbing, decades of wrangling with the ambiguities posed by impassioned engagement with literature, philosophy, art, and history. Soon entering his ninth decade, Bonnefoy is still taking risks and exploring new formal terrains.
The collection begins with a set of spare poems from Beginning and End of Snow, 1991, a verse cycle where Bonnefoy “converts to a plainer and more limpid style, coupled with a notable shift in imagery: changes that correspond to an autumn and winter spent in New England.” Snow falls all through this section, covers the interiors and exteriors of the world; snow whirls without syntax, fractures time, brings wonder in the individuated snowflake, and multitasks as metaphor for words, for light, for a state of being that is present but not static. Sometimes what the snow signifies is complex and oblique:
When the snow falls thicker,
Hands pushing other hands away
But playing with the fingers they refuse. (“‘It’s Like . . .’”)
Next are selections from The Wandering Life (1993), the first of Bonnefoy’s collections to interweave poetry and prose. A leitmotif of his oeuvre reappears: stone. “From Wind and Smoke” echoes the Odyssey and develops a moving argument through the vehicle of Helen of Troy—that any figure, once solidified in form, in art, is a memory of the idea that flowed through the artist, a flicker of the originating impulse. First Helen is figured as a stone; then she becomes fire. She voices her essence:
I have no name, no more than a cloud.
A cloud, I will dissolve in purest light.
And once I have given you joy, the light
Consumed, I will never thirst again.
Fittingly, the last person to see this fire is a naked child:
He dawdled, he sang.
He cupped a little water in his hands,
Where the fire could come to drink.
Children play an archetypal role, more present, certainly, than women, men, or babies in these poems. Sometimes Bonnefoy’s own childhood is poetically mined. “The House Where I Was Born” is a verse sequence that plumbs some formative moments through the amplifier of myth, such as Ovid’s telling of the story of Ceres and the mouthy boy she turned into a lizard. The poem’s speaker, that boy, proposes an interpretation divergent from the traditional: he is not mocking the devastated mother in her fruitless search, but rather yawping a cry of love, a communication misfire that results in a negative transformation, devolution. Youth thwarted by the inability to marry meaning and expression alludes to the dangers of parole for the uninitiated.
Rogers has produced sometimes daring translations, clearly adhering to a translation ethos that favors creating vital original poems in the second language rather than adhering to a point-by-point translation rich with surface correspondences but hollow at the center. Here is an example of the translator’s art at work at the end of “Hopkins Forest.”
Fr.: J’entre pour un instant dans la grand neige.
Rogers: I enter the whirling snow.
The dangers of looking only at discrete sections of a translation aside for the moment, what has syntactically changed in the English translation? Most glaringly, the adverbial phrase, pour un instant, is missing. Semantically, the modifiers for snow, “grand” and “whirling” are vastly different in meanings and connotations between the two languages. If fidelity to semantic meaning were the priority, then a word closer to what “grand” is doing, which is flattening the idea of snow, taking away the individuality of the snowflakes and creating a blanket effect would be appropriate. A word that draws calmness to it is not directly translated by the word whirling.
Of course, semantic and syntactic inventories and the register of superficial connections that they track are not the measure of translations. Returning to the example: with “I enter the whirling snow,” the emotional force of the original line is preserved by having both lines share the same major beat: three hard stresses. The superficial music is not matched, but the motivating energy is and can be experienced by readers in both languages. “Whirling” also carries part of the semantic load of “pour un instant” by lending a similar temporal quality. When the exterior is whirling, the present moment is fractured; linear and causal relationships have been trumped. “Pour un instant” likewise slows the experience of time, allows the moment to emerge from the flow.
In these translations, Rogers is not looking to turn back the corners of the originals, gather up the bits from which they are assembled, and reassemble them on a new chassis. He experiences the poems and with his wind, fire, water, and art he crafts sibling poems. That is not to say that there isn’t plenty to quibble about—and with the source text and the translations arranged face-to-face, critique is facilitated.
Judging from their presences as they constellate the collection, Bonnefoy has spent considerable time the past two decades with many of his closest friends: Shakespeare, Beckett, Borges, Mallarme, Leopardi, and Homer, among others. A mention of the formal treatments of Borges, Beckett, and Shakespeare will indicate the range for which Bonnefoy is praised and also suggest a kind of progression from concrete to abstract, traditional to experimental and personal to cultural that is enacted throughout this collection.
“Three Recollections of Borges” is direct, transparent memoir—one of the sections of the collection that creates an easy intimacy with Bonnefoy, who can be elusive and oblique (though always intimate). It begins:
In my memory, I turn the pages of my keepsake books. It holds some images of a man whose life hinged on a suffering, old and profound, which his quiet reserve never allowed him to mention. That was my impression of him, right from the start.
In “Beckett’s Dinghy,” what starts out as a traditional memoir becomes a ‘tale within a dream’ and the power of memory and imagination transforms the ‘real’ external scene into one where the recently departed Samuel Beckett is channeled through a photograph of the ‘beautiful face’ of an old local drunk, and time folds:
From then until the evening swiftly falls, time slows to a halt, and gold seems to lie in the ocean’s gentle hollows. Beckett is far from us now, though his boat is still dimly visible: maybe over there, where sunset ruffles a crest of sea.
At the end of the piece, Bonnefoy surprises the reader with a key to a small treasure: how to listen to Beckett. It is a moment of cultural transmission indicative of Bonnefoy’s generosity, which is a kind of humanitarianism.
Shakespeare is present most overtly at the end of the collection (though his presence is felt in many instances and in many ways) in “First Sketch for a Staging of Hamlet” and “Hamlet in the Mountains” both from The Present Hour, published in 2010. These pieces are a genre composed of elements of fantasias, allegory, philosophical exercise, and visionary writing. Both posit fantastical stagings of Hamlet. At the end of “First Sketch,” Shakespeare himself appears (right after Basho has comforted a weeping child):
We’re told that in this staging of Hamlet, the author himself has become an actor again, the actor he once was. He’s required to come toward her [a mysterious ‘second young woman’] on a lengthy path, across the stones of time, the voices of space. He keeps moving closer, though we don’t know exactly where he is. Maybe he’ll appear at some point on the enormous stage, a hurricane lamp in his hands: and the mask on his face will be the words of poetry.
By the end of “Hamlet in the Mountains,” the theater has “swelled to an entire sierra, with no limit in sight” and ontological relationships between viewer and art are examined, close to what Stevens termed the “‘major reality,’ in which poetry and nature respond to each other antiphonally, modulating into an interdependent whole.” This final diptych posits a vision of presence and infinity, of dissolved categorical and temporal distinctions, informing a kind of ars poetica. It is fitting that the collection ends here, where all facades, theaters, roles dissolve. The reader is left with the sense that she has joined Bonnefoy on that light-washed plateau.
Second Simplicity is evidence that time and age has not dulled Bonnefoy’s powers or relevance. He is at the apex of his prodigious gifts, a position gained through decades of profound engagement and unblinking artistic courage.
Nicole Zdeb is a poet and educational assessment designer in Portland, OR. Her most recent chapbook, The Friction of Distance, was published by Bedouin Books.
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