Times Literary Supplement - Vanishing points

 Times Literary Supplement - Vanishing points
25 mai 2012

Vanishing points

André du Bouchet (1924-2001) remains an influential and somewhat intimidating figure in twentieth-century French poetry. A co-founder of the seminal review L'Éphémère (1966-72), along with Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Dupin, Paul Celan and three other writers, du Bouchet wrote poems whose single words, fragmentary phrases, sudden long lines and occasional prose paragraphs are scattered all over the page. At first glance, such layouts promise abstruseness; but the poems often deal with the most rudimentary elements of nature. Although his poetry appears abstract by Anglo-American standards, it actually manages to be factual in original ways. And his oeuvre sparks discussions about what “realism” in poetry might require.

How can one approach such writing? The epigraph to the first issue of L'Éphémère cites Plotinus's query: “What discourse is possible with respect to what is absolutely simple?” As du Bouchet scrutinizes rocks, xater, glaciers, fire, air, soil, the sun and other “simple” things, his strangely aphoristic or – as Axiomes, the title of one of his poetic sequences, suggest – “axiomatic” imagery should be read with this question in mind. A sort of modern Presocratic poet-philosopher, he peers into nature and imagines the separations, or potantial connections, between fleeting natural phenomena and the words we use to recall and “retain” them. Are connections really possible? In Ici en deux (1986), an important volume now available in paperback, the poet asserts: “… but wholly in words, / I have also been close to the outside, an instant.” Du Bouchet indeed tries to close gaps between language and matter, between the self and the non-self, between man and nature or the “outdoors” – as the “outside” in the preceding quotation can also be construed. Like other contemporary French “strolling” or “hiking” poets, the author of Air(1951) – his first book – searches for inspiration by leaving the house. Now and then he comes across a water source, commemorating it in delicately sensual lines: “… even with / dry lips // you // without running dry / were / where // all is lost”.

Notebooks were du Bouchet's laboratories for this king of writing. They represent more than depositories of on-the-spot jottings. Notebooks enabled him to experiment with imagery and mediate on subjectivity, two central concerns for this poet suspicious of comfortable narrative vantage points and of arriving too readily at fixed forms or formulations. Une lampe dans la lumière aride reproduces his Carnets from the years 1949-55. The volume supplants two previous, shorter, selections made from the same notebooks. Well-known lines from later poems appear for the first time in slightly different versions, such as “I write as far as possible from myself” – an echo of which can also be heard in Ici en deux: “the substance breathing in me / is // the same / as // the other in the distance”. Du Bouchet was bent on “de-selfing" his perceptions.

His poetic project was exacting from the onset. Like the Surrealists, who overturned routines of rational thinking by juxtaposing heterogeneous images, du Bouchet delves into a similar quandary resulting from our perceptual, conceptual and literary habits. Already amply visible in the notebooks, his response is often syntactic: stripping language of grammatical and logical connectors. When notebook drafts are worked into publishable poems, they will usually have lost even more of their conjunctions and have been more extensively spaced out on the page. It's not metre, but rather those carefully calculated blank spaces that create an abrupt, austere rhythm in his poems; and the spaces also affect meaning.

Aveuglante ou banale gathers essays (with several inédits) from the same early period. The essays show du Bouchet's facsination with the very notion of an “image”. He studies this and other topics in the French poets (Ponge, Char, Reverdy, Baudelaire and, interestingly, Victor Hugo) who influenced him, Hölderlin (whom he translated), and Joyce (excerpts from whose Finnegans Wake he also translated). Above all, he analyses how we articulate what we have just seen and then examines how poetic discourses built up from this process can deceive us: for what has been glipsed has already vanished, and recording it implies betraying its essence, which is to vansish. Is writing poetry therefore a misleading method for pinning down factual truth? More emboldened than discouraged by this irresolvable dilemma, du Bouchet persists in seeking a poetic approach. His subsequent work reflects this lifelong quest. Philosophical in scope, his poems nonetheless avoid abstract words while aiming at the ephemeral. He can be paradoxical yet concrete. His deepest goal is to re-establish, through poetry, our primordial reactions to “being / – and the first time once again –”. He stipulates that they can reoccur only “on the ridge of language”. This is the challenge of his poetics, motivated by an inspiration to a more authentic realism.

                                                                                                        John Taylor