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Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008

by Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer

Strolling Out from the Self

A review by John Taylor

The anthology Into the Deep Street: Seven Modern French Poets 1938-2008 differs from standard representative gatherings of a national poetry from a given period. Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer, who are both fine British poets as well as gifted translators, have an important point to make. They focus on a "definite lignee" of modern French verse, as Romer declares in his perspicacious introduction; that is, on six poets who have expressed their debt to and admiration for Jean Follain (1903-1971), the seventh and founding member as it were, of this loosely defined, unofficial group. Linked by this affiliation, Follain's "descendants" comprise Henri Thomas (1913 -1993), Philippe Jaccottet (1925- ), Jacques Reda (1929- ), Paul de Roux (1937- ), Guy Goffette (1947- ), and Gilles Ortlieb (1953- ). Of these, the poetry of Thomas, de Roux, and Ortlieb is especially welcome because it is mostly unknown to English readers, while the more widely rendered work of the other four writers is cast into a new perspective. Unlike the others, Jaccottet investigates no "deep street" -- the title of a poem by de Roux -- but the author of La Promenade sous les arbres has been hiking in the countryside of southern France for some sixty years in his attempts to glimpse the depths of Nature. Open-eyed flanerie has often induced the poetry or poetic prose of all the writers presented here.

If one adopts the appropriate vantage point, the contemporary street and the age-old country path are not necessarily mutually contradictory sources of inspiration. In "Two Views of Bercy" or "Two Views of Plaisance," Reda ventures beyond the walls of the French capital, as the title of his collection, Hors les murs, reveals; in the process, his beloved macadam sometimes dwindles into dirt, but he knows how to praise both. Disparaged urban areas likewise meet miraculously when Ortlieb, in his thought-provoking travel and strolling notes (recently collected in Sous le crible, Editions Finitude, 2008), comes across wild strawberries growing between railroad ties at the Gare de l'Est. This feat of serendipity contrasts with the grim "dead trees planted alive on the ramparts" that he evokes in his poem "Small Town with its Gleams." But note the "gleams," here emanating from coal and tin. What unifies the work of all these poets is their good-natured, even hopeful, search for such glimmers, which -- as Feldman and Romer's title once again implies -- suggest that something deeper, weightier, or more meaningful hovers just beyond the luminous lures. Goffette sums up this potential source of bewilderment or jubilation as "a speck of gold in the mud," whereas Jaccottet has emphasized how we can deceive ourselves, when dazzled by such sparkles, by imagining transcendence where there is none. Such is the tension motivating these poets. Turning to the unexpected, yet surer beauty that can be found among ordinary people, Follain notes in "Metaphysics":

When they glimpse her
inside a cottage
her hands holding
the bowl with blue flowers
to her tender breasts
they feel the warmth
then all evaporates
from the delicate scene
leaving adrift only
the naked fragrance
of metaphysics.

-- p. 41

In any event, peeking into cottages, alleyways, or woods means leaving one's desk, getting outside and moving to and fro. "Despair does not exist for a man who is walking," as Reda famously formulates it.

To the lineage might have been added the sometimes sensitive, sometimes sardonic prose poet Gil Jouanard (1937- ), who has been Follain's most studious and enthusiastic disciple; the philosophically inquisitive prose poet, aphorist, and diarist Pierre-Albert Jourdan (1924 -1981), who was intimately associated with Jaccottet, Reda, and de Roux; and the marvelously mysterious Armenian Francophone poet Armen Lubin (1903 -1974), whom Follain, Thomas, and Reda championed. The presence of Jaccottet makes one recall the Swiss prose poet Gustave Roud (1897-1976), who affected him much more profoundly than did Follain and whose poetic sensibility has been lauded by some of the other poets chosen for the anthology.

Yet with these and other additions, such as Reda's ebullient mentor C. A. Cingria (1883-1954), whom Romer mentions, this already generous bilingual selection (filling out nearly three hundred pages of text) would have grown beyond measure. What is essential is that Feldman and Romer, as they provide samples of each poet's prose and poetry, have pinpointed a mouvance that extends over three generations and promises to continue. Furthermore, the anthologists show that such groupings offer a more accurate way of appraising literary history: a national literary history considered not as a chronologically linear succession of movements, a viewpoint presupposing the dubious notion of "progression," but rather as a network of elective affinities. In this case, influential models can be writers working well before Follain's literary coming of age -- the anthology includes an excerpt from his touching memoir, L'Epicerie de l'enfance (Fata Morgana, 1938) -- and involve seminal foreign authors as well.

In fact, although the common lineage that is delineated makes this anthology a precious and even provocative contribution to French literary history, the individual literary lineages of each poet reveal great diversity. Goffette, whose admiration for Verlaine is well-known, pays homage to Giacomo Leopardi and Cesare Pavese. De Roux bases prose texts on Jules Renard, an ironic scrutinizer of the quotidian. Jaccottet is nourished by Rilke and Holderlin, as well as by Oriental poets. Thomas was deeply read in English and American literature. In his recent Battement (Fata Morgana, 2009), Reda -- the most eclectic and free-spirited of the group -- once again reveals his metaphysical penchant, as well as his humor, by self-portraying himself as "A Pre-Socratic Philosopher in Meurthe-et-Moselle." At the same time, Reda has simultaneously published a complimentary book of prose and poetry, Battues (Fata Morgana, 2009), and an astonishing volume, La Physique amusante (Gallimard, 2009), of rhyming, metered, eighteenth-century-like "didactic" long poems each based on theories and findings in contemporary physics. His delightful volume of travel poems and prose narratives, Europes (Host Publications, 2009), has likewise appeared in Aaron Prevots' translation. Tellingly, these poets and prose poets -- the two categories simultaneously applying to all seven figures -- have sometimes learned from and stimulated each other. Lifelong friendships have formed, as Romer explains. A melancholy printed testimony is Goffette's Tombeau du Capricorne (Gallimard, 2009), a poetic eulogy for de Roux, who has Alzheimer's disease.

These "fiercely independent" poets -- a quality that Romer also stresses -- represent an engaging kind of French writing too often overlooked abroad, partly because of the widespread notion that contemporary French poetry must necessarily be abstract, hermetic, narcissistic, and indigestible. In bold contrast, these seven poets relish daily life, observe nature closely, and occasionally evoke erotic attraction, as in Follain's sketch cited above. Goffette especially explores the latter theme, most recently in his series of prose reveries and phantasms, Presqu'elles (Gallimard, 2009). To return to the anthology, note the subtlety with which he passes, in "At Dusk, 2," from the vision of a brothel to a meditation on child- and adulthood:

The house with the red lamp in the blind alley
and you waiting to grow up, heart
and fingers stained with ink
from searching the place for roses
Now that a four-lane highway crosses it
you too, unawares, have taken your place
in the line that distances the horizon
where the child that couldn't grow calls to you
day after day his dark hands bringing
to the sky's rim the red bouquet
you never picked.

-- p. 247

These poets have all mastered classical prosody and some of them even dare to use the traditional alexandrine. In her own excellent introduction, Feldman provides insights into the difficulties involved in bringing such French into English. (Although at first singly concentrating on certain poets or pieces, Feldman and Romer ended up working together as a duo.) The refined formal structures of many of these poems and prose texts hardly mean, however, that their authors are traditionalists turned toward the past. They all have sharp eyes for telltale present detail, which include natural phenomena grasped in their ever-renewable freshness. This is Jaccottet's domain par excellence. "Walking by the meadow today heartens me, cheers me," he reports for instance in a prose piece selected from Paysages avec figures absentes. "It's full of poppies in among the wild grasses. Red, red! It's not fire, certainly not blood. Much too cheerful, too slight for that."

Rhyme and regular meters give some of the writers, notably Thomas, Goffette and Reda, a lyricism that is missing in the work of many of their contemporaries. Even the more subdued Follain, Jaccottet, Ortleib or de Roux have a recognizable musicality. Finally, their originality often stems from how they depict the self in their poems and narratives. As for all of us, the self has enabled them to stroll forward into the world, and then to sense, to think, to daydream. But rarely do these poets remain introspective very long. The Cartesian cogito ergo sum founds self-awareness, but they prefer gazing outwards. The heightening quality of many pieces rendered so carefully and gracefully by Feldman and Romer is that the self withdraws, leaving the world in its stead. The last word can be given to Thomas:

Vain rampart
of the self
when you crumble
it feels so good
in the light

-- p. 105

John Taylor is the author of Paths to Contemporary French Literature and Into the Heart of European Poetry, both published by Transaction. He has also written five books of stories, short prose, and poetry, the latest being The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos Books). He writes the "Poetry Today" column in the Antioch Review, and is otherwise a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, Context, the Yale Review, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. A contributing editor of Cerise Press, he lives in France.

This review was originally published in Cerise Press.

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The Spring 2011, Vol. 2 Issue 6 of Cerise Press features Smoking, Chongqing, a photograph by Steven Benson.

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