RSS Feed

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

Salon Noir by Simon Smith (Equipage)

The epigraph at the front of this stunningly presented new book of poems from Rod Mengham’s Equipage is significant in that it points the way forward:

‘Place and the spirit of place is the inspiration of more poetry than we nowadays like to admit; and to do poetry justice, the critic needs to turn himself into a tourist’.

These words conclude Donald Davie’s essay on ‘The Cantos: Towards a Pedestrian Reading’ (spring-summer 1972) and they possess the faint timbre of a Michelin Guide to the Cathar regions of Foix, Palmiers, Montaillou and Montségur. And in similar mode one of the best tourist guides of poetry during the Pound era, Hugh Kenner, allowed his engaging narrative to act as our signpost in 1972 as we were transported back to 1919, ‘a good summer for the impecunious to travel’. Ezra and Dorothy Pound met Tom Eliot ‘near Giraut de Bornelh’s birthplace, Excideuil’:

‘The three headed south, the Pounds finally to Montségur but Eliot on a divagation of his own to inspect nearby cave drawings. That may have been at the Grotte de Niaux. We are to imagine him, rucksacked, deep inside a mountain, individual talent confronted by the Mind of Europe, satisfying himself that art never improves (“but the material of art”—here, bison “d’un pureté de trait étonnante” drawn with magnesium oxide in bison grease—“is never quite the same”), while 20 kilometers eastward by crows’ flight the Pounds, fortified with chocolate, were climbing the southwest face of Montségur to the white walls that ride its summit like a stone ship.’

Naturally enough Thomas Stearns Eliot, gentlemanly figure from London, was a different type of tourist from the Pounds, as is evident from his short letter to Lytton Strachey written in late August that year:

‘I have been walking the whole time since I arrived and so have had no address at all. Through Dordogne and the Corrèze, sunburnt—melons, ceps, truffles, eggs, good wine and good cheese and cheerful people. It’s a complete relief from London.’

Simon Smith’s poetic journey into that part of France north of the Pyrenees merges past and present as his Airbus A320 ‘prepares for final descent & the slip towards Tolosa / Piere Vidal’s town’. This is the first reference to Paul Blackburn, a haunting presence throughout the sequence of poems, and to his Peire Vidal translations published by Mulch Press also in 1972, a year after the American poet’s death. A second follows immediately:

‘the lines you carry with you
lines in lieu of memory
the ghost of Paul Blackburn takes up the work from E.P.
poets metamorphosise
into tourists & time shuffles forward one hour’

This awareness of time is central to the whole sequence and in the fifth poem we are presented with the Salon Noir itself deep within the Grotte de Niaux:

‘Gallery of the Scree the Deep Gallery
damp limestone metamorphosing
stalactites drip

reform as stalagmites
climb the ossified sand dune
thirty-odd feet high

& to the Salon Noir a kilometre deep
bison some ice-age horses ibex deer
off limits the Réseau Clastres & the only weasel

Panel II bison facing away
right 13,850 BP counterpoint
to Panel VI 12,890 BP bison facing left

a dead female & a thousand years between

outlined in charcoal or a mixture
manganese dioxide
for black haematite for red

clear as today lit by torch battery
our eyes are their eyes
no history between’

In his introduction to Blackburn’s Peire Vidal, the editor commented upon the excellence of the American poet’s choice in translating the poetry of the Provençal troubadours because it was a choice made out of a special affinity for them: ‘Because he had the gifts and desire, he became one and all of them, as with genius and learning he gave their poems his own voice and new life in a new language.’ There is an integritas in the late-twelfth century poet which also sits closely alongside Simon Smith’s re-creation of the Cathar world of Montségur, the temple to the sun which Pound had brought back into focus in Canto 76:

‘….and the rain fell all the night long at Ussel
cette mauvaiseh venggg blew over Tolosa
and in Mt Segur there is wind space and rain space’

Simon Smith’s ‘Montségur’ opens with space and movement, white on the page, background to the movement of ‘swallows tipping in / & out of thermals’. The expansion of light as recorded by Robert Grosseteste in his De Luce: a little tract from around the same time as Vidal’s song which tells us that ‘light of its very nature diffuses itself in every direction in such a way that a point of light will produce instantaneously a sphere of light of any size whatsoever, unless some opaque object stands in the way.’ In Smith’s poem the ‘luminous’ is ‘a punishing light & infinite thirst’ as we are presented with the sketch of

‘the last two hundred die-hard Cathars
below the prat dels cremats
eight months of dissent’

The movement of history and geography, the tourist’s awareness of how time does not alter everything and, as Eliot was to assert about the unchanging nature of art, the then and the now overlap like ‘the infinite / tripping over of water / from the fountains into the babble of voices’.

Paul Blackburn’s ‘Ab l’alen tir vas me l’aire’ opens with the immediacy of

‘I suck deep in air come from Provence to here.
All things from there so please me
when I hear
in dockside taverns
travelers’ gossip told
I listen smiling,
and for each word ask a hundred smiling words,
all news is good’

Simon Smith’s journey to the Salon Noir brings back this sense of air and noise, a history of both then and now. As with every good tourist trip a reader will want to return and return in order to savour again those moments glimpsed; such as

‘John James alone on the wide terrace of the Café de la Paix
a half empty glass of vin blanc on the table
happy for another as we are of the first

and talk
of a new book—Songs in Midwinter for Franco
Franco Beltrametti.

Ian Brinton 16th March 2016

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: