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Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane’s Cinepoems and Others, and Existential Monday (New York Review Books)

Benjamin Fondane, Cinepoems and Others, ed. Leonard Schwartz, bilingual, trans. various hands (New York Review Books, 2016)
Benjamin Fondane, Existential Monday: Philosophical Essays, ed. & trans. Bruce Baugh (New York Review Books, 2016)

I am confused. I have two books to review, a volume of poetry and a collection of philosophical essays. They are by the same person, Benjamin Fondane. This is unusual. Philosophers do not usually write passable poetry, nor poets philosophy. I am reminded of a Tommy Cooper sketch. He finds an old violin and an oil painting in the attic, which he takes to an expert who says: “What you’ve got there is a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt. Unfortunately, Stradivarius [sic] was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made rotten violins.” With that the much-loved comedian thrusts the violin through the painting demolishing both. I think Fondane would have appreciated this and laughed his head off. He retains such a sense of humour in the face of the most atrocious circumstances to which he fell victim, though in 1943, the year before his death in Auschwitz, he is quoted, “I publish more prose than poetry; one of my activities harms the other.”
I did not know anything about Fondane until now, which is the point of publishing these two books at the same time. Almost no one, at least in the English-speaking world, has known about him and, it seems, only recently has he truly entered into the post-war literary consciousness of France, whose language he ended up writing in. Fondane was a Romanian Jew, born in 1898. He contributed hundreds of articles and poems to Romanian periodicals, immersed himself in French literature, and in 1922 published a study of Mallarmé, Gide and Proust: “I have not come to know French literature as I might know German literature: I have lived it.” The following year he moved to Paris. His friends there included fellow countrymen Tristan Tzara and Constantine Brancusi. He was photographed by Man Ray around 1925. One double-portrait appears on the cover of Existential Monday and another double, with elongated distortions, as the frontispiece to Cinepoems and Others. He fell under the spell of André Breton’s first Surrealist Manifesto and then the two fell out in fisticuffs in 1930 at the Maldoror, a Montparnasse bar.
I can see, saleswise, why the title of the poetry selection highlights Cinepoems but that really is misleading. Fondane’s Trois scenarios: cinépoèmes was a 1928 exercise in soon-to-be-abandoned surrealism, consisting of numbered single line sentences: “let’s kick off the era of unfilmable scripts” he wrote in the preface. Fondane was a movie buff. He was employed for a time as a script editor at Paramount Pictures in Paris. He worked on the film Rapt aka The Kidnapping. He twice visited Argentina at the invitation of Victoria Ocampo, editor of Sur, first to present screenings, then to make a film of his own, which by all accounts does not survive. Ultimately, “cinepoems” are funny, mildly interesting, and, of course, quite experimentally filmable if you want, but unimportant and nothing to do with his subsequent formidable work.
The Others of the poems are lengthy extracts from Ulysses, Titanic, Exodus, lines from which are displayed at Israel’s Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem, In the Time of the Poem, and The Sorrow of Ghosts complete. Fondane is very much a formalist, often in rhymed triplets aba, but there is nothing old-fashioned about him. There is a distrust and subversion of language in densely packed images: “The gods prayed to with the same hieroglyphics / no longer kiss us with the kisses of their mouth; / our cries used up like old nails / no longer penetrate the Eternal. / / It’s been a long time since words lost their meaning / / such a long time— / and there they are, for heaven’s sake, ripening / / on the threshold of time to come— / of great events now past.—“X-Rays” from Titanic.
Unsurprisingly, with translations by eight different hands, the English versions range from slightly suspect to excellent. End rhyme has been eschewed, probably wisely, although there are often good internal compensations: “. . . As hunger plays a pretty song: / when no one’s listening, it tunes up / intestines for a fiddle-string,”—The Sorrow of Ghosts. It is no special wish of mine to play translation detective here but it is intolerable to translate cèpe as mushroom—In the Time of the Poem. Are we to suppose that English-language readers are expected to be too ignorant to know, or to discover, what a cep (or, if you like, a penny-bun, a porcini) is? Or have we learnt something about the translator? Surely, in The Sorrow of Ghosts, “Quel Dieu ordonne” should be “What God ordains”, not “requires”. And why, in the same sequence is “—Prier? mais OÙ?” translated “—Where can we pray?” and not “—Pray? but WHERE?” That sort of thing.
What I really do not like is the inclusion of a 1985 conversation between Leonard Schwartz and E. M. Cioran. Romanian Paris-resident Cioran may have been Fondane’s dear friend but in the 1930s he described himself as a Hitlerist and was an apologist for the Romanian extremist Iron Guard, whatever later renunciations of all that he may have sought to make. Much of what Cioran says leaves a bad taste in the mouth; he is right to discredit Edouard Roditi’s wholly deplorable utterances about Paul Celan—in full in “Paul Celan and the Cult of Personality”, World Literature Today, vol. 66, no. 1 (Winter 1992)—but he is prone to deplorables himself: “We were friends. He [Celan] translated one of my books. But we ceased to be friends when he moved to the 16th. That is for me another world—the haute bourgeoisie, and so on, live there: Celan too, since his wife was a marquise. It was finished. In Paris, friendships are a question of neighbourhood.” As far as I am aware, from my knowing Gisèle Celan-Lestrange and Edmond Jabès, that was no bar to the friendship between Celan and Jabès. And about Fondane: “Yes, but all the same he’s not a French poet. He’s not considered a French poet by the French, and he isn’t one.” Oh, what, another rootless cosmopolitan? I don’t think so.
Turning now to Existential Monday, which includes a thorough introduction, copious notes, and a bibliography, I find myself more than a little out of my depth. I am no student of philosophy though I like to think I am a philosophical poet, to the ribbing of a French philosophy teacher who tells me I am not. I once wrote about George Oppen: “I think—I am often thinking—Oppen was a philosopher without philosophy. That doesn’t matter because a poet’s philosophy will never amount to much more than a partial attempt to justify or explain that particular poetry. Only the poem can be held to account as exemplary or rotten, or somewhere in-between, not its sources, those that are objective—the language, shall we say, which appears as a ready-made above one’s head, at the ready to be remade—and those that are subjective—I shall say only, if evasively, that we know all about that.”
I am told that Fondane’s philosophy, closely allied to that of his mentor Leon Shestov, is naïve. So be it. “In the one case, it is the outer bark of reality that is at stake; in the other, it is the condition of man in reality.” It is certainly readable. The selection is small. It consists of a mere four essays from his immense output. We must take it on trust that this is a truly representative selection: “Existential Monday and the Sunday of History”—Kafka provides the title, “Preface for the Present Moment”, “Man Before History, or, The Sound and the Fury”, “Boredom”, which is an essay about Baudelaire. In fact, Fondane’s first philosophical work was a study of Rimbaud. So you see there is no escaping the cross-fertilization—or “harm” as he put it—of poetry and philosophy in Fondane’s work. I need to take the easy way out here and ask that you simply—for these things are either complex or simple—read what Fondane has to say about existentialism and historical philosophers, and the then state of the world. Fondane’s fate was dreadful yet at the same time noble. He wrote to the end. He could have escaped France. There was some temporary respite following a first arrest and then release because his wife was not Jewish. But he refused to abandon his sister, with whom he was rearrested, and they perished. God alone knows what he would make of our current socio-politico-philosophical mess and evident refusal to learn from history.

This review was written at the invitation of Jewish Quarterly, where it appeared in 2017 with heavy cuts, ostensibly for space reasons. This is the full review.

Anthony Barnett 15th January 2018


The Thief of Talant: Pierre Reverdy translated by Ian Seed (Wakefield Press)

The Thief of Talant: Pierre Reverdy translated by Ian Seed (Wakefield Press)

When Philippe Jaccottet wrote a short account of the central importance of Reverdy in an essay from 1960, reproduced by Gallimard in 1968 as part of a collection of essays titled L’Entretien des Muses, he highlighted the way in which the poetry is to be found “dans chaque mot qui éclate sur la page sèche, avide, éblouissante”. This is not, he continued, the large noble architecture of Claudel or Saint-John Perse but instead it focuses upon the “moindre bonheur, les voiles de la pluie, la fuite des nuées, les lueurs des vitres”. It is this sharp awareness of the accumulation of detail in the world that makes his work so important to two later poets, Frank O’Hara and Simon Smith. O’Hara’s lunch hour walk around the city concludes with the lines

“…My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.”

The poetry in O’Hara is in each word which bursts onto the empty space of the page, “avide”, asserting its right to be there.

“There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock.”

The fragility of the everyday is caught melting between the Puerto Ricans who make the day “beautiful and warm” and the end-of-line word “First” which heralds the references to the death of three close friends. The poet seems to be not only a step away from the dead but also from the fast movement of the day, as sensations disappear almost as soon as they are presented. Simon Smith’s volume from 2003, Reverdy Road (Salt Books), pays nodding homage to both the French and American poets as his poems, whilst appearing to present a quality of the random, are in fact highly-wrought and careful vignettes of modern urban and suburban life. The 2011 sequence, Gravesend (Veer Books), offers reflections of a train journey between Charing Cross and Chatham and what Jaccottet referred to as “lueurs des vitres” stabilize themselves with a desire for permanence within a shifting landscape: the poems themselves attempt to halt the sense of vertigo prompted by a world of captions and key-words presenting themselves as mirrors of everyday narrowness.

Ian Seed’s translation of Reverdy’s Le Voleur de Talan, the first time that it has been translated into English, brings us a world of a hundred years ago. The First World War is being fought, Cubism bisects reality and Reverdy’s friends are Picasso, Braque, Apollinaire. In his clear and informative introduction Ian Seed recreates a sense of that time:

“Up until the outbreak of the First World War, Reverdy also frequently met up with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire at the Café de Flore. Their discussions would often revolve around the use of punctuation in poetry and the shape of the text on the page. Reverdy, like Apollinaire, was uneasy with the way punctuation could interfere with the flow of a poem. They also questioned the poem’s abandonment of the right side of the page to blank space. What they were searching for was syntax and visual arrangement of text that would allow a poem to achieve its full expression.”

It is worth bearing in mind here of course that Mallarmé’s ‘Un Coup de Dès’ had appeared in 1897 shimmering and weaving its way across the pages of Cosmopolis.
Seed’s translation captures that “fuite des nuées” talked about by Jaccottet and he presents the reader with what he refers to as “a hauntingly beautiful long poem” which contains at its heart “Reverdy’s growing sense of dislocation and loss of self”. We read details as “Lights ran between doors / Soft sounds brushed / the partitions and some women went by / singing” and distance them as “Paler than old memories”. We seek a world of Orpheus as “We often turn our / heads and behind us / something flees much / faster than us” but the poet wants “to go / up once more after I / had descended forever.”

“Outside the closed door people passed by
slowly looking at the ground

They were looking for traces of my footsteps”

The traces are in the printer’s marks on the white page and we are now able to follow them in English thanks to the quality of Ian Seed’s own poetry: he brought something back to life.

Ian Brinton 8th January 2017

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire trans. Jan Owen (Arc Publications)

The arrival of a new translation of Baudelaire is always a moment of real interest and this recent publication which appeared last month is no exception. The Australian poet Jan Owen introduces her translations by highlighting what it was that drew her to Baudelaire’s work in the first place:

‘I was drawn to Baudelaire not through any intrinsic resemblance but by his ‘sorcellerie évocatoire’: the distilled power and daring images, the combination of intensity and grace, and the unpredictable mix of formality and intimacy. Those memorable first lines and resonant last lines, that shifting emotional terrain between!’

This is a fine introductory comment and I turned to one of my favourite ‘Spleen’ poems to see how the power and unpredictability came over. The poem, ‘Quand le ciel bas et lourd pèse comme un couvercle’ always seems to be to be a good test of a translator’s sensitivity. It is the poem written about by the great Erich Auerbach in an essay titled ‘The Aesthetic Dignity of the Fleurs du Mal’ where he talks of the temporal clauses describing a rainy day with low, heavy hanging clouds; a sky like a heavy lid closing off the horizon ‘leaving us without prospect in the darkness’.

The opening of Jan Owen’s version is very effective:

‘When the long low sky weighs down like a lid
on the spirit groaning with disgust and doubt,
and in at the far horizon rim is poured
a day that’s sadder than the darkest night;

when earth is changed to a narrow, fetid jail
where Hope, a frantic bat, twitching and reeling,
scrapes her timid wings on every wall
and knocks her head against the rotted ceiling’

I like this much more than the Richard Howard poem I have become used to from 1982:

‘When skies are low and heavy as a lid
over the mind tormented by disgust,
and hidden in the gloom the sun pours down
on us a daylight dingier than the dark;

when earth becomes a trickling dungeon where
Trust like a bat keeps lunging through the air,
beating tentative wings along the walls
and bumping its head against the rotten beams’

The alexandrine metre of the original French makes it clear that this is a solemn poem, to be spoken in grave tones. It includes allegorical figures written with capital letters and the reader is trapped between the lofty tone of the exclamation and the indignity of the emotional imprisonment. Reading Jan Owen’s version I like the drawn out lines with their beat of emphasis, nails in a spiritual coffin, and I like the merging of ‘disgust’ with ‘doubt’. The second two lines of that first stanza provide an interesting image of the day being poured in as if from a jug to a dish whilst the Howard version lacks that visual precision. In the second stanza Jan Owen’s bat (Hope) twitches and reels with a sense of the frantic prisoner trapped inside the cell of a room as opposed to Howard’s more nightmare-like noise of the bat ‘bumping its head’.

In his 2007 notes on ‘Some aspects of poems and translations’ Jeremy Prynne suggested that ‘Teachers of a foreign language often say to their students, if you can read and understand poems written in the foreign language, then you will have insights into the very heart of another culture; but the tasks are often very hard, and also frustrating, because it is mostly not possible to know whether an attempted understanding of a poem has been successful or not.’
He also suggested that translation is a noble art’ making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world.’

Jan Owen’s translation of Baudelaire is a noble attempt and it is already becoming for me the version which I want to recommend to others.

Ian Brinton 10th July 2015

Parting Movement, Constantly Prevented by Isabelle Baladine Howald

Parting Movement,  Constantly Prevented by Isabelle Baladine Howald

Translated by Eléna Rivera (Oystercatcher Press)

A delightful arrival from the Oystercatcher: a moving sequence of poems under the three headings ‘August’, ‘September’, ‘October’ contained beneath a cover which merges the almost tangible sense of loss in the ‘Creation of Adam’ on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with ‘Venetia, Lady Digby, on her deathbed’ by Van Dyck. Both paintings deal with stasis and movement, a recognition of the living and an awareness of the irretrievable loss of parting. The cover is of a statue, stone and movement, and is followed by an epigraph, “I have to find my place again and you have to move.”

The personal intimacy of these poems rests with the awareness of the gap between people:
‘Knowing you was never something I tried to achieve, even as
a child.
That’s the way I conceived of things right from the beginning.’

They remind me of Rosemarie Waldrop’s ‘Conversation’ recorded in Contemporary Literature, Vol 40, No 3, Autumn 1999:

‘what matters is not things but what happens between them. Or if you take the linguistic model, it is not the phoneme but the connection of phonemes that makes language, the differences in the sequence…The gaps keep the questions in relation.’

As Nikolai Duffy put it in her Shearsman publication Relative Strangeness, Reading Rosemarie Waldrop, ‘For Waldrop, poetry is the taking place of language in the spaces between words. Throughout her writing there is the sense that language can be experienced only as fissure, gap, aperture, an empty middle into which the possibility of meaning both enters and escapes.’
In ‘Projective Verse Charles Olson writes ‘At root (or stump) what is , is no longer THINGS but what happens BETWEEN things, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us—and the terms of what we are.’ In ‘Aesthetic’ Charles Tomlinson writes about reality taking place in the space between things. In Howald’s ‘August’ the dominating sense is movement and stillness: fullness and emptiness: ‘The room resonates, without the furniture.’

Fragment 22:
‘A day of arguing, he had wanted to leave; in his backpack, his alarm clock, a flashlight.’

The clock presents an urgency of now whilst the flashlight suggests a stare into the future.

The fragments from ‘September’ give us a world of Beckett’s ‘Play’, the touching urns and the fragmented relationship conveyed lyrically to us as dismemberment, and Dante’s Canto V from Inferno with Paolo and Francesca:

Fragment 6:
‘I speak to him, he rarely answers but he listens.
In a certain way I love him, even if I never knew anything about
him, never wanted to know anything.’

The poet gives us a world of the suspended moment, as with Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ or that painting by Van Dyke:

Fragment 11:
‘Constant parting movement, constantly prevented.
Slight gesture toward turning round, finally not doing it.’

Another echo for me is Anthony Barnett’s translation of Anne-Marie Albiach’s ‘An Object of Anarchy’:

‘A memory in the body, attempts the awakening of coded signs in a partially blind work.’

Ian Brinton 15th October 2014

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations translated by Robert Yates

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations translated by Robert Yates

(Brimstone Press, 2014) brings the work alive in a handy edition complete with extensive notes and commentary.


Arthur Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations first published in La Vogue literary journal in Paris in 1886 more than a decade after they were written continue to beguile and surprise. Consisting of forty self-contained prose poems and two poems of free verse the collection was a work of protest designed to shock. It abandoned the storytelling elements of the prose poem found in Baudelaire for a non-linear hallucinatory, dream-like, visionary poetry based more upon sound than meaning and seemingly futuristic mystical journey.


Written between 1873 and 1875 critics have sought to find connections between Rimbaud’s travels and the poems in an effort to situate them more securely. This may be a forlorn hope as first and foremost this is a work of acute imagination, informed by the occult and alchemical symbolism. Illumination here is a mystical term, which refers to a stage in the progress towards union with God. Built into its occult meaning and purpose is the necessity to find a new language on the way to becoming an illuminé, who achieves oneness through self-annihilation. Les Illuminations has an extraordinary flow of shifting connections and disjunctions, with figures appearing and reappearing in transformed states, building narrative structures that work cumulatively to produce a magic theatre. It is a difficult work to translate. Of recent translations, John Ashbery’s (Carcanet 2011) successfully captured some its gothic and sonic nature within the idioms of American English. This new translation into English by Robert Yates certainly has a distinctive quality and captures the hallucinatory nature of the original.


As soon as the idea of the Flood abated,

A hare stopped amid the trembling sainfoin and harebells

and said his prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.

Oh! The precious stones hiding, the flowers already

In the dirty main road stalls were set up, and boats were

drawn to the sea, which rose in stages as in engravings.

Blood flowed, at Bluebeard’s, – in the abattoirs, – in the

circuses, where the seal of God made the windows pale. Blood and

milk ran together.

Beavers built. Smoke from ‘mazagrans’ filled the taverns.



There are plenty of subtle differences between Yates and Ashbery and, for example, Martin Sorrell’s versions in The Collected Poems (Oxford, 2001). Ashbery has slaughterhouses instead of abattoirs, and later Witch rather than Sorceress. I would select Sorceress as it has more magical connotations for me. This is where the added value of this translation is to be found. The editor, Sebastian Hayes, himself an accomplished Rimbaud translator, provides a preface, detailed commentary and notes on Les Illuminations followed by comments on each poem. Hayes also offers an extensive and informative essay ‘A Random Walk through Illuminations’. Additionally there is an Afterword by Keith Walton ‘Rimbaud: A Point of View’. These features considerably enhance the value of this edition. The book has a great tempestuous cover, ‘The Great Day of his Wrath by John Martin (1789-1854) and is great value at £6 from


David Caddy 5th April 2014


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