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The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

The No Breath by John Goodby, Distances by Ian Seed (The Red Ceilings Press)

On the back cover of John Goodby’s little volume of poems Lyndon Davies tells us why these little poems are favourites of his:

“It’s like being in a calm dark room with little slots and windowlets opening just briefly onto brilliantly lit spaces out there and all over and then closing again before you can get a really good look.”

There is of course something of Alice’s glimpses of the garden through the little door at the bottom of the rabbit-hole in this analogy but it also reminds me of the wonderful 1970 prose book by Philippe Jaccottet, Paysages avec figures absentes. Early in that short book the poet of Grignan refers to “ouvertures”, openings, like rents in the world through which one can gaze for a moment:

“And so, without desiring or seeking it, what I discovered at times was a homeland, and perhaps the most rightful one: a place which opened up to me the magical depths of Time.”

In his own words, “ces ouvertures proposées au regard intérieur apparaissaient ainsi convergentes, tels les rayons d’une sphère; ells désignaient par intermittences, mais avec obstination, un noyau comme immobile.” That glimpse of a still centre, the far perceived from the near, can be felt in Goodby’s ‘Teller’:

“Plump fingers on the keys, clumsy prey,
From all corners of the house
Opened to hear better
The same dress, with blue roses.

Just a few could have been stairwells,
Thinking of himself as he was
Matted with night and the casement,
The pointed roofs, the largeness of snow.

What opens with a title suggestive of either counting money or votes moves, with the opening words of “plump fingers” on keys, to hint at the telling of beads as well as the playing of a piano: that patient counting of meditation complements the focus upon musical notes to suggest a concentration upon the moment. The third line announces an opening which allows the pianist’s playing to be heard more widely and a touch of vision, a dress with blue roses (Hardy’s “air-blue gown?”), appears before the eye’s glimpse. The moving radii of Jaccottet’s thought lead to possible stairwells, awareness of what lies beneath the surface, and the poet rests for a moment “Matted with night”. What lies woven beneath one’s feet finds its counterpart in “pointed roofs” and an endless whiteness. It is a moment caught! A slot, a windowlet, a suggestive sense of something lying beyond the immediate.

Ian Seed’s prose vignettes reflect upon the individual in relation to others: twenty-nine little prose poems introduce us to a world of Europe and a world of domestic reminiscence. The intensity of the moment is caught rather like the way the writer finds himself standing in front of a huge bookshop that he had never seen before. As he says “The city looked different this morning”.

“The streets and squares were bathed in a beautiful, yet somehow ominous golden glow, which had so distracted me that I was now lost.”

The pressures of time mount as he realises that not only is he going to be late at the school in Turin “where I taught English as a foreign language” but that as the shop’s door is being opened by a “hunched old man with rimless spectacles” he should already, as a teacher, “been with my pupils”. The shopkeeper seems to offer an invitation to the teacher to enter this new world where books in different languages “lay on shelves that seemed to stretch into the distance”. Caught within the dreamlike moment, a world which seems to diminish the mundanity of what lies outside the shop, the writer discovers a book titled The Unseen Everyday and is compelled to recognise that here is a text “which would finally illuminate my understanding of the life beyond life”. The general vagueness of such a thought is then immediately qualified by the realisation that such an illumination belongs “within the life itself that I led, although it would never enable me to find my way around the city arrive on time.

These two little books from The Red Ceilings Press are published in limited editions of 60 and 70 copies and I suggest that you get hold of them fast before the window shuts and that glimpse of a tantalising and refreshing world disappears.

Ian Brinton, 17th June 2018

http://www.theredceilingspress.co.uk

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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

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