Openwork, Poetry and Prose by André du Bouchet, translated by Paul Auster & Hoyt Rogers, Yale University Press, 368pp, £16.99 (hardback)
A readily available edition of the work of André du Bouchet has been long overdue and this edition of selected poetry and prose, edited by Paul Auster and Hoyt Rogers, should go a considerable way towards setting this record straight. On the back cover of this finely produced edition Anthony Rudolf, poet, critic and close friend of Yves Bonnefoy, makes a central point about du Bouchet whose work still remains relatively unknown in England:
Fragmentary, stripped down, elliptical, difficult at times (but never obscure), this language world presents an unmistakable individual in an unmistakable landscape.
In 2008, the Cambridge poet J. H. Prynne gave a Keynote Speech at the First Conference of English-Poetry Studies in China in which he offered a distinction between these two concepts of difficulty and obscurity by suggesting that when poetry is obscure ‘it is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of a reader’s knowledge’:
When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response- patterns that challenge the reader’s powers of recognition.
The poetry and prose of André du Bouchet is difficult in its demand upon close attention to detail but it is not obscure: its focus upon words as doors which open up a world recognizable to us has an echo of what his friend Philippe Jaccottet was to refer to as ouvertures, rents in everyday reality through which one can glimpse infinity. In his own writing about Landscapes with Absent Figures Jaccottet suggested that these openings ‘pointed intermittently but persistently towards a seemingly still centre’. A response to this offered by du Bouchet might well include a sense that we are hemmed in by the language that we use.
I still find myself in front of myself: I must move on.
It’s the immensity that stops me. The untellable sense of choking on reality that makes me set out again. I start over, I shout behind this wall of words that slowly parts, and will close behind me once more. We wanted to go outside: all we did was enter another room.
(‘The Piercing Thorns . . .’ from a notebook of 1951)
When Joseph Brodsky brought his mind to bear on ‘How to Read a Book’, he advised us that ‘The song of a nomad predates the scribbling of a settler’ and one might be tempted into thinking that the poetical word stanza, deriving from the Italian meaning room, a standing-place, was conceived by a settler. Thinking perhaps of the way in which poems move forward from stanza to stanza du Bouchet recognized that although we may want to go outside ‘all we did was enter another room’. Jaccottet’s ouvertures are linguistic ones and, like du Bouchet, he could never escape the words which held him in. Whereas in 1951 du Bouchet wrote about that recognition of ‘myself in front of myself’ and followed it with the injunction ‘I must move on’, by the time he was writing what may well have been his last poem he remained wrestling with that interaction of language and reality:
A man walks on the shoreline of language, a child at first, and then, moving from page to page, he arrives at a great age from which it would seem that only an instant, or several instants, had divided him.
man child nothing a child goes to the man in the air . . .
In December 1940, du Bouchet, travelling with his parents and his sister, became a refugee to the United States as the family escaped the German invasion of France by crossing the Atlantic in the last passenger ship to leave Lisbon, Excalibur. His later reminiscence concerning the importance of this experience at the age of sixteen offers us a glimpse into what was to become his hallmark as a poet with words like stones tumbling down a white page:
I have a very exact memory of the moment when I realized people were fleeing on the roads – I felt that the world I’d just discovered was caught up in a kind of rockslide. In June 1940, under the bombardments, we departed helter-skelter at first light . . . It was a very violent experience: the world was destroyed. This was when I wrote for the first time, with the will to re-establish something, to attest to a connection I had barely glimpsed . . . before it was swept away.
Having spent the rest of the war in America, the twenty-five year old poet returned to France in November 1949. In his clear and insightful introduction to this new selection of poetry and prose Hoyt Rogers directs us towards an understanding of some of the difficulties faced by the exile returning home:
His separation from French had created in him a dual consciousness, a distance that encouraged him to approach his own language freshly, testing and stretching its possibilities as only an “outsider” can do. At a deeper level, he had entered the interstices where silence cohabits with speech.
As a result of his American connections some of du Bouchet’s work was to find publication in Cid Corman’s seminal magazine Origin where it not only sat between work by Philippe Jaccottet and the American William Bronk but also seemed to demand comparison with Frank Samperi, a New York poet championed by Louis Zukofsky. Both du Bouchet and Samperi used the whole of the white page as a platform for their words. In his Preface to a recent edition of Samperi’s poems, Robert Kelly has suggested that the words on the page were ‘clear the way glass is’ and that his poems ‘are statements, clean as rock crystal, rhythmically minimal, intellectually ardent’. This comment endorses what du Bouchet said of his own work when Corman published part of a transcript from a 1976 radio interview which the French poet gave to Pascal Quignard. In this rare interview du Bouchet commented upon words being placed against the whiteness of a page and said ‘in order to stand out in its singularity, it will be surrounded . . . a word is beyond speech also . . . its competence is bound also to the imminence of an obliteration, which has to be reckoned with: that’s how it reverberates, that’s how it appears, as if beyond itself, endowed with a resonance’. In a later interview given to Le Monde in 1979 du Bouchet was asked how important was the layout of a poem to him and his reply emphasised again that sense of the fullness of the white page which has been transposed so admirably in this new edition of his work:
I don’t feel this white as a mark of neutrality but as a particularly energetic sign. It is a sort of exasperated punctuation, a way of breaking the one-stringed side, staunching the flow of page to page. In setting the word on the page, I make explicit the sense that I give it.
The resonant quality of du Bouchet’s language is certainly what was felt by the British poet David Miller whose correspondence concerning ‘Post- ponement’ (a poem which appears in the second section of Openwork) appeared in Origin 7 in 1979:
Because the poetry is abstract/conceptual, it is not to say it’s without aura – or heat. (Even if a “chilled heat”.) And to du Bouchet belongs the stripped & very moving lyricism (sentiment) of these lines from POSTPONEMENT: “(…) if we are what cried/and the cry//that opens this sky/of ice//this white ceiling//we have loved under this ceiling”.
Corman’s editorial response focused on those qualities which readers can now see for themselves in this new publication of du Bouchet’s work:
Feeling is EVERYWHERE and CENTRAL – but it is of an extraordinary (unsenimentalized) purity. What strikes at once is the DIRECTNESS of the work: you are IMMEDIATELY THROWN INTO EVENT: no choice. And he is careful not to be literary (NO ALLUSIONS / NO MYTHS / NO JARGON – even in jest.)
It is entirely unsurprising that du Bouchet should have been a friend of the phenomenologist poet Francis Ponge and that he should have eschewed the Surrealists with his preference for taut and understated imagery. In his early poem, ‘Vocable’ (translated by Auster as ‘Term’) he opens by stating that:
Everything becomes words earth
in my mouth and under my feet
And in that early notebook entry from 1951 in which the poet found himself ‘in front of myself’ du Bouchet told us that every poem ‘is a ripped-off piece of bark that flays the senses’:
The poem has broken this casing, this wall, which atrophies the senses. For an instant we can grasp the earth, grasp reality. Then the open wound heals over. Everything goes deaf again, goes mute and blind.
In 2001, dying in hospital of leukemia, du Bouchet received a copy of his last collection of poems, Tumulte, and Hoyt Rogers directs us to the appropriateness of this title which says everything about the poet and the ‘turbulence of his restless energy, the letters and the blanks whirling like a blizzard on the page, the never-ending tumble of universal forces’.
By Ian Brinton