Monday, January 14, 2008

On Andre du Bouchet (1924-2001)

The prolific contemporary French poet Andre du Bouchet, though considered a major figure in France (along with poets like Yves Bonnefoy and Jacques Dupin, with whom he edited the literary review l’Ephémère)—in the introduction to his collected translations, Paul Auster calls him “one of the most radical and innovative poets of the post-War generation”—has hardly been translated into English at all. I first came across his work in Paul Auster’s Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, a volume that, focusing on the interactions of French and English-language poetry, features many translations by British and American poets, emphasizing the poetry of the poetry. Du Bouchet has three short poems in Mary Ann Caws’ Yale Anthology of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, and is not represented at all in Stephen Romer’s 20th Century French Poems. His elliptical, highly compressed poems, intensely focused on objects and objecthood, have a compelling spareness and lyric intensity (critic John Stout writes of his “stark, elemental lyricism”).

In his introduction to The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, Paul Auster writes of du Bouchet that he, in contrast to Bonnefoy, “shuns every temptation toward abstraction. His work, which is perhaps the most radical adventure in recent French poetry, is based on a rigorous attentiveness to phenomenological detail. Stripped of metaphor, almost devoid of imagery [Actually, du Bouchet’s imagery, especially the lushly bare mental landscapes through which his speakers wander, is very vivid—RS], and generated by a language of abrupt, paratactic brevity, his poems move through an almost barren landscape, a speaking ‘I’ continually in search of itself. A du Bouchet page is the mirror of this journey, each one dominated by white space, the few words present as if emerging from a silence that will inevitably claim them again.” Patrick Kechichian, the author of Du Bouchet’s obituary in Le Monde, writes that “Anecdote, biography or mundanity in fact find no place in his oeuvre…the oeuvre has no room for explication, no space of expression for the personality, the thoughts or opinions of the poet” (translation by Tom Orange). (Imagine such a thing appearing in an American newspaper!)

Du Bouchet’s family fled to the United States when the Nazis occupied France, and he received his BA from Amherst College and his MA from Harvard, where he was friends with poet Richard Wilbur, whose first book he helped publish. He returned to France in 1948. Du Bouchet was deeply versed in English-language literature, and translated such writers as Shakespeare, Hopkins, Joyce, and Faulkner. He also translated Mandelstam and Pasternak from the Russian and, from German, Hölderlin and Celan, who was a close friend and who also translated him into German. Given his connections with America and with Anglophone literature, du Bouchet’s almost total absence in English translation is particularly striking.

As far as I know, only two of du Bouchet’s books have been translated into English (one twice); luckily, all three translations have been by poets with acute and distinctive ears and sensibilities. In 1966, Cid Corman published a complete translation of du Bouchet’s Dans la chaleur vacante (his first major book), a book which has been called “an investigation of light and that which is associated with it: fire, white, wind, sky, air, sun, and flame,” under the title In Vacant Heat in volume three of the third series of his journal Origin. I have not had the chance to read it, though Corman’s anthology The Gist of Origin, now out of print, contains a selection of his translations of other du Bouchet poems also published in Origin. Paul Auster published a book of du Bouchet’s selected poems (culled from his first two major books) called The Uninhabited in 1976 with the tiny publisher Living Hand; that volume is long out of print. It was reprinted in Auster’s collection Translations from Marsilio Publishers in 1997, also out of print.

In 1996, the engagingly idiosyncratic poet David Mus published a translation of Dans la chaleur vacante, including an informative, incisive, and lyrical essay called “Translating Andre du Bouchet,” as Where Heat Looms with Sun & Moon Classics; that book is, again, out of print, and Sun & Moon is defunct, though succeeded by Green Integer, which has reprinted many Sun & Moon titles, but not this one. also tantalizes with a listing for David Mus translation of du Bouchet’s Aujourd’hui c’est called Today Is the Day, supposedly published by Sun & Moon in 1998 and of course currently unavailable. But aside from a listing in the back of Where Heat Looms as a title “in preparation” in the Sun & Moon Classics series (along with another book called The Indwelling, presumably a translation of du Bouchet’s 1967 book L’inhabité), I have found no other sign of such a book. Given Sun & Moon’s spotty track record of actually publishing announced titles, and despite their avowed intention to publish all of du Bouchet’s major books in English, it clearly never came out, which is a shame. Du Bouchet’s Contemporary Authors profile (which, though ostensibly updated in 2003, doesn’t note that he died in 2001) taunts with a listing of a translation of Aujourd’hui c’est by Cid Corman (who, as noted earlier, published substantial amounts of du Bouchet’s work in Origin) called Today It’s, published by Origin Press in 1985, but I have been able to find no sign of such a book. The only English language du Bouchet volume in the Library of Congress catalogue is Where Heat Looms.

Du Bouchet’s poems tend to be rather long, and they use the entire page as their field of action. I don’t know how to reproduce their spacing and indentations in Blogger. I include four of his shorter and less typographically complex poems below. A selection of his poems translated by Geoffrey Young can be found in a PDF of the anthology of contemporary French poetry Violence of the White Page on the duration press website.

Cession (translated by Cid Corman)

The wind,
in the waterless lands of summer,
leaves us on a blade,
all that remains
of the sky.

In several cleavages, the earth grows keen. Earth
stays stable in the breath that strips us bare.

Here, in the motionless blue world, I’ve almost
attained this wall. Day’s depth is still before
us. Depth aglow with earth. Depth and surface
of the brow,
leveled by the same breath,
this cold.

I recompose myself at the foot of the façade
like the blue air where the plow puts down.

Nothing quenches my step.

Plain (translated by Paul Auster)

Grown until white

the age
the piece of earth
where I slip

as if radiating from cold

in the jolting day.


When I say coal
I want to say

what it would have wanted to say
through this squall

the cough


everything set like a wound

the motionless plate

objects born from the hands
at the bottom of air



by a tip-cart

the blue air

everywhere my brow

the earth

or the brow of the earth.


In a cold
gilded from afar

the light is a fold

I see it
without sinking

almost under the wheels

like the mulberry
the road whitens

Meteor (translated by Paul Auster)

The absence which takes the place of breath in me begins again
like snow to fall upon the papers. The night appears. I write
as far away from myself as possible.

Threshing (translated by David Mus)

Haystacked, some other summer’s shine. Millstoned. As the face of earth no one sees.

Setting out again I start over this road doing so
well without me. As giddy firelight embedded in air,
air eddies over the sunken road. Every-
thing goes out. Already day’s sheer heat.

Storm blowing dry-eyed. Lost to view the frosty freeze
breath. Without having set ablaze the litter of strewn

These four walls, the other storm raging. As cold, cold as a midsummer wall.

These straws. Whole sheaf. Turned towards one wall of several summers. Gleam of straw caught in the thick of summer. Chaff.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this..It's great to get to read some more Andre. It's years since I have read him but came across one of my old notebooks where I found his poem Adjournment written down. Still a pleasure now. Must find copies of his books.

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