Trans. Keith Waldrop. Iowa City, IA and Paris: La Presse, 2011. 47 pages. $14.
Keith Waldrop’s translation of Claude Royet-Journoud’s volume of fragments and aphorisms, The Whole of Poetry is Preposition, is only the most recent product of a transatlantic friendship and collaboration that spans nearly forty years. Since 1973, Waldrop has translated nine volumes of CRJ (as he’s affectionately abbreviated), a French poet whose work stands out not only because it has been so well-received in France, but because it has been profoundly influenced by US poets like William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky. The book’s publisher, La Presse, is dedicated to the translation of contemporary French poetry into English. Small presses are a big thing these days. In this instance, it’s in large part thanks to La Presse and Burning Deck (co-edited by Waldrop and his wife, Rosmarie), that Royet-Journoud’s generation of French poets is finding readers, and giving inspiration, in the US poetry world. To illustrate, a friend of mine recently discovered Conditions of Light (La Presse, 2009) in a suburban Atlanta library and told me Royet-Journoud’s friend Emmanuel Hocquard has become one of his new favorites. Since when is a Frenchman an Atlantan’s favorite poet? It’s hip again to love (reading) the French, and The Whole of Poetry is Preposition helps explain why.
Royet-Journoud’s slim volume of aphorisms, observations, and quotations reads like a handbook of poetry in what Royet-Journoud calls “dismantled” prose. These aren’t bite-sized morsels so much as the shards of a manifesto; they introduce the work of a poet who speaks “in the hollows of language…never in its fullness.” Instead of flourishes of sound or pyrotechnics of design, his poems choose to let words resonate in a near vacuum that approaches silence. Even “choose” is too strong a word. At one point Royet-Journoud quotes Ezra Pound: “It’s the silence which has chosen me.” The aphorisms do a good job glossing Royet-Journoud’s brand of minimalism for the uninitiated. Instead of giving us a plot, he phrases the difficulty of finding one: “How worm out the plot which vibrates inside the text. Which stammers. Which is trying to find a form, a way to breathe.”
In Royet-Journoud’s poems, this search means “stacking phrases” on top of one another rather than letting content and story overwhelm language at its most basic level, which turns out to be that of a very familiar part of speech, the preposition. An untitled poem from 2006’s Theory of Prepositions (which Keith Waldrop also translated) asks us to seek out, in the absence of a clear narrative, what links the poem’s individual lines:
objects make a circle around him
the shift were deduced from this canceled body
the observer throws off all discrimination
force of amazement
in the mouth a sentence fills the world
loss of a vowel disjoints the sense
he tears them up with an improper usage
Unlinked to the lines before or after it, the phrase “force of amazement” could modify “the observer,” the “mouth” that belongs to the “him” of the first line, or the encircling objects that “shift.” Or, it could describe the accumulating energy of the sentence that pauses briefly here before pivoting, on the preposition “in,” to an expression of grammar’s tempestuous power to fill the world up and empty it out. The poem shows that rejecting “accessibility” doesn’t careen directly into nonsense. Royet-Journoud says instead that his poems hold “sense…in abeyance” so as to favor “sensation.” He’s driven to write, as perhaps we all are, because “there is a sensation I find hard to grasp, to comprehend. But sometimes I feel it touch me.” As parts of speech, prepositions allow us to depict movements precisely: the dog, say, goes around the house and through the yard. In Royet-Journoud’s writing, this capacity for mobility gives poetry a certain “madness” and “density.” They are his means to record the fleeting touch of a sensation. When objects circle around him, the preposition transforms confusion into a “force of amazement.”
Clearly, Claude Royet-Journoud takes poetry very seriously. He situates his poetics in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Louis Zukofsky, and aims to approach simultaneously, as the latter put it, “the wordless art of music” and the precise depiction of “everyday existence.” Add to that a measure of French gravitas, as in fragments that reflect upon “the menace without which there would be no thought,” and the book starts to feel like that other ominous and aphoristic masterpiece, Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster. All this seriousness notwithstanding, in one fragment Royet-Journoud measures himself against Charles Bernstein, the US poet whose comic reappropriations of bad writing leave no poetic sacred cow untipped. As Royet-Journoud has it, though, despite some differences in approach, he and Bernstein are both on a mission to upset our obsession with “sense” in poetry. Where Bernstein’s ironies build up elaborate sound sets to strip poetry of its sentimental obsession with accessibility, Royet-Journoud, in stringent minimalism, “clips all…articulations.” Once words are stripped bare, parts of speech emerge in all their unbridled glory. Noam Chomsky might have named it first, but this is deep grammar.
The Whole of Poetry is Preposition, by exploring these depths, also revels in pleasing surfaces. As an aphorist, like Walter Benjamin in the Arcades Project, Royet-Journoud extracts hyperaccurate micro-histories that fit his sense of the poetic and curates them like museum specimens. In one instance, he culls the felicitous descriptive powers of a paleontologist: “To describe what allowed ‘bipedal locomotion,’ Claudine Cohen speaks of a ‘succession of avoided falls’” (43). Reading fragments like this, one feels like observing a wall of butterflies poised to flutter off in a spasm of light the color of fire. As Royet-Journoud puts it, out of this “confused mass” where we “try to build something from scraps,” we can be sure of only one thing: “something unpredictable is hatching.”
Because it comprises a profound meditation on the writing life, The Whole of Poetry is Preposition will interest readers and writers concerned with the role of literature in a world that devalues it. Here is the welcome consolation that writing may begin when words seem to have lost traction: “I don’t write until I find the preceding book illegible.” But Royet-Journoud also offers a corresponding admonition to challenge our restless justifications of modern life: “A writer’s immobility puts the world in motion. To the extent that we hold our gaze still, things move.” Royet-Journoud’s call to stillness is well worth hearing, and his innovative poetic vision worth seeing; fortunately for us, Waldrop’s translation befits the many resonances of the preposition, and carries The Whole of Poetry is Preposition over from French to English, and from France to us, with flawless music and magnetic precision.