JULY 12, 2020
DESPITE THE IMMENSE IMPORTANCE of André du Bouchet in French letters, he remains an obscure figure to English readers. A major poet, translator, and art critic, friend of René Char and Yves Bonnefoy, du Bouchet (1924–2001) follows a rich tradition of avant-garde French writers whose work eludes being placed into any single school of thought. One could perhaps say it shows traces of transcendentalism, existentialism, and minimalism; symbolism, too. Perhaps it’s easiest just to agree that du Bouchet is a modernist. It is worth remarking, though, that he adamantly rejected any affinity with surrealism, which he called “impotent nostalgia” and “a false glory.” Indeed, du Bouchet’s stark, dense verse doesn’t seek to reveal the unconscious; sometimes, it even feels as if the human is absent from his lines entirely.
Though born in France, du Bouchet spent a large portion of his adolescent life in New England. Unsurprisingly, given his bilingual experience, the subject of his poetic inquiry is (as in the case with Stéphane Mallarmé) language itself.
this word, that has not yet fallen — and even will not fall — is held here in suspense
But where Mallarmé seeks to find meaning within language, du Bouchet was militant in his obsession with that which lies before language. Or between languages: he was a prolific translator of a wide range of writers, including William Shakespeare, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Osip Mandelstam. His poetry was first brought into English in the late 1960s by Paul Auster, but it is only now, 50 years later, that his at once opaque and transparent verse is getting the global traction it deserves. The new collection Outside, from Bitter Oleander Press, now joins Yale University Press’s 2014 release Openwork as the English-language point of reference for du Bouchet. The translation in Outside is an impressively seamless collaboration between Hoyt Rogers, who also translated Openwork with Paul Auster, and Eric Fishman.
Although much of du Bouchet’s verse can come across as semantically simple, each lapidary line has the potential to deeply rattle the reader. Seeing language unravel before your very eyes is a sensation as unmooring as it is engrossing. When syntax, referent, and narratorial subjectivity give way, what is it that we find ourselves reading? Are we still reading, or are we simply seeing?
All the air from outside soaks the room.
The day casts it on this white wall.
When the text has erased the poet entirely, what is it that we are reading if not his written absence?
Nothing but morning’s white blaze, as we draw near
the cold. Like an opened
chest, toward the cold morning.
What is the result of trying to transmit what is impossible to put into words?
ground and air
the earth as a room
amid the fire.
Fishman and Rogers never stumble as they translate along du Bouchet’s razor-thin semantic edges, boiling language down to its fundamentals: images and space. Reading Outside, I was reminded of the oft quoted passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836): “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” In effect, du Bouchet strives to distill language into the phenomenal, the observational.
The poem “Vu,” which Fishman compellingly translates as “Seen” (a choice that, while losing the nominal valence found in the French, adds a delightful level of homophonic play), places the reader in the position of observer, a consuming eye of images:
The sea enters through the open door and
strolls on the threshold. Blows some dust to
the left in small whirlwinds. A storm lamp
swings beside a big fire.
Who or what is being “seen” in this poem? Does du Bouchet’s sparse language allow us, however fitfully, to see outside of language, to see unadorned image? Wallace Stevens would have found great company in du Bouchet’s verse: “The page is blank or a frame without a glass / or a glass that is empty when he looks.”
Emerson’s use of dashes, in the above passage, to forward effortless abstraction is also one of du Bouchet’s only consistent formal tells, a convention he perhaps uses to illustrate the meager line of relation between what is light and what is word.
The train is blocked. No destination, being there — in the consistency of
this snow …
… after yourself as included in the language — day.
… no destination: I’ve caught up
Time and again, the poet’s efforts to surpass the confines of words are confronted with an ineluctable, sometimes violent, grounding.
my poem runs ceaselessly
in front of me
as if the edge of the air
had caught fire
The words compose themselves all around him the instant there is light, the moment there is sight. The word is at once involuntary, chilling, comforting, liberating, enclosing.
as we bump against it, the opening, like a piece of day.
Without an ounce of physicality, his verse nonetheless feels so utterly naked — sun-bleached. After shattering the sentence, all that’s left is the word, the image. The churning, colliding, and sparking of representation and meaning forms the heart of du Bouchet’s poetics. A dialectic is produced by du Bouchet’s negative capability: sometimes he uses imagery of snow, coldness, and openness to demonstrate absence; other times he deploys fire, warmth, and walls. The resulting polyvalence is often as obfuscating as it is generative.
Let the light illumine it all the way, push its white walls back
and cover it with a ceiling. The room. The paper’s calm eye.
The dry door.
Fire’s other side burns in the room. Smooth air, without a knot.
Freezing from the inside out.
In the other room, the shutters turn white.
There is always another view, another language, another light. While reading through this collection, I felt at times transported to the stifling room by the sea in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957). Hamm asks Clov to take him to the window and open it so that he may feel the sun, smell the ocean; blind and reliant on Clov’s reluctant subservience, Hamm is left never knowing whether he actually reached the outside. Maybe this is why the term “apophatic” — referring to a knowledge attained through negation — has been used to describe du Bouchet’s flinty mysticism. The success of his grasping verse relies precisely on what he tries to shed like a skin — namely, language itself.
It’s up to us as readers to determine whether du Bouchet, through the blank space that dominates these pages, succeeds in illustrating the absent presence that haunts his oeuvre — the Outside of language.
as from the other side of language
The dialectical play of inside/outside that repeats throughout this bilingual text is enriched by Fishman and Rogers’s choice to incorporate du Bouchet’s “Notes on Translation.” This piece brings du Bouchet’s confounding poetics into sharper relief, framed in a paradigm that’s slightly more concrete.
to translate I arrive from outside, and — word from outside in the language that isn’t mine, in your own language the language that at moments will be mine today, nonetheless, as I will have come to you
In the end, André du Bouchet’s opaque transparency is best explained by a comment he once made, that he “write[s] in search of a lost relation.” Whether this speaks to the expatriate’s longing for a mother tongue, or a yearning to see, if only for a moment, outside of language, I like to think that Rogers and Fishman have indeed helped his search for relation.
translate: I cannot: I will be translated — even if that’s what I strove to do.
A successful collaboration on several fronts, Outside allows the reader to see the white of the page in a different light. Whether this is a light truly from outside of language, though, is a question only answerable by the reader — “nonetheless, as I will have come to you.”