The Inner Voice of Translated Landscapes: “Sheds / Hangars”, Jose-Flore Tappy’s Collected Poems in English
John Taylor does not merely translate or critique poems, but poetries, not writings, but oeuvres and literatures. He always looks at authors and oeuvres as both wholes in themselves and integral parts of literatures and cultures that are, in their turn, ever-related with other literatures and cultures. To follow his work over the years (criticism, translations, and his own writings) is like contemplating a progressing mosaic with subtly interconnected themes and details or, to paraphrase the title of one of his books, to roll out a huge and still growing tapestry that illustrates a literary, cultural, and at the same time, if not totally autobiographical, than symbolically confessional saga.
His interest in Swiss poetry is, in that respect, naturally related to his vast familiarity with French and Francophone literatures, and, at the same time, with his continuing project of going as deep as possible—to paraphrase another celebrated title of his—“into the heart of European poetry.”
The previous milestone on this road was his contribution to the bulky Modern and Contemporary Swiss Poetry: An Anthology (Dalkey Archive Press, 2012) edited by Luzius Keller where he translated the whole French section, including major names such as Philippe Jaccottet, Edmond-Henri Crisinel, Gustave Roud, and Anne Perrier, along with José-Flore Tappy herself and many others.
In the captivating and, in terms of Tappy’s poetics and writing process, surprisingly elucidating interview at the end of Sheds/ Hangars. Collected Poems 1983 – 2013, the poet confirms the early influence of Jacottet and particularly Perrier, while Taylor perceptively advances the names of Crisinel and Roud as two other very likely forerunners. Still, in his own introduction to this first and at the same time comprehensive translation of José-Flore Tappy’s poetry into English, John Taylor does not mention the Dalkey Archive anthology, but another earlier one, edited by none other than Philippe Jacottet. Why does he do that? Here as elsewhere, Taylor actually not only places the poets he translates and writes about in wider relevant contexts, but, for those who have the patience to follow and remember his (usually concise and to the point) comparative assessments, he actually draws edges of various graphs connecting poets in networks of resemblance, kinship, and contrast.
And therefore, quoting Jaccottet and his highly selective (Taylor dixit) anthology actually comes in handy in at least a couple of respects. First, it is an opportunity for the critic and translator to expand his own description of Tappy’s poems—“ short, fragmentary, discreetly lyrical—and haunting”—by quoting the authoritative evaluation of the Swiss master poet himself—“a poetry that sets her readers before this same necessity: that of a <<struggle>>, to quote Jaccottet once again, <<not to fall, not to sink>>.” And, second, this gives him the chance to draw a relevant and elegant parallel between Tappy and Jacottet. While speaking of Tappy’s obsessive landscapes, down-to-earth diction an elemental simplicity—one of the sequences in the book is indeed titled “Élémentaires / Elementals”—and a unique poetic account of time, not as fleeting, ungraspable, and evanescent, but rather pending, weighing, and “wobbly,” Taylor wonders if there is any glimmer of hope or consolation in this poetry. The question triggers a shrewd comparison between the two poets and occasions memorable insights into the poetics of both:
A fugacious metaphysical hope as is sometimes sensed by Jaccottet? This is less likely, for the varieties of doubt, disappointment, anxiety, and anguish—offset by empathy, open-minded observation, and resoluteness—that are perceptible in her work accommodate no yearnings for this transcendental horizon. Something even less definable is at stake. What it might be arises often, almost invisibly, especially at the end of sequences. There are no pat answers. The final lines of the aforementioned poem [“Shadow Poems”]—“a fractured world/ where memory shimmers// a skylight/ in the black today”—alternate negative and positive symbols, but leave the emotion in abeyance. Tappy’s oeuvre is full of such psychological intricacy.
Still, given the potential profusion and complexity of the associations, John Taylor would not (and maybe, for practical reasons, could not) review every time all the vertices on such comparative literary graphs or networks, which nevertheless represents a challenge and a potential source of satisfaction for the attentive reader who can therefore gradually discover for herself the wider picture while putting together the jigsaw puzzle of references and analyses strewn across Taylor’s various writings.
In this particular case, a path (both in terms of the graph theory I have briefly referenced here as well as in those of Taylor’s own prodigious research into and writing on “Paths in French literature”) could be drawn, through Jaccottet, from Tappy to Pierre-Albert Jourdan (“Path” is actually also the title of one of Tappy’s sequences and a recurrent motif in both poets), another name who had been virtually unknown to English language audiences until the substantial The Straw Sandals, edited, introduced, and translated by the same John Taylor, a book of selected poetry and prose that came out from Chelsea Editions in 2011. Since they are, like most if not all of Taylor’s translation projects, bilingual, both Tappy’s collected and even so much more so Jourdan’s selected have also proven extremely useful for the Francophone reader who might have meanwhile lost track of the scant original editions of such authors, major and relatively secret at the same time (which is, one has to admit it, here and elsewhere, and quite often, the current fate of significant contemporary poetry).
Jourdan—although reaching at times a more sensory (at times epidermal, at others sanguine) fusion with the landscape—shares the same unsated relentless drive of the wanderer to roam against, and more often actually deeply into an avid landscape. These paradoxically enthusiastic (in the etymological pantheistic sense of the word) and at the same time evasive or even elusive speakers want to either organically absorb or fade into the view. One would expect to run across lines like the following
may the calm cedar sap rise in us
brightening our breath
in a superior gesture of peace
in both poets, maybe, although the last one is less likely to appear in a Jourdan poem, while it is nevertheless typical of Tappy’s personal style. And why is that?
Now and then, Tappy employs metaphors and other ‘genuinely’ lyrical tropes, which Jourdan consistently resists, as he tries to capture the image (if not the thing) in itself and, beyond it, the pre-wording or even un-worded experience resulting in paralinguistic and parapoetic (in)coherences. Although Tappy is as much as Jourdan a masterful artist of the tongue, unlike him, she dismantles and reassembles the language while trying to reach the poetic, and particularly a poeticness classic in the sense that it may accept or even envisage a possible congruence between intention and speaker, on the one hand, and poem and language, on the other, even (or so much the more so) when expressing an incongruence with the world. In fact, the speaker seems to be instrumental in revealing a sort of Gnostic or hermetic correspondence (choked or “coughing” as it may be) between the “story” of the speaker/poem and the life in or the life of the landscape:
On my back
a brief tale
knotted into a scarf
It matters little if I forget
its beginning its end
if I lose its source
the path coughs
with my footsteps
While Jourdan intimately or feverishly engages with the landscape and at the same time strives to save it from signification, Tappy once in a while “translates” the landscape into poetry just as she translates the poem’s algorithm (along with the ‘self’) into nature’s fractals —“Step by step/ to slip into/ this narrow sheath.” Such consistent coherence within the poem-world continuum, paradoxically operating mainly by ellipsis and a recurrent, compulsive imagery related to the void and absence, brings about ample impressive metaphors—“All summer long/ the sea rises/ to the parched lips of the cliffs/ offering itself/ burning like wine/ in a bronze chalice”—or overwhelming images of both anthropomorphic and cosmic magnificence bridging the most intimate emotions to the vegetal and astronomic cycles—
the moon comes down
on the bare plains
It alone knows how
to calm the blaze
the aching wheat
ease the stings
even more diligent
it unburdens the earth
demands better gestures
on the axles of our nights
such an old custom
this slow caress
steeped in ignorance
the long scrawny body of land stretching out
its stone shoulder blades protruding
From such powerful images, the poet moves on (at times through imagist tornados, at others through nothing else but pastels) to lyrical definitions, an even more salient testimony of poetic (c)osmosis within the (at least apparent) chaos of estrangement—“The sky: pit/ into which the eyes sink…”—and, once such magic connections are established, even further on, to ritualistic gestures and exhortations—“I will rub my bloody wrists/ like pieces of flint/ against each other/ to rekindle the flames// life/ between my teeth” or “go into/ the lowest room/ where the shadows/ keep silent…” This latter imperative, for instance, continues by asserting the kind of esoteric correspondences that are traditionally familiar to a certain psychology of magic—“…watch/ a woman is listening/ to fruit falling/ afar”—that later on shall hieratically enumerate propitiatory supplications: “May their [the aloes’] glimmering points/ manage to retain the day/ may their gleam divert glances/ suspend hours.”
What is remarkable though about this poetry is that it remains a poetry of the landscape and of modern subjectivity and sensibility—with all the typical disparities, disenchantment, and angst thereof—while masterfully orchestrating ‘universal’ oracular and hermetic effects. This is possible, as John Taylor suggests first in his introduction and then also while interviewing the poet, through the subtle connection between psychology and testimony on the one hand, and the treatment of sound and syntax on the other. Tappy is a great master of ellipsis and suspended syntax, on the one hand, and of euphony—assonance in particular—on the other. The reader can enjoy that both in the original as well as in the renditions offered by Taylor who, a gifted writer in his own right, not only rises to the occasion, but even comes up with solutions that are stylistically speaking totally comparable to the source, a feat so much more commendable as it is accomplished while staying as faithful as possible to the French text and keeping the contribution of the translator as ‘invisible’ as should be.
Here are a couple of relevant examples: “Roussie la terre/ rabougries les pousses/ que la poussière étouffe”—“The scorched earth/ the stunted sprouts/ choked by dust”—where Taylor’s jumbled, parched, smothered, literally “choking” sounds are, in certain ways, more faithful to the original than the original itself; or for instance: “Mais déjà/ entre la terre et l’air/ un monde tournoie”—“But already/ between earth and air/ a world is whirling”—for which one could not find a better rendition of the airy vibrant sound of the original, and where, again, in the sequel, the translator comes up with a most ingenious network of slant rhymes, consonantal echoes, assonances, and last but not least, his “own” English alliterations: “l’herbe disperse/ enlève toute assurance/ au passage du vent/ avant que le soir/ nous retourne comme un sablier”—“ the scattered grass/ strips off all confidence/ when the wind rises/ before evening/ turns us over like an hourglass.”
Collecting all the poems of a great contemporary poet both in the original and in excellent translation, accompanied by a thorough introduction and a captivating interview, this book is a formidable event for both Franco- and Anglophone readers, and a bridge between cultures, literatures, and languages that only perennial poetic art can build.
José-Flore Tappy. Sheds/ Hangars. Collected Poems 1983 – 2013, trans. John Taylor. Fayetteville, New York: The Bitter Oleander Press, 2014