By Laura Marris
Some of us, if we are lucky enough, have witnessed it—the moment when a passing line of clouds tangles with the trees of a ridge, blurring the distinctions between branches and vapor, between landscape and sky. This thoughtful, sensitive volume offers the poetic equivalent of that process, a brush between two imaginative intentions. While John Taylor was translating Pierre Chappuis’ Notebook of Clouds, he also found himself jotting notes about ridges, responding to Chappuis’ work with fragments that would become a project of his own. The two poets ultimately decided to publish both notebooks as a collaborative volume.
Though this book presents the work of two writers, the relationship between these notebooks is not a simple parallel. By translating Chappuis’ Notebook of Clouds (originally published in French in 1988) and then creating his own Notebook of Ridges, Taylor also documents the imaginative relationship between translator and author when both are poets. Like the practices of translation and writing, these pieces are “akin” to each other, sharing a resemblance that is both formal and figurative. Placing Taylor’s notebook next to his excellent translation of Chappuis allows his translator’s practice to come full circle, to substantiate the ways that translation has sensitized him to aspects of his own creative intelligence.
Both notebooks are testaments to the imaginative power of out-on-a-limb-ness, of the tendril, the balancing act. Chappuis writes, about cloud-shapes: “Dunes as well, remote announcement of worlds in gestation// wealthy with so many kinds of absence, where are we?” This richly open-ended question has a rather cosmic scale, as things tend to do in the sky. On earth, however, there is more vertigo. Taylor writes “A single trail along the ridge. Rarely an alternative once you are running the risk.// At best, a temporary sidestep because of a stone, a mound of dirt, a clump of grass.// Insignificant veerings.” Both feelings—suspension, vertigo—reach towards one another through the images they employ. For example, we have cloud “dunes” and a ridge “trail,” a satisfying remix of what evokes earth and what evokes sky.
I began to feel, while reading this work, as if I were observing a conversation at grand scale, as if two magicians were conjuring earth and sky with their investigations. After that, I returned to a more quotidian form of dialogue—email—to conduct this interview with Pierre Chappuis and John Taylor, who also translated Chappuis’ answers here. What follows is an exchange about the creative practices that created this dual volume and how these processes operate within language, memory, and place.
Laura Marris: You write in your “Initial Explanation” that the idea for a dual volume came out of the process of translating A Notebook of Clouds. Has your work on other translations sparked this kind of call-and-response with your own creative practice?
John Taylor: Yes and no. No, in that this project with Pierre Chappuis is the only time that a book that I have translated has incited me to respond precisely to it, with a somewhat similar form if not similar contents. Yes, however, in that my translation work with Pierre and other poets has always been carried out in a spirit of dialogue and learning. I try to remain as open as possible, to become as “akin” to the foreign work as possible. Sometimes my efforts to find an English equivalent for a semantic, syntactic or formal problem raised by their work have opened doors, in my own writing, which I hadn’t suspected were even there, in what had seemed to be a blank wall. In this respect, the very form of Pierre’s Notebook of Clouds was an encouragement first to see and then to open such a door: that of a “Notebook,” with a capital “N,” that would go beyond the jottings that I habitually make in the notebooks I carry around with me—jottings which, if they are used, are usually assimilated and therefore disappear into a more substantial project.
Laura Marris: At what point did you realize your Notebook of Ridges was not only an exercise but also the other half of a dual-volume project? How did you both go about putting these two Notebooks together?
Pierre Chappuis: The idea of a book with two voices was totally John’s. I was long unaware that he was writing his Notebook of Ridges, but from the moment that I learned this, the project of a dual volume delighted me and I continue to be pleased.
John Taylor: A few years ago, I had initially translated a part of Pierre’s Notebook of Clouds, intending to insert excerpts of it into his big Like Bits of Wind: Selected Poetry and Poetic Prose, which I was preparing. But before turning in my translation manuscript to Seagull Books, I decided not to use the samples, realizing that they would not be profitable to a reader unless the entire book were translated. Moreover, Pierre’s Notebook of Clouds stands somewhat apart in his oeuvre: his poetry is different and so is his poetic prose. But his Notebook of Clouds continued to live inside me, as it were, as well as, perhaps unconsciously at first, my own idea of a “Notebook” which would be devoted to a key natural element having an intimate, indeed unsettling, relationship with my own life, past, present, and future. One day, putting aside other projects, I spontaneously translated the remaining passages of Pierre’s Notebook of Clouds. I had no publisher in mind. It was not a matter of finishing a job left undone. But, as you see, something deeper was at stake and, by translating, I was trying to learn what it was. The desire to write a “Notebook of Ridges” gradually arose. “Ridge” was my word. The project especially took shape about a month before a two-week stay in the Valley of the Claré, a part of the Alps which I had never visited. Some of my first notes about ridges were in fact taken on trains between Angers and Nantes, a trip which I take regularly through the relatively flat country of western France—that is, fragmentary notes that evoked childhood memories set in the Rocky Mountains and other memories associated with earlier hikes in the French Alps. These brief pieces were written to accompany, perhaps—how could I know?—what I might find in the Valley of the Claré a few weeks later. Some of my texts were then translated into French and published in an issue of La Revue de Belles-Lettres, as a surprise tribute to Pierre, alongside other homages to him. One day several months later, when my own Notebook was completely finished, I suddenly had an “idée farfelue.” I asked Pierre what he thought about my “wacky idea” of putting our two Notebooks together into a single dual book. “Clouds” and “ridges” form a compelling pair. They are ever in front of us, on the horizon, like two lines or levels, or like two walls, in our eyes and in our minds.
Laura Marris: Did the editing process change when you realized it was a collaborative writing project in addition to the kind of collaboration translation entails?
John Taylor: This editing process took place long beforehand, when I was putting my own Notebook together and trying to make it cohere as a “book.” After my stay in the Valley of the Claré, and while I was typing up (and in the process beginning to rework) my handwritten texts initially drafted in my “fieldwork notebook” specifically devoted to “ridges,” which I had first opened, as I have mentioned, on the train to Nantes, I rearranged the order of my notes, fragments, evocations, speculations, and so on. I created a progression based on similarities between themes, images, thoughts, emotions, and so on. It was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle in which the pieces are arranged along a line, not in a square. The sequence also needed to acquire a rhythm, a kind of melody. Pierre’s Notebook of Clouds, written and published nearly three decades beforehand, remained unchanged. I had translated it, working closely with Pierre, as we had already done for his Like Bits of Wind.
Laura Marris: I’m curious about the form of the notebook itself, and the idea that it “destroys the conditions of emergence it should encourage” (Chappuis, p. 66) because writing in a notebook presupposes a kind of literary intention. How did you navigate the balance between intension and openness here? Did you ever find yourself re-arranging your notebooks?
Pierre Chappuis: As is said on page 66, in a notebook that one takes out of one’s pocket on the spot, what is at stake is jotting down a note, or a word, that one wishes not to lose. The note or the word will, or will not, later be used—it’s a little like giving a rhythm to one’s walk. When, in contrast, I decided to begin a “Notebook of Clouds” (during a leisurely summer vacation), my intention did not exclude the possibility that it would result in a book—but this did not happen without my working on the writing (I would be wrong to call it “rewriting”) and on the organization of the texts, because the initial notebook consisted merely of drafts, thoughts, preliminary material. An idea of this latter material can be found on pages 57-76, where John translates excerpts from another old notebook, about clouds, that I found while we were putting this book together. I didn’t attempt to rework those texts or to reorder them. We selected excerpts, and then John transcribed and translated them. One might call it “information.” In the dual book, this section is called “From The Preliminary Notebook.” The Notebook of Clouds per se thus comes forward as a literary work brought to completion, all the while retaining the allure of that which served as its origin.
Laura Marris: I admire the connections in the Notebooks, and in your notes, between nuée/nuage/nuances, especially because they seem to blur visual and literary kinds of perception—reading into clouds for their shapes and into words for their connotations. How would you characterize this kind of reading and its effects on your work, in writing and translating?
Pierre Chappuis: Writing demands that one harmonize two kinds of faithfulness between which one sails in the dark: that is, faithfulness to the sense impression, to the shock received from what is outside us—a cloud, a landscape, but especially the circumstances of the moment—and faithfulness to language, to its genius, which doesn’t belong to us. Each faithfulness must make its own voice heard in the text. What is at stake: words, their affinities, their reciprocal appeals, their collisions, and the movement of the sentence which, little by little, emerges to reach out towards the initial point of scintillation—the emotion—which persists inside us, while meaning acts as a “sous-oeuvre,” beneath the work. This has nothing to do (must I specify this?) with a dry, sterile, purely formal research, but rather, as you yourself put it, with a manner of “reading into clouds for their shapes and into words for their connotations.” The translator who carries one language into another also finds him or herself with two realities to bring edge to edge. And what can be said about the reader who must make his own that which the author has drawn from the depths of himself?
John Taylor: As my own “fieldwork notebook” was filling, I began doing research to see how poets who are essential for me had evoked, if at all, the notion of “ridge,” how the word had cropped up in their work. First of all, Pierre had himself used the term in another of his books that I had translated, and I quote him in my Notebook of Ridges. Two poets whom I had also translated, Pierre-Albert Jourdan and Philippe Jaccottet, had also evoked ridges. I selected telling quotations from their books and inserted their words in appropriate places in the sequence so that their perspectives could enter into dialogue with my own. I added pertinent remarks from poets who are equally important to me and whom I have never translated, such as Petrarch, Hölderlin, Basho, and Yves Bonnefoy. Shakespeare, Keats, and Thoreau appear as well, as do a passage or two from accounts written by some of the first mountain climbers who explored the Valley of the Claré, which had long remained a rather remote area. By this point, of course, the project of a Notebook that would be a Book was becoming tangible. Therefore, if the sequence of texts looks like a notebook, even a commonplace book, everything is actually organized and structured. Only the initial jottings in the “fieldwork notebook” are spontaneous.
Laura Marris: Sometimes, when I translate, I’ve been lucky enough to visit the landscape where the author grew up, to see some of the particular images they had in mind as they made whatever it is I’m translating. How would you describe the process of translating images from someone else’s memory? Or, as an author, letting a translator interpret those images?
John Taylor: Pierre and I share a love of walking in the mountains (or the plains) and of thinking about landscape and how we perceive it. His way of perceiving landscape has long stimulated my own thoughts about sense impressions. I doubt that I have seen the specific landscapes “beneath” the clouds described in his Notebook of Clouds, but because of my frequent hikes in the Alps, notably in Savoy, which is just south of Switzerland, and because of my visits to him in Neuchâtel, I have a good sense of where he was when he was gazing at, indeed scrutinizing, clouds. And of equal importance for this translation, I have a good knowledge of the French poets who “accompanied” Pierre during his work on his Notebook of Clouds: Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Pierre-Albert Jourdan (once again), Jacques Dupin (whom I have also translated), Rimbaud, not to forget a few artists (Caspar David Friedrich, Nicolas Poussin, William Turner). For my translation of the poetic prose of Pierre-Albert Jourdan, who situated his evocations in the south of France, in an area that I had never visited, his son Gilles helped me greatly by taking photographs of the landscapes perceived by his father so that I could translate more precisely. When I was translating the poetry of Lorenzo Calogero, I slightly changed some of my translation drafts once I had visited his village in his native Calabria and had seen what he had likely contemplated before writing down such deceptively simple words as “hill,” “water,” “shadow,” and so on. I didn’t change those words, which have symbolic import, but I sometimes modified the verbs, adjectives, or prepositions around them.
Laura Marris: And doing that translation work while also collecting, and noting down experiences from your own childhood? (I’m thinking of this question especially because of the connection in both Notebooks to childhood experiences of clouds and ridges, both real and imagined.)
Pierre Chappuis: In my Notebook, a reference to the world of childhood? The idea did not occur to me. At the outset, I wanted—perhaps rather mischievously—to take the adage “poets are in the clouds” literally, and, from there, to let myself drift.
John Taylor: In contrast to Pierre’s vantage point, childhood was a source of inspiration for my Notebook. Not that many images actually recall my Iowa childhood and my summer stays in Idaho, where my parents’ respective hometowns are located, but the idea of a “ridge” arose, as a kind of haunting existential metaphor, very early in my childhood. The very form of Pierre’s texts in his own Notebook incited me to “let myself drift,” as he puts it, or perhaps I should say: encouraged me to wander in the mountains, real or remembered, literary or oneiric, and meditate on whatever ridges I spotted.
Laura Marris: When American writers are translated into French, I often see French translators or publishing houses make a distinction between “traduit de l’américain” and “traduit de l’anglais.” As a writer originally from America, living in France and thinking deeply about the connotations of place, what do you make of this distinction? Did you find your English changing as you moved between writing about American and French landscapes, between Iowa and the Claré?
John Taylor: This distinction that some publishing houses still make is amusing or irritating, depending on your point of view. H. L. Mencken would have delighted in it, of course. Actually, many years ago, the literary supplement of Le Monde started writing “traduit de l’anglais (États-Unis)” for translated American books and, for example, “traduit de l’espagnol (Argentine)”—and so on. It’s the best solution. As to the English language, it has necessarily become for me a much more intimate, guarded treasure than during my American upbringing, all the more so in that I have spoken French every day in my home for some forty years, while three other foreign languages (Italian, Greek, and German) also pop up daily in the inbox of my computer or into my ear and mouth during trips abroad. But as Pierre would agree, I think, perceiving reality and then trying to write about what one has perceived—because the sense impression and its corresponding emotion have beckoned to you in an unavoidable way—call into question our natural relationship with words. One must attempt to come closer to them, to listen to language differently. This is the essential matter. I realize now that I deeply experienced, perhaps mostly unconsciously at first, but increasingly less so, later, during my teenage years when I began to write in a secret journal, this disquieting relationship with my mother tongue. There was a kind of “gap.” While you are writing, you peer at the gap, or into it, as if it were a ravine, and try to bridge it. Opening English, through translation, to the particularities of other languages, sometimes gives you a plank or a rope, a nail or a new kind of knot, for the bridge you need.
Chappuis, Pierre and John Taylor. A Notebook of Clouds/A Notebook of Ridges. The Fortnightly Review, 2019.