By John Taylor
Following upon Hoyt Rogers and Paul Auster’s translation of André du Bouchet’s Openwork (Yale University Press, 2014), this fascinating new translation, Outside—by Rogers and Eric Fishman—draws attention once again to a seminal figure in postwar French poetry. Thematically and philosophically, if not from a stylistic perspective, du Bouchet (1924-2001) can be associated with two poets who are better known in the English-reading world and who were his friends: Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016) and Philippe Jaccottet (b. 1925). Like them, the author of Where the Sun, In the Vacant Heat, A Lamp in the Arid Light, Undated Annotations on Space as well as other collections and—especially—“notebooks,” often explores man’s place in the cosmos from a vantage point which presupposes a process of “de-selfing” or “de-subjectivation.” The poet must “de-center” the self, as it were, putting it aside, to the side of the path upon which he is engaged, if his words are to have any chance of giving a genuine voice to the rudiments of nature and being. Du Bouchet aspires, notably, to be “only a reflection / and the very mouth of nature,” adding:
I don’t recognize myself
I don’t belong to myself
any more than daylight belongs to me
facing myself, I wouldn’t recognize myself
since I’m only the nameless instrument of this truth
which lies outside me.
Walking towards and reaching that “outside” is the challenge that du Bouchet sets for himself, with breathtaking scruple and rigor. Summing up the difficulties of his quest (which usually takes place during attentive strolls in the hills or mountains) and all the while advising himself with a kind of permanent caveat, du Bouchet writes in another poem: “I’ve found myself too often on my path.” Would this acknowledgment of the self as the redoubtable obstacle along one’s way imply that the poetic path in question ideally leads to the “thing-in-itself,” the natural phenomenon per se—only the “daylight”—albeit with the poet as its “very mouth,” a kind of scribe? In his afterword, Rogers offers a stimulating contrast between du Bouchet and Wallace Stevens, gives some insight into du Bouchet’s non-French literary background (which comprised equally unexpected youthful exchanges with James Merrill and Richard Wilbur), and indicates analogies with the objectivist poet George Oppen:
. . .we encounter the “this in which” of George Oppen’s poetry—and indeed, of all profoundly attuned awareness. There is no room for self-obsessed feeling in du Bouchet’s drama of description: contemplating the grandeur of nature, he goes out to meet it, merging the physical university the ever-expanding canvas of the mind.
Of course, something more elaborate and multifaceted than pure objectivism or, to think about this in a French poetic context, than Francis Ponge’s poetics of “the mimosa tree without me,” is clearly at stake here. This holds true even if du Bouchet did some experimenting in the objectivist or Pongean direction, as the prose piece “Seen” shows:
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.
First of all, as a resourceful translator of Friedrich Hölderlin (among others), du Bouchet is reconsidering the poetics of Romanticism, its soul-searching and yearnings for transcendence. Like Jaccottet’s analogous concept of “choses vues,” the “things seen” here by du Bouchet—the sea’s movement, the dust in small whirlwinds, the storm lamp swinging—offer a place to start: not the self as a stable primary foundation or the recipient that has gathered them inside it, but the sense impressions themselves. Something has been “seen”: what does this imply, not so much about the self and its putative “innerness,” as about what is “outside”? If du Bouchet is in fact aiming at something “inside,” it is probably better defined as the “inside” of the “outside.”
Secondly, if one thinks of the fundamental axiom which, consciously or unconsciously, has long stimulated French poets, then the philosophical underpinnings of du Bouchet’s poetics do not involve the same approach taken by Descartes when he worked backwards towards his “cogito ergo sum.” Descartes’s skeptical methodology—his descent to ontological foundations by means of doubting—ultimately leads to an acknowledgment of the thinking self as the original locus from which one reconstructs being and the outside world. Du Bouchet does not accept the stability of this starting point. He questions the primacy of the self, meditates on its relationship (or illusory relationship) with being, with the cosmos, and therefore on language as that which attempts to bridge the gaps. “My poem runs ceaselessly / in front of me,” he observes, “as if the edge of the air / had caught fire.” His approach to the primary ingredients of the “outside” ever includes doubting about how the poet can legitimately reach them through thinking and thus through words.
It is at this level, among others, that du Bouchet’s ever-probing and ever-groping investigation of the “outside” has been so instructive. Complementing the aforementioned Openwork, this new book offers a representative bilingual sampling (with a special emphasis on the poet’s important notebooks), ranging over five decades. The selection displays how du Bouchet emphasizes the uncertainty that must be ascribed to language in its attempt to evoke things objectively. As a poet, he is neither self-sure nor, as it were, word-sure or language-sure. Indeed, in the long poem “Skidding on a patch of ice, snow’s waste,” the skidding is done by language itself: “to skid in language / where even language itself ceaselessly skids.” To state this elsewise: language can by no means guarantee the objectivity or even the verisimilitude of a “fact” as it is expressed, formulated, indeed “translated.” One of the poet’s unending tasks is therefore to scrutinize language from this angle:
on a point like a tangent to
the gap too drawn out to be perceived, the lightning door.
the lightning of language. here the present,
a fraction of time, is restored.
a word — a fraction of time — any less, and the articulation disappears.
Another way of understanding the crucial issue here, as it is elaborated by poetic language, is to think, as Rogers does, of the term “support” as “used by artists to denote the basic material that undergirds their work.” “By analogy,” he adds, “du Bouchet asks us, what is the support of poetry? Language we would be tempted to reply: but that response leads us quickly into a maze.” Rogers explains:
There is syntax at work, as well as prosody, vocabulary, tone, metaphor, ideational stance, and so on; but as we advance from word to word, perhaps it is ultimately the silence between them that forms their support—or even the blank space on the page. Silence and blanks alter words, they are changed by words in turn. [. . .] Speech colors the unspoken; the unsaid modulates speech.
Because of du Bouchet’s salutary admonitions about our shaky relationship with language, and about the inherently shaky foundations of language itself, not to mention those of the self, it should come as no surprise that his poems often delve into issues involving translation. He was himself an example of linguistic displacement and multilingualism. As Fishman explains in his preface, “early on, du Bouchet underwent a visceral estrangement from French. He was born in Paris in 1924 to a family of Russian Jewish and French American ancestry, but he and his parents escaped to Boston in 1940, fleeing the Nazi invasion. Though he finally returned to Paris eight years later, he never quite shook off the impression of being a foreigner in his own language. Yet it was precisely this distance that enabled him to examine French with the acuity of an outsider.”
Du Bouchet in fact transforms this distance between himself and his initially native French into a kind of unique, paradoxical proximity enabling him to examine each of his spontaneous poetic utterances more meticulously, or at least in a substantially different manner, than a monolingual poet who, however exacting he or she might be, does not suffer from a linguistic décalage or “gap.” In brief, du Bouchet makes an advantage out of linguistic uncertainty, transforming it into the very theme of many poems and viewing it as the elementary vulnerability affecting our relationship to the outside world. Fishman stresses du Bouchet’s “obliging us to step outside our comfortable relationship with words” and the necessity of “encounter[ing] them anew.” This, too, constitutes one of the lessons that younger French poets have long learned from him, however different their own poetics might be.
Du Bouchet himself posited that a poet-translator must keep “something of the / unfinished threshold in the language once you’ve entered in,” a fine image of the dilemma faced by all of us when we translate a stylistically idiosyncratic poet: to what extent should we transfer a certain “xenity”—“xenité”—into our versions, be it in the form of a word, an unsettlingly skewed syntax, an odd combination of sounds, the provocative absence or presence of a punctuation sign, or an unidiomatic grouping of words that acutely mirrors a vivid foreign expression? Not to mention the blank spaces that sometimes knit an American publisher’s brow—but not that of Paul B. Roth, of the Bitter Oleander Press, who has produced an edition that respects the breathing space with which the French editions also surround these same poems.
Translation demands constantly moving from the inside or the outside of one language to the outside or the inside of another language, and the translator must be cognizant, all all time, of the possible permutations of the formula. Besides Hölderlin, du Bouchet translated Faulkner, Shakespeare, Joyce, Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Celan. Rogers notes that “given his passion for shifting shapes, [du Bouchet] produced audacious translations from the English, Russian, and German. He was known for pushing the envelope of languages—more concerned with catching the overtones of words than hair-splitting their definitions.” Rogers specifies that “though du Bouchet naturally required that translations should be ‘faithful to the originals,’ he invited readers to see the semantic disjunctions between one language and another as opportunities rather then defects.”
Too long to quote here is a passage, in du Bouchet’s Notebook 2, about the German word rauschen, which signifies, in du Bouchet’s own words, “the sound made by the wind among branches or in wheat.” While evoking his approach, as a translator, to this word and to any foreign text, he points to his arrival “from outside,” “in language / as from the other side of language [. . .where] there’s another language.” The translator’s chore is intimately related to “something elemental that isolates without being grasped, and distinctly refuses: poetry.” In their individual translations, Rogers and Fishman have themselves often been resourceful when rendering du Bouchet’s polysemous imagery. My favorite is Fishman’s stunning solution “Reverdy’s stones” for the italicized “Pierraille” in the prose poem “A cow that coughs in the fog.” To wit, du Bouchet is indeed punning with “pierraille” as “loose stones” or “scree” as well as with the first name of the poet Reverdy, who is mentioned earlier in the piece.
In his book Here in Two (itself a revelatory title for the act of translation), du Bouchet’s long-poem “Notes on Translation” begins with a seemingly simple quotation from Mandelstam: “Water, in Armenian, is called djour. Town: ghyour.” From the very onset of the poem, du Bouchet shows how the “sudden” juxtaposition of the Armenian “djour” and the French “eau” (“water”) jolts him into realizing that his language “will become [. . .] foreign as well.” “Translate I cannot,” he confesses at one point in this poem, all the while offering a remedy: the kind of retreat to which we, as translators, must sometimes go to open our senses once again to the “elemental,” let alone to the delights and disclosures of “xenity.” It is like a meditative withdrawal into a potentially fertile silence. Indeed, one of the many qualities of du Bouchet’s poetry, with its resonant blank spaces and “dislocations” (to paraphrase Eliot) “of language into its meaning,” is its ability to teach us once again, as poets, as translators, how to “see” and how to “hear”:
mountains — here, where speaking is rare, for the language I come here.
the air — a handshake.
with the words, having momentarily withdrawn, the mountains
will stay alone, for a moment.
rugged, the emptiness: it prefigures — same as, even though
it’s before my eyes, what I don’t yet see. what without having
grasped it either, in the gorge of the throat, on the crest
of the diphthongs, through the vowels open there too, I can
du Bouchet, André. Outside: Poetry and Prose. Translated from the French by Eric Fishman and Hoyt Rogers. The Bitter Oleander Press, 2020.
John Taylor has written two other articles on André du Bouchet: The Times Literary Supplement (25 May 2012) and in The Arts Fuse (12 October 2014). The latter essay is available online. Among Taylor’s many translations of books by French poets, including several by Philippe Jaccottet, he has translated Jaccottet’s Truinas, 21 April 2001 (The Fortnightly Review Press), in which Jaccottet meditates on the death of du Bouchet and evokes their long friendship.