The Safeguards of Translation: Philippe Jaccottet’s “Patches of Sunlight, or of Shadow: Safeguarded Notes, 1952-2005,” Translated from French by John Taylor

By Samuel Martin

Holding the latest volume of notes by the Swiss poet and translator Philippe Jaccottet, turning it over in one’s hands, one’s first impression is indeed of volume and bold color; it is another of the lavish editions that Seagull Books have made their calling card in recent years. One’s second impression, having read it, is that the sturdiness of the covers belies the delicacy of the contents. Or, rather, that those covers play a more genuinely protective role than is true of, or needed by, many books.

Even before Jaccottet’s passing in February of this year at the age of 95—and “passing” is an obvious euphemism, but perhaps a forgivable one in the case of a poet who so fully embodied the role of both passant (a fleeting presence, a man discreetly passing through) and passeur (the ferryman, an image often used in French to designate the translator)—there was already a poignant vulnerability in the publication of “safeguarded notes” spanning half a century. Happily, those notes have been left in the trusted hands of John Taylor, an eminent passeur in his own right, who along with Tess Lewis has done so much to bring Jaccottet’s writing to English-speaking readers. One of the meanings of safeguard, after all, is “permit for safe passage,” and while such a permit is not always easily won in the world of literary translation, in this case it has been granted freely, with gratifying results.

As for the titular patches of light and shadow, they represent the two poles between which Jaccottet’s writing has always sought a just balance. In these notes, just as in those previously collected in the multi-volume Seedtime, moments of clarity often take the form of texts read (from Jaccottet’s beloved German Romantics to the haiku that so influenced his own work from the 1960s onward, and from Petrarch to Plato) and of music heard (the “jubilation” of Bach, the “luminosity” of Mozart). John Taylor, for his part, provides a comprehensive set of his own notes at the end of the book to elucidate any unfamiliar references.

Yet for all its erudition, Patches of Sunlight, or of Shadow is by no means a work of criticism. Jaccottet remains as attuned to the outside world as to the inner worlds of his fellow creators, and longer passages of commentary or introspection are offset by flashes of the landscape around his home in southern France, haiku-like in their freshness and simplicity: “With its budding leaves, the fig tree is, in the morning, a one-hundred-branch candelabrum—lit up” (172). Nor is this book the work of a homebody; scattered throughout these pages are colorful impressions gleaned from trips to the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Turkey, and Sweden, not to mention the author’s native Switzerland. This collection could almost be thought of as a companion volume to A Calm Fire, the lovely anthology of Jaccottet’s travel writing that John Taylor likewise translated for Seagull in 2018.

There is nevertheless a sense in which the furthest excursions of Patches are the dream narratives that the poet scrupulously (albeit perplexedly) transcribes, sometimes over several pages. These dream sequences have always held a peculiar place in Jaccottet’s notebooks, so far removed from his conscious idiom as they often are—which is simply to say, of course, that they are no more or less bizarre and unsettling than anyone else’s dreams. Waking from the first such episode recorded here, which resembles a kind of surrealist film noir, Jaccottet writes, “I sense the fragility of the membrane separating us, protecting us from terror, tortures, crimes. I think of the tortures occurring everywhere at this very instant. And I tell myself that all the images I have managed to forge in my writing were merely to protect me from all that” (6-7).

Even before these notes will have been safeguarded and stowed away for eventual publication, then, they will have played the role of safeguard themselves. It is very much as if the patches (taches) of light and shadow cast by the world presented the poet with so many tasks to fulfill (tâches, a shadow darkening the vowel in French): “I would like to be a man who waters his garden and who, attentive to such simple chores, lets penetrate inside him this world in which he will not long dwell. The bread of the air” (25-6).

Regardless of what is before the poet’s eyes, his need to remain attentive never diminishes. On the contrary, it is arguably heightened in painful moments when his first inclination might be to turn away. Two of Jaccottet’s best-known sequences of poems, Leçons (Lessons, 1969) and Chants d’en bas (Songs from Below, 1974), were composed in response to the respective deaths of his father-in-law and his mother; the detailed notes from the period that are reproduced in Patches of Sunlight, or of Shadow find him keeping an unflinching vigil during their final days, in language that makes no attempt to strive for poetic effect but that lays the groundwork for the elegies to come. Other deaths punctuate the notebooks, from family friends to fellow poets, the latter frequently occasioning tributes that show Jaccottet’s gift for friendship to be on a par with his knack for observation. Even when acknowledging how far writers such as Jean Tortel or Francis Ponge have ended up diverging from his own poetic path, these notes leave no doubt as to the warmth of Jaccottet’s affection.

At the other end of the generational spectrum, one of the most moving moments of the book is a free verse poem from the late summer of 1958, written about Jaccottet’s then four-year-old son. The poem is driven by an urge to preserve memories that might act as a safeguard for the young Antoine, since “he’ll probably live in a world worse than ours”:

We dispense gifts and refusals almost randomly,

no longer know if we should speak to him of angels or fairies,

as for me, it’s not angels that I remember,

but a bush of peonies bathed in rain,

warehouses in the valley, and prison towers;

no magic needed to be added to the streets and streams…

Provided that he doesn’t forget how to inhabit the earth. (27-8)

Sixty years on, Antoine Jaccottet is a literary translator himself, and it was his publishing house, fittingly, that first brought out this collection of notes in French (Taches de soleil, ou d’ombre, 2013). The name of the imprint, Le Bruit du Temps (The Noise of Time), is taken from the title of the book by Osip Mandelstam—the same Mandelstam for whose sake Philippe Jaccottet undertook to learn Russian in his 50s, following a revelation that is logged here: “Celan’s translations of Mandelstam, the first translations that make me grasp fully the beauty of this oeuvre” (129). With Patches of Sunlight, or of Shadow, John Taylor has given us another reminder of the beauty of Philippe Jaccottet’s own work, which is never less than an incitement to inhabit the earth a bit more fully.

Jaccottet, Philippe. Patches of Sunlight, or of Shadow: Safeguarded Notes, 1952-2005. Translated by John Taylor. Seagull Books, 2020.

Samuel Martin is a translator from Fargo, North Dakota; he currently teaches French in Philadelphia. His translations include Georges Didi-Huberman’s Bark (MIT Press, 2017) and Jean-Christophe Bailly’s The Instant and Its Shadow (Fordham University Press, 2020). He is a co-editor at Hopscotch Translation.

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