Review by Martin Abramson
THE STRAW SANDALS: SELECTED PROSE AND POETRY
By Pierre-Albert Jourdan
Translation by John Taylor
New York, New York
$20, 332 pp. Paper
Reprinted with permission from Book/Mark,Summer/Fall 2011 Issue.
Pierre-Albert Jourdan, almost unknown today in his native land, had been honored in 1987 with a collected edition of 512 pages by Mercure de France and had thereafter been promptly forgotten, the collection allowed to go out of print. High praise from such luminaries as Jacques Réda, Yves Bonnefoy and Philippe Jaccottet have failed to produce a new edition in France; but thanks to the efforts of John Taylor, we English speakers have a generous selection of Jourdan’s work in a beautiful, bilingual edition which is miraculous both in terms of the original poetry and Mr. Taylor’s translation. The author of several weighty studies of French literature, many published translations and several books of original poetry, John Taylor is eminently qualified for this task.
Mr. Taylor offers us a goodly sampling of extracts from Jourdan’s books: The Language of Rising Smoke, The Dead Angle, The Entryway into the Garden, The Straw Sandals, The Approach, At the Mercy of Maxims, Journal Pages and Fragments. And the facing translations make much of the material accessible in the original, even for high school French scholars like this reviewer.
The poems are so incredibly rich that it’s impossible to just read this book continuously like a novel. Each sentence sends the imagination spiraling off into a different spectrum of images and memories. Each phrase may be savored and contemplated as a separate poem.
A knife! The tiny gash in the forest!
The fragrance of cypress beneath the eyelids.
The solar ladder up which the lizard climbs…
…the road of reality narrows to a tightrope.
Mysterious alms of the foliage…
A whispering leaf can be heard through dense forests.
…the sound of a distant flute crossing the ages…
The curse lies in the threshold being laid like this.
…the wind that is beating between the hedges…
…a remote song that rolls in to die as foam on the sand of today.
The grass keeps its heaviness of flesh…
A gunshot dragging a whole season behind it…
All gestures are petrified, coated with moss.
…ecstatic armfuls of possibilities.
I have picked out pregnant phrases that resonate for me. Most of them are embedded in paragraphs that are enriched by their presence just as they themselves are enhanced by their contexts. Many other images will resonate for you as well.
Most of the pieces are written in a mixture of prose and vers libre. The most easily recognizable as poems appear in the first, second and last sections: “The Language of Rising Smoke”, “Fragments” and “The Straw Sandals”:
…the shapeless kite is like a mauve cinder in the sky.
A rooted nothingness.
A single teardrop in which the world trembles.
A moment too acute for words to come out unscathed.
…words must go through a body in order to come to light…
Tomorrow we will have brand new blindfolds.
The shadow of a wing on the plaster. The plaster flakes off, the wing rots. The flight remains…
Let us allow this voice to grow quiet, it is lying in wait. Let us leave the field open.
Pieces in the second half of the book tend to be shorter and less interrelated. Jourdan honors France’s long history of maxims and aphorisms, following La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort and Joubert, by composing dozens of his own. In the middle sections of the book (one is actually entitled “Maxims”) Jourdan scatters tweets, blog-notes,diary entrees,anecdotes,quotations and more prose-poems. They range from the profound to the prosaic.
The “straw sandals” that give the last section its title are not footwear for the beach but standard hospital supplies. It’s material occupies half the content of this volume. Facing death as his body slowly gave in to the inevitable, and tied to the hospital’s umbilical, here Jourdan left us his deepest thoughts about life and death. They are in diary form and dated. Those included in this collection extend from Jan.1, 1980 to July 21, 1980. Others continue to April 1981, the year of his demise.
The “I will never have enough time” has not been digested. Not vomited back up. It is like a lump that keeps going up and down. Sunday, 6 January
You have to climb all the way up to the branch that is too fragile if you wish to perceive clearly what is happening below. Thursday, 10 January
You lead your life between layers of paper. Monday, 4 February
That the abyss is a mere crack does not mean that it cannot swallow you up at any moment. Wednesday, 6 February
Living thus from beginning to end, in incompleteness. Monday, 25 February
Even by scratching away at this sheet of paper every day, I will not be able to uncover the radiant fresco underneath the shadows piling up on it every day. Wednesday, 5 March
They came and showed their wounds because wounds were all they had to bind them to the world. Monday, 7 April
Light suddenly bursts out as if projected from an exasperated desire. Monday, 21 April
The butterfly…on the stone half-opens its wings as someone might turn the pages of a precious illuminated manuscript. Sunday, 27 April
We will not overcome this defeat unless we wholly accept it. Wednesday, 25 June
Thought puts on its cloth slippers. But the room with its polished wooden floors is empty, and the furniture has been covered over. No one is there. Tuesday, 2 December
The pathos of these last words depicting the poet’s pain and debilitation cannot be exaggerated. But it is enthralled into a kind of stoic resignation laced generously with light, splendor, natural beauty and profound wisdom. We are deeply indebted to Chelsea Editions for making this important body of work available, and to John Taylor for supplying not just a literal translation into English sentences, but a luminous transmutation into English poetry.