Andrée Chedid and the alchemy of poetry
« Les vivants » (“The Living”) is the second sequence in the poetry triptych that comprises Andrée Chedid’s 1956 work, Terre et poésie (Earth and Poetry). Comprised of twenty lyrical sections, the poem gains force as might an aggregate of elements — water, air, fire, earth — without which the living cannot exist. In « Les vivants », the elemental realm provides not simply the material resources for human survival, but a means of regeneration through engaged interaction between the physical and imaginative worlds. For Chedid then, poetry becomes both means and creation, a kind of genesis story of its own making — what the ancient alchemists might name a fifth element: “Poetry is asking questions at the deepest level, an attempt to get to the bottom of things. The act of writing is a moment of purification, deployment and self-condensation during which the writer is balanced on a thin wire strung between alpha and omega. It is a moment to ask questions about the purpose and the essence of things.”
If, as Yves Bonnefoy claims, translation is a creative act, then it too will ask such questions, not with the aim of replicating the poem in a new language (a foolhardy and unattainable act in any case), but of following an initial yearning, of “reliving the act which both gave rise to [the poem] and remains enmeshed in it.” With « Les vivants », the first question arises in translating the title, which also serves as the first two words of the poem. Reverso may confirm my English phrasing, but the question of creation remains to be asked: If we are speaking of the purpose and essence of things, what is meant by the choice of “The Living”?
Others have asked this question. This repetition of inquiry seems right of any poem that compels us to translation. A poem may require solitude for its creation, but poetry is not a solitary endeavor, either in the language of its genesis or in the language of its reception. As Bonnefoy notes: “At its most intense, reading is empathy, shared existence. … and what we gain [through translation, however lacking] is the very thing we cannot grasp: that is to say, the poetry of other languages.”
In the language of Chedid’s poetry, a language she adopted after emigrating from Cairo to Paris as a young woman, the words les vivants serve not only as title to the 1956 sequence, but throughout Chedid’s work, an oeuvre spanning sixty-plus years. For Chedid, poetry is not separated from life but woven into it; or, perhaps even more fitting, made of the same fabric. Of her choice to title two collections encompassing forty of those years, Textes pour un poème (1949–1970) and Poèmes pour un texte (1970–1991), Chedid explains: “I wanted to say that poetry which forms one body with our existence remains — in the same way as life — free, mobile, never cordoned off. No key can open the door onto the mystery of either.”
And so the question remains, a kind of stubborn first step of the scientific method: If we are speaking of the purpose and essence of things, what is meant by the translation of « Les vivants » to “The Living”? What is lost? What is gained? Translating Chedid’s 1983 Épreuves du vivant into English, Rene Linkhorn attempts a response:
… the “vivant” of Chedid’s title is not “life” and is not “person alive” and definitely not “the lively.” This “vivant” — here a substantive — is not an everyday word; it is generally encountered in scientific or philosophical contexts to signify — impersonally — that which is “endowed with life,” with a broader meaning than simply “living things.” In fact “vivant” comes to signify the very essence of life, the enigmatic phenomenon that makes matter break away from inertia.
Such a response speaks not to what is lost and what is gained so much as to the dynamism generated by an intentional expenditure of energy, which is to say, an imaginative engagement with the world, both material and dream.
The imagination of matter and the frisson created through an interaction of reality and reverie are subjects Gaston Bachelard explores in his series of book-length essays originally published during the years 1938–1948: The Psychoanalysis of Fire; Water and Dreams; Air and Dreams; Earth and Reveries of Repose; and Earth and Reveries of Will. In her forward to the last of these, Joanne Stroud articulates “the crux of [Bachelard’s hypothesis] — matter engages our imagination and summons the personhood of each of us, providing the will to action. We are not … passive in our engagement with matter. Imagination is supercharged by interaction with the material world.” Stroud relays that Bachelard was a teacher of high-school physics and chemistry before earning a doctorate at the age of forty-three. He went on to be appointed to the chair of philosophy and science at the Sorbonne and to be remembered as one of the most profound thinkers of the twentieth century. Bachelard called himself “a philosopher who loves only that in life which fills him with wonder.”
The span of Bachelard’s life (1884–1962) overlapped with Chedid’s (1920–2011), and so did his poetics. If an interdependence of imagination and will were key for Bachelard, so too was an interdependence of writing and life for Chedid. In recalling how his ideas paralleled her own, Chedid commented:
Bachelard wrote, we are “real and unreal,” and if we do not combine the real and the unreal, we are traumatized because we are incomplete. Through writing we bring together our body and our mind. Poetry is an act of love, and love gives you inspiration. This is not just love between [two people], but universal love. When I go out into the street, when I mingle with the crowds, I love others. I observe them. I immerse myself in them. … All these fleeting moments with others nourish life, the force without which we would sink into the void …
In fact, the collective is exactly where “The Living” begins, and Chedid locates us there in the first line — “Les poètes sont de la cité(The poets are of the city)” — to propose something of what poetry might offer, something we’ve lost in the process of constructing a civilization together. If such a proposition might be termed a poetical hypothesis, this one suggests that undertaking the imaginative example of the poet will help us recover the full tapestry of our lives. As Chedid offers in a 1995 interview: “In reply to the question: ‘Why do you write?’ Saint-John Perse said: ‘The poet’s answer will invariably be the shortest: To live better.’”
While no error of even rudimentary translation can mistake this initial location, this cityof “The Living” is notable not for what it includes but for what is left out. No street is described, no building, no park bench. Rather, this city is one upon which the reader might imagine her own landmarks, and in this way become an active participant in recovering one “very fine weave that others, crossing the fabric, have lost.”
And so the procedure of imagination is not one absence but of presence. Chedid’s poets of “The Living” do not “escape our world by some juggling of the imaginary”; rather, they show us a means of being, fully integrated into the elements that compriseboth that world and the imaginary. In this way, her poet is not unlike Bachelard’s: “A true poet is not satisfied with this escapist imagination. He [or she] wants the imagination to be a journey. Every poet must give us [the] invitation to journey. Through this invitation, our inner being gets a gentle push, which throws off balance and sets in motion a healthy, really dynamic reverie.” Such a procedure, naturally, involves movement.
Where Chedid takes us, almost immediately, is to the threshold of death. This is not a death from which to recoil, however, no straw-man ghost called forth to validate the superiority of life. No, the reason for this underworld pit stop is so that we might gain nourishment from the visit, that we might learn to cherish death “as we do life”: in other words, as we go about living. How poetry accomplishes such a task is by unmasking those elements that deserve reverent attention: the inorganic compounds that comprise our living, breathing beings. In this way, too, poetry itself comes into being: “Pour être, la poésie n’attend que notre regard (To exist, poetry awaits only our observance).”
Any valid analysis, however, would require an understanding of exactly what merits our observation. As a sort of scientist of poetics, Bachelard offers the following for examination: “[Those] … images [that] are completely new, alive with the life of living language. We experience them as actively lyrical through their ability to renew our hearts and souls. These literary images add hope to a feeling, a special vigor to our decision to be a person, even have a tonic effect on our physique.” The alchemists were after similar curatives in their materials, and while Chedid’s aims for her images are more in keeping with Bachelard’s, their transformative power is no less potent than an alchemy that turns metal into gold — and no less impossible. And yet, as Chedid’s poets of “The Living” urge, it is to the “Zone of the impossible from where we must return.” Only in such a laboratory will we uncover imaginative data worthy of analysis: “The purity of sunlight, a child’s voice, a kind hand, the spring grass, a distress call or love’s uncovering can become that reason — aligning one shore with the next — why we consent, once more, to our lives.”
This is an imperfect translation. Not for lack of effort, but nonetheless this version falls short. If, however, as Bonnefoy claims about his own failings to adequately translate the poem of one language into another, “I will be reproached for impoverishing the text,” then so be it: after all reproach is not far from rapprochement, and in the language of the alchemists, a translation is not a rendering but a transformation. For that kind of alchemy, we must travel to the source. We must drink from poetry itself: “She is the water of our second thirst.” The first was that desire by which we entered into the material world: “Perpetual fever that burns to become.”
And if, on this journey, we find ourselves impetuous visitors in a forest where a great stag speeds, indistinguishable from the rustling leaves that formulate the oxygen we breathe? The alchemists might say we were in the presence of Mercurius, “the transformative intermediary soul substance”; that we were on a “pilgrimage or initiation path … circuitous, indirect, constantly shifting direction, or, like the deer, disappearing altogether.” How to respond to such ephemeral presence? As would the forest: “adorn her, lovingly, from a choice of favorite shadows and burning clarities.” All things are made of contingency; only our effort fixes them into form, sometimes called gold, sometimes called language. This is how, as Bachelard explains, “poetic language, when it is used to translate material images, becomes a veritable incantation to the forces of energy.”
“In the foundry of a poem, an incandescent fever enchants the soul & every word radiates.”
This, too, is an imperfect translation. There is no fonderie in Chedid’s stanza 15, only the action of making: Tandis que se fait le poème. … Which is to say, while the poem is being made; which might also be to say, the poem forges its own making as it travels between the imaginative and material worlds.Perhaps. Mercurius. “The poet moves forward by halts: wingcuts & fallings.” Even the language in which the poem is made does not promise a straightforward flight. My aim in translating « Les vivants » is to transport it into English as clearly as language (and my skills) will permit, and yet the poem itself cautions: “Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — deprived help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?”
The miracle of writing, perhaps, which Chedid likens to “the act of love, which amplifies, sublimates life and gives it a luminous tension. It puts me in step with this inner vibration, this desire that I feel deep within me. Without it, purely material life is incomplete.” But what miracle transmutes writing into love? The miracle of presence. In the case of translation, an initial hypothesis confirmed: the presence of “the very thing we cannot grasp or hold: that is to say, the poetry of other languages.” In the case of poetry, the presence of other humans, to whom “the poet entrusts the next days of his poem. For their transport and the lost magic. Only others return the poet to that Poetry, of which he will never be more than an uncertain and keenly careful craftsman.”
And if those others should ask, in any language, “What existence … is that of the poet! And that stake — stone of inaccessible — wouldn’t it be better to give it up?”
Chedid would not place the alchemist’s stone in our hand; even if it existed, it would not provide adequate conclusion for this imagined scientific method, for its transformative powers would preclude those created by our own imaging. Rather, she would place us at the edge of the world, fire on the horizon, a “reality, untouched since the morning of men.” She would place us as one element among others, and she would ask us to consider the element on which we stand: “this same ground — that we recognize without question and that rivets us by the strangest of plots — is it not swept by unknowable breath, crowned by free sky, favorable to distant lands?” With the quickness of Mercurius, she would then place us within the sails of poetry itself. On that boat — made (perhaps) of that same forest wood born from an ancient mixture of fire, air, earth, and water — she would urge us forward: “Without respite, we must pull poetry from the swamp of cause & effect. Refuse that she sink, standing, in her sails; vigil watch.” And by the transformative power of that image, and the language that compels it, at least two of us will.
That Chedid is no longer living does not make her watch any less present. The work she leaves proves the truth of her hypothesis: “Poetry reveals itself in our destinies by repeatedly making appeals to life; poetry is all at once the spur, the hope, and the proof of the Living.” And if I (admittedly, irrationally) miss the woman I never met, I have only to read that element of hers that remains present, her words:
My work is a step forward in this world, not in the hereafter. It is this side of our existence that concerns me. We keep on asking ourselves the same questions — where have we come from? where are we going? — and no philosopher, scientist, or poet has ever answered them satisfactorily. I am amazed every day that I exist as a physical being through this combination of molecules that I am made of. … I wonder how this factory of being with all its complicated mechanisms has managed to take shape. This extraordinary mystery is enough for me.
And still the source remains. If it is no longer possible to ask directly — for Chedid spoke English and could have responded without a linguistic intermediary — if she would have preferred sunbeam to sunlight, the thirst for her poetry nonetheless leads me to the foundry, leaves me at “the source, a beginning rich with possibility.” In the language of hypothesis, If poetry is a kind of alchemy, then translation “is merely poetry re-begun.”
excerpted from Terre et poésie, 1956
Translated from the French by Marci Vogel, 2015
The poets are of the city.
It is false that they escape our world by some juggling of the imaginary; rather, they recover one very fine weave that others, crossing the fabric, have lost.
The poets have the face of the living.
They undertake their century, its duties; but not its formulations.
Lend them trust.
Their cause — reconsidered at every dawn — cannot be altered, is that of the always human.
The desire to create, is it not first of all challenges to death and passion to last?
Later — setting free other prospects — the poet’s opening revives us, tames disquiet, and, leading us to the threshold of that death she unmasks, teaches us to cherish it as we do life.
Poetry is natural.
She is the water of our second thirst.
It is vital for the poet to raise echoes, and to know it.
No one better accords with solitude; but also, no one has more need that her land be visited.
To exist, poetry awaits only our observance.
Despite days of obligation, the poet safeguardsthe passage of available. From this essential place, poetry claims itself.
Living too much on the other side of appearances, we awaken sometimes in the margin; spectator to our own pageant. All seems empty then that surges not from the depths and haunts not the source.
Zone of the impossible from where we must return.
Clarity will not suffice. The spirit keeps watch, but as through window glass, and cannot — deprived help — initiate a return. What miracle remains to be wished?
The purity of sunlight, a child’s voice, a kind hand, the spring grass, a distress call or love’s uncovering can become that reason — aligning one shore with the next — why we consent, once more, to our lives.
The outermost — haunt of the poet — resides beyond limits; still, without final hope, she continues to ride on.
Taking the route towards the horizonless earth, each sunrise transforms the daily land, the unmarked: ivy on her free skin, hindrance at the heart.
If the poem’s call does not constrain, that poetry is from a breath.
Perpetual fever that burns to become.
The form — unless a science experiment is wished — must not foretell the poem; but order itself afterward to fit the momentum.
As the forest — indistinguishable & rustling about the great stag who speeds there — must welcome the impetuous visitor; then adorn her, lovingly, from a choice of favorite shadows and burning clarities.
In her ploughed earth, the poet — for a time — calms in the cry it urges, poem in her night.
Before her lined face, the poet knows old age; she has lived death well before dying.
Still, daybreak kindles new life, gift of the phoenix —beautiful, fragile bird — in accordance with mornings.
The poet moves forward by halts: wingcuts & fallings.
Experience suggests the plunge foretells the rise. But, in darkest distress, this reminder is meager rescue.
In the foundry of a poem, an incandescent fever enchants the soul & every word radiates.
The illusion is in motion, the earth a spangled constellation. The unspoken will find — this time — in the verb its rightful transformation.
Alas! At the scene of the poem, soon the sober return. The torch flames to ash, the escape artist collides with the walls. Where then do certainties drown?
It is to others the poet entrusts the next days of his poem. For their transport & the lost magic. Only others return the poet to that Poetry, of which he will never be more than an uncertain and keenly careful craftsman.
What existence, you say, is that of the poet! And that stake — stone of inaccessible — wouldn’t it be better to give it up?
Your reasons will not suffice.
Even in remote countries, the poet cannot become attached to trails. Take away everything but that thirst, grace from which, enclosed in this world, she partakes in the whole of life.
The final victory of poetry would be groundless, having only the quality of a breath, vulnerable and yet — forever — suspended beyond our brows.
It is to be the soundly defeated who lift poetry & unite us with its beauty.
Poetry — by ways uneven & muffled — leads us toward daybreak in the country of the first time.
To see in poetry is to give rightness to reversed images.
Water that opens to all reflections of this world and extends them infinitely, water that flows without ceasing is sister of poetry.
Why would poetry be more ghostly than days relentless at her loss? Her reality, untouched since the morning of men, has always set fire to the horizon. And this same ground — that we recognize without question and that rivets us by the strangest of plots — is it not swept by unknowable breath, crowned by free sky, favorable to distant lands?
Without respite, we must pull poetry from the swamp of cause & effect. Refuse that she sink, standing, in her sails; vigil watch.
Les poètes sont de la cité.
Il est faux qu’ils échappent à notre monde par quelque jonglerie de l’imaginaire; c’est plutôt qu’ils retrouvent une trame très lisse que d’autres, au contraire, ont perdue.
Les poètes ont visage de vivant.
Ils assument leur siècle, ses responsabilités; mais non ses formules.
Leur cause — reconsidérée à chaque aurore — ne peut s’altérer, elle est celle de l’homme de toujours.
Le désir de créer, n’est-ce pas tout d’abord défi à la mort et passion de durer?
Plus tard — libérant d’autres perspectives — l’oeuvre nous aère, apprivoise l’inquiétude et, nous menant jusqu’au seuil de cette mort, qu’elle démasque, nous apprend à la chérir au même titre que la vie.
La poésie est naturelle.
Elle est l’eau de notre seconde soif.
Il est vital pour le poète de lever des échos, et de le savoir.
Nul mieux que lui ne s’accorde aux solitudes; mais aussi, nul n’a plus besoin que sa terre soit visitée.
Pour être, la poésie n’attend que notre regard.
Malgré les jours qui l’engagent, le poèt sauvegarde la passe du disponible. C’est de ce lieu essentiel que se réclame la poésie.
A trop vivre de l’autre côté des apparences, on s’éveille parfois en marge; spectateur de son propre spectacle. Tout semble vain alors qui ne surgit des profondeurs et que ne hante la source.
Zone de l’impossible d’où il faut revenir.
La lucidité n’y suffirait pas. L’esprit veille, mais comme à travers une vitre, et ne peut — privé d’aide — amorcer un retour. Quel miracle reste-t-il à souhaiter?
Le naturel d’un rayon de soleil, d’une voix d’enfant, d’une main amie, le printemps d’une herbe, l’appel d’une détresse ou la découverte d’un amour peut devenir cette raison qui — accordant une rive à l’autre — permet, une fois de plus, que l’on consente à sa vie.
L’extrême — hantise du poète — demeure au-delà de ses limites; cependant, sans espoir final, il continue d’aller.
Prenant route vers la terre sans horizon, chaque aube métamorphose sa terre quotidienne, la démarquée: lierre sur sa peau libre, entrave à son coeur.
Si l’appel du poème n’est pas contraignant, celui de la poésie est d’une haleine.
Fièvre perpétuelle qui brûle de devenir.
La forme — à moins d’en souhaiter l’expérience — ne devrait pas augurer du poème; mais s’ordonner ensuite pour épouser l’élan.
Comme la forêt — indifférenciée et bruissante autour du grand cerf qui s’y précipite — elle doit accueillir l’impétueux visiteur; puis le parer, amoureusement, d’un choix d’ombres favorites et de brûlantes clartés.
En sa terre labourée, le poète — pour un temps — s’apaise du cri qu’il pousse, poème dans sa nuit.
Avant les rides le poèt a connu la vieillesse; il a vécu la mort bien avant de mourir.
Pourtant l’aube le ranime, lui fait don du phénix — bel oiseau fragile — accordé aux matins.
Le poète avance par saccades: coups d’ailes et retombées.
L’expérience lui suggère que la chute présage de l’essor. Mais, au plus sombre d’une détresse, cette mémoire est de maigre secours.
Tandis que se fait le poème, une fièvre heureuse enchante l’âme et chaque mot irradie.
L’illusion est en marche, la terre constellée. L’inexprimé trouvera — cette fois — dans le verbe sa juste métamorphose.
Hélas! Sur les lieux du poème, bientôt c’est le sobre retour. Le flambeau s’est fait cendres, l’échappée heurte aux murs. Où donc se noient les certitudes?
C’est aux autres que le poète confie les lendemains de son poème. Pour eux les transports et la magie perdue. Seuls les autres rendront le poète à cette Poésie, dont il ne sera jamais que l'incertain et très soucieux artisan.
Quelle existence, direz-vous, est celle du poète! Et cet enjeu — pierre de inaccessible — ne vaudrait-il pas mieux y renoncer?
Vos raisons n’y suffiront pas.
Même en pays perdu, le poète ne peut s’attacher aux pistes. Qu’on lui ôte tout, plutôt que cette soif, grâce à laquelle, enclos en ce monde, il participe à l'entière vie.
La victoire finale de la poésie serait sans objet et ne pourrait avoir que la qualité d’un souffle, vulnérable et cependant — à jamais — suspendu au-delà de nos fronts.
C’est d’être la grande vaincue qui fait à la poésie sa noblesse, et nous rend solidaires de sa beauté.
La poésie — par des voies inégales et feutrées — nous mène vers la pointe du jour au pays de la première fois.
Regarder en poésie, c’est se donner droit au revers des images.
L’eau qui s’ouvre aux reflets de ce monde et les prolonge infiniment, l’eau qui va sans cesse est soeur de poésie.
Pourquoi la poésie serait-elle plus fantomatique que les jours acharnés à sa perte? Sa réalité, intacte depuis le matin des hommes, a mis depuis toujours le feu à l’horizon. Et cette terre même — que nous reconnaissons sans mal et qui nous rive par le plus étrange des complots — n’est-elle pas balayée de souffles inconnaissables, couronnée de ciel libre, propice aux lointains?
Sans répit, il nous faut tirer la poésie des marécages de l’événement. Refuser qu’elle ne sombre, debout, dans ses voiles; veiller.
Andrée Chedid, “Les vivants,” in “Terre et poésie,” Textes pour un poème (1949–1970), © Flammarion, reproduced here with permission.
6. The “imagination of matter” is Bachelard’s own term for his subject of investigation; he defines it as “the imagination of the four elements which philosophy and the ancient sciences, later represented by the science of alchemy, have regarded as the basis of all things.” Bachelard, Earth and Reveries of Will: An Essay on the Imagination of Matter, trans. Kenneth Haltman, ed. Joanne H. Stroud (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002), 1. Originally published in 1943 as La terre et les rêveries de la volonté, essai sur l'imagination de la matière and then in 1947 by the Librairie José Corti, Paris.
9. Chedid, « Les vivants », from Terre et Poésie (1956), republished in Textes pour un poème 1949–1970 (Paris: Flammarion 1987), 129–36. Unless otherwise stated, all translations in this essay are my own.
11. Bachelard, Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, trans. Edith R. Farrell and C. Frederick Farrell (Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications, 2002), 3. Originally published in 1943 as L’Air et les songes, essaai sur l’imagination du mouvement (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1943).