The consolation of poetry
A review of two recent books by René Char
“It’s not going so good with me recently,” wrote William Carlos Williams to his friend Fred Miller on January 9, 1953. “What with [the] injury to my right flipper and the trouble they have cooked up for me over the Library of Congress job I’m in a bad way.” He was not exaggerating. Williams was at the nadir of his life. Retired from medicine, convalescing after a particularly bad stroke, and redbaited out of his sinecure at the Library of Congress, his troubles must have seemed endless. Usually so sanguine, Williams’s poems from the period reflect this gloom. In The Desert Music of 1954 we read the apostrophe, “To a Dog Lying Injured in the Street”:
It is myself,
not the poor beast lying there
yelping with pain
that brings me to myself with a start —
as at the explosion
of a bomb, a bomb that has laid
all the world waste.
Gone are the debonair pooches of Paterson peeing on trees and mating in the park. “I can do nothing,” writes Williams — preparing us for a long plaint about his impotence — but then, lifting his head, he turns the sentence around:
but sing about it
and so I am assuaged
from my pain.
Song, or poetry brings Williams consolation. As in the famous lines from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” — “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there” — Williams discovers here the medicine which he practiced all his life. Doctor though he may be, however, Williams’s treatment in this case is not self-administered. “I think,” he says,
of the poetry
of René Char
and all he must have seen
that has brought him
to speak only of
of daffodils and tulips
whose roots they water,
even to the free-flowing river
that laves the rootlets
of those sweet-scented flowers
that people the
The surprising if fitting Virgil to Williams’s Dante is the French poet René Char. I say fitting, because unlike Ezra Pound (who might also have come to mind in this dark hour), Char was a poet who suffered in the Second World War, fighting for the resistance, and yet made it through — pace Adorno — still writing lyric poetry and retaining an unimpeachable dignity and ethical rectitude. What better model for how to fight back, and to hold on to the things of this world with poetry? It is René Char who raises us above the lot of animals.
The cries of a dying dog
are to be blotted out
as best I can.
you are a poet who believes
in the power of beauty
to right all wrongs.
I believe it also.
With invention and courage
we shall surpass
the pitiful dumb beasts … 
Rousing sentiments indeed. And a fine recommendation for those of us encountering Char for the first time through Williams — as I myself was introduced to this French poet.
For a long time, this was, in fact, all I knew about René Char, never being quite zealous or miserable enough to look him up in the library. This changed when I saw two new translations of Char’s (predominantly) later poetry on the review shelf for Jacket2. The first was The Brittle Age and Returning Upland translated by Gustaf Sobin (Counterpath Press, 2009), and had, beside an accolade from Maurice Blanchot, the same quotation from Williams that I have just cited on the back cover. The second was Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press, 2010). Both looked refreshingly short, came at a price that I was glad I didn’t have to pay, and had black and grey covers reminiscent of nothing more than funeral invitations. The perfect opportunity to see whether Doc. Williams’s poetic sensibility hadn’t failed him along with his body. And, although I didn’t feel all that much like an injured dog, also of finding out whether Char could still have some therapeutic effect in our day and age.
In this I was not disappointed. Char’s lines cheer you up — which is strange to say, since many of his poems are (my impression from the covers did not lie) about death. Witness the following example from the 1965 collection L’Âge Cassant (The Brittle Age) and its accompanying translation by Gustaf Sobin:
Sois consolé. En mourant, tu rends tout ce qui t’a été prêté, ton amour, tes amis. Jusqu’à ce froid vivant tant de fois recueilli.
Be consoled. In dying you return everything that you were lent, your love, your friends. Even that living coldness, harvested over and over.
Feeling better? Here’s another:
L’homme: l’air qu’il respire, un jour l’aspire; la terre prend les restes.
Man: the air that he inhales one day inhales him; the earth takes the remainders.
At times The Brittle Age is like a collection of Heraclitean, fatalistic sighs, let slip looking at the stars after a good French dinner with plenty of red wine. Short as they are, they fill one with a kind of somber yearning. It is a yearning which rather than being morbid reminds you of the simple fact that you’re alive:
J’ai de naissance la respiration agressive.
I’ve had, since birth, an aggressive breathing.
What Char wants to say with his “aggressive breathing” is anyone’s guess, but “respiration agressive” gives us a good sense of its sound: a fact which makes me grateful that this work is presented in parallel text. Without the French version here on the verso, to justify — to give the mot juste — to the English recto, we would be floundering in the dark.
That is not to say of course, that Gustaf Sobin’s translations are anything but true. Sobin, who describes himself in the translator’s preface as Char’s “all too grateful protégé,” displays an archeologist’s sensitivity and understanding towards the textures of the original work. There is no ostentation here, his English renditions are delicate and faithful — one trusts them completely. It is humility, however, that also makes these translations subordinate to their French masters. One hears the French version through the English one — often if only because of the odd word order. They wouldn’t stand alone nearly so well. But then, when I come to think of it, neither would the French versions. What is great about this edition of The Brittle Age is that, as presented here, reading the book becomes an act of stereopsis. A single line has a whole page on each side. One is always engaged in the translation back and forth: a codependency or dialogue is set up, which results in a hybrid text. This process slows the reader, makes one think about what Char was saying, think of other possibilities in English, and eventually achieve a much stronger sense of the poem than one would otherwise. It is a text which I believe to be far richer than the experience of reading the work monolingually.
The second half of the Sobin collection is taken up by Char’s 1966 book, Retour Amont, translated here as Returning Upland. These slightly longer poems are less easy to read side by side in two languages, and I found them to be less exciting as a result. Part of the problem is that where, with the haiku-like lyrics of the Brittle Age, the ambiguity is checked by disarming simplicity, here, Char’s possible meanings keep multiplying. Consider for instance the first stanza of “Pause au Chateau Cloaque”:
Le passé retarderait l’éclosion du présent si nos souvenirs érodés n’y sommeillaient sans cesse. Nous nous retournons sur l’un tandis que l’autre marque un élan avant de se jeter sur nous.
The past would delay the present’s unfolding if our eroded memories hadn’t slept there ceaselessly. We turn about on one while the other, before thrusting onto us, takes mark.
While it is easy to see why a collection of poems like the Brittle Age might have appealed to William Carlos Williams, had he been alive to read it, this poem — with its Eliotian echoes and its postsurrealist play with subjectivity brings us to the other side of Char’s vision. It is a reflective poetry, of ideas not only in things, but in words, abstractions, the grey area between questions and half-thought answers. “Against the extensive density of a poisoned somnambulism, would the spirit’s disgust be coded escape; would it, later on, be revolt?” asks Char in the same poem. (Ummm … let me think … yes? no? maybe?) How do we deal with such a question without reducing it to something else? Wallace Stevens or George Oppen, perhaps would be appropriate comparisons, but Char’s philosophical density seems at once more allusive than Stevens’s and more elusive than Oppen’s. He grasps at things and feelings which we have no way of classifying in ordinary speech, things which he isn’t sure of himself, using words as a way of reaching into the unknown.
This other Char is the one that stands out in Nancy Naomi Carlson’s selection, Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char. Unlike Sobin, Carlson does not stick with Char’s own arrangement of poems, but picks her way through his later career mixing and matching to create a fresh display. Thus Stone Lyre begins with “Invitation” from the 1962 work La Parole en archipel before going back to a few poems from Le Marteau sans Maître (1934) and ending with “Courbet: Les Casseurs de cailloux” from the 1983 collection Dehors la nuit est gouvernée. This rearrangement allows for specific themes to come to the fore — death, time, women, trees, rivers, countryside, night — giving a sense of Char’s full range which is difficult to grasp in the Sobin collection. It also, however, precludes both the biographical satisfaction of chronological development (poems leading from juvenilia up to the author’s laden last words), and the bibliographical satisfaction of having read a work as it appeared in a given time.
Like Sobin, Carlson presents Char's poems in parallel, so that a similar stereoptic reading is possible with each of the individual works. This too, however, highlights a key difference between the translations. Unlike Sobin's position of “protégé,” Calson presents herself in her translator’s introduction as much more of an English mouthpiece for Char’s French, focusing specifically on cadence rather than purely on semantics. “To preserve the rhythm of the French,” writes Carlson, “I tried to end each line with English words that stressed the last syllable or were mono-syllabic.” This ambitious Frenchifying of English results in several brilliant renditions, where the gutter of the book is almost like the wall of a cave, returning an echo of the same sound in a different language. Here is Carlson’s own example of her method, from the poem “Vers l’arbre-frère aux jours comptés” (“To Brother-Tree of Numbered Days”):
Harpe brève des mélèzes,
Sur l’éperon de mousse et de dalles en germe
— Façade des forêts où casse le nuage —
Contrepoint du vide auquel je crois.
Larch tree’s brief harp
On the spur of moss and flagstones in seed
— Forest’s façade where clouds break apart —
Counterpoint paired to the void in which I believe.
For all Carlson’s technical virtuosity this method also, however, at times, gives Char a slightly peculiar character in English, smacking of Gerald Manley Hopkins. And very occasionally the predominance of stressed syllables seems supererogatory to the semantics, as in the first line of the poem “Le Loriot” (“The Oriole”):
Le loriot entra dans la capitale de l’aube.
L’épée de son chant ferma le lit triste:
Tout à jamais prit fin.
The oriole breached dawn’s capital town.
The sword of his song closed the cheerless bed,
All forever came to an end.
Carlson’s method serves her well in the last two lines of this poem, but the word “town” seems extraneous to me, and I can’t help thinking it would have been a better poem without this added stressed syllable.
The paratext of Stone Lyre: Poems of René Char is also very different from that of The Brittle Age and Returning Upland. The Sobin translations are marketed as resolutely local, and intimate. Fidelity to the source is the key. There is an appendix of possible variants at the end, beside also a glossary of place names. And in her preface Mary Ann Caws stresses that “the poetry was, after all, in the names of dwellings like ours and his, and places: le Mont Ventoux, le Thor, Sénaque, Gordes, Buis-les Baronnies, Mérindol,” before going on to talk of tiny hill cottages in the Vaucluse, of Citroën 2CVs and “simple relationships.” One gets the impression here of a bucolic poet, spending his days by the banks of Sorgue, fishing for inspiration among the reeds. In contrast, Carlson’s collection arrives with a more ambitious and political paratext, seeking to place Char in a broader historical context. On the backcover Cole Swenson reminds us that he was an antinuclear activist, and of his wartime resistance fighting — an emphasis repeated by Ilya Kaminsky in her foreword and again by Carlson in her introduction. This Char should be of international significance, and we expect poems with global referents. Yet, when we come to look for them in the poems, we may well be disappointed. Can Char’s references to fig trees really be related to war or nuclear power? I think not. A fig is a fig is a figuier.
One’s first impressions of these two books, then, are belied by the poems themselves, which fit neither the purely local emplacement of the one, nor the activist ethics of the other. Indeed, what emerges in the end from a comparative reading, is — perhaps surprisingly considering the differences in selection, methodology of translation, and presentation — a single poet whose idiosyncratic style eludes all the nets. Consider the one poem which appears in both collections: “Devancier”:
J’ai reconnu dans un rocher la mort fugée et mensurable, le lit ouvert de ses petits comparses sous la retraite d’un figuier. Nul signe de tailleur: chaque matin de la terre ouvrait ses ailes au bas des marches de la nuit.
Sans redite, allégé de la peur de hommes, je creuse dans l’air ma tombe et mon retour.
In a rock I recognized death, fugued and measurable, the open bed of its little accomplices beneath the shelter of a fig tree. Not a sign of a carver; at the base of night’s stairway each morning of earth opened its wings.
Without repeating, freed of the fear of men, I dig in the air my tomb and my return.
(The Brittle Age and Returning Upland, 107)
I have recognized death — fugal and measured — inside a rock, and the open bed of its little assistants beneath the shade of a fig tree. No sign of the one who cuts stone; each of earth’s mornings would open its wings at the foot of night’s steps.
Without refrain, freed of mortal dread, I dig in the air my grave and my return.
(Stone Lyre, 97)
Judge for yourself, gentle reader, which you feel to be the better translation. They are different. There are merits to both. What interests me, is the way in which, despite the difficulty of the poem (it’s not clear what René Char is talking about), Char’s voice still sounds through in both, remaining despite the semantic, rhythmic and linguistic barriers and despite the different choices made by the translators. No theory of who Char was, or what Char wanted to say can quite correspond to this sense that Char himself is still there saying it — making himself available for us to listen to. Char, it seems, is truly buried in this poem as its own ancestor, returning through his translations — a revenant — to speak to us. I understand now, why William Carlos Williams felt that Char was such a support: at bottom there is René Char and his poetry. He is irreducible. Char remains.