An Exciting Young French Poet Shows Us Why Poetry Matters

(Cold Spring In Winter, Valerie Rouzeau, Translated from the French by Susan Wicks, Introduced by Stephen Romer, Arc Visible Poets, UK, 2009, 129 pp)

Translation is a collaboration, not a process, and for that reason the translator’s preface by Susan Wicks is in its own right a work of art, remarkable for its humility, respect for the poet and illuminatory nature. Her preface hands us the right terms for appreciating Rouzeau. She supplies us with such words as dislocatory, a word that drew from me the word disjunctive.

The phenomenon these words suggest is that of feeling you’re going to one place and ending up somewhere else, of boarding the train for Berlin and landing in Barcelona. Like a child, Rouzeau is unaccountable to conventional meanings, to predictable usages. The synapses in her head have not studied previous charts and are not responding to briefings.

Wicks found Rouzeau through two translations of poems by Stephen Romer, and she freely confesses to having undertaken this work in his shadow. We see why when we read his introduction, which follows her preface. He picks up where she leaves off, telling us of Rouzeau’s profound connection to the American poet, Sylvia Plath, whose final work, Ariel, she has translated into French. There are superficial similarities between the two poets. Both disquiet and astonish, but my guess is that Rouzeau’s work is more significant and her influence will be more far reaching.

What I admire in this preface, this introduction, is the writers’ generosity. I admire it as much as their insights, and once I had read them I feared being disappointed. I feared not seeing what they see. And I’m sure I don’t see it all. But I see enough to be sure this is important poetry, thrilling poetry, and it invites one to consider how Arthur Rimbaud’s early readers must have felt. Or Emily Dickinson’s. There is absolutely no trace of more of same in this poetry.

My knowledge of French and of French literature is insufficient to write knowledgeably about Rouzeau’s poetics or her achievement, but as a practicing poet in English who has read and admired a great deal of French poetry in translation I can say that I haven’t been as excited about French poetry since I encountered Rimbaud in high school.

There is hardly an unsurprising line in this volume. The poet’s juxtapositions of meaning, feeling and fact, her playful lovemaking with language, her conspiracies with the unused potential of words is not unlike encountering Igor Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring for the first time. She writes with a changeling’s disregard for protocol. She startles even more than Rimbaud does. Implicit in her approach is the assumption that language, no matter its conventions, is essentially mercurial. She is a poet who allows language to get away from her-and enjoys the ride.

How fortunate for her to have lucked upon Susan Wicks, or Wicks to have lucked upon Rouzeau. I can see from the facing pages of French to the left and English to the right that Wicks has deftly considered the possibilities and made often brilliant choices. Consider this stanza on page 49 :

Talk to you dad I managed a bit of daddychat a chitter ’cause we didn’t have that much time.

Here you get a sense of Rouzeau’s characteristic compaction, dissociation and heretical association. Obviously a challenge to a translator. The stanza also gives you a sense of the poet’s meter and idiosyncratic language.

Now here’s the original:

Te parler papa j’ai pu te paparler un peu un petit peu paparce que nous n’avions plus tout le temps.

Wicks couldn’t hope to match the Swinburnian alliteration of the original stanza, but she does tip her hat to it in her second line. That’s the more obvious facet of this translation. More subtle is how she handled the first line, fully living up to Rouzeau’s deftly deranged and wonderfully poetic opening line.

There is, to my mind, an autistic savant element in Rouzeau’s work. She is rather like the autistic person who can exactly measure heights and distances with her eye and express them with a childish insistence that only nitwits don’t know such things. She isn’t playing with words, she is joining them in their perpetual play and perversity, and for this reason her poems are free of intellectual presumption. Before imposing a bent on her ideation Rouzeau waits to see where it inclines; reading such a poet is an adventure rather than an exercise. Her approach is rather like a sailor’s line-handling. If he is any good he will see what the rope wants to do before trying to bend it to his will. I think this often positions Rouzeau in a fey world between the logic and the madness of language, between agreed-upon reality and the reality of one’s own perception.

Wicks says her decisions were hardly ever easy, echoing the sentiment of many good poets who restlessly refuse to settle for words that don’t quite live up to the poet’s impulse. I am myself always bitterly disappointed when early English fails to yield the word I need and I must resort to Latinate alternatives. Sometimes, rather than do that, I coin a word, and so does Rouzeau. Or I revise a word or invite it to undertake a task it isn’t prepared for. Argot is an invaluable ally and Rouzeau doesn’t neglect it.

When The Times Literary Supplement alerted me to Rouzeau I had recently embarked on a project that is for me fraught with dangers. I have spent a lifetime studying prosody. But I have until recently fearfully ignored a voice familiar to me as a churchman feeding the homeless, who are often mentally ill, and as a parent enjoying childish babble. There is perhaps a distinction to be made between babble and gibberish. I am given to gibberish and impersonation, especially in the morning.

After a good night’s sleep, which is rare, I am apt to exuberantly talk nonsense, and that nonsense has rhythms, cadences and even metrics of its own. I have on occasion followed it to a delta of gleeful madness, and sometimes in that madness I have heard and even seen disquieting impulses. In short, I have scared myself. But now, in old age, I recognize that here is my genuine poetic voice; the rest is contrivance, clever perhaps, skillful, perhaps admirable, but contrivance nonetheless. And where would it lead me and what would it profit me to license this true voice, this truly mad voice?

Rouzeau, it seems to me, simply retains that voice, as one would a childhood playmate. It’s her familiar, the voice her father, a scrap metal merchant, heard, the voice in which she laments his loss. We think of dirges as mournful, and so they are, but if we mourn for all we’re worth with all we are, it means putting aside our official funeral face and conducting a different kind of mass. And that is what is going on here where these verses sometimes seem like a child gasping for air between sobs, a funny, distraught, endearing, frightening child. We can’t break away. The child is on a roll.

Not surprisingly the experience recalls reading Sylvia Plath’s Ariel in 1965. Ariel is Plath’s farewell. She too addresses her father, but her relationship with him, unlike Rouzeau’s with her father, is savage, mordant and even vindictive.

Cold Spring In Winter is about irreconcilable loss, in this instance the poet’s father. Unlike Plath, she has fond memories of her father, his humor and energy. But loss is loss, and inevitably our parents succeed in taking “it” with them, whatever it is. It may be the sheer pleasure or comfort of their company, or their wisdom, or it may be all the issues we never resolved, all the things we never said, everything we wanted to know, or didn’t want to know. Whatever “it” is, it is loss, and it has the power to dement.

Rouzeau makes this clear in the very first lines of her unnamed poems.

You dying on the phone my mum he will not last the night see dad.

Consider those stresses, that pounding of nails into the coffin of darkness.

Then there are the inspired dislocations; they afflict every mind and we expend ourselves trying to put things in order to make sense of things that do not wish to make sense or to come to order. And once we consider that, we must consider the underlying order of that which does not wish to make sense.

This is the task Rouzeau immediately sets out for us, and for herself. Like Rimbaud, she is unafraid of the disorderly mind. She is unafraid of its wonts and pursuits, asking only that the poet be permitted to bring along certain tools, her knowledge of poetics. But the ideation, the poems themselves, may well say to her, Valerie, we do not choose that you should use this tool on us. And she must say, I will anyway, or, I respect you.

Rouzeau respects, and that is why the wildness of her poems is not in dispute with form. You may frighten me, but I will respect you, she says. I do not intend to impose my notions. You may kill me, but I am going to listen to you, this poet says to her impulses. I think this is the nature of great poetry, to set aside oneself as much as is possible in the name of the fleeting glimpse and glance, the refrain heard and then not heard again.

Djelloul Marbrook
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook, born in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter grew up New York, served in the US Navy. His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University. His story, Artists Hill, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction. He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.