In order to celebrate National Poetry Month, I decided to review some of the poetry collections from Seagull Books. Thanks so much to Naveen for sending me some beautiful offerings from their catalogue. First up is an edition of Bonnefoy’s poetry translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.
This collection of poems begins with a series of short pieces that have some common themes, the most striking of which is a reflection on memory. The poems appear to the reader as snippets of the poet’s memory as he is trying to reflect on pieces of his life that have passed. Sometimes the images are very clear and precise. For example, the end of one poem reads:
Do you remember
Our first bedroom? Do you remember the ad
Flowered wallpaper? We wanted to strip it off
Only there was other paper underneath,
Layers of it,
And the last, on the grey plaster, newsprint,
With words from the other century
That we rolled under our wet fingers. At last
We craped the wall clean with pen knives.
You were laughing, so was I, night was falling.
But the images that flit across the poet’s memory are not always this transparent. He oftentimes struggles to grasp at a fleeting memory and it is at these times where the poetry also becomes more blurred for the reader. One of the most poignant images that he evokes to demonstrate his frustration at the ephemeral nature of memory is that of the Greek god Erebus:
Oh, memories: our Erebus,
A great shapeless sob is at the bottom of us.
Erebus is the perfect symbol for Bonnefoy’s struggle with memory as he is grasping around the dark recesses of his mind to find his past. As I noted above, the passages in which his memory is not clear come across as muddled and harder for the reader to understand. One such passage, which I read over and over, is:
She is up on the ladder, she knocks at the
The engines roar.
Fro the plane’s belly no one responds
And the world takes off.
She hangs there adrift between birth and death
In the calm sky,
The sky where just a few puffs of cloud
Melt into the blue, that is, God–no, the eternal.
One more aspect of these poems that I have to mention is the recurring images of the ocean, the sand and the waves. They are prominently feature in these short pieces and these images seem to have made an especially lasting impression on the poet’s memory. He remembers a relationship with a woman as they are walking on the beach; he remembers a summer’s eve when he is crumbling up newspapers to make a fire by the sea.
The next part of the collection actually features short pieces of prose. Each of these short stories, which I would argue can be considered flash fiction, revolve around the innocence of childhood. The most striking story is the one entitled “The Long Name.” The story begins with a boy wandering in the woods and he hears what he thinks is singing. He stumbles upon a little girl who is setting out things for her tea. The boy learns that the little girl is a princess and the song isn’t a song at all but her servant calling out her extremely long name. The girl, who is a princess, explains why the king gave her such a long name. These stories all have a fairytale quality to them and the poet seems to envy the innocence and simplicity of childhood. A little girl who wants to play with her toys and have tea should not be burdened by the adults in her life with such a long and cumbersome name.
The final part of the collection features a series of nineteen sonnets. I so much enjoyed reading these and I have read a few of them over and over again. This is the type of poetry collection that will sit on my coffee table and I will pick up and will reread and find something different and interesting every time. Many of the sonnets are tributes, a tombeau in the French as the note in the text tells us, to artists and writers of the past. The collection starts with a tribute to Leon Battista Alberti and also includes sonnets about Maupassant, Descartes and Poussin.
My favorite sonnet, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows about my classics background, is the one entitled “Ulysses Sails Past Ithaca.” In this poem we are given an image of Ulysses as he sail past a place he once knew as his home of Ithaca. “Remember, with the bees and olive tree,/ The faithful wife and the old dog.” But this is all gone now, just a fading memory. The poem ends with the wish that Ulysses might be able to go back to the child he once was that played in the surf. This sonnet ties together the entire collection perfectly; in its subtle nod to the poetry of Homer the poet uses the images of the fleeting nature of memory and the innocence of childhood.
This is a difficult collection of poetry to review because it is impossible to capture its brilliance in a few short paragraphs. Thanks to Seagull Books for translating and bringing to English readers this beautiful and thought-provoking collection.
About the Author:
His works have been of great importance in post-war French literature, at the same time poetic and theoretical, examining the meaning of the spoken and written word. He has also published a number of translations, most notably Shakespeare and published several works on art and art history, including Miró and Giacometti