JACQUES ROUBAUD: THE FORM OF A CITY CHANGES FASTER, ALAS, THAN THE HUMAN HEART
Translated by Keith & Rosemarie Waldrop
Dalkey Archive Press
ISU Campus Box 8905
ISBN 1 56478 383 9
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|JACQUES ROUBAUD: THE FORM OF A CITY CHANGES FASTER, ALAS, THAN THE HUMAN HEART|
Normally I prefer to have bilingual editions of translated poetry to get a feel for the original but that would have been difficult with such a full collection. Instead the publishers have chosen to offer 150 poems in English by this fascinating poet. Jacques Roubaud is known as an experimental poet, part of the Oulipo group which included Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews.
References to these writers, and particularly to Queneau and Charles Baudelaire, echo throughout the collection. Experimental styles sit comfortably with prose poems and Roubaud's particular take on the sonnet form. This may all sound elitist but it's highly readable, conjuring up the Paris of Roubaud's past as a major theme.
Present day experimental poets are still influenced by many of these ideas — the list poems of street and directory names, the prose poetry and even the contraction of separate words into one to suggest the speed of speech:
Well whatchexpect? — it's Mona Lisa!None of this is easy for translators and Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop have worked wonders to capture the spirit of the poems.
Roubaud's startling images are a particular delight, often catching the reader off guard to give us a fresh view of a familiar sight, like this description in SACRE-COEUR where the beautiful building is described as:
Babybottle with your big tit in the shape of the cross.It's difficult to include Christian references successfully in poetry that pushes the boundaries, but Roubaud manages due to his expertise and originality. Take a look at the ease with which he incorporates Pentacostal language into his description of the roses in BOULEVARD PEREIRE:
if I were fifty years younger they would come down tongues like as of fire — I would understand all dialects and would speak to the roses red roses, pink roses, white roses in the original tongue.The collection is haunted by the poet's desire to re-visit the Paris of his past, a feeling the reader will recognize wherever the landscape of their youth is based. Roubaud sums this up in his prose piece THE STREET which reads like a recurring dream:
The penultimate image was also of a street. It was neither of the street I was walking down now, nor of the one I had walked in the past, which resembled the former, or not, but in any case called out to me. I knew it was the one, the one from before. Liquid street, somber; the same trees; others. But the very moment I knew I ceased knowing.Les Murray says that the good thing about experimental poems is that they always work, which is true at the time they're written. Some don't age as well as others and for me the lists of streets, names from a telephone directory and licence numbers were less interesting now that this experiment has been much repeated.
However, Roubaud's collected work is varied and most of it ages well. The sonnets may seem the most traditional in approach but they have his particular voice. The first, SONNET I, is a little like C K Williams as it spies on people about their daily business:
A girl in love, excited, at the Main Post Office (Louvre) thrusts a letter in Her fingers tremble and her palms are sweaty She blushes, hurrying, anxious and troubled. But now my curiosity is doubled...It's clear to see the influence this group had on later writers.
Roubaud experiments with the sonnet form, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of his writing is that it is always evolving and surprising us with something new. In THE PETITION AND ENFORCEMENT he writes a sonnet about a woman's death in repetitive lines reminiscent of a set prayer, dividing into two verses of four lines and two of three lines to break up the sequence of petitions:
Erase this night invested with her Death Erase this dawn accomplice to her Death Erase this tightly locked door of her Death Erase this room disheveled by her DeathHere the repeated request to cancel out death is a moving statement of the poet's grieving, while capitalizing the first letter of Death gives it a personal and powerful medieval presence. At the turn in the sonnet this changes to a vision of the body as an object:
Erase this eye that turned to wood in Deathand it ends with a wish to get rid of death including the body:
Break in upon this Death, bury this Death Intimidate this Death, knock down this Death Take this Dead woman to her lasting DeathAs the final lines switch from Erase as a first word the poem accepts the loss and fights against mourning.
The poems in this book are taken from Roubaud's main collections but don't include SOME THING BLACK or THE PLURALITY OF WORLDS OF LEWIS. It's a comprehensive overview of his work and a temptation to the reader to look more closely at the writers of the Oulipo group.
|reviewer: Adele Ward.|