One of the Best Poets of the Present Moment in France

So here’s a poet well worth getting to know (if you don’t already). The new issue of Modern Poetry in Translation contains a new translation by Marilyn Hacker of the great contemporary French poet, Guy Goffette. Hacker has referred to Goffette as “one of the most unabashedly lyrical contemporary French poets, who claims Verlaine . . . as one of his literary godfathers”. He’s an admirer of Auden and his own work is not oppressively ‘literary’, not referential, not obscurely self-referential. He’s a poet somewhat to the ‘English’ taste (OK – you got me – to my taste), using quotidian words, everyday expressions, making them new, re-investing them with humour, connotation and emotion. Hacker has argued that “after a period in which much of French poetry eschewed the concrete, the narrative and the quotidian”, Goffette’s poems have recently found an enthusiastic readership. Yves Bonnefoy admires him as a writer who “has decided to remain faithful to his own personal life, in its humblest moments. He keeps things simple, he is marvellously able to capture the emotions and desires common to us all . . . without question one of the best poets of the present moment in France”.

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The new poems in MPT – a sequence of 6 sonnet-like pieces published in 2009 – make up an ‘Elegy for a Friend’, the poet Paul de Roux. The form used is a thirteen-liner, made up of three usually unrhymed quatrains and a last line which sometimes, though not always, reaches the classic 12 syllables. Since the early 1990s, this has become “Goffette’s ‘signature’ strophe” (Hacker again), whether used as part of a sequence or standing on its own. I reviewed Goffette’s last recent major appearance in English, Charlestown Blues (???), for Poetry London in 2007. I reproduce the review here and add comments on the new poems at the end.

The longer term coherence and success of a poet’s work is not – ought not – to be something willed. Like the oyster with its grain of sand, there is surely always something fortuitous about it. Marilyn Hacker’s fine translations from the French of Guy Goffette’s work suggest that, in this instance, Rimbaud’s declaration that “You never leave (“On ne part pas”) has proved a spectacularly productive starting point.  Rimbaud’s comment suggests restlessness and desire for the other, yet also the tragic recognition of human limits as well as the idea that imaginative travel is more real than any form of mere physical tourism. These are indeed the topics and tensions that weave through Charlestown Blues.

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Hacker’s introduction characterises Goffette in contrast to the Anglo-American preconception of contemporary French poets and not only due to his interest in form. She suggests we see modern French poetry as “abstract, more concerned with concepts than with human experience  . . . resolutely “difficult””. Goffette’s work, in contrast, is diffused with “humour, longing, tenderness, nostalgia and occasional cruelty” and, though Hacker over-states his likeness to James Wright and Seamus Heaney, the general thrust of her argument is right. Born in 1947, of the same generation as our Motion and Raine, Goffette grew up on the shifting French/Belgian border (travelling without moving?). He now lives in Paris but still tends to look to the provinces while the metropolis is more often “a place from which his speaker is perpetually ready to depart” (Hacker’s introduction).

The title sequence, using a decasyllabic dixain and written during a residence in Rimbaud’s Charleville, seems scatter-shot and observational but with a strong thread of erotic longing: “your drying / stockings and scanties of a nun at bay – / poisonous flowers for a lonely man” (‘Letter to the Unknown Woman across the Street, 1’). Sex is one form of ‘leaving’ and Goffette catches such longing vividly: “oh beautiful stranger, / that creature who’s so often on the move” ((‘Letter to the Unknown Woman across the Street, 2’). Goffette’s work certainly revels in such demotic pleasures and Rimbaud himself puts in an appearance shouting “Fuck off! to puttering poetry” (‘February ‘98’). Earlier he wrings “the neck of the azure, which always puts / too much honey on the tails of verse-worms” (‘Farewell, Chateaux’). In the context of French poetry, it is this combative stance that leads Goffette towards the more grounded – even sordid – presentations of life that Hacker argues make him attractive to readers of English and American poetry.

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Goffette’s natural reach approximates to the sonnet and these are frequently arranged in sequences, such as in ‘Waiting’. Largely from the point of view of a woman addressing her lover, these pieces suggest that it is the ultimate ‘leaving’ of death as well as desire that fuels his poetry. Here, eroticism is more explicitly a stay against death and time – “the judgment of this absence crushing me // like an insect on the pane” – though the final poem ventures a kind of romantic nostalgia, suggesting that even sex must fall short of human longing. The woman is made to envisage an island “where the surprise / of being lasts . . . the heart is still / in place, captain of the old ship”. This paradisal view is left to stand in stark contrast to the lovers’ reality, as they undress each other “amidst time’s peelings”.

So Goffette’s themes are the classical ones of love, time and death and though his diction is familiar enough with the contemporary, much of his imagery has a timelessness in its reference to journeys, rivers, trees, rooms, seashore, roads, stars. ‘Boarding the Streetcar: Variations’ responds to a photograph of New York in 1900 in which a woman climbs onto a streetcar watched intently by a male passenger and a (male) conductor. In a miracle of economy, the passenger’s viewpoint is sketched in and within six lines the moment of voyeuristic pleasure has come to represent “everything”:

the swift brightness of minnows

in a current, the taste of the first

fruit swiped from a market-stall, and how

the hazel switch whistled in the air

when it was about to strike a child’s

back

Yet when the passenger tries to articulate this moment he can manage “nothing” or the best he achieves are “words // like paper littering the grass after a fair / when shadows as they lengthen chill our hearts”. In contrast, the conductor’s view of the incident suggests its mix of beauty and danger, its very ordinariness, provides him with some memory which makes “the blood of things beat lengthily like a heart / in the shadow of dead rooms”.

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Hacker’s selection covers ten years from 1991 and concludes with a longer sequence published in 2001. ‘The Raising of Icarus’ is based on the same Breughel painting that inspired Auden’s ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’. Constructed from sonnet-like pieces once more, Goffette does not dwell long on the painting itself and instead seems to be observing people in the Paris metro, “running // against each other, same face same / night, and each one was night for every other” (‘In the Depths of the Labyrinth’). Rimbaud’s phrase is again apposite; these commuters travel without arriving anywhere and yet “To embark and not return is what they wanted” (‘In the Depths of the Labyrinth’). Later, they turn on the Shepherd in the painting who – they enviously feel – leads an idyllic pastoral life, while they must be “winning gold . . . cheers . . . bread” (‘The Shepherd Reproached’). It may be that the Shepherd is an artist figure but his response is that his life is no different to the crowd, though the one thing he does know is that death and the final dissolution of things is what serves to “raise every object up from darkness” (‘The Shepherd Answers’).

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Guy Goffette

Death is, of course, the subject of the more recent sequence, ‘Elegy for a Friend’. It opens with memories of two friends in their youth, “When life was strong”, once again drawing on Rimbaud’s sense of restlessness, the youthful ease of travel, transformation, the passage of time unnoticed, yet (ominously) “it was already dancing there”, the shadow that “burns all shadows”. In the second section, temporal words become sand grains, become silence that eventually “takes up all the space and screams”. Yet, as the Shepherd figure in ‘The Raising of Icarus’ suggested, it is the presence of death that leads the poet to his creative “double question” about identity and time. If there is any regret, it is that this wisdom was not learned soon enough and, like stricken teenagers, the youthful poets sat too long in their “afflicted bedrooms”, or bickered unsympathetically, ignorant for too long of the real “desert of life”. Goffette’s elegy maintains a classical distance and relative impersonality with the sixth section using the first personal plural pronoun to sound more universal than intimate: “One day we must depart”. It’s a bleak ending full of thorns, scorched earth, what remains is “paltry”. There do remain the words on paper, “read and reread”, but their author is ambiguously described as a “blind man dancing in the fire”. Do we stress the blindness, our ultimate ignorance? Or the all-consuming fire? Or should it be the struggle to make art, the act of dancing?

This is challenging and wonderful contemporary poetry and – though the parallel text faces each page in Charlestown Blues – I seldom found myself checking the original which suggests that Hacker is doing a magnificent and valuable job of bringing Goffette’s work into English.

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