In Search of a Lost Relation

Without an ounce of physicality, his verse nonetheless feels so utterly naked — sun-bleached. Fishman and Rogers never stumble as they translate along du Bouchet’s razor-thin semantic edges, boiling language down to its fundamentals: images and space. Let the light illumine it all the way, push its white walls back
and cover it with a ceiling. Whether this is a light truly from outside of language, though, is a question only answerable by the reader — “nonetheless, as I will have come to you.”
¤
Michael Overstreet is a farmer and teacher who just completed his MFA in literary translation at the University of Iowa. The train is blocked. Nothing but morning’s white blaze, as we draw near
           the light,
                   the cold. No destination, being there  —  in the consistency of
this snow …
… after yourself as included in the language — day. Or between languages: he was a prolific translator of a wide range of writers, including William Shakespeare, Friedrich Hölderlin, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Osip Mandelstam.                                               in language
as from the other side of language
The dialectical play of inside/outside that repeats throughout this bilingual text is enriched by Fishman and Rogers’s choice to incorporate du Bouchet’s “Notes on Translation.” This piece brings du Bouchet’s confounding poetics into sharper relief, framed in a paradigm that’s slightly more concrete. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all.” In effect, du Bouchet strives to distill language into the phenomenal, the observational. The room. One could perhaps say it shows traces of transcendentalism, existentialism, and minimalism; symbolism, too. The churning, colliding, and sparking of representation and meaning forms the heart of du Bouchet’s poetics. Are we still reading, or are we simply seeing? Unsurprisingly, given his bilingual experience, the subject of his poetic inquiry is (as in the case with Stéphane Mallarmé) language itself. The day casts it on this white wall. […]
In the other room, the shutters turn white. After shattering the sentence, all that’s left is the word, the image. The poem “Vu,” which Fishman compellingly translates as “Seen” (a choice that, while losing the nominal valence found in the French, adds a delightful level of homophonic play), places the reader in the position of observer, a consuming eye of images:
The sea enters through the open door and
strolls on the threshold. What is the result of trying to transmit what is impossible to put into words? Reading Outside, I was reminded of the oft quoted passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836): “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. A dialectic is produced by du Bouchet’s negative capability: sometimes he uses imagery of snow, coldness, and openness to demonstrate absence; other times he deploys fire, warmth, and walls. Freezing from the inside out. Hamm asks Clov to take him to the window and open it so that he may feel the sun, smell the ocean; blind and reliant on Clov’s reluctant subservience, Hamm is left never knowing whether he actually reached the outside. The new collection Outside, from Bitter Oleander Press, now joins Yale University Press’s 2014 release Openwork as the English-language point of reference for du Bouchet.                                                                         reach,
as we bump against it, the opening, like a piece of day. Like an opened
chest, toward the cold morning. Although much of du Bouchet’s verse can come across as semantically simple, each lapidary line has the potential to deeply rattle the reader. A storm lamp
swings beside a big fire. Perhaps it’s easiest just to agree that du Bouchet is a modernist. to translate                                                         I arrive from outside,           and          —    word from outside in the language that isn’t                   mine, in your own language                               the language that at  moments will be mine today, nonetheless, as I will have                               come to you
In the end, André du Bouchet’s opaque transparency is best explained by a comment he once made, that he “write[s] in search of a lost relation.” Whether this speaks to the expatriate’s longing for a mother tongue, or a yearning to see, if only for a moment, outside of language, I like to think that Rogers and Fishman have indeed helped his search for relation. The resulting polyvalence is often as obfuscating as it is generative. When the text has erased the poet entirely, what is it that we are reading if not his written absence? All the air from outside soaks the room. It is worth remarking, though, that he adamantly rejected any affinity with surrealism, which he called “impotent nostalgia” and “a false glory.” Indeed, du Bouchet’s stark, dense verse doesn’t seek to reveal the unconscious; sometimes, it even feels as if the human is absent from his lines entirely. Does du Bouchet’s sparse language allow us, however fitfully, to see outside of language, to see unadorned image? JULY 12, 2020
DESPITE THE IMMENSE IMPORTANCE of André du Bouchet in French letters, he remains an obscure figure to English readers. Though born in France, du Bouchet spent a large portion of his adolescent life in New England. Smooth air
ground and air
the earth as a room
amid the fire. my poem runs ceaselessly
                   in front of me
                                  as if the edge of the air
                                                 had caught fire
The words compose themselves all around him the instant there is light, the moment there is sight. Seeing language unravel before your very eyes is a sensation as unmooring as it is engrossing. this word, that has not yet fallen — and even will not fall — is held here in suspense
But where Mallarmé seeks to find meaning within language, du Bouchet was militant in his obsession with that which lies before language. Smooth air, without a knot. A major poet, translator, and art critic, friend of René Char and Yves Bonnefoy, du Bouchet (1924–2001) follows a rich tradition of avant-garde French writers whose work eludes being placed into any single school of thought. translate: I cannot: I will be translated — even if that’s what I strove to do. While reading through this collection, I felt at times transported to the stifling room by the sea in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957). Wallace Stevens would have found great company in du Bouchet’s verse: “The page is blank or a frame without a glass / or a glass that is empty when he looks.”
Emerson’s use of dashes, in the above passage, to forward effortless abstraction is also one of du Bouchet’s only consistent formal tells, a convention he perhaps uses to illustrate the meager line of relation between what is light and what is word. His poetry was first brought into English in the late 1960s by Paul Auster, but it is only now, 50 years later, that his at once opaque and transparent verse is getting the global traction it deserves. A successful collaboration on several fronts, Outside allows the reader to see the white of the page in a different light. It’s up to us as readers to determine whether du Bouchet, through the blank space that dominates these pages, succeeds in illustrating the absent presence that haunts his oeuvre — the Outside of language. The paper’s calm eye. The dry door. The success of his grasping verse relies precisely on what he tries to shed like a skin — namely, language itself. When syntax, referent, and narratorial subjectivity give way, what is it that we find ourselves reading? Fire’s other side burns in the room. Maybe this is why the term “apophatic” — referring to a knowledge attained through negation — has been used to describe du Bouchet’s flinty mysticism. The translation in Outside is an impressively seamless collaboration between Hoyt Rogers, who also translated Openwork with Paul Auster, and Eric Fishman. The word is at once involuntary, chilling, comforting, liberating, enclosing. Who or what is being “seen” in this poem? There is always another view, another language, another light. …  no destination: I’ve caught up
Time and again, the poet’s efforts to surpass the confines of words are confronted with an ineluctable, sometimes violent, grounding. Blows some dust to
the left in small whirlwinds.