Particles of Truth – Paul Stubbs reviews ‘Of Flies and Monkeys’ by Jacques Dupin
Of Flies and Monkeys
Introduced and translated from the French by John Taylor
(Bitter Oleander Press 2011)
In 1871 in Charleville when Rimbaud, preparing to decimate two thousand years of poetical ‘tradition’, sat down to write his ‘letter of the seer’ to Paul Demeny, he was about to include, among other demands on the imagination, that the poet of the future would use a language “of the soul, for the soul, encompassing everything, scents, sounds, colours; thought latching onto thought and pulling. The poet would define the amount of the unknown awakening in the universal soul in his own time: he would offer more — than the formulation of his thought…”A call to poetical arms that, in many ways, has been sought out and (consistently) answered by the poetry of Jacques Dupin (1927-).
This book comprises three collections: De singes et de mouches (Of Flies and Monkeys, 2001), Les Mères (Mothers, 2001) and Coudrier (Hazel Tree, 2006), all of which, in truth, are fused of the same semantic world-surge, image-fusion, language-mesh. The poetry of Dupin, at its most intense and vaulted pressure of ink and blood, continually uproots us, gnawing at the heart, until we experience them: the sudden salmon upsurge of selves, his teeming and punctuated mind-flows, the reversed resurrections (his flesh zipped up and then unzipped to reveal exposed syntactical bone); amid a carnival concentration and concise pictograms of poetical sense, we feel at once the jolt and the jarring of the pulley-system of his sentences, those which Rimbaud envisioned for us all when he wrote that poetry would one day be “thought latching onto thought and pulling.”
And then. Ever. We wage war with our tongues. We act like
monsters where we are in love. And it grinds to a stop… and it gets
going again… Nothing is ever rewritten. Nor is death. Despite the
crucified bat. On the wood separating us.
Dupin writes on the other side of logic, in a place where the survival of our personality is preserved not just by the mere clothing of our flesh, but by poetry itself, which to the reader will seem at times no more than a mutilated half-tone, a snatching of a fragmented cosmic music. Thus any haemorrhage of self, within logic, is essentially the most neutral ‘event’ to occur inside of this poet’s body, as his imagination, a painless and artificial cicatrisation, begins to reform, like ice, across the inter-dimensional terrains of his soul to glass-up and cut-off the real world, and subsequently allow him to access his counter-mind, the to and fro of the dead spaces opposing him, his nature, and silence. It is in fact Dupin’s holiest vision, that of silence, which is both a magnificent and useless outcome to everything. In every poem, he chips and chisels away at silence as if it were a giant ornament lodged deep inside his brain. When he stops occasionally (eternally?) to look up he sees only his own newly sculptured mouth, and thus is forced to smash it, that or drape it in his own shadow and hide it away. For Dupin isolates anything that might be perceived as transparent or savage, or both. The French thinker Georges Bataille wrote “The object without objective truth is the most awesome I can imagine”, a statement that could also be applied to Dupin in his ontological search for a counter-idol or anti-idol, a clay-born equivalent to subtract from man’s image in God; yet to overcome such a congenital de-population of self and poetical deficit in the body, Dupin, like any true poet, has no other choice but to draw from the scabbard of his own oracular body the blade of a newer non-religious ‘I’ and to wield it in a fresh fictional dimension, to pass into and beyond even the polar time-zones of Rimbaud’s imagination, to reach a place “Bien après les jours et les saisons, et les êtres et les pays” (“Long after the days and the seasons, and the beings and the countries” — ‘Barbarian’ from The Illuminations).
The undoubted success of these translations of Dupin’s poetry are based on John Taylor’s decision to not in any way ‘anglicise’ Dupin — anglicisation being a most repugnant activity currently practised by far too many writers/translators who sometimes even have no real or thorough knowledge of the original language they ‘translate’. The word ‘version’ (versus ‘translation’) of course has opened up the door for any ‘hack’ to give it a go, hence we are often forced to endure the barbarous and elongated CVs of poets who claim they can translate in around 10 to 15 different languages. In 1961 Robert Lowell’s Imitations left a rank stench that can still be located in many a pedagogical classroom, likewise from Pound’s (though often brilliant) foreign mutilations. Rimbaud had already warned us: “So many egoists proclaim themselves authors; there are many others who attribute their intellectual progress to themselves!” Only when translators begin to celebrate an indirect, formalized and intellectual DEFEAT, do they locate a quantifiable dislocation to advance into the mirrored corridors of another language. Yet the practice of ‘version’ has snipped the tendons of the true translator in mid-stride and has set back the ART many years. The approach of each ‘professional’ poet is to apply his own crass apotheosis (as a dumb linguist) to the mouth-movements of any puppet unable to understand the transaction taking place. The puppet (the poet being translated) is forced then into the flim-flam formula of an after-world of inarticulate, false and fettered movement; to become no more than a death’s head doomed to re-exist behind the ogling and anti-familiar mask of the hack, the all-pervasive creator of these ‘versions’. John Taylor on the other hand seeks only to re-align the poet in the most imaginative and accurate way possible when using an alternative language. The German poet and thinker Gottfried Benn pre-empted this issue many years before when he wrote: “There are no transitions from one language to another except in the way they meet, look at each other, and then look away.” With regards to the translations here Taylor is applying only the most delicate of (palimpsest) bandages to the original wound of Dupin’s language, in such a way as to allow the infection of the English language to be displayed as an outbreak of only the mildest contamination, and for this they should be celebrated.
Within these three sequences, Dupin has produced a zero-language that is potentially as significant as dumbness or deafness to an individual, for it extracts any loose philosophical and mental disorder from all cognitive processes, relying instead, once language has discovered its deepest and most primordial root, upon only an “unlimited blossoming…” At the beginning of ‘Of Flies and Monkeys’ the poet uses a quote by the American Objectivist poet George Oppen which states that ‘A poem is not made of words’, and here is an apt and future truth applicable to both Dupin’s work and to any genuine poet of the 21st century, for the next poets to arrive will be forced to sling-shot their bodies beyond the reach even of the imagination and/or language (with the heart packed like ice with Dupin’s “godless finitude”) where the poet will begin to dust into view his own vertebrae upon a still-to-be discovered planet. The most astute and ultra-modern of critics will be intuitive enough to HEAR these poets arriving, via the supersonic whistle of the breath leaving the lungs of the former ‘poets’, those now operating on a level beyond the nominal associations of words. This will not be any kind of a new anti-poetry, a Dadaist or Burroughs-like cut-up or syntactical card-trick, no, merely the imagination will come to seem like a horrible twin to the biological cell, a new petrified mathematics of sensation that will assert time, while disclaiming History, recalling instead only the Calvary of the poet’s own will as it blood-drools and oozes itself free of the cross of ALL duplicitous creation to leave us with only a set of murmuring and (already) aborted sentences:
They are shipwrecked voices. Dragged by the moon. Pushed back by
the tide. By the precession of the crime: the dagger of the illiterate angel. Who
slits my throat. From the chanting of their name…
Dupin is persuading us to walk the long and constantly splintering plank of his own sentences, as above us the pendulum of his mind swings between the pauses in our silence and his own; for he still clearly believes in poetry and has not yet decided, whether furtively or indignantly, to drop the great solution for our human race that poetry still occasionally feigns us into believing that it can be; after all, in literature, as Dupin states “the apocalypse stone / burns away on the meadow grass / from there I dictate to the stars / with a flexible idiom”. And this is of course the sound of nothing stirring, the sense of God’s face, like a bubble, rising to the surface of the original swamp of nothingness. Nothing moves and everything clots, blood and piety loosen. While all of the time we hear the irreversible maelstrom of Dupin’s imagination hiss and crackle inside of the glass-jar of his mouth. The American poet Wallace Stevens in his poem ‘Of Mere Being’ wrote of the ‘palm at the end of thought’, a “palm” that Dupin seeks to re-glove in the flesh of his own spontaneous hand as it moves across the page. Dupin, like Stevens, believes in the superbeing of the imagination, that if somewhere, someday it STOPPED imagining, then nature itself would turn in on itself, forcing the birds to grow ill from flying, the fish also from swimming, as the human ego, a satellite, it would begin to crash back down to earth, disrupting on its descent entire illogical stratospheres, before falling victim to gravity, to gamma-rays, solar electricity and all other earthly weather terrains.
The congenital and acute interconnectedness between Dupin’s work and that of the artist Alberto Giacometti cannot be over-estimated and is, in many ways, the truest synthesis in object and mind that this poet will ever possibly attain. It is as if Giacometti’s figures, lunar-travellers, have stepped free of the atmosphere of Dupin’s own imagination as it burns up, to leave them uncharred, blanched white and waiting in the studio. They seem to arrive as if guardians fresh from Dupin’s own “territory of words, sensations…” Thus Giacometti locates his own counter–idols and Dupin’s also, the half-erased trace of a figure of objectivity, which as an artist, Giacometti of course could not live without, reproducing these mental races each day as they permeated his brain. The only alternative for this artist when not ‘creating’ would have been to carry a dust-phial inside his jacket pocket, in place of them, as he walked the streets of Paris. Likewise Dupin sought out the “verse-worms” of his own forms that he watched slip like fine dust from his palms every day he did not pick up the pen. In the work of Giacometti, Dupin, in both his art criticism and poetry, found a necessary and contemporary imagination to shadow and voice-box his own end-of-the-world chimeras — those set to arrive at the end of every epoch, thought, idea, sensation, universe, to confirm and enact the great vision of the French art thinker André Malraux who in Psychology of Art wrote that on the Day of Judgement it would be “statues rather than the past ways of life” that would “represent mankind before the gods”. A conjecture Dupin undoubtedly agrees with:
Instead of the triumphant body that was dreamt, dismembered:
what is neuter, blank, absolved
Dupin is a poet who when taking God’s hand in one sentence, will then amputate it in the next, for all is constantly cancelled, dispersed, lost and refound and then surrendered to, so as to leave consistently only an animal neutrality in the places where his mind was, the now crumbling chalk-cliff of “between-ness” and/or the “insane prayer below the waterline”, what “makes the stained-glass light / of your ‘soul’ eaten by flies / nothing — / nothing — unless / the bottom / of the dead gods’ / goiters” (Of Flies and Monkeys). For true originality of course is, as Dupin proves, the most utterly lawless thing, the biological equivalent of blood and bacteria inventing for themselves a new disease; ‘speech’ Dupin is telling us is a signpost that never points towards the mouth, but to the spaces outside of time and matter, although even that is only really another kind of time and matter. He explains it perfectly in an earlier poem: ‘Opened in few words / as if by a slipstream, in some wall, / an embrasure, not even a window / to hold down at arm’s length / this dark region where the path gets lost / at the end of all strength one naked word.’ (from ‘Opened in Few Words’ — translated by Stephen Romer). The natural ‘ruptures’ or ‘breaches’ (brèches) that occur in the poems of Dupin are similar to the ones that appear in time/history when a generation, or ethics, or both, begins to fail, when modes of writing begin to atrophy in the minds of readers, when “cognition as effect” (Nietzsche) begins to gain a grip on man’s consciousness, crushing homogeneity and reducing everything : existentialism, semantics, physiology, dialects, religion, silence and exegesis into a stone-clock ticking, mere neon-estrangements from our true human nature. Yet ostensibly after suffering such a series of inner and teleological shocks, man will usually register his response in language, the word etc. before land-holding the shadow of God and looking for an alternative birth-certificate for all primordial and ancient bones not his own: “to switch off the vibratory / syncopation of meaninglessness” (Of Flies and Monkeys). For the real poet, when unsure of what the “insane signs” are telling him, will always seek quickly to abandon the ‘idea’ of the megaphone that God, from behind the clouds, once spoke to man through; preferring as Dupin does to let it rust in the most terrible, timeless, deathly and intense vistas of his mind — vistas echoed via a hollowed-out language, constantly split and fragmented, as John Taylor comments upon in his subtle introduction to this book: “What impresses the reader encountering his work for the first time is Dupin’s ‘parole déchiquetée’, a poetical discourse that is ‘shredded’, ‘torn to pieces’.”
This book deals also with death, and from verse to verse, we frequently find the poet attempting to re-set the stone-dials on the side of tombs back to ‘LIFE’. But can language in anyway alter the sensation of mortality? The answer is of course no, so that even a poet like Dupin at best can only really leave us with a series of intransigent, fragmented and metaphysical footnotes to accompany Mallarmé’s never-to-be-written “Grand Livre”. It is no surprise perhaps that a writer often cited alongside Dupin is the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan, who suffered most from the protracted mental pressure of death. Celan himself seemed to bear witness to this when he translated into German a collection by Dupin La Nuit grandissante (The Growing Night), shortly before his death in 1970. And in the ‘narrowest’ poetical sense there is clearly a doubling-up and simulation between these two poets, certainly in their use of negation and paradox, and in the expounded way that they have both ground down ‘identity’ into a fine white dust; what Celan described most beautifully as the ‘inmost recess of himself’ or when addressing another of his most insoluble ‘yous’ wrote “Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer”, which to some extent was mirrored by Dupin’s equally ineffable lines “as long as my words are obscure they breathe” (The Embrasure, 1969).
Rimbaud wrote of the way that poetry “will no longer take its rhythm from action; it will be ahead of it. These Poets will exist!”, which has only occasionally been the case. But if experience is to be antedated by language, then the imagination will be forced to give up the human form and tremble anew, like a volcano, with its bodies-in-the-making; for like Dupin himself wrote “we are the non-scene and the non-object of a gravitation of insane signs”, which, to this poet and to some extent, in the work and vision of Giacometti, can only allude to the detached and sometimes brutal attempt to “ruin beauty” (Bonnefoy). French poets such as Bonnefoy, Jaccottet and Dupin take it upon themselves to communicate the fracture of the inner state, to locate not just the many ‘signs’ that point us from the void towards its ‘echo’, but towards the “tempo of the signs, the gestures” (Nietzsche). Dupin follows the signs that lead him towards silence, to that place on the other side of the moon where time’s stylus, upon a rock, can be heard still scratching… His sentences are nonetheless what might well be the last images to run through the head of a polyglot before dying; likewise if the lunar figures of Giacometti could be given a ‘voice-box’ then they’d probably utter the moods, possibilities, convulsions, travails and the mutated creative-systems still to be explored in Dupin’s head. When discussing language and the poets’ relation to it, the British poet W.S. Graham wrote “There is the involuntary war between me and that environment flowing in on me from all sides and there is no poetic outcome”; and if Dupin is to sustain the duplicitous anti-environment that he himself has created in his poems then he will have to continue to re-open those beginnings on the outside of his mind; to remind himself and us of those territories where he has so successfully colonized his own ‘I’, where continually he has freed himself from his own body, by pulling the ripcord of a secondary, more poetical lung. For Dupin has risen up from the animal base of the human form, has looked into the eye of the ego, has seen its pupil dilate, then close, and has survived to let us see, too. And for that alone, perhaps, we should be grateful.
About Jacques Dupin’s poetic language (by John Taylor)
Various articles in French
John Taylor is the author of the three-volume Paths to Contemporary French Literature and Into the Heart of European Poetry — all published by Transaction. A prose writer and poet, his latest book is The Apocalypse Tapestries (Xenos Books, 2004). He has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sonia Raiziss Charitable Foundation to translate Georges Perros and Louis Calaferte. Other authors he has recently translated include Pierre-Albert Jourdan, Philippe Jaccottet, Laurence Werner David, and several modern Greek writers. He lives in France.