We probably know more about modern and contemporary French poetry in translation than any other European poetry. It’s to the credit of translator-poets like Jennie Feldman and Stephen Romer that we do. Romer’s 20th Century French Poems (Faber, 2002) is almost a modern classic, and Feldman’s translation of Jacques Réda’s early poems, Treading Lightly (Anvil, 2005), is the most substantial introduction to his work we have. Together and alone they have mapped an extensive terrain. Into the Deep Street is a natural, and welcome, continuation of their work so far.
What connects the poets here—Jean Follain, Henri Thomas, Philippe Jaccottet, Jacques Réda, Paul de Roux, Guy Goffette, and Gilles Ortlieb—is a marked preference for image over idea, for the visceral over the purely cerebral. Their poems, diverse and various, and spanning several generations, are filled with objects, facts, descriptions in time and place. This monde anglo-saxon contrasts sharply with the quivering half-worlds we’ve come to know through the work of more well-known French voices, such as Jacques Dupin and André du Bouchet. Common to all here, as Romer notes in his fine introduction, is the impetus to consciously ‘reinscribe the poem into a recognizably empirical and perceptible world.’
The poetry of Jean Follain, with which the book begins, is both catalyst and pivot point. His shorter lyrics bristle with a descriptive energy that places the objects of his perception squarely and simply before us:
At the freshly painted farm
it is a sunny day
to be waiting for the stranger
The structure of the translation anchors the line in the poem’s own physicality. The terminal nouns form a kind of visual cascade—we see the poem as we read it:
Clad in this black cloth
and wearing a top hat
he will push the gate
and say friends here I am.
Following the original punctuation means we also experience those momentary wobbles when syntax shakes new sense from an everyday word or phrase. Follain’s unusual linguistic juxtapositions fuel a deeper cognitive, meditative connection that powers a poem like ‘Fish’:
are flattened by brisk hands
scraping the scales
scanning the dead eye
while in the garden stems are leaning
and pure air passing
through a half-open window
plays on a woman who is undressing
and who has never seen the sea.
Like so many of Follain’s poems, the direct, easy speech hints at larger narratives; there is often a sense of mystery which invokes the quasi-metaphysical, even when the scene is solidly urban. For Henri Thomas, the moment of ignition can be as fleeting as a scent, a flash of blonde hair, a discarded notebook flattened underfoot; the poem is an extension of the visceral senses, as in his poem ‘ Last Fine Days’:
by a breath of wind…
Here, a mere breath is something to note, to know as a path to re-making.
Philippe Jaccottet is perhaps the best known poet here, known to us through Derek Mahon’s Selected Poems (Penguin, 1988). But the context defamiliarizes Jaccottet enough to make the encounter new again. And it’s a crucial plus for this anthology that, despite the overarching thesis linking the poets, they each in turn speak out with unflagging originality. No one, for example, writes about Paris like Jacques Réda—‘a true successor to the great poet-flâneurs of the past’—whose poems flow through the streets and alleys of a maze-like city, like a river in flood, collecting its sights and sounds.
The three remaining poets, Paul de Roux, Guy Goffette and Gilles Ortlieb, are the anthology’s true discoveries. And it is Goffette and Ortlieb who distinguish themselves as the most formal of the poets here. Feldman and Romer’s articulations sustain much of the originals’ resonance, their subtle rhythmic shifts and tones. In Ortlieb’s ‘Bad Evenings’ form and thought are inseparably pressing, teasing the poem into being:
meaning those when you barely emerge from
yourself, let alone the house, with nothing
but a pair of faded sandals by way of transport
And thought, perception, a sense, might take you anywhere. Into the Deep Street is a book full of momentum, and a poem in translation is by its very nature a poem on the move. There isn’t a single page of this stunning book that doesn’t capture that vital energy.