the whole of poetry is preposition, poetry by Claude Royet-Journoud, translated by Keith Waldrop
La Presse, 2011
“Between air and water, there must be the preposition,” Royet-Journod remarks on page 42 of the whole of poetry is preposition.Why a preposition?
If preposition echoes proposition, the accident is a congelation, a commingling of word and world. What exists between subatomic particles? Space. Between modulations? Waves. Between spring and fall? Renewal. Between your legs? Temperature. Between knowledge and ignorance? Mystery. Between muscles? Arteries. Between words? Life.
Prepositions are dead serious. They are to space and time what nails are to the joining of wood. The world is prepositions. The world divides into prepositions.
Prepositions are propositions. They propose multiple interpretations of action and space.
A poetry of prepositions is a poetry of action and space. A theatre.
A poetry in which the words, as the stage directions of the theatre, point to places where the actors should stand, and make suggestions toward their attitude and dress.
A poetry in which a crime has been committed, for which there are clues, and signs of violence, but no body. No corpse.
A poetry in which syntactic associations and mercurial transitions lure, absorb, and elude our penetrations.
We are detectives. Detectives in a book. The totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.
Because there is no body. In order to the find the perpetrator, we must first find the victim. We must follow a set of clues. Of signs. Of objects. Of movements. The choreography of the situation. Or, in the words of Wittgenstein, “Objects are what is unalterable and substantial; their configuration is what is changing and unstable."
The proposal of poetry as an artifact of prepositions implies a level of abstraction consonant with Aristotle’s metaphysics and Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and Philosophical Investigations. It follows a previous collection of poetry with a similar title: Theory of Prepositions (La Presse, 2006), also translated from the French by Keith Waldrop, and to which it might aptly be said to function as an “aphoristic complement.” “The evocation of the preposition is not without its homage to Louis Zukofsky,” (I am gleaning this from the publisher’s blurb on the back of the book), “a poet central to Royet-Journoud’s work; they share a deep affinity for the particular, and beyond that, for the actual particulars that compose our days, and for the delicate tissue that binds them.”
This is true. “Felt deeply,” observed Zukofsky, “poems like all things have the possibilities of elements whose isotopes are yet to be found.”
If it is the Higgs boson that converts energy to matter, than it is prepositions that convert objects into theatre. What is changing and unstable is the medium - the display - of drama.
On the outside walls of the physics building at the University of Washington are 30 cartouches, each featuring an equation of pivotal importance to the understanding of the physical universe. There is Newton’s Law of Gravitation which describes the gravitational force, F, beween 2 masses, M1 and M2, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the Hertzspring-Russell diagram which shows the relation between the stars and their absolute magnitude. They appear to be some form of mathematical haiku in which representations of the world as ascetical as possible, denuded of any metaphorical coloring or rhetorical flourish. Of course, the formulae deal in quantity and magnitude; they have nothing whatever to do with human perception, with the interphase between neuron and impulse, inner and outer, language and consciousness. Mathematics is a language of logic. Stark, blunt, consummate logic. And yet there is a beauty, an unmistakable eloquence to the nakedness of mathematical representations. It is this level of stark neutrality that I find in the work of Royet-Journod. A neutrality so neutral it becomes noumenal.
Unlike mathematical inquiry, Royet-Journod is very much alive to the quirks and vagaries of human perception. He deals in qualities, not quantities.
But the neutrality, the soberness is important. He does not like metaphor, assonance, and alliteration. Describing his writing process, he says “Later, when I already have a few pages of text, a sketch, I begin to work on the language, neutralising the text. How? By tracking down and suppressing metaphor, assonance, alliteration - to see what narrative emerges - what appears, embodying this language within a language.”
He quotes Jack Spicer: Metaphors are not for humans.
“The trick is to be literal (not metaphorical),” he remarks on page 15. “To weigh,” he further elaborates, “the language in its ‘minimal’ units of meaning. For me, Eluard’s line, The earth is blue like an orange, tires, dragged down by an overload of meaning. Whereas, for example, The wall behind is a wall of chalk, by Marcelin Pleynet stands, and continues to stand, I think, by its every exactitude and, taken of course in context, paradoxically, unfixed in meaning, thus holding for anyone an abiding fiction.”
For many years now I have had a deep fascination for Royet-Journoud’s work, beginning with The Notion Of Obstacle, which was initially published by Gallimard in 1978, followed by a translation by Keith Waldrop published by Awede in 1985. I find this strange, since my own proclivities are the opposite of his. I revel in metaphor, assonance, and alliteration. I get drunk on language. On verbal delirium. Hallucination.
But like anyone else, I get tired of my inclinations, and inclining elsewhere is always a tonic solution. A splash of cold water to the face opens our eyes.
An astute riddler, Royet-Journoud calls writing a craft of ignorance. And means it. He puts the phrase in italics: craft of ignorance.
What does he mean? I have always assumed writing to be the opposite: a craft of knowledge. We write about what we know. Knowledge is what you know, said Gertrude Stein.
“A writer’s immobility puts the world in motion,” remarks Royet-Journoud in the first section of this collection, “A Craft Of Ignorance (Notes and fragments from interviews).”
To the extent that we hold our gaze still, things move. Thought, as well, exists only with regard to a halt which is empty. Joë Bousquet wrote, this paralysis has carved a hole in space. To write is to carve that hole in space. Everything takes off from immobility, from the effort of attention that is also a corporeal effort. The tightrope walker has the same problem; he tries to bring together movement and rest, to find perfect equilibrium. The writer’s desk is in the mind, a matter of knowing when to stop, of starting out aware that there is no beginning. Writing is a craft of ignorance.
Perhaps one could also say “writing is a craft of attention.” And that the purest way to see anything is by way of an empty mind, the no-mind of Zen, wu-hsin, a quiet awareness of whatever happens to be here now. “Seeing into nothingness - this is true seeing and eternal seeing.” “Even if it is nothingness, it is seeing something.”
“Where does the poem begin?” he asks on page 12. “What is there before the first line?” This can be answered, in part, by the above paragraph: nothingness.
But this is glib. Each poet will have their own personal reasons for beginning a poem: a love of language, a captivating image, a passion for oysters, for psalmody or Bach, for propositions, for prepositions, for collective bargaining; the drone of a cello, the bark of a Chihuahau; a red-tailed hawk or compound eye. It may also be an acute sense of nothingness. Each can answer in their own way what was there before. It is clear, where Royet-Journod is concerned, that this may be answered by the generous number of poets and authors to which he alludes throughout this work: Anne-Marie Albiach, Emilio Araúxo, Saint Augustine, Paul Eluard, Aristotle, Wittgenstein, Marcel Jousse, Louis Zukofsky, Kierkegaard, Daniel Oster, Roger Lewinter, Claudine Cohen, Charles Bernstein, Jean Daive, Robert Bresson, William Carlos Williams, Nietzsche, Michèle Cohen-Halimi, Ezra Pound, Joë Bousquet, Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
“I borrow as much from Revelation,” he avers, “as from Bescherelle, from Simenon as much as from the Roman de la Rose, from Lola as from Saint Augustine or Hallâj, from an old lady jabbering in a café in Clichy as from Merleau-Ponty, from a guy walking along muttering to himself as from Geroges Gougenheim or Wittgenstein.”
As for the ending of a poem, “It exists when recognized, as we ‘recognize’ a body in the morgue. Something frightening and strange. It’s when that snaps off. You recognize something absent, withdrawn just at the moment the poem is anonymous enough for you to sign it.”