Michel Deguy has oft been saluted as the “French Dichter-Denker,” or “poésophe.” He is a thinker poet of the first order. “Deguy redefines the art of poetry,” his friend Jacques Derrida observed in his essay on Deguy “How to Name:” “in a performative and irruptive gesture, he gives it a new definition, a new name (he rebaptizes it) and thus, in another space, from his invention of a new cartography, he assigns it a new task. He assigns one to it, that is to say, he signs a new concept of the art of poetry, a new correspondence to its ancient name, and a new responsibility.”
Deguy’s poetry resembles oak: it is hard-grained, enduring, complex, and pushes its roots deep into the abiding earth. There is a roughness to its bark, its outer husk, the heave and tumble of its syllables, what Baudelaire called “l’élastique ondulation.” The sacred oak of the sanctuary known as Dodona, located in in a mountainous region of limestone folds and thrust fault blocks named Epirus in the ancient Greek world, had oracular significance; it was the favored tree of Zeus. Priests divined the pronouncements of Zeus in the rustling of its leaves.
Oak trees are large, spreading their branches in a pyramidal profusion of radial prodigality, catching the wind in wonderful agitations of give and take. Oak is able to do this because its internal structure consists of cells that stretch inward from the bark to the pith and stabilize the framework, keeping the vertical fibers from splitting. It is the constant buffeting of wind that brings the oak tree to life, that causes it to shake and bob, chatter and convulse.
“There is no inertia in consciousness,” observed Jean Paul Sartre. Agitation is the life of the mind in its exertions toward meaning, those rare and wonderful encounters in the more delicate, exquisite region of one’s Being where Being encounters is its own Nothingness.
Poetry speaks to that region. It is where consciousness, to quote Sartre again, “makes itself, since its being is consciousness of being; it sustains being in the heart of subjectivity, which means once again that it is inhabited by being but that it is not being: consciousness is not what it is.”
So what is it? We must look to comparison. The eyeball cannot look at itself, but only through itself. We need a mirror in order to see the very eyeball that permits us to see.
Analogy and metaphor, contrast and comparison are the mirrors whose Funhouse distortions permit us to see those things that are hidden in the transparency of language. It is a paradox. It is the very communicability of language that obscures and vulgarizes access to the ineffable. It is when language falls into the service of expediting communication that, as Heidegger puts it, “language comes under the dictatorship of the public realm, which decides in advance what is intelligible and what must be rejected as unintelligible.” Poetry is a site of resistance. It is the irreverent play of language that frees it from the “cult of rhetoric,” the banality of communication, and instigates the kind of flexibility needed to apprehend the marvelous, what Proust termed “un peu de temps à l’état pur,” a “bit of time in a pure state,” the power to apprehend - to taste, smell, grasp, fondle - that which is absent, unreachable, fugitive. Past events, ghostly emanations, the aura of intensity surrounding everyday phenomena exquisitely defamiliarized in a rite of poetic exaltation. “L’imagination poétique est le hôte de l’inconaissable” remarks Deguy in L’energie du déséspoir.
Deguy’s poetry is generous, generative, and germane: it burgeons in analogy, flourishes in comparison. Reading Deguy is an intellectual adventure. The spirit of inquiry is immediate and strong and boundless in ramification. I think of Deguy whenever I rush into a room and forget to turn on the light and must feel my way in the darkness for familiar objects, a desk, a bed, a bureau, and eventually a lamp. Illumination, too, is immediate. Phenomenal.
The word ‘phenomenon’ stems from the Greek verb phainein, meaning “to shine, to appear.” In other words, that wherein something can become manifest, visible in itself. Martin Heidegger devotes a chapter to it in Being and Time. He elaborates further:
An entity can show itself from itself in many ways [von ihm selbst her], depending in each case on the kind of access we have to it. Indeed it is even possible for an entity to show itself which in itself it is not. When it shows itself in this way, [“sieht”… “so aus wie”…] it “looks like something or other…” This kind of showing-itself is what we call “seeming” [Scheinen]. Thus in Greek too the expression (“phenomenon”) signifies that which looks like something, that which is ‘semblant,’ ‘semblance’ [das Scheinbare,” der “Schein”].
Again, the paradox of revelation by concealment. There are occasions in which, to bring something to view, to make something manifest, apparent, we must conceal it by putting something in front of it. This, essentially, is the true function of comparison, to say something is “like” something. We see what these things have in common, and what they do not have in common.
The principle of comparison is crucial to a deeper understanding of Michel Deguy’s work. The French word ‘comme’ (the English equivalent of ‘like’ or ‘as if’) is pivotal, operates a “pivotal reciprocity,” as Deguy phrases it. Derrida compares it to a circuit breaker, or light switch:
… one could be tempted to say that the interruption, let’s say the switch or circuit breaker of the comme will have been exhibited more and more in the clarifying machine, in the seeing machine which a poetics is… the logic of a certain “as though” comes along to disturb the truth, to divide the selfsame presence of the comme, to work otherness into the assembly of resemblance and to therein slip the simulacrum or fiction, a fiction without configuration. This movement seems to become accentuated in all the works that follow, right where they faithfully continue to implement the poetic thinking of the comme.
It’s as though the comme, about which one believes too hastily that it unites, symbolizes, and promises identification, had ceased to operate or let itself be operated. It would seem to be operable and to produce works. It would announce the inoperable. Not by contradicting itself but by still working in the name of the comme, about which Deguy often recalls, expressly for example in Things of Poetry and A Cultural Afffair (1986), that “poetry forbids violent identification, through the comme”; or that “comparison looks after the incomparable, the distinction of things among themselves.”
Let’s not call it a moment in order to designate a period and a turning point in the history of Deguy’s work or thinking, but rather a momentum (a movement, a force, a lasting impetus) that inscribes, records, and simultaneously produces, acts, takes note of the shape of a crease both internal and external to the comme. Internal and external like an obsession making poetry at once chant and disenchanted. In truth it inaugurates a poetic disenchantment, or a des-cant, a defection of the poetic chant as its rhythmized movimentum, the breathing, inspiration, and expiration of the caesura. Where ends that which is never-ending.
I bought a copy of Comme Si Comme Ça on the Boulevard Saint Michel in Paris. Since then, Deguy has become a compulsion. The impulse to immersion in his work pulses, propels, pulls the attention in a momentum of smoldering foment. There is heat. There is appliance. There is feeling. Most importantly, there is interrogation: searching, probing, branching out. Divergence, expansion, proliferation. And their contraries: compression, condensation, distillation. Enchantment and disenchantment.
Deguy’s influences are names generally connected with modernist and postmodernist poetry, in France and the United States: Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Ducasse, Mallarmé. There are touches of surrealism, but Deguy’s poetry always remains engaged with actual, raw experience, the complexities and abrasions of external reality, the so-called “everyday.” Yet, strangely, although it avoids the phantasmagoric manias of the surrealists and opens itself with breathtaking frankness to some of life’s more painful and intimate experiences, Deguy’s poetry does not degenerate into the anecdotal, one-dimensional work more apt to be found in the New Yorker or read by Garrison Keillor on NPR. Kenneth Koch expresses this complex dynamic in the introduction to Given Giving, a collection of early poetry by Michel Deguy translated into English by Clayton Eshleman:
Deguy’s work doesn’t show the same confidence in the world of dreams, sensation, and the unconscious. He is interested in how his predecessors wrote - unexpected transitions, confidence in momentary sensations, willingness to remain unclear - but not in their conclusions. The unconscious, the irrational, isn’t the answer. The intellect or, perhaps more precisely, intellectual disciplines, such as psychology and linguistics, come back in his poetry. They come back as directions and as points of view and, verbally, as part of the very texture of Deguy’s poems. They are not, however, any more than are dreams and the unconscious, the Answer: in fact, for all their intellectual atmosphere, Deguy’s poems suggest that, for him, if anything is the answer it is the happy - or distressing - confusing mixture of all the complicated thoughts and points of view that delineate his subjects. This kind of complexity is expressed not by a sustained lyric tone - this is less revelation than questioning - but by a changing surface of tones, and kinds of language. The poem proceeds, verbally as well as thematically, by means of hesitations, interruptions, changes. It stops, it diverges; it often has an air of being unfinished - even, one could say, of having gone nowhere, the way a moment goes nowhere, a moment of perception or sensation with all its intermixture of memories, associations, ideas.
These qualities are precisely what draw me into Deguy’s work and provide a range of possibilities, a spectrum, for where I’d like to take my work. Though I must say it is far from being strictly a matter of writing and literary endeavor. It is a matter of Being, of coming into fuller awareness with the phenomenon of being alive, animate, mortal, vulnerable, often overwhelmed by a glut of sensation and feeling and often an acute sense of loss and a commensurate sense of dread. Deguy has a term for this, too, which he borrowed from Blaise Pascal. It has to do with a certain disproportionality, of smallness, of diminution and mortality in the face of things - magnitudes - beyond our ability to comprehend them. “This whole visible world,” observed Pascal,
is only an imperceptible trace in the amplitude of nature. No idea approaches it. However much we may inflate our conceptions beyond these imaginable spaces, we give birth only to atoms with respect to the reality of things. In the end, the greatest perceptible sign of God’s omnipotence is that our imagination loses itself in this thought.
Let man, returning to himself, consider what he is with respect to what exists. Let him regard himself as lost in this remote corner of nature, and from the little cell in which he finds himself lodged, I mean the universe, let him learn to estimate the just value of the earth, kingdoms, cities, and himself.
What is a man in the infinite?
But to present him with another equally astonishing prodigy, let him examine the most delicate things he knows.
Deguy’s À ce qui n’en finit pas (To that which does not end), is one of the most moving collections of poetry I’ve read. It grapples with issues I find difficult in the extreme to come to terms with, the loss of a loved one, mortality, the pangs of solitude. À ce qui n’en finit pas was published in 1995. It is a threnody, written shortly after the passing of Michel Deguy’s wife of forty years, Monique. I find it remarkable that he not only had the strength to write, but to explore his pain and this universal sorrow with such remarkable articulation, depth, and frankness.
The work consists of short prose fragments, each a deep reflection on the experience of loss, on the nature of existence, on coping with the absence of a partner, and the dynamics and sometimes harsh reality of marriage itself: “Je relate que la vie conjugagle fut contentieuse, violente, impossible. J’ai souffert du marriage comme personne, comme beaucoup comme tout le monde?” (“I relate that conjugal life was contentious, violent, impossible. I suffered in marriage as anyone, as many as everyone?”).
The book is unpaginated because, Deguy remarks, “each page, or almost, could be the first, or the umpteenth. There is no ordinal series. Everything begins with each page; everything ends with each page.” He had, in fact, originally wanted the book to come out as a roll, a forever unrolling scroll of paper.
“Non-being is a euphemism,” Deguy remarks. It is impossible to conceive of non-existence. As soon as we begin to imagine non-existence, it recedes. It cannot be imagined. Imagining non-existence is to give it a conceptual being. To give it a name, such as “non-being,” is to give it an identity and mask its stark reality. “Non-being” is a term, a philosophical abstraction, an entity of sorts. The finality of death is so utterly beyond human imagining that its impact on the living must be filled with something, anything, flowers, prayer, shrines, graves, tombstones. There must be devised a substitute, a proxy, a recognition that acknowledges death as a fact but not as a reality. Who hasn’t felt at home in a funeral home? What a wonderful (albeit expensive) fiction.
Jean-Luc Nancy remarks on the phrase “non-being is a euphemism” as a “mild way of speaking
that assuages, refuses to accept the crashing violence, the dazed sense of loss, and the bitter realization that says “I know that I cannot bring her back alive.” What he [Deguy] describes here as a “scrap of Orphic allusiveness,” which opens his lament for the dead, or threnody, should of course be taken to refer to both Monique and poetry too. Or rather, not to Monique and poetry but to the one as the other. Not the one absorbing the other, in order to prettify it or make it more touching. Not intimacy exploited but intimacy exposed, precisely because it has to be laid bare, and this has to happen to avoid its being poeticized. Philippe would call this, I think - and for once he would say it in the manner of Michel - the intimation of intimacy. Not a poetical trafficking with death, or a morbid trafficking with poetry. But the one as the other because the nonliving bringing back of the past, which is infinitely over and with which the bringing back of the past must grapple. The “euphemism,” he reminds us elsewhere, “was invented by the Greeks to mean: to pass over death in silence.” To restore death to its silence by speaking it, which also means to allow death to speak amidst our human, all-too-human silence, and to speak with its ever-fresh, ancient voice. To pass over death: not to pass beyond it, nor to endure and maintain oneself in it, but to pass with it, within it, on a par with its eloquent silence, if that is possible.
It is by way of Deguy’s use of the aforementioned word ‘comme’ that he is able to give such an acute sense of presence to alterity, the “eloquent silence” of the unknowable, its possibility as appearance in perceptual consciousness. It is the logic of one hand touching the other. Comparison brings the unknowable - that which resists perception, eludes even a thematic framework - within perceptual range, particularly when the objects of our consciousness are altered, inverted, converted, reconstructed. “Death,” remarked Deguy in a piece titled “// et ratures,” “is that ‘unknowable,’ immeasurable thing whose event comes to transform all life, perhaps ‘giving all things the status of figure.’” It is a haunting. An obsession. Deguy elaborates further:
We are haunted, to pick up on that saying by Mallarmé, which is also a saying by Merleau-Ponty (one of those imaginatively charged terms whereby philosophy gets ventriloquized by poetry); obsession: an intimate, cureless mode of the two-in-one relation… if at every point in language “the union,” the sound-sense crease has already always occurred. To this obsession, which is indivisibly “obsession with the world" in its figures or “rich postulates enciphered” (Mallarmé), poetry devotes itself, tearing language away from this usage that lessens it through univocalities, but also dialectics that restrains play itself.
Deguy is a prolific writer, but only two of his books have been translated into English thus far: the aforementioned Given Giving: Selected Poems of Michel Deguy, translated by Clayton Eshleman and with an introduction by Kenneth Koch, published by the University of California Press in 1984, and Recumbents, a translation by Wilson Baldridge of Gisants: Poèmes, first published in 1985 by Editions Gallimard. Recumbents (published by Wesleyan University Press), includes a substantial essay on Michel Deguy by Jacques Derrida, “How to Name.”