La Clarté Notre-Dame and The Last Book of the Madrigals by Philippe Jaccottet (translator John Taylor). £13.99. Seagull Books. 978—1803990610. Reviewed by Tim Dooley
The great Swiss-French poet Philippe Jaccottet died, aged 95, in February 2021, eight days before the publication of these two final works, posthumous but not necessarily designed to be so. Jaccottet’s note to the Gallimard edition of Le dernier livre de Madrigaux tells us that the poems in the volume were written in 1984, revised and completed in the following year, and brought together under their present title in 1990, offering no explanation of why they were then not published for a further thirty years. La Clarté Notre-Dame consists of lyrical prose meditations closely linked in theme and dated from 2012 to 2020. It is dedicated to the younger Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy who helped Jaccottet finalise the work in the summer of 2020.
Generously spaced across 33 pages in the Gallimard edition and 32 pages in Taylor’s translation, La Clarté Notre-Dame, fragmentary in appearance, provides a sustained meditation on recurring themes in Jaccottet’s work. The Clarté of the title is a religious house in the remote area of the Drôme where Jaccottet lived from 1953 until the end of his life. The first section of Jaccottet’s prose recalls ‘the crystal clear tinkling’ of its vesper bell heard in the spring of 2012 on a walk with friends ‘under a grey sky’. Jaccottet writes of the need to keep this memory alive ‘like a bird in the palm of my hand’, treasuring ‘its weightlessness … its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline’.
The tinkling reminds him of a line from his first published work, Requiem, published in 1946 when he was barely twenty, as a response to the horrors of the recent war. Jaccottet reflects that this poem was ‘too ambitious’ and that he had long regretted a line that refers to hearing a ‘tinkling’ of water on mountain heights where such a sound would be impossible, but decided, in an introduction to the work when it was reprinted in 1991, that the line retained a poetic truth (‘the tinkling of icy water … in the highest pastures sound to my ears as does the bell to the ears of a monk summoned to vespers’).
Other associations arrive — to mountains in Italy, to Rilke — until Jaccottet identifies the sound with ‘a very special form of joy’, ‘the beautiful side of things’, a pure light with which he has tried to illumine his work — were it not for a companion feeling which works ‘to turn it, not into night, which would be too beautiful, but into a lure that would make you vomit’.
What Jaccottet means by this contrary impulse is explained in the second section of La Clarté Notre-Dame. This starts with an account of the words of a Belgian journalist released from captivity in Syria who recalled hearing, in the corridors he walked through on his release, ‘the screams of those who were less lucky and who were being tortured’. The contrast between this sound and that of the convent bell heard in the distant valley provides the polarity for Jaccottet’s meditation and leads him into an examination of his own work as a writer and his lifetime commitment to literature as both reader and translator.
The anecdote from Syria is made more painful by his own memories of visiting Palmyra (and writing about it) in happier times. Early poems of his own such as ‘Le Combat Inégal’ from L’Ignorant (1956) played out an unequal struggle between beauty and peril. He ranges among texts by Mahmoud Darwish, Paul Claudel, the haiku master Taigi Sumi, and Giacomo Leopardi to find an adequate response to this contradiction before settling on ‘the most important encounter in my life as a poetry reader’, Hölderlin. In the German poet’s hymn ‘Patmos’, Jaccottet finds ‘the two privileged messages of poetry’: birds and ‘innocent water’. Hoping to make use of these ‘for an unthinkable crossing’ as the end of life nears, the poet hesitates once more: ‘et pourtant …’ ‘and yet …’.
José-Flore Tappy’s essay ‘Leaning Back Against the Night’ is included as an appendix to the joint volume. Here she recalls Jaccottet finishing the text in that last summer, the summer of lockdowns:
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxHe seemed to be a very old bonze with a diaphanous face, a tissue-paper face, friable and almost transparent, a fragile incarnation of a human being, so fragile that one could fear, when breathing, to blow out a flame so frail…
‘And yet…’, as Tappy makes clear elsewhere in her essay, the final effect of La Clarté Notre-Dame is not of fragility, but of resilience and strength of purpose to the end.
From the dating given in the Gallimard edition, Le dernier livre de Madrigaux can be seen to fill a gap between Pensées sous les nuages (1983) and Cahier de verdure (1990). It comes from the period during which Jaccottet transitioned from publishing separate collections of verse and prose to producing sequences that integrated the two forms. Pensées sous les nuages contained a single prose essay, ‘Le Mot Joie’, among the poems while Cahier de verdure is predominantly a prose notebook which erupts into verse at key moments. Le dernier livre de Madrigaux , in contrast, contains some of the purest lyrics that Jaccottet had written since the haiku-like Airs (1967), breaking off at one point for a brief commentary.
The Last Book of the Madrigals (to use its English title) refers to Monteverdi’s posthumously published eighth book of madrigals titled Madrigali guerrieri et amorosi (“Madrigals of Love and War”) and again explores the poet’s key oppositions and uncertainties. There had been a clue to its existence in Notebook of Greenery where the poet describes Dante’s La Vita Nova as ‘that little book about which I had already been musing when I was writing the rough drafts of madrigals of sorts in the spirit of another, later Italian genius Claudio Monteverdi’. The passage continues by saying how Dante’s title evoked images of ‘young ladies … gathered in groups like musicians … draped in white, green-embroidered robes’, evocative of Botticelli’s Primavera. (Translations by John Taylor from And, Nonetheless (2011)). The two opening poems ‘While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi’ and ‘The Chariot’ have something of this atmosphere, a fête galante, but one clouded by the possibility of contradiction:
The wine kept flowing into the glasses
Like a lighter blood born of new wounds.
‘To the beauty of the world!’ It was said, and ‘To this beauty
among us, be she solemn or merry!’ ‘To the world’s pain!’
could have been heard in echo if all this wine
had turned back into blood in our chipped glasses.
After this opening, Jaccottet turns to prose to explain how the images in these poems derived from musings on Dante and Cavalcanti, which in their turn drew him to a very late poem by Ungaretti that he had translated in which he sees ‘sinestre barche’ (Jaccottet has ‘sinistres barques’, Taylor ‘sinister skiffs’) drifting towards death. There is a change of approach in the second part of The Last Book of the Madrigals with Jaccottet turning from the lushness of the opening poems to sharper, shorter, image-based forms. The untitled fragments appear to take the reader through a year — from when the poet’s senses are freed by the waking of streams after winter, to the following autumn and the felling of trees. Through spring, mythical female forces such as Penelope (who ‘weaves the blue cloth of the sky’) fend of masculine sources of harm (‘the black archer with his too frigid arrows’). Later, a Vulcan-like figure (‘the old musician / the blacksmith of volutes and flames’) fears a ‘beautiful archeress’ who fishes from a ‘barque légère (lightweight skiff)’ that seems to recall Ungaretti’s death-driven craft.
The final poem takes the reader back to the start of ‘While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi’. In the opening poem, the madrigal singer ‘seems to call to a shade / whom he glimpsed one day in the woods / and needs to hold on to’. In the final section, Jaccottet writes:
And now you find yourself alone in front of the fire in your cabin.
The flames seem to smother the wood like ivy.
Is there really no other shade here any more but you?
The unequal struggle is once again (inevitably) inconclusive. Over the last dozen or more years John Taylor has taken on the urgently needed task of bringing much of Jaccottet’s later work in verse and prose to English language readers. Earlier translators such as Cid Corman, and Derek Mahon concentrated on the first four or five collections, but after David Constantine and Mark Treharne’s Bloodaxe version of Under Clouded Skies & Beauregard (1994), Jaccottet had not attracted translators. (More recently Ian Brinton has published a selection from Jaccottet with Oystercatcher and Two Rivers press have published my version of the transitional In Winter Light.) Taylor is a clear and reliable translator who catches much of Jaccottet’s unique tone rising occasionally to a fine lyric grace.
Tim Dooley’s collections include Keeping Time (Salt, 2008), Weemoed (Eyewear, 2017), Discoveries (Two Rivers, 2022), his translation of Philippe Jaccottet’s In Winter Light (Two Rivers, 2022), and the long poem Notes on The Waste Land (Hercules Editions, 2022). He is a tutor at the Poetry School.
Historiae by Antonella Anedda, translated by Patrizio Ceccagnoli and Susan Stewart. £14.99. New York Review Books. ISBN: 978-1681376967. Reviewed by David Cooke
In 2014 an earlier selection of poetry by Antonella Anedda, Archipelago, was translated by Jamie McKendrick and published by Bloodaxe in a bilingual edition. It contains poems from all six of Anedda’s previously published collections. Historiae, now also published in a bilingual edition by NYRB, gives anglophone readers access to the complete text of the poet’s most recent collection, which was originally published by Einaudi in 2018. It is a substantial volume of 150 pages in the dual-language text and is divided into six sections. As with Anedda’s previous work, it can be a challenging read. Born in Rome in 1955, Anedda’s family is Sardinian and she has frequently returned to the tiny island of La Maddalena, which is her ancestral home. She is also bilingual, having been brought up speaking both Tuscan Italian and the Lugodorese dialect of Sardinian, which linguists consider to be the modern Romance language which is closest to Latin.
The language, history and landscape of Sardinia have clearly shaped the poet from her earliest childhood and, in ‘Observatory’, the first section of her latest book, there are a small number of poems presented in both Italian and Lugodorese. In ‘Limbas/Languages’ she encapsulates, in three brief lines, the dilemma faced by any poet who aspires to write in a minority language:
Once in a while I use a language of mine
I invent it, kneading it with the past
I don’t hand it over except in translation.
However visceral one’s connection to a minority language may be, however it may have shaped one’s apprehension of reality, there is always the dilemma of trying to reach the widest possible audience. In ‘II,’ the poem which follows, one sees from the outset one of the main challenges of Anedda’s poetry:
The moon freezes in the heart of the island,
the silence slips into the land of dead gorges.
Just as in the era of the Romans
corpses were pushed into the wells
They sew lead inside
the hems of the widow’s weeds
to straighten them.
The transition from the austere beauty of the island to the violence of its past is easy enough to follow and yet the final image appears to be something of a non-sequitur. Anedda’s poems are frequently oblique, elliptical. Sifting through them, one gradually teases out her main themes and then makes connections between her sometimes fleeting insights. In other words, one has to tune in to her wavelength. This is particularly the case with her opening section, ‘Observatory,’ where she grapples with one of the profoundest questions of metaphysics: what it means to exist as a sentient being in a seemingly alien world. It is against the backdrop of this opening section that one has to come to terms with what follows. Although Anneda’s poems frequently engage in a dialogue with voices from the past, above all that of Dante, one senses behind these introductory poems the unnamed presence of Pascal:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in an eternity before and after, the little space I fill engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces whereof I know nothing, and which know nothing of me, I am terrified. The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.
This lies very much at the heart of Anedda’s brief meditations. Moreover, as in Pascal’s collection of penseés, her poems tend to read like observations, footnotes, jottings. In ‘Searching 2,’ this impression is reinforced when a thought occurs to her in the middle of the night:
It isn’t much but enough
to write something – a note,
sometimes a spark of poetry
quickly on a sheet already used for groceries.
Throughout ‘Observatory’, she describes celestial phenomena with exactitude but fails to discern any meaning in our lives. In ‘Observation I’ she merely arrives at a starting point:
The dawn gives us courage
this rising light urges us to listen
dissolving what it must. It says: – now
begin to scour
yourself, peeling the skin of the past from the mind
holding your nothingness between your fingers, without anger.
This sombre tone might derive from an ingrained philosophical outlook but is almost certainly also informed by the death of her mother. In ‘Observation 2,’ her point of departure is a quotation from Dante’s Paradiso: ‘You say: “I see water, I see fire, / air and earth and all their combinations / come to corruption and do not last long.”’ Her own exploration of mortality can lead to some exquisite lines, such as these, which have been beautifully rendered into English, but are even more ravishing in the original:
Sotto la luna la collina brulica di ossame,
Di fossili di felci e di animali.
Under the moon the hill teems with bones,
Fossils of ferns and animals.
In ‘Swarms, Photons,’ there is a first veiled reference to the poet’s personal grief and a reluctant acceptance of the inevitability of death:
At the end of winter, without snow
– it is only another grief – I used to say – unnoticed
in a world laced with ice.
In ‘Geometries,’ in what may be another buried allusion to Pascal and L’esprit de géometrie, she suggests that mathematical precision might be a way of making sense of the world:
Faced with the hyperbole of things I try to prepare myself,
I go down into their chasm. Every time, I resurface
with the metre stick, the compass, my mind full of figures.
I yearn for geometry, I try again in vain
to calculate the area of the cube, the parallelipiped,
the prism, names of a poison-free crystalline air.
This long opening section concludes with, ‘Tears,’ a poem inspired by her reading of Book VI of the Aeneid, in which the hero meets the ghost of his father in the underworld, just as Anedda, in ‘Searching,’ yearns to be reunited with her dead mother. Though they are not quoted, the title of this poem is a nod towards Vergil’s most magical and untranslatable verses: ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt:’ one interpretation of which might be that tears are a constituent part of human existence and that human beings are, or at least should be, moved by the sufferings of their fellow mortals.
This reference to the the greatest of the Roman poets leads us neatly into ‘Historiae’, the second main section, which serves as a title for the whole collection. Although the poems which follow are not without their challenges, they may be more immediately accessible to most readers. In fact, in ‘Annales’, the title of another volume by Tacitus, she finds comfort in reading his objective, unadorned prose in spite of the violence of so much of his subject matter:
Rereading Tacitus in this summer of massacres
solace arose from Latin, the naked facts,
the near absence of adjectives,
the gerund that avoids useless turns of phrase.
The massacres referred to here are contemporary and show that nothing has changed in the intervening millennia. The point is reinforced bluntly in ‘Ghazal’: ‘The intelligence we are so proud of / spits the past again into the present.’ In the course of these poems historic violence merges with personal grief as when, for example, we see the soon-to-be-defeated emperor Maxentius heartbroken at the death of his son. It is at this point that Annedda explores more explicitly her own grief at the death of her mother. She does this most touchingly in the opening section of ‘In Front of the Closets of the Dead,’ where she is sorting through her mother’s clothes but can’t go on and then buries herself in them: ‘To make a den / and wait there for love to return among the living.’ Later, in the second section of another brief sequence, ‘Arctic’, she sees that her role as a poet is to create a structure that will preserve her mother’s memory: ‘Later I will fix the poem, I will make it a house / with pointed roofs perfect for the snow.’
Antonella Anedda’s Historiae is a book that requires the active participation of its readers. Neither its subject matter nor its modes of expression make it a comfortable read. However, for those who are prepared to accompany the poet on her quest for meaning, it will, over time, offer rich rewards. When so much that passes for poetry seems facile or merely fashionable, Antonella Anedda challenges us to confront the mystery that lies at the heart of existence.
David Cooke is the founder and editor of The High Window. His Collected Poems has just been published by Littoral Press