Tuesday, March 17, 2009
The Landscapist, Pierre Martory
The Landscapist comes from an interesting void. As John Ashbery, the collection's translator, points out, “French poetry in the decade following World War II was in a period of the doldrums”; of Martory's poetry he notes: “he seldom even showed it to anyone (myself excepted)”. So in reading Martory's poetry, it is often difficult to locate a style with which to associate it. The language is unobscured enough, and yet there is something deeply disconcerting when the relatively familiar deep images of stagnate bodies and dreamscapes turn on an article into fragmented musings on the troubled presence of the subject. The poetry collected in The Landscapist navigates a dizzying half reality that is interrupted each evening and morning, but it also straddles a desert of sorts, with on the one side, a profound interest in and respect for the classical plastic arts that both preceded Martory's writing by a chasm of years and figure into his work as its nearest possible contemporaries, and on the other, an Anglophilic and media saturated readership.
And then there is Ashbery's momentary quip in the Introduction, that “French poets must struggle to escape the crystalline tyranny of the French language” that seems at once a gesture at locating some of the aloofness of Martory's writing and a rationalization for the inclusion of the French originals of each poem alongside their English translation. Not to say that the writing is wholly without precedent: it is strongly grounded in the symbolist tradition of Baudelaire and its sometimes dense images are reminiscent of Hugo's Fuilles d'Automne, and its tone almost expressly conveys a profound douleur that smacks of Rimbaud in lines like “Was it me alive nailed to the trace of dreams / Weeping for my bound hands that a departure has cut of / Me weighted with mourning a forgotten happiness?”. Yet the poems manage a subtle but resounding freshness in the ways that they slowly turn in on themselves and implode, from the Ashbery-esque staccato revisions, “...the gesture of eternity / seized by the eye the hand the mind”, to its more frustrated auto-engineered disasters: “In this country how do you say Love? / Or does each word multiplying its power tenfold / Crush the ideas it expresses”.
At its worst, Martory's poetry is trapped in its attempts to be richly evocative and heavily meaningful. Blame it on the translation, blame it on a cultural misunderstanding, but the somber tone the poetry carries can't sustain the respect of the reader through lines like “The depth / Of closed eyes reveals the universe in its chasms” or the peremptory attempts at insight in endings like: “And with them the barely recognizable clown // Standing before the mirror cheeks dulled / Who looks with candor over his shoulder / At the ashes of the diamonds that vanished yesterday”. Its as if the figurative language game has been turned on its head and, rather than “ashes of diamonds” elevating a simple yearning for days past and bringing it into a new relationship with the reader, the flabby verse only makes the nostalgia expressed in the poem seem banal and a little funny.
And yet one gets the impression that the writing is somehow working to resurrect all of its own failings, the images that are lost to their own grandiosity, the snubbed quotidian that is bloated with classical references—it's best in “Prose des Buttes-Chaumont” : “A book begun in a manuscript by a monk / And finished on the screen of a computer terminal / In a bruised language like overripe figs / Where the perfume of a little-known alphabet stagnates...?”. So if the stumbling block in reading Martory's poetry is its overripeness of images then it's the sudden moments of frankness that bring the reader back into the work. It's best expressed in “Serenity”: “I let this rhythm beyond limits live in me, / And carry me beyond every resolution”. One gets a sense of this “serenity” in lines like “Bathing in th lights of a false past I unroll / Landscapes and faces, accidents and good fortune / To please the one who listens to me, and with him perhaps / To exorcise time”; the beauty isn't resurrected, but there's a conceptual frailty to the generalizations and the limitless negative spaces of the poetry that transports it outside of its own failings.
The lack of a literary milieu to contextualize Martory's writing returns to mind and I realize that what the poetry is really transporting me out of aren't the failings of the poetry, but the supersaturated landscape of anglophile literacy—the media that consumes and commodifies; as Martin Earl puts it, “the mediatic deity is, if anything, over-communicative, the big brother that never shuts up, drowning out any of the feeble piping we might muster”. Martory's work is breath of familiar but fresh air, perhaps resembling a long line of canonical French poetry, but only superficially. The poetry may not be sui generis, as Ashbery claims, but it is straining against everything it so closely resembles, and the result is a poetry that is negotiating a sort of purgatory, always drifting just to far from the discourses in which it ought to be involved; from consistently interrupting its own picturesque dream narratives with blood, fluid, and waking, to the very fact that Martory had few, if any, contemporaries, the poetry remains aloof. “It was from now on precisely too late for me”. And here we find the pleasurable, meaningful aspect of Martory's poetry—it never quite fits, and it's aware of this fact. This is especially poignant as it comes to an American audience in translation; the poetry is curiously foreign in its phrasings and choices, but only subtly so, noticed at a distance. It doesn't politely ask you to pause and consider the machinations of language, rather, it settles in the mind and disturbs it, haunts it, and forces you to try to correct it, to make it fit. The text is alone, it doesn't fit—and not for want of trying—and I'm resigned to not force it.