[NetBehaviour] My review of Jacques Roubaud which doesn't do it justice

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Wed May 10 16:48:20 BST 2006



Jacques Roubaud, The form of a city changes faster, alas, than the human
heart, One Hundred-Fifty Poems, 1991-1998, translated by Keith and
Rosmarie Waldrop, 2006.

Gabe Gudding wrote "Dalkey's looking for reviewers for a new edition of
Jacques Roubaud's work translated by the Waldrops. See below for
information -- and for the contact info at Dalkey in the event you're
interested in reading and reviewing this coolio book. -- Gabe"

- and if Gabe called it coolio I thought it was and it is and everyone
should read it, absolutely. Roubaud's a member of Oulipo and the book of
course reflects that; either Roubaud or the book or poetic form tour Paris
and the result is a landscape both bucolic and mesmeric; street-names
abound, I'd say, galore, and there are monuments as well as contradiction
among cafes. I generally don't like reading poetry, and Oulipo is odd
since my own interests tend towards the lurid, hysteric, urgency; and the
group is generally anything but; I find the form, based on French or
English or whatever combined with mathesis or other structures, often
getting in the way, although it (the form's)'s fascinating both as ideal
and as hopelessly churning about in the neighborhood, the result of the
random or heuristic characteristics of one or another language. It's like
finding the longest word with only y's for vowels in English, well syzygy,
as if this says something universal. So this goes on, on one hand, and
it's wonderfully playful like Exercises in Style by Queneau, the book
reflects him (Queneau, of course Roubaud, that should go without saying).
The book made me happy; few books do that, except for Buddhist texts, and
this doesn't reflect Buddhist thought but would provide a great accompani-
ment.

I'd like to say the Waldrops did a good job translating - the book reads
wonderfully in English - my "native tongue" - but this is the only problem
with it, the book, that I find problematic, which I do, that the French
isn't given. I don't think for a second any language is translatable, so
having the so-called original (forget the decon here) with the translation
- yes, I know additional expense etc. - would be literally invaluable. And
more so in this case, since there are puns, phrases constructed from
street names (and sometimes these are translated, and sometimes not, but
who knows whether the original might not have veered into English at these
points?), sonnets... - and I would have been able at the least to sound
these out! And probably more or less read them in the original.

The section that moved me the most - that is one of the most brilliant
pieces of writing in any language - and I can only reference here of
course the English again (I really don't like this, my native tongue, but
that's another story - look at Tahitian grammar and you'll see why) -
anyway - this is the section entitled Square des Blancs-Manteaux:
Meditation on Death, in Sonnets, According to the Protocol of Joseph
Hall, a series of XVIII poems whose titles are taken from Hall's 1607 The
Art of Divine Meditation. And these poems come closer to death, to the
rasping irregularity and miserable salvation of death, than anything else
I've read, or at least than I can recall reading. But then I recall Donne
and the field's open again. Here's a sample of some lines from one of the
sonnets, " "The Entrance" which of course is the first:

Death's entrance, as you enter in, dissent,
  Decenter Death's dementia and her sense,
  From Death's Senses, absent thee and resent
Consenting to Death's constant Constancy.
By Death passed by, repent and be content
  When Death is pending, her Lamp and her stamp,
  Clamber toward Death, approach and accent her,
Thing yourself Death's indecency and temple.
Death readying to carry you away
  Transport Death in amphorae, deport Death
Aggress your Death, baseless and faceless Death
And when in dread of Death, make haste: unlace,
  But bow down when Death is discredited
Think how All-wearied Death gives touch, gives bed.

This is as untypical as any of the sonnets which are as untypical as any
of the other materials in the book.

Again, take a look at this book which seems it will be released on July
18, 2006, and will cost $13.95 and will be available from Dalkey Archive
Press - www.dalkeyarchive.com - you might want to look at their other
publications as well - it's a totally great press.

I'll next review sometime soon The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals, Media Fantasy
Films from Radio to the Internet, by Paul Young; I'm still with it.

- Alan




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