by Michel Deguy
[237pp, $19.95, Wesleyan University Press]

A modern exponent of the labyrinthine like Borges is Michel Deguy. From Baudelaire's inventing of la cité, to Rimbaud's Illuminations and Un Saison en Enfer, the transition from verse poem to prose-poem - with Laforgue's and Corbière's vers libre as the first articulate bridge - onwards to such as Jarry's Ubu Roi and René Char's scintillating prose passages. René Char? Oui. Without him, no Michel Deguy? Mais non! There are so many important predecessors. What about that tropical diplomat Alexis Saint-Léger Léger, a.k.a Saint-John Perse - so long championed in Britain by Kathleen Raine? Or shall we, with Geoffrey Godbert (Freedom to Breathe, Stride, 2002), trace the prose poem back to Aloysius Bertrand (1807-1841)? At any rate, I look at the Deguy of Recumbents, and my mind slips down the long slope back to both Les Fleurs du Mal and the Paris Journals; except, of course, Baudelaire was a brilliant versifier, rooted in Racine (root) and Corneille, but the end of France's mightiest poetic tradition from La Chanson de Roland many centuries onward. (So strong a tradition of le vers that French peasants could compose villanelles in their heads on the spot.). You might, of course, wish to parody King George V on his death bed and expostulate 'Bugger Baudelaire!'. To which I would reply, Okay, I give you Stephan Mallarmé instead - but only for those who can't stomach the least tinge of tradition: the old-fashioned elegance and clarity of French enlightenment (its last gasp in Baudelaire) that Mallarmé and Rimbaud destroyed. C'est vrai n'est pas?

It was said - was it Housman? - that the French were incapable of real poetry, only verse. He'd probably use the prose-poem as an additional stick to beat them with today. But we later generations have come to a gradual appreciation of the prose-poem, though in my case with the single qualifier that I also extend to all modes of poetic expression: the intellectual.
What I mean by this is that poets are not intellectuals but creatures of the imagination. And while I appreciate that the French are naturally a more intellectual people than the English, it is not helpful to the making of good poetry. Without the personal agony of a Baudelaire, the anger and alienation of a Villon, poetry slides towards l'ecriture (so brilliantly uncovered by Barthes in his Writing Degree Zero), that is: writing about writing or process. And in Deguy there is obsession with language, so that it is no surprise that the book incorporates Jacques Derrida's essay 'How to Name' - itself placed knowingly in inverted commas.

But I have said enough about the long journey from vers
to texte, and hinted at the even longer journey from language as purveyor of  reality to language as the sole reality. A few quotes now by way of demonstration of the writings in this volume of Michel Deguy's work:

I want at all costs to get back in to the language, make a gift to the possibilities of telling of this straying toward what has now gotten its name from you, which is called enigma   this courtyard, this border, these cloths, these doorsills of Paris where you're banished, and I wish the poem might turn itself into a novel in order to allure kitchen gestures, things said over the phone, the use of the wind, the insignificance of what separates us from death; at all costs to give back to language, which would be its tomb, everything it gives us that we call its outside╔
                (from 'Manufacture')

I would merely observe of this: if language is reality, there is nothing 'to get back into' nor any need for 'possibilities of telling' (after all, language as reality is its own automatic telling, n'est pas?
)  And how about this from the title poem 'Gisants' or 'Recumbents':

     I believe something like an air of resurrection
     is at work with death and it's up to the poem
     whose telling carries off more than it enrols
     taking things by the heteronyms
     of the other thing it desires
     to say of  poetry that whatever you bind
     in its name shall be bound on earth

Surely this is the cant of the anally-retentive intellectual?

In the prose-poem 'May Day' - which seems to be a mélange
of half-comments on the fate of  the Polish émigré situation induced by the Second World War - we get the same preoccupation with écriture:

How to repudiate the delegation of the poem and do a counter-poem page, with its brow tilted back, if it's less a matter of text with poland than to do something with a poem which wouldn't make itself overly heard, useful like Martha, translatable, reducible, exportable, which might leave by squads with other means of rescue?

Abstraction, system, process - the intellectual mode; reification of idea and expression of feeling - the poetic.

Now and again, though, something different happens, as in the piece called 'Procession'. It contains a famous utterance of Deguy's namely, 'Still necessary that a life's duration be proportioned
to its nothingness - that to endure be each person's work.' It may get - probably does - its greater effectiveness through its slightly elegiac tone, Deguy's lament for the death of 'Jacques D.' - presumably Jacques Derrida, the famous deconstructionist. Like the poet, another super intellectual. This how the prose-poem ends: 'Let us forget all grievances, even if we are contemplating their contradiction; let us forget nothing and raise our eyelids - the upper one, a sky, the lower one, a cliff - let us recognize in these places his graveyard by the sea.' The italics are Deguy's. It is interesting they refer us to arguably the greatest and most beautiful French poem of the Twentieth Century, Le Cimetière Marin of Paul Valéry. A bit of academic showing off, peut-Étre?

After 'L'Après-midi d'un faune
' it became possible to disrupt the reader's expectations (of, for example, logical syntax, the sequetur, etc.) with impunity: though the yelps and complaints do continue, and the natural audience for poetry has (largely) 'voted with its feet'. Then, later and more forcibly still, came the imposition of the scientific practice of experimentation upon poetry, in the belief (very often mistaken) that experiment inevitably leads to innovation: an error that science does not make, knowing many experiments fail.

Though this inadequate review of Recumbents
demonstrates, as much as anything, the reviewer's doubts about so significant a French language-oriented poet, I cannot sign off without saying that every British poet should, at some time or other, submit him- or herself to the experience of a thorough post-modern French poet like Bonnefoy, Char or the Michel Deguy of this volume. It will prove a teasing, confusing but, always, a mind-stretching experience.

          ę William Oxley 2005