Treading Lightly

Treading Lightly: Selected Poems 1961-1975, Jacques Réda
translated by Jennie Feldman
[144pp, 8.95, Anvil]

Jennie Feldman as both poet and scholar provides an introduction that is informed and personal, having worked closely with Réda on the translations. She outlines their working relationship and draws attention to key features of his work: a desire to create 'le swing' (he has an interest in jazz); his classical roots reflected in the alexandrine; his leading role in the shift from surrealism into experimental and political poetry, and on to the 'new lyricism' of the 1980s; and finally his adherence to the French tradition of flânerie: 'aimless, reflective strolling favoured by many city-dwelling writers and thinkers'. She also bemoans the fact that such a renowned poet with over thirty books to his name is till now little known in Britain. Few will argue with her once they have got down to the poems. This selection draws on his first three books Amen, Récitatif and La Tourne .

One is immediately struck by Jennie Feldman's skill as a translator. Consider
Amen's opening powerful socio-historical poem, 'Les Rebelles':

     Commes les fous ils ont mordu la terre pleines dents,
     Saisi l'herbe noire et coupante poignées,
     Jeté leur front contre le front des monuments
     Qui méditent chez nous la mort et la justice.
     Comme des fous nous leur avons lié les mains et les chevilles,
     Brlé la langue et brisé les os sur les escaliers de justice,
     Puis nous avons tassé la terre odorante et molle sur leurs fronts sanglants.

     Like madmen they bit hard into the earth,
     Grabbed the sharp black grass in fistfuls,
     Dashed their heads one-to-one against monuments
     That in these parts ponder death and justice.
     Like madmen we bound them, hands and ankles,
     Burned their tongues and broke their bones on the steps of justice,
     Then we piled earth soft and fragrant on their bleeding brows.  

Note the way she avoids the Latinate French/English equivalents (and thus the risk of translation that reads like translation) and opts for monosyllabic Anglo Saxon words along with carefully placed assonance and alliteration. This enables a strong beat to reinforce the harsh subject matter. Indeed, it is the sheer versatility of her sound effects that stands out. In 'Homer's Sorrow' the rich 'sh' alliteration and the onomatopoeia of  'clashing' provides sounds very different from the original but is  faithful to the content:

     Cette ombre sur le vain éclat de nos débris d'amphores,
     Et parmi ce fracas de boucliers sur les galets
     Rendre ma voix l'ambe d'écume, aux cris d'oiseaux
     Qui déchirent la belle hécatombe de mots que fut Homre

     This shadow on the hollow show of our ruined amphorae,
     And in this clashing of shields on shingle
     Give my voice to the foam's iambics, to the cries of birds
     Tearing apart the fine hecatomb of words that was Homer.

More frequently, however, Réda creates a meditative, world-weary mood and here Feldman is equally up to the task. She slows down the pace with long vowel sounds or use of the present continuous. She consistently creates poetry in English that also manages to be faithful.  Translators who avoid the exact rhyme and metre of the original are often accused of 'chopping up prose'. I defy anyone to suggest that here. Feldman is a translator one can take lessons from.
Apart from occasional observations on history, social background, or the classics, such as 'Homer's Sorrow' above, or 'October Morning' (describing the ship the Aurora's role in the Russian Revolution), these three collections are dominated by poetry of mood--clear evidence of
flânerie. Focusing on late summer or autumn Réda provides a plaintive Keatsian melancholy as he explores subtle shifts in the natural world and the individual's place within it.  Silence and solitude have a significant role to play. Consider in 'Voice in the Interval' how he homes in on silence with a finely tuned ear:

     Perhaps we should speak even more softly,
     So that silence can take refuge in our voices;
     Saying no more that the grass as it grows

In 'the Lost Bracelet' an apparently insignificant search is endowed with a weighty sense of the here and now: 'As time, halted by the day's grandeur, forgets us, / And the blood pulses in your naked wrist'. There is a cumulatively restorative effect to be gained in this relaxed, city strolling, such as in 'Rue Rousselet' where observing the interaction between sky and street leads to a certain pleasurable wistfulness:
     Where sky leans over uncertain, waiting for a shadow;
     --Slant against the road's fleeting loveliness,
     Already its slipping slantwise through out hearts.'

Then there is the wonderfully precise detail in 'Puddles':

     Barely a millimetre's water under the trees, but it catches
     Convulsions in a sky that eases and deepens
     Oh answer, innocently fathomless sky, mouth of wisdom,
     Open up immeasurably wide before
     Some little breeze disturbs forever the space held in thin water.

Inevitably such
Flânerie leads to many of the poems being populated by passers-by. Some of the poems edge into narrative or start to explore man as a social animal. 'Hotel Continental' considers the fact that 'no man is an island' by way of a wonderful extended metaphor of solitude like a lover. Note the superb concrete image that concludes the poem with its interplay of the metaphorical and the literal:

     A slamming door with its eviction sign.
     Here I am with one more stair to go,
     Where consolation comes from a waiting chair
     And the basin's hollow murmur;
     Where even solitude takes her hand away from mine
     And leaves me, like that day after you'd gone,
     When standing in the rain I saw a circle of time
     Impossible to reckon, and inside it
     The little park gate clashing iron on iron.

Increasingly this 'pleasant strolling' becomes an encounter with all the lost faces of one's past, such as in 'Fragment of Summers' with its wonderful concluding image:

     --And I saw dead people, women, gardens
     Pass through me as I rose towards the deep-blue choir
     Between the episcopal walls of Langres or Autun,
     Towards gardens that boiled with birds and roots
     Sunken in light, like eyes--and even then
     Under the heat's awesome lashes, were they not
     Yours that opened in me like water beneath swans?

These real and imagined passers-by inspire Réda to some great one(and two)-liners: 'A shadow  to be dealt with tactfully, like / The stranger who stops and wants a light, no word said'; 'a few words leave the lips / Of a passer-by and are lost in the torrent roaring below', or 'A passer-by among others, then: nobody (unless it's / That blind-man's cane probing the depths of each memory)', until finally all these fragments converge: 'And so it's time to bring them together, all of them / All those I've lost in the dark corners of my life'. All these references combine to heighten the poetry's with a poignancy reminiscent of  Proust's regret for lost time.  

Having worked through the collection Réda leaves you with the feeling that he regards the world around him with a magical mix of pessimism and awe. This I think is encapsulated in his poem 'Amen'--the closest he comes to a poetic manifesto:

     Where I kneel there is no faith or pride, nor hope,
     But as through the eye that the moon opens under the night,
     A return to the intangible land of origins,
     Ash kissing ash as a calm wind gives its blessing.

All in all, this is superb poetry superbly translated.

                Belinda Cooke 2006