reviewed by Harry Giles
Hélène Dorion is an accomplished and lauded Quebecois poet – the winner of, amongst others, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Prix Wallonie-Bruxelles, and the Prix Alain-Grandbois. Ravir: Les Lieux (Seizing: Places), reviewed here in a new facing translation by Patrick McGuiness, was originally published in French in 2005, in which year she became the first Canadian to receive the Prix Mallarmé. I begin with this catalogue of cultural capital to admit from the outset that we're dealing here with a poet of weight and significance, meaning that, especially as I'm reviewing primarily her poetry in translation, this short review is necessarily limited in scope. Given the lucidity of the translation, however, this is a rare opportunity for English-language poetry readers to engage with both traditions and new moves outside the English-language corpus.
I want to laud the sequence's intellectual ambition, its poetic rigour, its uniqueness of voice and approach, its demandingness. At the same time, I found its austerity hostile to the audience, and perhaps needlessly evasive.
McGuiness, a poet and Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford, frames Seizing: Places with an ideal introduction. He places Dorion in her national and international poetic context, as well as providing an extensive theoretical gloss on her poetic approach, interests and styles. The commentary is astute if (perhaps necessarily) enraptured by the poet's work, ensuring that the reader has a firm understanding for encountering the long five-part sequence that makes up the book.
McGuiness's approach to translation, too, is clear and valuable. The layout offers the two languages side-by-side, which is a gift to bilingual readers, in allowing for comparison and consideration of how the work has been accomplished. The translation is close and rigorous. McGuiness adopts a literal approach, his word-choice always looking first for the closest denotations, then selecting where possible to preserve assonance, alliteration and, most importantly for this poet, rhythm. The word order is only altered from the French when the result would sound particularly awkward in English; similarly, enjambement is rarely varied from the original – only when, it seems, preserving the balance and rhythm of lines and stanzas is judged necessary.
This approach is made possible by the austere style of the poetry itself. Techniques of sound are deployed infrequently; though carefully balanced, the verse has no regular metre; and untranslatable figures of speech are also rare – though complexly constructed, the word-choice in French itself is usually transparent. All this means the translator has not had to face the challenge of potential compromises in order to preserve strict poetic forms and techniques across languages – which is not to say the translation is not still a hugely difficult task, and one accomplished cleanly and well.
With all this in mind, discussing the poet's austere style is where the most interest lies for the reader and reviewer. It is, as the introduction points out, “a language at its most expansive when it is most stripped down and resistant to rhetorical transports”. There is a definite hostility to flights of language: there are no displays of style, no tricks, indeed little transporting joy in the use of words themselves – instead, there is a constant sense of intense and refined thought, an active and deliberate engagement with the world. This, along with the embracing of abstracts and high concepts (“soul” and “void” turn up occasionally, “history” and “world” are deployed regularly), is, as McGuiness admits, unfamiliar to an English-language reader. He argues, not unreasonably, that:
Our quest for the demotic and the democratic makes us suspicious of the grand claims of poetry, and of its grand words: the soul, memory, the spirit, and the quasi-philosophical, spiritual language by which much European and some North American poetry has orientated itself.”
The implication is that Dorion's Quebecois heritage positions her in and between those European and North American traditions – but the North American tradition here is very much a line leading from the objectivisms of Charles Olson and William Carlos Williams, rather than from historical or contemporary refractions of the lyric or confessional, which are perhaps more common to most North American journals now.
All this is to say that Dorion's approach is one of abstraction rooted in a flow of sensory experiences, a “thinking-by-fragments” (as McGuiness puts it) that resists easy hooks and descriptive throughlines. A good example occurs early in the first section, “Seizing: Cities” (Ravir: les villes):
...the garden: furrows that you scrape, the soul’s spade pulling the sun towards you rainwater onto the fresh petals. At the heart of this world the name’s blackened flesh, theatre of all you cast to the winds. What bird is born of the wounded bird?
Here the moment slips from a clearly envisioned action (the scraped furrow) through a complex metaphor, to a trio of bold universals (the heart, the name, the theatre), to another enigmatically specific image. The poetry regularly slips from the reader's grasp in this way, moving from place to place and from image to image fluidly and often perplexingly. This approach buries otherwise striking images like “the name's blackened flesh” in a stew of others like it; the most abiding moments for me, therefore, are where the writing contrasts by extending action over more lines than usual. Here, for example, a situation, a subject and an action progress over three stanzas, providing a description disconcerting in its specific strangenesses:
You follow the contours wrists tied behind your back, still your silhouette grows. Little by little, your eyes dissolve the darkness beyond their lashes. A child stops amid the noise, the body like a branch, breaks and the flowers spring back over your bedroom wall.
This long sequence thus presents a serious challenge to the reader – not just because it is highly intellectual, but more because it seems very much removed from the idea of pleasing (or, better, pleasuring) an audience. The poem here is a theoretical engagement with the world, driven by language: an attempt to interpret the world through the poet's language. It does not describe that world or summon it up, as in English-language nature poetry; it is not deeply confessional or confrontational about the poet's life; it does not perform. It reads more like a particularly refined and elusive philosophical treatise – one in the phenomenological approach of Merleau-Ponty or Lévinas, perhaps – keenly picking apart the construction of experience and the world. This is not to say the work is in any way objectively analysing experience from a neutral position – the poetry is lived, is actively engaged in the making of the world it investigates.
In French the title Ravir connotes both “rapt” and “ravishing” – that is, the poet is both seizing and seized by the world. The language is in an often violent and portentous struggle with experience, even as the poet is held in awe of the world as she describes it. The poetry is both an attempt to seize the world and an analysis of that process of seizing, giving a sense that in seizing the poet is herself seized. Though death and destruction feature frequently, the eventual conclusion (although the poetry itself seems to doubt such a linear word) is that:
so long as you hold words in your hands the garden where tonight, as every night you open yourself to the wind’s passage will tell you what life really is”
You may detect an equivocal tone in my assessment. I want to laud the sequence's intellectual ambition, its poetic rigour, its uniqueness of voice and approach, its demandingness. At the same time, I found its austerity hostile to the audience, and perhaps needlessly evasive. That our experience and interpretation of the world is fragmentary, that contemporary life is a negotiation between historical archetype and the present's undoing, that linguistic and experiential meaning are loose and changeable – these are all now philosophical commonplaces, rather than grand poetic revelations, and, I would say, deserve to be treated plainly rather than with a sense of grand mystery. These ideas form the aesthetic frame of Seizing: Places, and once that frame is established it is hard to see where the real interest for the reader might lie, beyond picking apart the rarefied theoretical construction of the work. Without much pleasure to take in the language, without much personality to identify with or continuous action to root the reading in or route it through, I wondered if the book really had more to offer than a (particularly deeply-constructed) intellectual exercise.