Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Her Streets are Now Ours: A review of Jacques Roubaud’s The form of a city

The Details: published July 2006 by Dalkey Archive Press (www.dalkeyarchive.com),
$13.95 paperback, 247 pages, ISBN: 1-56478-383-9

The Book: A collection of 150 poems (1991-1998) organized into 10 thematic sections,
varying by style and subject, with translation by Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. It is a
grand tour of Paris, the City of Light.

The Poet: Jacques Roubaud has four novels and two books of poetry available in
English translation. He is a member of the innovative literary group Oulipo, whose work
with form, constraint and memory this collection clearly exemplifies.

The Context: An exploration of the conditions and changes of the beloved city that has
inspired so many of the world’s great artists—poets like Rimbaud, Francois Villon, and
Baudelaire; painters like Tolouse-Latrec and the Montmartre personalities in dance and
music and other entertainments that he immortalized; composers like Michel Legrand;
playwrights and theorists such as the four Jeans—Anouilh, Genet, Sartre, Cocteau; and
innovative filmmakers like Truffaut and Godard. The poems bring to mind the magnetism
that drew famous American expatriates to Paris, from Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude
Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald during the café society of the 1920s to rock
star turned poet Jim Morrison, who spent his last three and a half months within her
arms and whose grave is still one of the main attractions of Père Lachaise cemetery.

The Words: The book begins, quite appropriately, with “Paris,” a 4 line poem after
Raymond Queneau (whose influence appears throughout the book—he was also a
member of Oulipo):

“The Paris we find to traipse/Is not the one we used to find/And we’re not wild to get
to/The Paris we will leave behind”

Over the course of the 247 pages the reader encounters all of Paris’ most famous
landmarks—Avenue del’Opéra, Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Bastille, the Tuleries, Rue
de Rivoli, the best known cemeteries, the Bibliothéque Nationale, and the Eiffel Tower.
This latter monument, perhaps the City’s most famous, spurs Roubaud to write:

“It would indeed be difficult to talk of Paris without talking of the tower” and of other
poets: “they have seen it so much that they don’t see it anymore” (“Poem of the Eiffel

Like the sense of change with which the collection so fundamentally deals, this idea of
the spectacular becoming the familiar and ultimately the foreign is not singular to Paris—
it is universal. It is happening in large cities and in small towns no longer small
throughout the world.

It is not only the concrete, physical world of the city that is familiar to us, but the
conditions of the writers walking her streets as well. “Queneau in November” paints a
picture that could be applicable to many late-autumn artists. This exploration of the
condition of the artist also appears in “Among a lot of Poems”:

“A poem I wrote with my feet/As I compose all my poems/Silently in my head walking”

and more cryptically in the poem “Informal Intimate Ode...”:

“I’ve grown stopped growing begun to grow”

Roubaud is obviously a lover of language and an adept when it comes to wordplay, and
this collection has a little bit of something for just about everyone’s tastes, from the
rhyming couplets of “Place du General-Brocard” to the “pictopoems,” or what one could
call word art, on pgs. 176-77. Other notable examples include “Rue Jonas” and “Plesent
Streets.” An extreme example is “Impasse de Nevers,” which uses an almost Joycean
experimentation with language. Along the same lines, there is an interesting permutation
of sentences using the words black, grave and street in “Undated Night, Rue Saint-
Jacques.” Roubaud makes interesting use of nested parens and the mathematical
construction of language in the abstract as well as in the concrete in the form of such
things as street addresses, arrondissements (subdivisions of an administrative district),
and license plates.

Overall there is a nice balance of complexity/simplicity and abstract/concrete, although
the more extreme wordplay and experimentation with language ride the edge of
pretension and cleverness along the lines of T.S. Eliot. There is also the more
philosophically questionable pieces, such as “Invitation to the Voyage” (a list of cities
and other places from A-W) and the section “Hommage to Sebastien Bottin’s Telephone
Directory,” which beg the reader to ask that unfortunate and thorny question—Is this
even poetry?

But, more to the point, does such a label as “poetry” even matter? It is inevitable that
when an artist is testing boundaries over a considerable span of time and experience,
that some things will work better than others and will apply less or more to the individual
reader’s own tastes and sensibilities.

Because of the considerable scope and style of the 150 poems in the collection, it would
have been interesting to hear the translators’ thoughts on handling this aspect of their
work. (There is no translators’ foreword or other elucidations beyond the very helpful
endnotes on the poems and poets, etc. that the poems reference. I have always found
the translators of poetry—especially that which is experimental or particularly abstract or
philosophical—to have wonderful insights into the way they work. Thomas Merton’s
notes on his translation of the Way of Chuang Tzu or Edward Fitzgerald’s on Rubaiyat of
Omar Khayyam come clearly to mind. Note: I did recently receive a notice through a
Listserv that Keith Waldrop has a new translation out of Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil that
is billed as groundbreaking.

The section entitled “Six Logical Pieces” bears comment. It is a series of philosophical
dialogues with an interesting format. There are two poems per subsection, that alternate
between the concrete (5 street poems and 1 about Time, the latter bringing to mind
Gertrude Stein) following a predecessor poem that is far more abstract. There was
additional translation help from Norma Cole and Michael Palmer in this section.

I found the 20 Sonnets to not be Roubaud’s strongest, most easily flowing form,
although there were some simply stated yet very profound insights offered that brought
to mind the poems of Rod McKuen. There is also an interesting use of footnotes in
Sonnet XII as compared with the unnecessary editorial footnotes in Sonnets V and XV—
I would much prefer it if such illuminations were left to the reader to discover on his or
her own.

Other Thoughts:

The Section Square des Blancs-Manteaux 1983, Meditation on Death, in Sonnets
reminds me of Gregory Corso’s The Happy Birthday of Death, and was a very thought-
provoking read.

The prose poems “Square Louis-XVI” and “Our Kings” (pgs. 57-58) seem so appropriate
in the aftermath of the 2001 atmosphere of strained U.S.–French war relations.

At the risk of following too closely in the footnotes that I criticized above, I suggest a
careful read of the two dream poems on pages 78-79.for the subtle differences they

“Quiet Days at Porte d’Orleans” (both a section title and series of poems) has a little bit
of everything, from 2- to 3-line poems consisting of funny little observations to more
complex pieces. There are very subtle changes in the three poems from 1991, 1993,
and 1995 that share the name with the section. They are worth the time it takes to
compare them.

“Pont Mirabeau” is worth mentioning because it contains a footnote that generates a
second footnote—something I have never seen in my sixteen years of writing and editing
artistic and scholarly works. I say, it’s about time.

In Closing:

For its varied considerations of one of the world’s most interesting cities, its scope and
experimentation and sense of fun, Jacques Roubaud’s latest book of poetry deserves a
place on the shelf of the lover of Paris, the poet, and the enthusiastic student of the
poetic form.

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