Literary criticism

Review: Four Elemental Bodies by Claude Royet-Journoud

By: Thomas Sanfilip

Four Elemental BodiesThese days literary theory often plays a more significant role in culture than creative works themselves. In the case of poetry, even a cursory exposure to theory can manage to work an often insidious influence on the art. Poetic authenticity becomes merely a vague aspiration that can go on as endless imitation, aping mirror images of theory whereby poems fall trap to a fatal disease called self-consciousness from which there is little escape. However, sometimes an escape maneuver can be interesting, exposing in the process a more treacherous territory of textuality, though at the same time demanding a new aesthetic to adequately explain the new pheneomena on the page.

The work of the French poet Claude Royet-Journoud demands such consideration as this original translation of four volumes of his work testifies. Keith Waldrop has rendered a faithful and careful approximation of Royet-Journoud’s work on paper, from the placement of words to the loving expanse of white space necessary to enter and infer substance, at every point exerting the greatest of care and consideration bridging from the original French to English.

Royet-Journoud does not write poems in the traditional sense of the word. Royet-Journoud himself describes his poems as nothing more than text pretending to substantiality, a kind of prose that in his words “serves to clean out the body.” They read as residual echoes of words with no metaphoric or associative value attached. This expectation is clear from the outset, for Royet-Journoud’s words are really experimental text which ultimately forces the reader back on theory. As a result, to apply any aesthetic theory to them is counter-productive.

As he himself explains: “I am concerned with the problem of the page, of the book, of the lines, of the story in the poem … For me what is interesting is the literal and not the metaphoric … It’s just a question of waiting for the moment, and when it arrives, there is a certain space filled by the writing … In fact the poem has no origin.”

If this is so, it defies common sense that so much effort is made to reduce language to a series of non-sensical randomness merely to approximate the same harmonic effects poetry achieves without abandoning aesthetic values. Reducing words to mere textualizing, Royet-Journoud’s are consistently nullified, making it impossible for the reader to appreciate his experiments. Anything that represents in his terms the “struggle within a poem” he associates with normal poetic characteristics such as assonance, alliteration and metaphor he believes acts as a constraint on true poetic language. The irony is that his modus operandi seems to achieve just that, a reductionism that in his words vouchsafes any attachment to meaning.

behind the image
there is no further recourse
the inertia of things empties out emotion

*

one last time
he accompanies the noise
the space around

The problem is that one cannot get beyond Royet-Journoud’s neutered texts to make any natural associative connections either conceptually or imagistically. Successfully stripping words of their associative qualities as Royet-Journoud does – whether intended or not — subverts the organic intentions of language. Here is where Royet-Journoud’s structuralist and deconstructionist sympathies invade and overwhelm, giving his texts a kind of limpid decay and true emptiness to the white space that surrounds his words. There are innumerable examples of this impasse.

Light springs from your back. Your skin is fine. Your
palms plump. Your fingers short. Your earlobe is the
left side of your face.

*

Sonority is to some extent reflection. Quicker than his
own hand he turns his back to the snow. The beasts
reappear. I would love to be there.

At the same time, one can concede that Royet-Journoud is trying to preserve the residual effect of words that once had associative power as he works to direct their disassociative effects beyond the page, as if trying to approximate the radioactive shadows of once living human beings.

then the noun diminishes
before each utterance
each metaphorical
achievement

one day I shall issue from death
he said
and writing shall go free

 In the end, the cumulative effect of Royet-Journond textualizing evokes a distant world of stark existentiality reminiscent of the slow, heavily played out images of MichelangeloAntonioni, or the incomplete, staggered essence of Robbe-Grillet as well as many avant garde, experimental films of the 60’s all of whose influence has long since disappeared. Perhaps we have reached a juncture where such experiments in language are no longer poetic in the classic sense of the term. Certainly, one can read the influence of late Mallarme’s hypertext on Royet-Journoud’s work, giving the impression that this path has been run before in the past with more grace and style.

On the other hand, Royet-Journoud’s work can be reasonably understood in the context of the modernist mindset which is decidedly anti-aesthetic and obsessed with obliterating the presence of the artist’s hand. In this Royet-Journoud has succeeded admirably, and though his textualizing offered in hardly recognizable poetic vernacular is worth reading to experience, it sadly leaves nothing behind in its wake.

*All quotes taken from an interview with Claude Royet-Journoud published in Toward a New Poetics, Contemporary Writing in France (University of California Press, 1994).

******

Thomas Sanfilip’s poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as the Shore Poetry Anthology, Thalassa, Ivory Tower, Nit & Wit, Tomorrow and Ginosko Literary Journal. Five previous collections of poetry have been published — By the Hours and the Years (Branden Press), Myth/A Poem (Iliad Press, 2002), The Art of Anguish (2004), Last Poems (2007), Figures of the Muse (2012), in addition to a collection of short fiction, The Killing Sun (2006), all previous four published by Ara Pacis. A collection of published and unpublished essays will be published in 2013 by Bigio Morato titled Poetry in the Age of Impurity. Presently he lives in the Chicago area and has written for a variety of publications, including Book Page, Rain Taxi, Letter Ex, Filmfax, Film Quarterly, Film Score Monthly, The Journal of Popular Film and Television, and the Walt Whitman Encyclopedia.

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