Jean Follain’s ‘Demarcations’ reviewed
Reviewed by: Thomas Sanfilip
Translated from the French by Kurt Heinzelman
Most poetry written today cannot claim descent from the moral standard that underlies all great poetry, but rather the neutered outer shell of language that evolved in the 1950’s, and later descended into the widespread vernacular of extreme self-absorption that further descended into the miasma of post-modernism, a progression still going on and the raison d’etre for most artistic expression today.
For me, there is no question that Jean Follain’s poetry represents the last breath of any real moral underpinnings to poetic expression written after the Second World War, but only as a result of the lasting devastation on European life and culture. One could say that the form and substance of his poetry after the war, which this 1953 volume of his poetry originally titled Territoires represents and here translated into English as Demarcations for the first time in its entirety by Kurt Heinzelman, was a logical outgrowth of that conflict. Thereafter, a descent into the various contortions of a post-modernist fragmentation were fast beginning, and the poetic image so precious to Follain as representative of past traditions and the organic life of the soil ultimately found itself stripped of everything but artifice.
What makes this translation of Follain’s poetry so interesting is the pure balance Heinzelman achieves in retaining Follain’s implicit moral core with his incisiveness of vision that continually strives to reassemble and remember the past in each visionary moment captured. One reason Heinzelman’s translations succeed so well is his expressed simpatico with Follain’s rural sensibilities similar to his own background growing up in rural Wisconsin. What feeds into his near seamless actualizations of Follain’s poetry into English is his advantageous starting point. He exploits this similar attitudinal perspective of the natural world to great advantage and poignant effect in many poems throughout the collection.
Most importantly, Heinzelman never loses sight of the reverberative impact of Follain’s work as an integrated collection of poetry, not simply individual poems working in separate spheres. Between the major and minor notes, he approximates the poetry’s depth by careful choice of words that bring the shadings of Follain’s perception alive.
in a bowl or pane of glass
can bring back the sheer bliss of a fine memory
their fishbone-fine filigree
sparkling in a stroke
but lost at nightfall
swallow the hours whole
the lone ones
or the short.
Follain’s poems create an impressionist tableau of often frozen images of landscapes, people and memories, resolving themselves in an aftermath of calm that endeavors to supersede a destruction in the past. As a result, sometimes the images of people and landscapes he outlines in carefully placed words hold to each other in a kind of somnolent repose. They create a suspension of time and place around his subjects that often appear in outline rather than as living bodies, emerging out of the wake of events rather than the events themselves, becoming concentrations of color, shapes, and movements.
Over and over at school
you studied the problem
of substance and hydraulics
and along the way no one stopped
to quench his thirst at any fountain
except for the man in the corded overalls
coins jingling in his pocket
same brass as the bells
but in summer the piano player
struck up that old tune
absolving the world of its wrongs.
For me, Follain’s ability to rise above the historical precedent of his time, whether by conscious design or simply following the dictates of his poetic instincts, confirms the mastery of his handling of all those factors that distinguish true poetic greatness from mere poetic angst. On another level, Follain’s poetry does not exactly finds its genesis, as least in this late work, in dramatic scenarios, but in shifting dynamics of people’s lives and landscapes brought to the fore of the reader’s attention. It is this concentration of multiple perspectives that I think defines the real poetic strength of Follain’s poetry. A sense of loss permeates, but his poems also lament over the essence of things that have long disappeared. In this respect, I think Follain’s poems endeavor to resurrect the lost essence of the human experience that remains married to the natural world at some primal level, but has, in fact, been shattered or destroyed, at least for a time.
As such, Follain’s poetry evokes for me the denuded landscapes reminiscent of De Chirico. He extracts the essence of objects and scenes as if intent on tracing the residual path of decaying objects that resurrect themselves momentarily, making it possible to understand their essence under duress. Heinzelman’s handling of Follain’s poetic soundings of the human experience in all these transformations is deft and sure, replicating critical moments of transitions. His translation maintains the critical tension between what Follain’s poetry suggests and its natural symbolic representations, resonating linguistically at each syntactical turn without awkwardness of expression.
The books filling up the bedroom
stir the way aeolian harps do
whenever the wind visits from the orange groves
and the letter on the encrusted page
the white rag paper
and war thunders in the distance
and autumn bursts into flames
killing the beloved along with her lover
where a shoreline used to be.
“Books and Love”
My only criticism, and a minor one, is that Heinzelman’s introductory essay would have better served the reader as an addendum for those further interested in a more specialized literary examination of Follain’s poetry. Although enlightening and all-inclusive in its scope, it over-intellectualizes the historical and literary context of Follain’s poetry and its deeper thematic and linguistic aspects, in addition to its detailed overview of earlier translations of Follain’s work. The question of whether Follain, who died after being hit by automobile in the Place de la Concorde in 1971, falls into minor or major status in the canon of 20th century French poetry I think is not particularly relevant, except to literary scholars. Heinzelman throws light on the quandary, but provides only an indeterminate conclusion. I myself found the introduction extremely erudite and insightful, but the novice reader unfamiliar with Follain’s poetry, would find it I’m sure off-putting at the very start.
Ironically, I think appreciating Follain’s poetry is best revealed in Follain’s description of the poetry of his friend, poet Pierre Reverdy, which reads indirectly like a description of his own. His poems, Follain writes, were “entryways, dark or light, a ray of sun on rooftops or table, the tremor of life amidst the orbiting planets. One may find them in side roads or dirt roads leading to a unique field; gates or ramparts at dawn, in daytime, or the more or less pacified end of the day … surrounded by a large margin of silence, where time and space continuously merge.” This description and Follain’s concordance with Reverdy’s comments on poetry Follain believed were “among the best ever written, with clearsighted pathos” – may be the best key to understanding Follain’s unique poetic work, which this translation fully exemplifies.
*Quotes of Follain taken from Selected Prose by Jean Follain, translated by Mary Feeney and Louise Guiney, (Logbridge-Rhodes, 1985) p. 99.
Thomas Sanfilip’s poetry and fiction have appeared in such publications as the Shore Poetry Anthology, Thalassa, Ivory Tower, Nit & Wit, Tomorrow, Ginosko Literary Journal, and The Literary Yard. 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) and a collection of published and unpublished essays, Poetry in the Age of Impurity, published in 2013 by Bigio Morato. 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.