Philippe Jaccottet was born in 1925 in Switzerland, but has lived in France since the mid-1940s. Apart from poetry, he also writes prose and essays; his bibliography is several dozen strong. He is also a prolific translator, who has worked on some heavyweights, from the German (Goethe, Musil, Rilke, Mann, Hölderlin, Bachmann) and from other languages (Homer, Plato, Mandelstam). He received the Prix Goncourt de la poésie in 2003, and in 2014 he became the fifteenth living writer (and the fourth Swiss writer, after Rousseau, Cendrars and Ramuz) to have his works published in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade.
I first heard about Jaccottet several years ago, when a friend and a brilliant poet herself, Wioletta Greg, recommended his poetry to me. What a revelation. And what a feast!
The book under review here is Jaccottet’s sixth in English. The pieces it contains are compressed, often snapshot-like (both poetry and prose), highly sensuous and particular – and very strongly anchored in south-east France, where the poet has lived since 1953. They are powerful in their contemplative and lyrical restraint:
‘Say nothing: what you were going to say
would drown the sound.
Only listen: the doors have opened.’
Jaccottet’s poems (but also his prose pieces) are as attentive to detail as the best macro photography can be, so excitedly and arrestingly visual, and at the same time so linguistically streamlined and deceptively simple, yet inventive. As Jaccottet himself puts it, it is all to ‘avoid explaining a thing, but find exactly the right words to convey it’. His is an incredible ability to zoom in on an object or a specific view and then push beyond the visual, achieve the level of universal, even though, as he declares, ‘It is the utterly simple that is impossible to put into words’. He recreates and creates at the same time, he converges man and landscape, human and natural:
‘Snow loosening its hair, combing it out into streams, snow that was braided tight by the winter cold – and once the combs and pins are removed, it falls free, streams into live, scented strands of hair – all freshly trickling waters of spring in the fields.’
This is a double poetry volume – and double in a double sense: two volumes of poetry / prose pieces are combined here, and in their two language versions – original French and Constantine’s and Treharne’s English translation. The original sets were written concurrently in the 1980s, relatively late in Jaccottet’s career, echoing each other, if not formally, then thematically. This volume opens the door to the world of one of the most interesting European poets of our times, so please do go in.
Reviewed by Anna Blasiak
UNDER CLOUDED SKIES and BEAUREGARD / PENSÉES SOUS LES NUAGES et BEAUREGARD
Written by Philippe Jaccottet
Translated from the French David Constantine & Mark Treharne
Published by Bloodaxe Books (first published in 1994, republished in 2000)
Anna Blasiak is an art historian, poet and translator. She has translated over 40 books from English into Polish and, mainly as Anna Hyde, Polish into English. She is a co-translator (with Marta Dziurosz) of Renia’s Diary by Renia Spiegel. Her bilingual poetry book, Café by Wren’s St James-in-the-Fields, Lunchtime, is out from Holland House Books. annablasiak.com.
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