The Inventors and Other Poems by René Char, translated by Mark Hutchinson
Put a bunch of French Surrealists in front of a camera held by Man Ray and a bit of strangeness is bound to occur. In a photograph taken around the 1930s, six members of the movement are stiffly posed in a nondescript office in Paris. André Breton is, of course, seated front and center, sitting hunched with his arms and legs crossed, looking more tightly wound than a watch spring. A young Paul Éluard is still figuring out how to style his hair and wears it greased and over-parted. It's René Char though who stands out as the odd duck. Char, a man whom William Carlos Williams once described as "a mountain," stands towering over the others, making everyone in the frame seem as though they were packed into an elevator. True to Williams's description, Char belongs outdoors in the wide-open lavender fields of Provence, the region where he was born and would spend most of his life. In 1935, Char parted ways with the Surrealist movement, feeling somewhat hobbled by its philosophies; no low-ceilinged interiors or experimental literary groups could contain him for very long; he was a poet better left to his forge his own solitary path.
Born in 1907 in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Char showed early signs of a rebellious spirit akin to his poet-hero Rimbaud. His father died when he was eleven, and his already fraught relationship with his mother was complicated further by his failure to receive his baccalauréat. Shortly after a brief stint in trade school, he moved to Paris in search of artistic mentorship. He found himself in the orbit of Breton, the guiding star of the newborn Surrealist movement, and, like many, was mesmerized by Breton's intensity and vision. In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto, Breton wrote that surrealism was "pure psychic automatism," and that "thought freed from any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern" was one of its central tenets. The chaos of World War II, however, proved that there was much to be morally concerned about.
Prompted by Charles de Gaulle's famous radio address to resist German occupation, Char, like Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, committed himself to the Resistance. He became the commander of a small force of men who lived hidden in the maquis, a dense coverage of trees and shrubs, near the village of Céreste. The men were responsible for working with and organizing Allied forces' parachute drops. One of Char's better known poems in The Inventors, "The Library is on Fire," was inspired by the constant anxieties of war:
From the muzzle of this gun it snows. Our heads were an
inferno. At the same moment, spring is at our fingertips: the
open stride at liberty once more, the earth in love, the grasses
The opening stanza begins in medias res; the first line collapses elements of surrealism, symbolism, and nature in a beautifully filmic image. Time stops, cold metal held stock-still is juxtaposed against a backdrop of softly falling snow. While the disembodied personages of the poem grasp for hope, nature remains ambivalent, continuing on its path regardless of the terrors that afflict humanity.
"The library is on fire" was a war code for a parachute drop, and on one such routine drop one of the containers exploded and set fire to the forest where Char's group was stationed, putting them in immediate danger of being discovered by the Gestapo. After the incident, Char wrote, "I believe in the magic and in the authority of words." The word "fire" was capable of catching fire; "the library" was symbolic of a stand of trees from which books are made. Char would later appeal to have the code changed.
In Hypnos: Notes from the French Resistance, also translated by Hutchinson, Char's wartime journal exhibits how easily he navigates the porous region between poetry and prose. With the same sort of lyric beauty seen in the work of the ancient Greek poet, Alcaeus, Char strives for a supreme clarity as seen in this vignette:
Our dog, Ketty, takes as much pleasure as we do in gathering up the parachute drops. She goes briskly from one to the other without barking, knowing exactly what is required. Once the work is over, she stretches out, happy, on the dune formed by the parachutes and falls asleep.
Char uses images from the natural world as a vehicle for order amidst chaos, a symbol of a persistent hope. Animals are grounded in earthly experience in a way human beings are not; they are capable of obedience and independence to an admirable degree. For Char, poetry was the ultimate mode of resistance. Poets cannot make sense of senseless events, they can only strive to commit themselves to sense-making.
Char's codename during the Resistance was Hypnos, the Greek god of sleep, a fitting moniker since many of his poems move through a somnambulist's state. In an untitled poem, his skill as a poet-hypnotist is clear:
Because he hated sleeping
with the window open.
He said before he died
I've spent entire nights
watching you sleeping
brooding on your reflection in the window
In just nine lines a mini Greek tragedy is staged with two sibling antagonists as its actors. From the onset, the poem feels as though it will go up in smoke, each line unspools into the next like a lit trail of gunpowder. The poem, in my view, is a modernist masterpiece, a singular incendiary creation. As the scholar Emile Snyder wrote, "A poem by René Char is an act of violence." Indeed, the verbs are sinister, "strangling," "watching" -- they create a sense of brooding occupation with darkness. The lack of a period at the end signifies uncertainty; the poem does not resolve, but opens up into further anguish.
Char's work evokes a sense of struggle, nothing is ever capped with a feeling of resolution. In a poem called "Lay of the Fig Tree" nature is not so much a subject, as the material for myth creation.
There was so much frost that winter
That the milky branches mauled the saw
Or snapped in two. Come spring,
The gracious ones would not turn green.
Of the master of the fallen wood
The fig tree asked a flourishing new faith.
And lo, like a fiery prophet come to tell
Of new life dawning, an oriole appeared;
Yet, alighting on the ill-starred tree,
Succumbed, not to hunger but to love.
Here, elemental forces battle for dominance, the fig tree and the oriole are resurrected symbols from an ancient mythology. Again, the subject of resistance is prominent, the tree destroys the saw, winter destroys the tree, and the oriole arrives as a peace offering. As with many of Char's poems, there is no roof on this poem; it exists not in a manmade space, but in open air. Hutchinson includes in his notes section a wonderful anecdote about how, during one particularly brutal winter, Char soaked a bunch of dried figs in milk and tied them to the sad little fig tree in question.
Char's commitment to nature was as strong as his commitment to craft; he protested against the pollution of the Sorgue River and the installation of nuclear reactors on the Mont Ventoux, the same mountain that Petrarch climbed in 1336. He was not a regionalist poet, nor was he a sort of French Robert Frost, he simply thought that the place names, such as the River Sorgue, the woods of Epte, the Thor, and Mont Ventoux, had stories to tell. More so than the Surrealists, Char was influenced by artists, many of whom he maintained lifelong friendships with; he knew Matisse, George Braque, Miró, Ernst, Giacometti, and Picasso, and also wrote poems about Rembrandt, George de La Tour, and the painters of Lascaux. He learned to look at the natural world with a painter's eye. "We have only one recourse with death," he once wrote, "to make art before it comes." Poetry was his sole occupation and his artistic output was prodigious.
It is surprising, then, that only forty poems were assembled for this collection, considering Char's better-known works number over twenty-five volumes of verse, and upwards of eighty books, spanning his first publication in 1928 to his death in 1988. The beautifully designed book hardly warrants a hardcover, when the thickness of the pages barely exceeds the thickness of the cover flaps. Another somewhat disconcerting aspect of The Inventors is the absence of the original French on the left-hand page. Part of the enjoyment of reading translated works is being able to see the original language and perhaps tests one's sense of it against the translator's. On the other hand, publishers have good reasons for the choices they make; including that the French could have potentially detracted readers from becoming fully immersed in the English, or maybe, like many things, it all boiled down to a lack of funds. Even still, I was unable to contain my curiosity and compared Hutchinson's translation of the above poem against Gustaf Sobin's in The Brittle Age and Returning Upland from Counterpath Press -- the difference was striking.
So much it froze that the milky branches
Hurt the saw, and snapped in the hands.
Spring did not see the gracious ones turn green.
From the master of the felled, the fig tree
Asked for the shrub of a new faith.
But the oriole, its prophet,
The warm dawn of his return,
Alighting upon the disaster,
Instead of hunger, died of love.
Sobin's also includes the French, and his translation follows the original like a careful tightrope walker:
Tant il gela que les branches laiteuses
Molestèrent la scie, se cassèrent aux mains.
Le printemps ne vit pas verdir les gracieuses.
Le figuier demanda au maître du gisant
L'arbuste d'une foi nouvelle.
Mais le loriot, son prophète,
L'aube chaude de son retour,
En se posant sur le désastre,
Au lieu de faim, périt d'amour.
Despite showing such a strong fidelity the original, there's something about Sobin's version that seems scrubbed clean of vitality. In his introduction, Hutchinson speaks out against mot-à-mot translation, mere "cribs" he calls them, safe renderings that hamper the music of the original poem. While Hutchinson takes clear liberties, one being the addition of the anachronistic "And lo" and the hyphenated compound "ill-starred," which is far more Keatsian than French, his version is clearly the more beautiful; it captures the soul of the poem and is arguably more dazzling than the embryo from which it was born. The last line, which Sobin translates as "Instead of hunger, died of love" is handled more deftly by Hutchinson's reading, "Succumbed, not to hunger but to love." He removes the potentially melodramatic tone in favor of staying true to Char's vision of the poem as part myth, part fable. In the end, Hutchinson and Char are aptly matched. Hutchinson shares Char's love of precision and expertly captures the stabbing distillation and lucidity that are so characteristic of Char's poetry.
Today, Char's name probably doesn't ring much of a bell, even for Francophiles, but there was a time in the 1950s when his work was widely translated by the likes of William Carlos Williams, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, and Richard Wilber, who were all in awe of the unclassifiable nature of Char's work. Sadly, poetry translation in the United States underwent a long period of drought that is only recently being rectified by a handful of publishers. With the release of The Inventors, beautifully translated by Mark Hutchinson, Seagull press does poetry readers a great service by reinvigorating interest in a man once named by Albert Camus as "France's greatest living poet." The Inventors is meant to be read alongside Hutchinson's other translation, Hypnos: Notes from the French Resistance, and for me this is not optional -- independently they are each beautiful books, but together they are stunning.
The Inventors and Other Poems by René Char, translated by Mark Hutchinson