songofthedead-cover

I daresay Pierre Reverdy is the favorite French poet among American poets. But how well do we really know his work? The two-volume 2010 Flammarion paperback edition of his Oeuvres complètes amounts to more than 3000 pages. But starting with Kenneth Rexroth’s 1969 collection from New Directions, now out of print (but its great introductory essay is still worth seeking out), American publishers have given us mostly pretty slim selections. And those have mostly focused on the poet’s early work of the ‘10s and ‘20s; for instance, the most recent selection, edited by Mary Ann Caws for New York Review Books in 2013, devotes about 130 pages to selections from books Reverdy published between 1913 and 1930, and just 30 pages to poems published  in the following 30 years, until his death in 1960. That’s why I’m glad that Black Square Editions, has been publishing a series of whole books (rather than selections) by Reverdy, and in outstanding translations — his 1913 Prose Poems by Ron Padgett and the long 1930 prose text Haunted House by John Ashbery, both issued in 2007, now joined by Dan Bellm’s rendering of the 1948 verse collection The Song of the Dead, giving the Anglophone world its first in-depth look at Reverdy’s later work. (Disclosure: the publisher of Black Square Editions is Hyperallergic Weekend editor John Yau, and the press released my volumes of poetry, Book Left Open in the Rain and Trembling Hand Equilibrium, in 2009 and 2015 respectively.) The author of this collection is very evidently the same man who gave us the great poems of the ‘10s and ‘20s — the ones in which “The earth holds itself still / You would say somebody sighed / The trees look like they were smiling / Water trembles at the tip of each leaf” (in Rexroth’s translation of “Secret” from the 1918 Roof Slates). But the voice has changed, as they tend to do as we age. The “crystalline lines” (as Rexroth called them) have taken on a bit more of a burr, which does not muffle their “plangent sounds” but does place them at a lower frequency on the audio spectrum. The pace seems a little slower. Reverdy is “working the softer seams of matter,” as one poem here has it. (I was surprised to notice that the same poem, “Living Late,” supplied the title for one of Luis Buñuel’s last films, The Phantom of Liberty.) Reverdy’s sense of things had already been profoundly marked by the first World War; the second one only deepened the desolate undertone of his verses  — “treasure of a world that weighs too much.” In place of a former immediacy is a distance or detachment: “I am so far away when I consider all that I love.” And yet the emotions embedded in the poems, “flowers of the scorched morning,” are always so plangent, so raw. Each line is a gesture. The translator’s task is to render, not the words themselves so much as the gestures they embody. Bellm’s translation shows them plainly. Of course, there will always be disagreements about interpretation. I’ll point out just one. To convey the last line of the four-line poem beginning, “Le refrain que je fredonne” (“This tune that I hum”), Bellm gives, “He found it in my hands” (“Il me l’a pris dans les mains”). The French does not specify whose hands are meant, while English makes it hard to avoid doing so. But it seems to me that it means something more like, “He took it from me into his hands.” In itself, this divergence of readings could be a little allegory of translating.

Pierre Reverdy’s The Song of the Dead, tr. by Dan Bellm (2016) is published by Black Square Editions and is available from the Hyperallergic store and other online booksellers.

The Latest

Required Reading

This week, Title IX celebrates 50 years, the trouble with pronouns, a writer’s hilarious response to plagiarism allegations, and much more.

Barry Schwabsky

Barry Schwabsky is art critic for The Nation and co-editor of international reviews for Artforum. His recent books include The Perpetual Guest: Art in the Unfinished Present (Verso,...