Last year was a good one for Anglophone admirers of Pierre Reverdy. Two of his books appeared in fine translations. A couple of months ago I read one of them, Dan Bellm’s rendering of a relatively late (1948) collection of poems, The Song of the Dead. Now here’s an early book, originally published in 1917, The Thief of Talant, in a version by the British poet Ian Seed (unfortunately without the original text en face). It’s not a collection of poems, exactly. As Seed tells us in his introduction, the book grew from a challenge by Reverdy’s one-time mentor, Max Jacob: Could he write a novel? The result was The Thief of Talant, which is not a novel at all, though Seed occasionally refers to it as such in his introduction, as did, in their day, readers as astute as Pierre Albert-Birot and Tristan Tzara (“almost the novel we’ve dreamed of,” he called it, which on second thought maybe doesn’t mean a novel at all). In any case, as Seed explains,  The Thief of Talant grew out of an earlier, “more realistic, yet still impressionistic, story in prose.” What we have now is a long poem or sequence with elusive narrative underpinnings in which, along with its protagonist, “you have to find your way through unknown faces where your gaze drowns.” The distinction  drawn by Kenneth Rexroth between Apollinaire’s poetry, in which “the elements, the primary data of the poetic construction, are narrative or at least informative wholes,” and Reverdy’s, in which “they are simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction,” does not seem to hold; despite its admission of more complex narrative molecules, the tone of The Thief is very close to that of the brief poems in Reverdy’s subsequent publication, Les ardoises du toit (Roof Slates, 1918). One never would have guessed that one of Reverdy’s crystalline constructs of linguistic shards could support itself on this scale. The book’s only named character, Abel the Magus, is modeled on Max Jacob; the protagonist, the “thief of talent,” is Reverdy himself; Seed describes how Jacob, who had a paranoid streak and was afraid that his friends were copying his work, slammed the lid down on a box of his papers when Reverdy curiously began looking at them — their relationship cooled down after that. Thus the pun embodied in the book’s title: Talan is a place near Dijon, an allusion to the fact that Reverdy saw himself as a provincial newcomer to Paris; but Jacob saw Reverdy as a thief of his talent. Seed interprets Reverdy’s depiction of Jacob as Abel to be satirical in intention, but I’m not so sure. By the end of the book, the Magus and the Thief become almost indistinguishable: “They looked like two portraits against the wall / The first greeted the second / In spite of their similar clothing they were recognized.” And then: “The next evening the Magus caught the train in the deserted station / Far away the door of a monastery was already opening / The world would revive perhaps.” But for whom the monastery door opens is unspecified: Magus or the Thief? It was Reverdy, of course, who in 1930 would permanently abandon Paris for a life of seclusion next to a Benedictine abbey; but it might just as easily have been his former friend of whom the poem says, “The brambles on the path cannot restrain his fervor / But at the bottom of the garden next to the decaying wall he feels the limits of the cloister and of his freedom and his eyelids lift.” What is seen but also who sees it remains an enigma.

Pierre Reverdy’s The Thief of Talant (2016) is published by Wakefield Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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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,...