Thursday, August 18, 2016

An impression of coherence - working on a Reverdy poem

Another Pierre Reverdy from The Roof Slates (1918), a good one for me to work on.

The Shadow of the Wall

An eye with a quill through its back
A tear that comes from the moon
              A lake
The world finds its home in a sack
              After dark
The cypress trees all give one sign
That the highway’s white blank underlines
The hibernal landscape is blue
                   Fingers tremble
A big square another resembles
Shadows dance between the two
Invisible animals
 The length of the road
                                         Rain falls

This is on p. 77 of The Roof Slates and Other Poems of Pierre Reverdy, tr. Mary Ann Caws and Patricia Terry.

Several lines rhyme.  Does the French rhyme?  Yes, in roughly the same places.  Keeping the rhymes in English is not a special problem – “signe / souligne,” “tremblent / ressemblent.”  The choice of “back” in the first line gets us a bonus rhyme, to add to the “lake / sack” slant rhyme (“lac / sac”).  Reverdy uses rhyme, perfect and off, frequently but irregularly.

The poem describes a scene, observed or imagined, static.  Let’s say it does.  The title presents an object.  The subsequent lines describe it with a series of images, not necessarily logically connected.  The violent first image is almost irritating now, since I cannot escape the similar, more famous, image in Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929).  The shadow as a moon-tear is cute.   Anyone in a poetry writing class could free associate from there to a “lake,” kept by Reverdy because of the rhyme with his next metaphor.

The next set of images moves away from the wall, expanding the scene.  If this were a painting, with everything presented at once, I would likely move in reverse – winter scene; road; line of trees; wall; shadow.  Reverdy works outward from one corner of the imagined painting.

“La paysage hivernal est bleu” – I guess “hibernal” is chosen rather than the more ordinary “wintry” because of the internal rhyme with “highways.”  The trembling fingers are the only hint that the viewer, the poet, is in the landscape.  This is the poem’s first bit of motion, which then extends to the two squares.  Are they moving, or are they just like something that is moving?  I don’t understand the English line at all.  “Deux grands carrés qui se ressemblent” – “Two big squares that resemble / Shadows dancing among / Animals that can’t be seen,” translates the French student, taking the three lines as a single sentence, which may be wrong.

If I move around in the book, the number of overlapping elements is huge.  Shadows, shapes, lines, rain, walls.  Dancing.  “On the backdrop / A handsome troup / Dances.”  “On the edge of the roof /       A cloud is dancing.”  “Lights play on the wall.” “The shadow hidden by a leaf in flight” – now that’s a curious idea, isn’t it, moving my attention away from the thing I am seeing to its theoretical but hidden shadow.  I am literally leafing through the book, compiling Reverdy’s private vocabulary, words that he would like to imbue with more meaning.  He wants them to signify what they usually do, and also more.  How often this can really happen, I don’t know.  “A reader who responds to a Reverdy poem will find that it gives an impression of coherence before he can explain how this is so” (Patricia Terry, p. 9).  Yep.

Tomorrow, I’ll turn to Gertrude Stein, who prefers an impression of incoherence.

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