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#223: GUILLEVIC. Among the masters of poetic compression—Dickinson, Creeley, the Quebecoise Anne Hebert, Celan, the great haiku poets—the Breton French-language poet Guillevic walks easily among the best. After working to achieve his voice in the forties and fifties, his work ever afterward had no truck with the rolling alexandrines of a Lamartine or Hugo; in Requis, for instance, a mid-career collection, the poems are two or three, six or maybe even eight lines long, sometimes ten or twelve lines in a wild moment of loquacity, but rarely with more than five or six words in each line. They are not epigrams, or aphorisms: they don’t snap shut with definition, but edge out into the larger world the way poems do. They aren’t haiku, though this one might have satisfied Master Basho:

Lors d’un combat des rues, During a street fight,

Entre deux morts tout frais, Between two newly dead bodies,

Un geranium en fleur. A geranium in bloom.

Carnac, published in 1961 and thought to be his first fully achieved work, is a book-length collection about his native territory, entirely done in these short versets; Art Poetique, published when he was eighty-two, bears no resemblance to Boileau but uses this form not to prescribe but to describe the experience of writing verse.

Le mot du poeme The word of the poem

Connait le malaise, Knows the unease,

Le besoin de posseder, The need to possess itself,

Celui de savoir The need to know

Ou sont les limites Where its limits are

Et s’il peut bruler And if it can burn

Sans se detruire. Without being destroyed.

Guillevic’s most intense imaginative connections are with his landscapes, more so than with other people; there are few poems of romance or relationship. The poems are often built of the va-et-vient of imagining and identification: in the sixty-plus pages of “La Mer,” we become convinced that if the sea could speak, this is what it would say to us. Similarly with “Les Menhirs,” about the distinctive standing stones of his native Bretagne:

Nous sommes de la duree We are the passage of time

Qui s’est arretee Which has stopped

Pour se voir passee. To see itself go by.


Nous sommes faits We are made

Des cris des goelands Of the cries of seagulls

Arrivees au bout du monde, Who have reached the end of the world.

Fatigues. Exhausted.

Guillevic’s poems have not everything and only to do with terseness or brevity (Anne Hebert, in phrasing, is more terse than Guillevic is). Each piece is an achieved and completed poem, but without an ounce of body fat. In Requis, he referred to the individual verses as quanta, which has led to some pretty loose talk about Guillevic as physics; but the term does convey how each piece is nonetheless part of a whole, when so intended. Guillevic’s mind spreads naturally into the world and landscape about him, just as it rolls back into him imaginatively; Gary Snyder spoke of the waterwheel, which fills on the upswing and pours out on the downturn. Poetry in French has never had so strong a landscape tradition as had, say, the English or the Chinese; in his distinctive and moving and modern way, Guillevic fills that gap up. He recovers, reinstates our presence in the natural world. Now, in the midst of our unprecedented ecological crisis, no poet has more to say to us of that world we are still living in—for a while longer yet, if we’re lucky.

Guillevic was a vastly prolific poet: over 30 collections of poems, over 150 livres d’art editions with major artists, many musical settings; his main publisher, Gallimard, has yet to gather him into the Bibilotheque de la Pleiade. Getting Guillevic into English has been slow and partial work, but the bilingual editions have, fortunately, almost no overlap. A SelectedPoems, published by New Directions with French texts and translated by Denise Levertov, contains work written between 1942 and 1966. Carnac is a book-length piece, translated by John Montague and published with texts by Bloodaxe Books, 1999. Euclidians was translated by Teo Savory and published by Unicorn Press, 1975; no French, and to me one of the less interesting collections, though still good. Summoned: Poems 1977-1982, translated by Monique Chefdor and Stella Harvey, is a translation with texts of the book Requis, from Parlor Press, 2016. Black Widow Press, which has made a great project of publishing French poets in translation, has done two substantial books: The Sea and Other Poems, translated by Patricia Terry, 2007; and Art Poetique, translated by Maureen Smith.

Levertov, in her introduction, quotes A.C. Graham: “Beyond a certain point one cannot reconcile the demands of translation and of poetry…However much the imagery may vitalize the rhythm and diction of the English, it is still true that the translator is trying to force into one language an imaginative process natural to another.” The translations cited above I found of immense help in understanding Guillevic, but perhaps only back in his original and masterful French do we have poetry; I always had the urge to read the French aloud, to hear it. Still, in neither language is anyone quite like Guillevic; I’m betting the understanding’s going to be more than enough.

Les paumes The palm of a hand

Aiment accueillir. Likes to extend a welcome.

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