Because you read me, dear reader,
therefore I am; because you read us
(my book and me), dear reader,
therefore we are (You, it and i).
I have come back to it often, this book, whose title is variously translated as Things, The Voice of Things or Taking the Side of Things, not least because it asks me to. Beth Archer’s canny 1972 translation of French writer Francis Ponge’s book of arresting prose poems (though there’s a lot to be said for Cid Corman’s version as well) captures much of the cleverness of the original language while managing to transform the work, through some arcane prosodic alchemy, into something that reads with great verve and elasticity in English. The epigraph to Archer’s translation (which begins this piece) invites readers in with a kind of wit and generosity very much in the spirit of Ponge’s own vision. It’s a poetics that privileges the act of observation as a collaborative process–worthy, daring (and sometimes dangerous) but always worth the risk.
The Voice of Things, as one might expect, is profoundly concerned with the relationship of the human world to the non-human–rain, blackberries, oysters, oranges, cigarettes, trees, bread, water, the end of Autumn, mollusks, snails, moss, meat, shells, pebbles and snails. But as Ponge describes them, these objects become strange and wondrous, unfamiliar and swollen with odd metaphors. Reading them is something like catching a glimpse of your own image, oddly distorted, in a surface you hadn’t thought reflective until you saw it from an unexpected angle. Archer renders these prose poems in matter-of-fact language that stresses the weirdness of the images by its starkness. This is prose but it is not the prose of the world you know. Imagine listening to a public service announcement that suddenly turns into a riddle you’ve been asking your whole life and never known it. I think the analogy conveys something of the sense of mystery that involves me in this poetry, keeps me circling back, again and again, especially when I am so foolish as to think I’ve solved it. But I do not mean to to be sentimental. Judge for yourself. Here is one of Archer’s translations:
Fire has a system: first all the flames move in one direction…
(One can only compare the gait of fire to that of an animal; it must first leave one place before occupying another; it moves like an amoeba and a giraffe at the same time, its neck lurching, its foot dragging)…
Then, while the substances consumed with method collapse, the escaping gasses are subsequently transformed into one long flight of butterflies.
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