When the Stonecutter’s Work is Done

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Be warned: Char demands much from his reader. His poetry seems to exist in a limbo, where emotion and intellect meet with startling results. His labyrinthine vision leads the reader into a universe where everything seems transformed.

In a new translation from Nancy Naomi Carlson, the enchanting voice of the visionary René Char is once again brought to life. Stone Lyre, a collection of selected poems from across nearly fifty year of Char’s career, charms the reader with its mysterious and unfettered imagery. But the poet’s particular blend of the personal and the cosmic spheres should not be considered an easy read. Carlson, in her introduction, remarks on the difficulty of Char’s “lyric intensity,” but the results of her translations amount to a compelling success.

Be warned: Char demands much from his reader. His poetry seems to exist in a limbo, where emotion and intellect meet with startling results. His labyrinthine vision leads the reader into a universe where everything seems transformed. But the reader is seldom disappointed because these poems can be anything: sketches of confusion, of imagination, of reverie, of ecstasy.

In “Évadné” Char is at his most elusively ambivalent. The first six lines read:

Summer and our life, we were fused
Fields devoured the hues of your perfumed clothes
Restraint and passion declared a truce
Maubec Castle was sinking in loam
Soon the ring of its lyre would cease
The violence of plants made us reel.

Each line is a full clause, and the reader soon realizes the tremendous density of Char’s thoughts; he has crafted a somewhat mythical setting for his poem and populated it with unnamed characters, all in a mere six lines. This mythos only has meaning because of its clarification of the real, and that is exactly Char’s mission in his poetry—a search for marvelous ecstasy amongst the everyday. This attempt at authenticity through imagination works best in this poem because the images do not take up any peaceful or tender qualities. Rather, the fields devour, the castle drowns into the earth, and the plants are made violent.

But Char’s images are not entirely sinister, either. The envoi disconnects physically from the rest of the poem and upends the dark mood of the previous fifteen lines. It reads, “This at the start of endearing years/ I recall the earth loved us a little.” Char’s poem works in two seemingly disparate directions, moving toward both feelings of tenderness and tragedy. The reader is left with questions: If the years are so endearing, why does the earth only love a little? Is the speaker of this couplet the same as the previous stanza?

But Char does not concern himself with working to answer any of these notions. In the same vein as his Surrealist contemporaries, he does not concern himself with answering the question, but with simply putting it forth.

Another question the reader will find themselves asking is, Why the title Stone Lyre? In a subtle but brilliant move, Carlson has arranged Char’s poem “Invitation” to begin the collection.
The poem’s conclusion may give some insight into the choice of title:

I come before the rush of springs, when the stonecutter’s
work is done.

A thousand years weigh less than a corpse on my lyre.
I summon the lovers.

Note that this introductory poem ends with an invocation—not the prototypical appeal to the Muses, but a summoning of the lovers, an invisible couple that Char envisions and uses to inform the rest of the collection. The poet literally flips the most recognizable poetic convention on its head. Carlson, in her introduction, describes the care she took to preserve Char’s exquisite Provençal meter, and she finds in the title Stone Lyre “a dynamic quality of a balancing of opposites.” This perhaps best states the way in which Char’s poetry works, in two seemingly irreconcilable directions.

Char’s lyric expressiveness should be recognized as masterful, yet Carlson’s care in translation also necessitates praise. She takes care to include his most emblematic short poems, and even though they only occupy a tiny section of the page, these are often his most devastating pieces. “The Oriole,” which can be reprinted here in its entirety, is one of these:

The oriole breached dawn’s capital town.
The sword of song closed the cheerless bed.
All forever came to an end.

In just a scant three lines, Char is able to invoke a dated verse form (the aubade) with a singular delicacy. He remolds usual cheery imagery here (a bird welcoming the morning with the “sword of his song”) by pairing it with a paradoxical and pessimistic proclamation on time. How can “all forever” be so limited? Why is the bed so miserable early in the day? The universe of the poem seems so miniscule to the casual observer, but Char invites his reader to imagine more, to feel more, and to see more than is actually presented on the page.

Char has also returned to even older verse traditions for inspiration, and remade them with a fresh passion. A notable example of this is the ekphrastic poem “Magdalene with Smoking Flame,” inspired by the painting by Georges de La Tour, circa 1640. This is ekphrasis, the refraction of one medium of art (painting) seen through another (poetry). Just as painting is a recreation of reality on canvas, so poetry is a recreation through text, via language. Each recreation occupies its own universe, but they can be used to refract one another in intriguing ways. From “Magdalene” come the lines

To trample the signs of seeing you suffer, I’d wish today for snow-covered grass: I’d turn away from death’s form—crude and harsh—under your tender hand. One capricious day, others, less avid than I, will remove your canvas blouse, will invade your alcove.

Char is not solely interested in a physical description of the work of art, but in altering the perception of it in his own poetry. Rather than lines, this poem comes as a block of prose, and yet the constant caesuras caused by the punctuation give the piece a lyrical resonance. The inclusion of “death’s form” references the skull that is beneath the young lady’s hand in de La Tour’s painting, but the reader does not specifically need to know this to appreciate Char’s lines; the speaker’s voice takes on a note of kindheartedness in longing for an end to Magdalene’s suffering, even while hinting her innocence will be lost once “others…will remove your canvas blouse.” The mode of ekphrasis gives Char a concrete foundation by way of de La Tour’s painting, yet he alters the customary rhetoric to achieve his own vision.

Carlson’s translations are another refraction, another ekphrasis. She recreates Char’s enigmatic voice with remarkable clarity in the English. This collection does well to select poems from throughout his prodigious career, from all across the Char universe, and yet each poem feels connected to the book as a whole. As Ilya Kaminsky says in his foreword, “Anyone who opens this book…will love her musical use of our language.” Carlson has returned Char to the English in exactly the manner he occupies the French: at once expansive and delicate, imaginative and intimate.

The difficulties a reader may face make this collection more rewarding for the challenge. The selected poems in this collection make it perfect for the seasoned Char enthusiast or the first-time adventurer. He so perfectly blends the cosmic and the romantic that no reader should feel disappointed.

To understand Char, it is vital to understand and accept the apparent oppositions in his work as much as possible. In creating his own particular brand of lyric/aphorism/prose poem with an unfettered imagination, René Char seeks to put the ineffable in words. But be warned: the foreword insists, “one is not reading words in a language but sparks of flame that deny any attempt at interpretation, or rather that open themselves to multiple interpretations at once, clashing with each other.”

Adam Palumbo is a poet-critic from Annapolis, MD. His research includes rigorous people-watching, too many hours on his computer, and wearing sweatpants in the kitchen. He reads a lot and writes a little. He is the recipient of the 2010 Margaret Haley Carpenter Award for Poetry. More from this author →