Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Friday, 10 October 2008

"The Beginning and End of the Snow" by Yves Bonnefoy (Leafe Press, 2008)

Dismiss any notion that pamphlets are mere stepping-stones leading budding poets towards book publication. This and Etter's volumes are slim only to the touch, and Leafe Press should be applauded for publishing them.

As well as being one of the most important post-war French poets and an art theorist, Yves Bonnefoy is also an acclaimed translator of Shakespeare and the Romantics. He thinks that translators should go back to the work's conception and re-grow it in the new setting. As if that's not daunting enough for his translators, Bonnefoy is allusive, deals with themes like "linguistic openness towards presence" (he has a Maths and Philosophy degree) and cares about the sound of words.

Does Alan Baker rise to the challenge? Well, if you don't like this book, it won't be for the quality of the translation (which is unfussy, and, judging by the translator's note, well-informed intertextually), more because France has a very different tradition to ours, both in poetry (tolerance of difficulty) and philosophy. Perhaps many UK poets could have written these lines from the first poem

Then, towards evening,
The light stiffens.
Shadows and dreams have the same weight

but then we get

A little wind
Writes with the end of its foot a word outside the world.

and we realise this is more than flashy imagery - it's symbolised thought. Snow and light accumulate meaning with each mention until towards the end, in "The Only Rose", several threads come together

I let a little light fall on it,
And suddenly I'm ten years old, in a meadow
With bees buzzing, and what am I holding
In my hands - these flowers, these shadows -
Is it almost honey, is it snow?

His symbol lexicon is pretty conventional so these bees could represent language storing words, capturing movement in stillness differently to how snow settles to emphasise form over detail. Taking away the pamphlet's empty lines leaves about 11 pages of poetry like this, offering a glimpse into another world - symbolic yes (a secular "Four Quartets" perhaps), but the snow never loses its snowiness. Don't be deterred by his reputation for obscurity - in this work there's none of his erstwhile disruptive surrealism. He's more impersonal than Burnside, more systematic, his imagery less haunting, but he's no harder.

(from "Poetry Nottingham", September 2008)

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