Writing About the Concrete: Marie-Claire Bancquart
Born in Aveyron, France (1932), MARIE-CLAIRE BANCQUART, Emeritus Professor at Paris IV-Sorbonne, is the author of more than twenty collections of poetry in French, most recently Terre énergumène (Le Castor Astral, 2009), Verticale de secret (Obsidiane, 2007) and Avec la mort, quartier d’orange entre les dents (Obsidiane, 2005). She has newly published a collection of critical essays and poems, Entre marge et présence (Éditions Henry-Les Écrits du Nord, 2009). Several of her writings were also anthologized in Rituel d’emportement (Le Temps qu’il fait / Obsidiane, 2002).
Bancquart lectures frequently throughout France and abroad. Her work has been featured in a number of French literary journals, including La Sape, Autre Sud, Nu(e), Friches, Poésie, Arabesques, and the online publication, Poezibao (“Spécial Marie-Claire Bancquart”). Her writings also serve as the subject for two critical texts: À la voix de Marie-Claire Bancquart by Peter Broome (Cherche-Midi, 1996) and In the Flesh of the Text: The Poetry of Marie-Claire Bancquart (Rodopi, 2008). Awards for her critical prose include Grand Prix de critique de l’Académie française, Grand prix de l’Association internationale des critiques and prix Sainte-Beuve de la critique, among others. Currently, she lives in Paris with her husband, the composer Alain Bancquart. Her website is: mapage.noos.fr/marieclairebancquart/.
I feel a very close connection to your poems. I find it interesting that you are a “non-believer,” I am a “believer,” and your poems speak to me profoundly of the metaphysical domain. But belief is difficult to define. There is agnosticism, reverential agnosticism, atheism, theism, and deism, among other types. Where do you situate your non-belief?
I don’t have any metaphysical belief at all. I am not a theist. I think I am a system of atoms which formed itself like many other systems, which has a slower entropy than most other systems of atoms, and after death, I will be reduced to atoms and I will exist no longer as far as Marie-Claire Bancquart. I don’t believe in the infinite. I think earthly things are destined to die like the earth itself. And this common death brings us much closer to the animals, plants, and all things on the earth. I don’t think there’s any fundamental difference between us and these other things, for example, between my cat and myself. I’m not an anthropomorphist. This is because I’m not a believer, nor a deist. I don’t think that there is a difference between the soul and the heart.
Would you call this perspective pantheism?
It’s not pantheism. Perhaps it’s very difficult for a believer to understand, but poetry is not a pantheism, poetry is a relation with the world. I think that the world itself will disappear, the earth will disappear, the planet will disappear, I therefore don’t believe in pantheism. There’s a difference between the people who believe in things other than immanence, and people who believe only in immanence. I believe only in immanence. If I were a pantheist, I would think there was a sort of passing of the infinite back into the earth itself and I don’t think so. I think the earth is mortal like the rest.
Pantheism is difficult to define. I think of it as the belief that God and the natural world are one, and when the natural world dies, it follows that God dies.
God doesn’t die. God is immortal. So, if you are a pantheist, you believe that the world is God, and that the world is immortal. This is not the case for me. I think the world will die like the rest. I do not know towards what end things go. It is an enigma, but I do not want to call the enigma God. God is not the name of the enigma.
And when you write the name of God in your poetry, what are you referring to?
When I write the word “God” in my poetry, it is the Christian God. I received religious instruction, at first Protestant and then Catholic because my parents were divorced and I was converted. Then from the age of thirteen I no longer believed in God, but when I speak of God, it is the monotheistic God, the Judeo-Christian God which we learn of in Europe and in the United States. Are you Protestant or Catholic?
As with you. I was raised Catholic… Then I became Protestant… I still believe in the Judeo-Christian God, but I’d call it a non-traditional belief because I don’t believe that God is masculine.
You don’t believe God is masculine?
I suppose I subscribe to the metaphor, “God the Father,” but I also like to think about the mother goddess, Sophia. I am intrigued by Sophia.
I know about Sophia. I am very familiar with what you’re talking about. In L’Ecole Normale, someone introduced me to the story, which was a spiritual story of his country. He was an agnostic, named Alex Henri, and he wrote about Sophia and how the idea came from the old Sephardic Jewish tradition. You are Protestant as you have said, and you take part in Protestantism, but I am totally non-believing. So the idea of monotheism seems very primitive to me because the idea that we worship a God who allows everything to happen, including illness and war, seems to me absolutely horrible. When I speak of God, it is in this spirit. But to me, the Christian religion is a mythology, like any other, like Greek or Latin mythology, which appear quite often in my poems: I think about it for my writing, my work. As I don’t believe in God, as I don’t believe in incarnation, I don’t speak of Christ. I speak of Jesus, who died, and is mythological.
Mythology interests me very much because it is one of the ways people resolved their destiny, explained their destiny, and a poet cannot stay indifferent to all that has passed. Our task is to pay attention to our destiny.
Mythology interests me very much because it is one of the ways people resolved their destiny, explained their destiny, and a poet cannot stay indifferent to all that has passed. Our task is to pay attention to our destiny. This is why it interests me. But as to myself, I am closer to the thoughts of the poet Lucretius, for example. His thoughts could be called materialist, that is, believing only in matter. For me, matter is extremely important. Perhaps I am closest to this thinking. When I say “God” in my poems, it does not mean that I believe in him; it signifies that I am making the allusion to the monotheistic God in the manner of the others and sometimes, I do this angrily. For example, when I speak of illness and war. Then I speak of God who doesn’t let these things get defeated.
Joseph Campbell, an American comparative mythologist, once wrote that “Mythology is other people’s religion.” I think of Christianity as a mythology, too…
It is said that we must see things in a very large manner and you who are a believer, you think that you are in a mythology like any other mythology, where one side’s beliefs and the other’s are equally respectable. It is different from being Christian in the strict sense of the term and I do see where your thoughts are. The difference between your thoughts and mine are that I think that all these mythologies must be known and must be respected because it was the manner in which people tried to explain their destiny, but I do not participate in mythology. I look at it from the outside.
Mythology interests me because we can learn from philosophers of antiquity such as Lucretius or the ancient Latin philosophers, above all the Saracens and Epicureans. There have been relatively few people who have not sought to relate to mythology, in terms of posing the essential questions about where we come from. For me, it is not something that truly exists, but as the history of man, the history of the spirit of man, it is very interesting. It appears often enough in my poems, coming to me as Orpheus or Oedipus or Jesus, but I don’t believe in one or the other. Often I speak of Ulysses, but Ulysses is something else: Ulysses was a seeker. In antiquity, they thought of Ulysses as an initiate who hadn’t made a voyage, and then goes on a voyage. This portrayal pleases me because it is also a concrete thing and I like concrete things. Ulysses goes on a voyage which is recounted in Ulysses, where he has all sorts of adventures. He didn’t want to go on this voyage, however. It was the gods who obliged him to go on it after the Trojan War. He was therefore thrown into this voyage without knowing the reason. At first he doesn’t stop at Ithaca, then he arrives at Ithaca, finds his wife among the suitors, and then he leaves again, because he descends into the underworld. There, he finds Teiresias, the seer Teiresias who is never mistaken, and tells him, “You will return to Ithaca with your oar on your shoulder and you will stop when you meet a wayfarer who will ask what is that fan you have on your shoulder.” This is something that the Greeks couldn’t imagine because they were a people who knew the ocean and certainly knew what oars were. Therefore, he arrives unknown, the wayfarer asks him this question, and at this moment he plants his oar in the ground and the gods send him a gentle death. Thus, he is someone who is obliged to return, you don’t know towards what end, and who will die. And it is the idea of Ulysses’ obligation to leave, and to leave two times, not knowing where he is going, that makes him a sort of double of man for me.
In addition to the pervasive mythic themes, your poetry also seems to be about the familiar, about contemporary quotidian life.
Of course, but as I was telling you: the myths in all their concrete parts. For example, Ulysses, or else Jesus the carpenter, or else Oedipus with the swollen feet. That brings me close to mythology because I am very attached to concrete things. I think that poetry, that is, my poetry — I won’t speak for the poetry of others — always speaks of or includes concrete shapes. When eventually arriving at a meditation on death in my last collection, Avec la mort, quartier d’orange entre les dents (With Death, an Orange Slice Between the Teeth), it shows the reunion between the concrete and the abstract: it is death, but with an orange slice between the teeth. An orange slice is something very agreeable to think about. The mouth is full and the question is: is it death who has the orange slice between its teeth, or is it I who have the orange slice between my teeth? I am content to relegate myself to death, forgetting that it’s also the reader who will find this orange slice in his mouth. Will the reader also find that death, in the end, is not just a negative thing? Often, even the titles of my poems contain concrete things. Concreteness is fundamental to my poetry.
I think my poetry, and the poetry of many others, comes out of our hearts, the sounds we make, the physical movements of our writing. I am very attached to the idea that in our hearts we have things that are exposed, naked things that we cannot see. We cannot predict which of these things will happen. Perhaps death will come to my heart, perhaps a bacteria in my heart, I don’t know. Perhaps my heart is getting ready to beat no more, I don’t know. There is an enigma in the interior of my heart, and this brings me closer to the world: the interior of my heart is entirely the same matter as the leaves in trees or the cat — we have the same DNA, it is thus a communion with the world that takes place in the heart.
This reminds me of one of my favorite lines in your poetry, “The wounded earth / sleeps in my body.”
Yes. Deep down, I find an enigma, a communion with the concrete things in the interior of my heart which may cause my death. And I am not afraid of death, insofar as I think I will rejoice in these concrete things. Of course, not more than other courageous people who rejoice in the passage and think death to be something different than I do, but death is still the entry into the shared system.
Do you think that a person afraid of death lives differently than one who is not afraid of death?
Yes, I think that someone who is afraid of death doesn’t think well of old age first of all because old age is close to death. For me, on the contrary, old age is an age to celebrate. There is a whole section at the end of Rituel d’emportement (Ritual of Anger) which was previously unpublished, “Who Travels at Night,” that is a mélange about old age. I think it is an extraordinary period of life because when you reach it, you’ve had a lot of experience and therefore have arrived at a greater serenity. When you are old you see that you’re only a small concrete thing, perfect for clinging to the earth. I think the young are afraid of death. They don’t like the idea of becoming old, and believing in God, God’s promise of another life, assuages their fear of death. But believers can also be afraid that they will be punished after death, thus have a fear of hell. I think fear of death is pervasive and is not conducive to living the way you want to live.
Poetry also includes thoughts about unpleasant things, for example, about all the wars. I was a child in the Second World War. I have memories of bombardments. I was also very ill as a child. I was by the sea, immobilized for some years in a town where I was being treated, and then when the bombardments began, we were evacuated. I returned to Paris, but Paris was also being bombarded. I remember the Occupation. Every time I see Place de la Concorde, I remember being there in a crowd of people during the war…
A poet cannot live in a paradise and have any relation to life; there is always illness, always problems, always, and perhaps some problems are not very serious, but what is serious is the violence which exists in death, which is very hard not to think about.
I don’t know why, but my mother wanted to see the destruction two days afterward. So we went. I was eleven years old. It was not far from here, and what I remember above all is the odor of the rotting corpses. I’m giving you some of my memories from the second world war, which are in general very disturbing memories. And then France stayed at war with the colonies, with Indochina and then with Algeria, all the way up until 1962. Later, I grew worried that there would be a third world war. And indeed, the Kosovo war arrived, possibly the third world war, I thought. It didn’t have the same magnitude as the other wars, but it was still a war, and still as upsetting. A poet cannot live in a paradise and have any relation to life; there is always illness, always problems, always, and perhaps some problems are not very serious, but what is serious is the violence which exists in death, which is very hard not to think about. I’ve had an idea about hope that has followed me since just before I prepared Rituel d’emportement (Ritual of Anger) and enters into my most recent collection,Avec la mort, quartier d’orange entre les dents (With Death, an Orange Slice Between the Teeth) The first section of this collection is about war and violence. But the collection always leans toward a form of hope, a form of serenity, and you apprehend this in the first section even though it does not yet appear in that form, but only in the form of pain. This is important because this is something that we cannot forget: the ugliness of reality.
I know that you don’t write a lot about your personal life and experiences, but has this childhood experience entered into your poetry in any way?
Of course, it is an extremely strong presence in my poetry. I almost never talk about myself in my poetry. But it is certainly what has given me the need to write poetry. Because when I was five years old, pain would overcome me whenever I tried to get up, so I had to lay in a plaster body cast for a long, long time. After that, it was always difficult for me, I was always tired. Even now, I am often tired. So I became a student, because I had to stimulate my interior life. I decided to go to a teaching university to prepare to teach literature in a university. I resumed my studies as best I could.
I had an enormous amount of work because although there were things I knew as well as the other students, for example, literature (because I read an enormous amount), there were other things I did not know at all because I didn’t go to elementary school. For example, I didn’t know what a right angle was. As it was the war, and I in the hospital, I had no schooling, none at all. I promised myself never to worry, because I had overcome this experience, I promised myself not to speak of death and life in this depth, this type of hysteria. From the age of fifteen or sixteen, I felt the need to write other things, such as my dissertation, but it was all this, without doubt, that made me feel I needed poetry. It also shapes the manner in which I see life and death.
I read that in the beginning of your writing career, you separated your academic writing from your creative writing.
Yes, in the beginning, we had to lay the foundations of our French studies. You passed one exam and then you passed agrégation. You had to have your agrégation and then you had to choose the subject of your thesis. It was at the moment of deciding the subject for my thesis, when I said to myself, I will not do my research on contemporary poetry.
However, I had already read the poets ten or fifteen years my seniors, such as Yves Bonnefoy and Henri Michaux. I had already started to research on this, but I had second thoughts — because I thought the poetic literature, which was at its beginning, was going to infect my own, and that maybe I would never arrive at writing my own kind of poetry, because the contagion would be too strong. So I chose other things. I chose prose, not contemporary prose, but prose of the 19th century. It is an epoch in French literature that greatly interested me because it was an epoch which had the same problems we have today: racism, war, drugs. And in choosing to focus on nineteenth century prose, I did not risk contagion.
The word végétal (“vegetable” or “plant”) seems to signifiy an idea that is very important to you. Could you speak about this signification as it manifests itself in your collection of this title, perhaps in your poem, “Liturgical”?
Yes, it is true that the word “végétal” is very important to me. It is for me a word which is very close to us, for reasons I’ve already explained. The cell tissue in plants is the same as the cell tissue in our skin, and “vegetable” refers to how this shared cell tissue is an example of our beginnings. It is a word that is silent and therefore signifies something which needs my voice to express itself. I am only an interpreter of the futile words we have in order to express ourselves. I am an interpreter of the world of what’s thrown away which cannot interpret itself.
One of my poems gives the reason I write about plants, which is that plants do not “make blood of ink.” In French we say “to make blood of ink,” which means to worry a lot. But this figurative sense might at the same time be the ink with which one writes. Plants don’t know how to “make blood of ink” (in the senses of “to worry a lot” and “to write with ink”), and it was for me a word problem. The word can say one part of this figure of speech but cannot replace this figure of speech. It is the only way we have to express important ideas, but it is an imperfect way compared to the world we would like to express. This is why I call this writing “the Braille of the living.”
This reminds me of Julia Kristeva’s notion of “anaphora,” which refers to that which is silent but can only be expressed with words.
Yes, can only be expressed with words, certainly, but it must be added that words are imperfect. They are also mortal: written texts, quite a few written texts, have disappeared, such as the Etruscan writings. Perhaps our present-day language will amount to the same thing, and our written words will eventually die, too. Therefore we must not create the illusion such as the one held at the end of the 19th century which was that written texts were immortal. Above all, they thought that texts were the way man achieved immortality. All we can hope is that our writing will last for some generations after us, but not forever.
Didn’t the ancient poets believe this, too? That one could be immortalized in literature, in the retelling of stories about one’s feats, for example, a soldier’s bravery in battle? That the words of the telling would render them immortal?
Well, that depends on what you mean by ancient poets. Certainly, the Romantic poets, such as Theophile Gautier, especially the poets in the age of Mallarmé at the end of the nineteenth century, they believed art to be permanent. There have certainly been others who’ve portrayed French or English poetry this way, who’ve had the idea that writing is something inviolable and solemn, but this is impossible to believe, I think, since the catastrophes of the first and second world wars, which have shown us that our world is very fragile.
Speaking about poetic traditions, what poets influence you most?
I first started writing poetry seriously when I was about eighteen or twenty, and of the generation of poets who were writing at the time, there are three who influenced my writing the most. Yves Bonnefoy, because he told me to have confidence in my poetry and made me aware of the fact that I could pursue my poetry like the pursuit of hope. He also influenced my interest in painting, and in speaking about painting. I’m more interested in music than painting, but painting interests me all the same.
The poet who has had perhaps the greatest influence on me, in terms of my sensibilities, is Henri Michaux, the Belgian poet. He is a poet of the heart, of the unhappiness of the heart, and even died of a heart attack. He withstood much in his life and always lived with great burdens. He therefore felt the need to release his burdens in his writing, and this really struck me.
The third poet who has greatly influenced me is a French poet, André Frenaud. He is, well, violence. “Le vaincre” is an expression of his which has always struck me. He is a poet who writes in a scathing language of liberty, and is the third poet who has strongly influenced me. These poets are part of the generation that directly preceded me.
I can also speak of older poets who influenced me, poets from the beginning of the seventeenth century. And I can speak of poets from the far past, ancient poets such as Virgil and Ovid, Ovid because he had an idea of the continual metamorphosis of the universe. He came up with this idea and he showed how it could be depicted extremely well in literature: for example, in the story of Daphne who was changed into a laurel tree because she didn’t want to be violated by Apollo, who was pursuing her. After she had changed into a laurel tree, Apollo touched the trunk of the tree and found that her heart was still beating beneath the bark. This story touches me with particular strength because it shows the intimate closeness we have to the world.
Can you also tell us about your collaborations with your husband?
My husband is a professor emeritus of composition at the National Conservatory of Music in Paris. We have worked on several collaborations together. He generally puts my poetry to music, but one time, I wrote a poem from his music. We recently collaborated on quite a long project. Le Livre du labyrinthe is an oratorio which lasts nearly two hours, for which I wrote the words. It isn’t the same thing as writing poems (that won’t be set to music). It was played at Radio-France, produced by Mode Records.
It is very difficult to talk about collaborative projects. Even so, I have collaborated with a number of painters on books. From my experience with collaboration, I think that different arts certainly have much in common, as Baudelaire said in his correspondences. It is important to remember that the arts complement each other, and each of us has our own technique. It is possible to run into problems when you collaborate with an artist who practices another art. I think that the painting must not distract from the poem. Neither should the music be just a sort of accompaniment to the poem. My husband said from the beginning that the music must not be only a descriptive accompaniment to the poem. There must therefore be a method of transferring from one technique into the other in such a way that the two works, whether poetic, musical, or pictorial, together create a third work. This is why these discussions are difficult. The reclassification work my husband has done addresses questions that contemporary musicians ask themselves about how to put all the words to music. He writes about this in the first chapter of the book which I gave you (In the Voice of Marie-Claire Bancquart, edited by Aude Preta-Beaufort and Pierre Brunel). His essay is about the musical aspect of our collaborations together.
What literary theorists do you enjoy reading?
I like the books of Entier, the philosophy of Rousseau, but I’m especially interested in criticism regarding the movement away from immortality that’s so fundamental to poetry. Examples, perhaps, would be philosophies that concern themselves with visible life or how poetry reveals the meaning of existence in the temporal world, such as in the works of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Of course, I read the French literary critics who relate closely to poetry, such as Bachelard. I know the linguistic vocabulary that comes out of the critical writing in France that prevailed from the sixties through the eighties because I taught courses about these critics at the Sorbonne. There are those who think linguistic terminology lends itself to the French language, but I think these words are extremely weak in their ability to explain poetry. I don’t find it very interesting. It seems to me more of an additional distraction and quite an ordeal for French poetry. It isn’t productive for creative writing, especially because there are types of writing that are different from one another, and some writing can’t be explained with this vocabulary. You have, then, a closed circle.
Poetry is not a language
of communication. It is a language of another kind
of communication. Poetry is also an exception in language. I think each poet has her own language.
This poetic movement that took place from the sixties through the eighties was a movement which never attracted me in the least because I think it is a philosophy that relates strictly to writing. This holds no interest for me. I am interested in the examination of life as it is today, in Europe, and writing about writing seems to me quite deliberate and quite apart from the sense of the world. When you read linguistic theory, you return to the commonly spoken language, to the need for communication which is fulfilled by this language. Poetry is not a language of communication. It is a language of another kind of communication. Poetry is also an exception in language. I think each poet has her own language. It is easy for me to speak of different kinds of literary criticism because I also write critically about poetry myself. I think it’s necessary to have a range of knowledge about it, but the field proper to linguistics is really the language that is used to communicate with one another, not poetry.
How did you come to see it this way?
Well, this is my habitual response. It’s the way I used to explain it to my students. I would ask them to try to analyze the works of the poets they liked the most, recognizing the poet’s originality and consequently what type of analysis would best explain the uniqueness of their work. I would have them divide types of poets and use different types of analysis to explain why a poet whose work they knew well or whose work they really liked did succeed or did not succeed. There is no set formula. Liking the writing you’re analyzing is the principle rule. But you can no longer say exactly how to teach a critical course on creative writing, or how to be sure that you can definitively analyze the writers. No longer can you be sure that a certain school of criticism, with its own words, can yield the meaning of every writer’s works.
How does a poem come to you?
It is very difficult to say. It is very different. Sometimes, it comes from my reading, not necessarily poetry, perhaps an idea germinates while I’m reading prose, recollecting a memory, or traveling abroad, for example, in Mexico or in the United States. A poem will often come to me when I am here, in this very chair, collecting my memories, and then later I will write it. For example, after I’ve just returned from a trip abroad, I will sit here and soak in the spirit of the trip, but not write about it right then. At first, I don’t write, but, of course I know I will. I need a certain amount of time to pass so that I can return there in my mind. But that is personal, isn’t it? Other poets write in cafés, or while they are traveling. It really is personal and different for each poet.
…writing must above all include concrete experience, whether real or imagined … Writing poetry really comes from a reaction our hearts and our memories have to something concrete.
For me, writing must above all include concrete experience, whether real or imagined. It could be, for example, about a huge expanse of sky or about tiny leaves in a tree, but it must be something concrete which strikes me. Writing poetry really comes from a reaction our hearts and our memories have to something concrete. I also get ideas for my poems from entomology. Naturally I studied entomology, and very often it will be entomology which will strike me, and inspire me to write. For example, the word tulipe, you know, the flower, comes from the same word as turban. Entomology is something that can be very useful in writing poetry. To connect a word to its entomological derivation can be very revealing in terms of meaning, and a poet can articulate that kind of connection of meaning very well. The fact that two different French words come from the same root word allows them to be taken in different ways. A poem that uses words in all their possible meanings is a better and more deeply felt poem. As a poet, it is very interesting to see the proximity of silence and speech that entomology reveals. You see, the words mot (word) and muet (mute) have the same entomology. At any rate, after I writing a poem, I may find language in it that I didn’t intend, of course, so after a certain amount of time, I revisit it. I spend a few days writing by hand because I still need my body to participate in the poem, and then, after two or three weeks pass, I type it into the computer and revise it once again, because it looks different on the printed page, or what will be the printed page, and I might still seek other things to change in order to improve how it looks on the page. Therefore, it is a job that requires all sorts of things, all sorts of concrete things of memory and of the movement of the heart. You know, I often find myself listening to make sure I can hear the beating of my heart.
Hearing the beating of your heart reminds me of one of my favorite of your poems, “Suite to the Moon-God.” Can you talk a little about it?
(Reading the poem) “Time eludes wrist-watches.” Time measures in a Cartesian manner, equal to, but having nothing to do with the interior time by which we live. “where the blood clearly pulses compelled by the heart” because it is carried there to the wrist, where you can see the pulse. “A finger presses.” Like when I do this (holds her finger to her wrist, under her watch). “We always end by opening the drapes.” Because I imagine the watch close against the skin and the finger which presses like this to be sure the heart beats, that it beats well. “Our face / faintly reflected in the windowpane / pledges allegiance to the millennia.” We look at ourself in the windowpane to be sure that we have the same face, that we are still alive, and that another face hasn’t replaced ours. “Pledges allegiance to the millennia” because behind our face there are the faces of all the people who have lived before us and who might also have looked at their reflections in a windowpane or a mirror. Therefore it is a concrete way of expressing these thoughts. It is also a poem about time: about the materiality of time, the time we have in our lives, of the pulsing of our blood, and the time of all lives in actuality.
I think that images in poetry are a way of feeling what others feel, the same feelings, the same thoughts, the same movements.
I think that images in poetry are a way of feeling what others feel, the same feelings, the same thoughts, the same movements. Sometimes, though, I use concrete imagery to express something different — like in a poem which imagines that I rid myself of my flesh and that I leave my flesh just like that in a cafe. I go out with just my bones. I am very relieved, very light, and I imagine that it is all like this and at the end of the poem, it is suggested that everyone rid themselves of their flesh. For me, it is a relief. But there are people who read this in the poem, and find it terrible. After reading the poem, some readers have felt the need for the flesh to be reunited with the bones. On the other hand, there are people who read the poem as a poem against racism. Because, very simply, obviously, there is no longer black or white or yellow skin, and so on. But I didn’t think of it this way. I simply was thinking of the flesh that we all have, and not particularly of race. But that is the way some have interpreted the poem, and, after all, nothing in the poem bans this interpretation, so, it must be allowed.
May I also ask you about your poem “Woman”?
I’ll begin by saying I don’t think that there is a writing particular to women. Neither do I think that woman’s nature is radically different from man’s nature, or that our essential styles of writing are so radically different from men’s. What I do really doesn’t differ radically from what my male poet friends do, in the sense that human nature, common to all of us, is what lies at the heart of our poetry. A poem isn’t marked by a masculine or feminine voice or style. There is nothing specifically feminine about my poetry. But in this particular poem, I chose to speak in a distinctly female voice. The woman speaker here says:
I am all that swarms in shovelfuls of earth
I give him my time
For a long time, it was actually written in the French constitution that women were not the equals of men. I had first-hand knowledge of this legal inequality. For example, the first time I wanted to open a bank account, I had all the necessary documents with me, and I had money to deposit, of course. When I got to the bank, they told me I was missing one thing: my husband’s written permission. I had a job, just as he did, I earned money, just as he did, but I could not open a bank account without my husband’s consent. I revisit this in the poem, and look at that male discourse, that rhetorical male discourse which created this inequality. It is a discourse in decline, a resolute discourse which is not that of poetry. Poetic discourse is not masculine. It is different. But I understand masculine discourse, because to undertake my studies and to be a university professor, naturally, you have to participate in it. But I think it’s not the only possible discourse for discussing poetry critically. Consequently, I use this discourse in writing books of literary criticism, but I seek other things, alternative discourses. This is the reason I wrote the poem. Anyway, I never thought that there are characteristics particular to women’s writing, nor that there are characteristics particular to men’s writing. If men and women have entirely different ways of speaking, then how could my husband and I communicate enough to marry each other (laughing)?
“Cry” is another one of your poems which intrigues me.
(Reading the poem aloud):
Dark complement to the world,
That bosom was dead
Beneath flickering stars
Flowers thrive in deformed shadow beneath the lamp
And something resembling song comes out of me,
There is something that I’m still not sure of, that I have not resolved in my mind. It is the question of why I was born. I know why I will die. I am a system of atoms that will dissolve into the rest of the atoms. But I do not know why I was born, and that’s what this poem is about. The birds whose songs we hear, the roots we see along the ground, the crabs that die and leave only their shells — they don’t ask why they were born. There is a divide between life in general and we who think, and being among those who think, I ask for an explanation. And only death can give me this explanation. It wasn’t childhood difficulties, it wasn’t my mother herself, it was that the maternal breast is made out of something horrible. That explains the beginning of the poem. Then, towards the end of the poem, well, in my life, I am a housewife, I am a lover, I am a scholar, but I am other things as well, and it seemed that in these I resemble a person who sings, except I didn’t know what my song resembles. It isn’t speech, because speaking is different than music or poetry. Is it a prayer? No, because I have no religious belief. It must simply be an orison for the serenity in life.
May I ask you to talk about another poem, “Mosaic”?
It’s about a new mosaic, I think it’s an Italian mosaic. This mosaic shows the beginning of the world and then the redemption, according to the Catholic belief. It shows a crossing of the rivers, you know, the rivers in Paradise, which signifies the beginning of time in Paradise. It also depicts Christ crucified on Golgotha. Very often in French art you see the cross planted in the ground, naturally, and also the cave underground. It signifies the redemption of original sin, and this is what is depicted in the mosaic, through the artist’s imagination. So visitors see this mosaic and think about what it means, and, for me, this reflection includes the examination of religious belief, as I am obviously not a believer in God. For me, beliefs are things that have been brought to conclusion, things that no longer exist. Children become familiar with Catholic beliefs in school, though, as did I when I was young. Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I did believe in God. It would be nice to believe in a world beyond this world. I would prefer to find myself in another world, after death, with the people I knew and loved in life. It would be comforting to believe this. However, this belief provides only a conditional promise of life in such a world. It also carries the threat of ending up in a world of misery after death.
I have one last question, and it is about the title of your anthology, Rituel d’emportement (Ritual of Anger).
It is a title that seems contradictory, because a ritual is something intended and staged, and a fit of anger seems to be the opposite. But I think that in poetry, you must have both. A writer must work very hard and work all the time. Writing is really a ritual, a ritual of researching human destiny. There is an anger involved in thinking about our destiny, because it is, in the end, death. There is anger in not wanting to use the codes that are often presented as necessary to talk about our destiny, such as morality, religion, society, et cetera. So when these codes enter into your writing, the writing becomes filled with anger. It is necessary that your writing be composed of things outside of the current morality, things apart from what contemporary society thinks of as “correct.”
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