Chantal Dupuy-Dunier: Caress the Essence of Experience

BY Chantal Dupuy-Dunier
(Flammarion, 2009)

Translator’s Note

Chantal Dupuy-Dunier lives and writes in Clermont-Ferrand, in the Auvergne region of France. These six translated poems are derived from her collection, Éphéméride, published by Flammarion in 2009.

In French, an éphéméride is a tear-off calendar, the kind found on many office desks; it also refers to the history of a given day. For example, the éphéméride of June 10 for an American reader includes Judy Garland’s birthday, Janis Joplin’s first live concert, and Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite-flying experiment in a lightning storm. Life’s gestures are its telling details, the stuff memory is made of and, by extension, what poetry is made of. Given these definitions, it is not surprising that Dupuy-Dunier’s project in this, her fourteenth collection, is to offer a poem for every day of the year — including leap years. Her poems are essentially untitled, each simply labeled with the date it refers to in parentheses. Several of these poems directly comment on their dates’ éphémérides, such as August 6, which is subtitled, also in parentheses, “Anniversary of Hiroshima.” However, usually the poem’s engagement with its éphéméride relates more to Dupuy-Dunier’s personal history or to the small histories being made or reinscribed in the moment — in her garden, her home, or her travels — than it does to celebrities, saints, or cultural landmarks. In the poem for April 15, which is the date Dupuy-Dunier uses to begin her poem-calendar, she opens, “What sets forth the poem / is always gesture.”

Life’s gestures are its telling details, the stuff memory is made of and, by extension, what poetry is made of. Gestures can be grand, such as an atomic bomb or a political act of resistance, or they can be almost unnoticeable, such as a word spoken, a grain of sand, or the precise way a blended fragrance fills a kitchen. What artist, what poet, is not struck by the world’s many gestures? Noticing the too easily overlooked, giving voice to the voiceless, offering language to the wordless — these are the poet’s tasks. Dupuy-Dunier uses the particulars of her world (our world) as metaphorical vehicles to bring us deeper into life’s gestures, inspiring us in our own daily noticing and our own encounters with the ephemeral pages of time. By learning to see the migratory birds, for example, or the pattern of wear on a lighthouse’s steps, we learn to read and write our worlds differently.

Chantal Dupuy-Dunier
BY Denis Langlois

In the summer of 2011, Chantal Dupuy-Dunier and I started corresponding about her poems and, eventually, our lives by e-mail. On New Year’s Day in 2012, she sent me an e-card wishing me a wonderful “20-douce,” a play on the similar sound of douze, which means “twelve” in French and douce, meaning “sweet.” It’s brilliant in French but impossible to translate literally into English. Imagine having greeted a friend on January 1, 2012, with, “Happy two-thousand sweet!” Maybe, if you share Dupuy-Dunier’s gift for wordplay, you might have cleverly wished a “happy two-thousand swell” to someone instead; you would then have tasted the compromise-riddled art of literary translation.

I would say, to borrow from Dupuy-Dunier, that what sets forth the translation is always gesture. When a poem’s gesture — its movement or purpose or “inner shape” as Mary Ann Caws calls it — captures me, I commit to its translation regardless of what obstacles await.[1] The tension between translating a poem’s gesture and loyally enacting Dupuy-Dunier’s every skillful move is one that I have navigated repeatedly. For example, here is the first stanza of “June 6”:

Dès que l’enfant articule
« Tu es »,
il formule le meurtre d’Abel,
l’arrêt de mort primitif de l’Autre.

To a French speaker, the word play in line two is glaringly obvious: the phrase meaning “you are” (tu es) and the word meaning “to kill” (tuer) are homophones. “You are” in English sounds nothing like “to kill,” of course, so I had to decide how or whether to carry over Dupuy-Dunier’s wordplay. In many of my translations of Dupuy-Dunier’s work, English has enabled me to mirror her wordplay in some way, but not here. The inner shape of the poem names the differences between us (“You are”) and traces the journey from noticing our differences to killing one another. This is how I translated the first stanza:

As soon as the child says
You are,
he enacts Abel’s murder,
the first death sentence of the Other.

It may not be perfect, but it brings most of Dupuy-Dunier’s intention across.

My goal as a translator has always been to bring as much of Dupuy-Dunier’s voice into English as possible. One hundred percent translation is impossible; something is always lost. This is particularly true when working with a language as stratified and slippery as poetry. When I have been able to pull over a few of a poem’s layers simultaneously, knowing that I was inevitably losing one or more layers at the same time, I have considered that a great success. However, following the lead of translators I have recently studied, including Paul Auster, Mary Ann Caws, and Willis Barnstone, whenever my process has led me to an either/or choice between being literal or being artful, I have chosen art; I have chosen poetry.

In these short poems, readers will encounter Dupuy-Dunier’s affinity for mini-narratives and bite-size meditations that skillfully weave her lyric sensibility with her talent for caressing the ungraspable. In Dupuy-Dunier’s work, words are our complex caressers; they convey the moment, the past, and the eternal future, all at once, even as we know that each word will eventually evolve beyond recognition or die.

For a poet, making a mark on the ephemeral pages of time means writing, and Éphéméride is, if nothing else, a collection about what it means to be a writer, a lover and curator of words, in today’s world. In these poems, Dupuy-Dunier not only writes about ephemerality; she writes into it and against it. Rather than chasing longevity, these poems enact and model a daily practice of meditative attention — an attentiveness that is life affirming in its rituals, celebrations, and even mourning. Though Dupuy-Dunier avoids any hint of the didactic in her work, these poems might be viewed as exercises in mindfulness. When the mind is shapely, the poem will be shapely, as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg preached; these poems give life’s passing gestures momentary shapeliness so that we may caress, as Dupuy-Dunier does, the essence of experience.

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  1. Caws, Mary Ann. Surprised in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. 20.

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