André du Bouchet: The Outer Mindscape

Translator’s Note

André du Bouchet
PHOTO COURTESY OF HOYT ROGERS

An unjustly neglected giant of French literature — and obliquely, of several other literatures as well — André du Bouchet was one of the greatest innovators of twentieth-century letters. Trailblazing poet, maverick philosopher, multifarious critic, trenchant stylist, fearless anthologist, daring editor, prolific diarist, intrepid translator in four languages, tireless explorer of nature and the visual arts, he was an authentic iconoclast who has yet to receive his due, especially in the English-speaking world. This anomaly seems all the more inexplicable, given his dazzling renditions of Shakespeare, Joyce, and Faulkner into French. We should also mention his lifelong attachment to the classic authors of nineteenth-century America, particularly Hawthorne and Melville; and in most of his writings, the elliptical syntax and halting dashes of Dickinson inform every page.

By drawing the attention of the English-language public to Du Bouchet’s work, Paul Auster and I hope that our forthcoming anthology, Openwork — slated to appear next year in the Margellos Series of the Yale University Press — will help to rectify a glaring omission. Though most translators and omnibus anthologists of French verse have understandably tended to focus on Du Bouchet’s better-known poetry from the sixties, we have expanded the scope of Openwork to include pieces from the author’s entire trajectory, both “poetry” and “prose.” For Du Bouchet, as for many French writers of the last two centuries, these modes of expression are intertwined and often indistinguishable.

André du Bouchet was one of the greatest innovators of twentieth-century letters. Trailblazing poet, maverick philosopher, multifarious critic, trenchant stylist, fearless anthologist, daring editor, prolific diarist, intrepid translator in four languages, tireless explorer of nature and the visual arts, he was an authentic iconoclast…

Throughout his life, Du Bouchet spent a large part of his time in the French countryside, devoting himself to the long walks — first in Normandy and then in the Drôme — which nourished the creation of his notebooks. He often jotted down the entries as he was engaged in his rambles, especially during the decade of the fifties, and they have gradually emerged as signal works in their own right. Accessible yet elusive, veering off in unexpected tangents, they are well represented by the two sequences translated here. Once the entire corpus of Du Bouchet’s journals appears in print, the more challenging texts he published in his middle and later periods will come into focus as trees fully integral to the understory below.

For example, if we compare the notebook entries which gave rise to “Le voyage” of 1956 with the poem itself, presented here, we can observe how the original metaphors were progressively fractured, overlaid, and recombined. But another stage still awaited them. By the time they reach their later avatar as “Sur le pas,” the bare, aerated version of Dans la chaleur vacante (1961), they have become both more streamlined and more multivalent. Like Giacometti in his sculptures, Du Bouchet has refined his initial images to a level where they almost seem effaced; but paradoxically, by the same token, they have attained an intense “thereness,” a concentrated presence.

Despite its seeming abstraction, Du Bouchet always grounds his work in primal sensation; but the interplay between reality and trope is far from simplistic. As he often demonstrates, even such a straightforward motif as the mountain that recurs in his poetry can never be fully grasped. We cannot encompass a whole mountain from any vantage point. From high above, we cannot observe the core of the rock below its many surfaces. In a horizontal view, we only register one of the mountain’s many faces. All of these vary as well, according to the vagaries of lighting and weather, or the play of shadows made by clouds.

Such phenomena, both outer and inner, are beautifully limned in a sentence from “Le voyage”: “But the white rock-face — gilded and glazed by the light that picks it out and sweeps it with dim mountains.” Du Bouchet was a translator of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and he twists the familiar phrase “the mind has mountains” inside out. Not only does he internalize the landscape, he externalizes the mindscape. In nature as in art, the mountain we can see is always a metonym. That is why it is so much like a word: never the thing or the concept itself, words only point in their direction, before retreating once again into their own impregnability.

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