Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guillevic / Justice - The Man Closing Up

Eugene Guillevic

In 1973, the Stone Wall Press, in Iowa City, Iowa, published L'Homme Quie se Ferme, or The Man Closing Up, a bi-lingual edition of a poem by the French poet Eugene Guillevic (by that title), in addition to an "improvisation" of the original by the translator Donald Justice.

Justice is a poet I've discussed several times previously on this blog. A former teacher of mine, and a major American poet by anyone's estimation, he collaborated on a small anthology of French poetry with Alexander Aspel, Contemporary French Poetry [1965]. Though not fluent in French, Justice had a poet's sensitivity to poems even when he did not know the original language. Coincident with this publication, he explains in the brief Note to this book, he undertook in 1964 to make a kind of "adapted" reinterpretation of the Guillevic poem--what is commonly referred to in the trade as "after" the original model (or author).

That poem, which was included in his collection Night Light [Wesleyan University press, 1967], is among Justice's most admired works. I was introduced to it by Robert Grenier, in the poetry class he taught at Berkeley in 1968. It was also probably my first introduction to the work of Eugene Guillevic, though the French poem was not the subject of the poem we read in Robert's class. Later, I read Guillevic's work in a volume translated by Denise Levertov. Later, when I attended Iowa, I worked on translations of Reverdy under the direction of Professor Frederic Will, then of the Translation Workshop.

Guillevic's work is deceptively simple-seeming, employing short lines. Its brevity is one of its attractions, though it is by no means simple in its connotations, and probably is deeply idiomatic, and quite resistant to faithful renderings into English. You might think you have it, in English, but to a French reader, the ambiguities are almost certainly lost.

Donald Justice [1970]

The photo above was taken in 1970, a year before I met Justice. It makes him look oddly much younger than I remember him. Perhaps it is the bright direct sunlight which hides his wrinkles and darkens his hair. Or, maybe, I'm so much older now that he looks younger than I imagined him being in my youth?

It was only two years later than this that K.K. Merker, the printer/publisher of the Stone Wall Press, published the Guillevic pamphlet, though Justice, as I note, had made the translation and written his adaptation a full 9 years before.

The Guillevic poem runs to 21 sections, 171 (short) lines. Rather than re-print it here, in the original French, I think I'll just mention that it's much longer than Justice's adaptation, and that it's a much more ambitious poem (in its way) than Justice's. However, in my opinion, Justice's poem is much more intriguing, by being a distillation of the ideas Guillevic employs, consisting, as it does, of only five sections, and 69 lines. And, like the Guillevic, Justice's poem is written exclusively in two and three lines stanzas.

Here is Justice's Note reprinted in full:

Sitting in a cafeteria one afternoon in the spring of 1964, I made a first draft of the translation. About a year later, in another city, late one night, I happened to recall Guillevic's poem and, having neither the French text nor my version of it at hand to consult, began to improvise off fragments recollected from the original, almost as if I were remembering a tune, or tunes. The city was Miami, and a certain desolate stretch of the bay there and a memory of an old lighthouse on Key Biscayne entered into this new poem, which was finished in an hour or two, the quickest writing I have ever done. Over the years, many more hours went toward improving the translation, in which I was helped by those who knew French better than I. But these friends--Jacqui Rogers, Dori Katz, John Locke, and Linda Orr, all of whom saw the translation at various stages--are not, of course, responsible for my errors as a translator nor for the the reading of the poem as a whole adopted therein. I am aware that at least one other reading is as plausible as this highly personal one.

The Man Closing Up


Like a deserted beach,
The man closing up.

Broken glass on the rocks,
And seaweed coming in
To hang up on the rocks.

Walk with care,
It's slippery here.

Old pilings, rotted, broken like teeth,
Where a pier was,

A mouth,
And the tide coming in.

The man closing up
Is like this.


He has no hunger
For anything,
The man closing up.

He would even try stones,
If they were offered.

But he has no hunger
For stones.


He would make his bed,
If he could sleep on it.

He would make his bed with white sheets
And disappear into the white,

Like a man diving,
If he could be certain

That the light
Would not keep him awake.

The light that reaches
To the bottom.


The man closing up
Tries the doors.

But first
He closes the windows.

And before that even
He had looked out the windows.

There was no storm coming
That he could see.

There was no one out walking
At that hour.

He closes the windows
And tries the doors.

He knows about storms
And about people

And about hours
Like that one.


There is a word for it,
A simple word,
And the word goes around.

It curves like a staircase,
And it goes up like a staircase,
And it is a staircase,

An iron staircase
On the side of a lighthouse.
All in his head.

And it makes no sound at all
In his head.
Unless he says it.

Then the keeper
Steps on the rung,
The bottom rung,

And the ascent begins.
Rung after rung.

He wants to keep the light going,
If he can.

But the man closing up
Does not say the word.

Aside from the very basic symbology of the setting--seaside, rocks, tidepools, rotting pier, lighthouse with its metal staircase encircling a tower--the poem is a metaphor for the referentiality of language, how poems--speaking, literally, as the evocation of analogies for experience in the imagination--can create a template that is self-defining, constructive and expedient to efficient use. The words are used up in the time of the poem's enactment, and become synonymous with the meanings they convey. The existence of the stair case, the sound of our climbing the iron rungs, do not exist "unless he says it." The sense of human isolation, which seems the real subject of the poem, as a performance, is achieved through denial, the ticking off of objects, one by one, which are subtracted from consciousness. Literally, a man "closing up"--as an act of incremental sacrifice, of a relinquishing of Platonic objects. Naming, and descriptive enumeration, as a passage into non-being, reductive perfection, emptiness.

There's something profoundly ritualistic about the recital: Desertion. Satiety. Darkness. Muteness. All conditions of closure, effacement, absence. The beautiful metaphor of the shore rocks as teeth, then the refusal even, of the stones, as what poems consume, the negation of self, sustenance, and the hunger for nothingness (non-being), as in diving into a bottomless sleep, as into water, the obsessive checking of the doors, the windows, as if these were preparations for a permanent departure, and finally the ascent, on the steel staircase, each rung "rung" as a clangorous step as it's uttered, the spoken (creative) power of the single word--the word that goes around--like a chant, or magic incantation, or nursery rhyme, round and round and round, in a continuous ascent. In a very real sense, the ascent to the tower is something the keeper of the light must do. The light is his function, his watch, his duty--really, his only duty. To warn the sea-born craft from the presence of rocks, the extent of land into the sea.

One could imagine a fine ballad composed on just this theme. Certainly Yeats or Masefield or E.A. Robinson could have written one. But Justice was inspired by the hard, dry French Modernist style of Guillevic--the lines broken up into tangent phrases, measured, deliberate, filled with self-denial, taciturn, restrained, controlled. Out of it he makes an existentialist figure, nearly empty of personality, a diagram of refusal which is nevertheless simultaneously an acceptance of necessity. It's a work of genius, and a brilliant instance of inspiration across languages, occasions.

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