Hard by the rugged coast of Brittany, there among menhirs, those megaliths that have gone on standing through all our history, a man confronts the sea. Toi, ce creux et definitive, he says. (You, this void, this trough–definitive.) Moi, qui revais de faire equilibre. (I who dreamt to find some kind of balance.) And having lived through a book, this Carnac, with him, we understand that it’s not the mystery of the world he braces there but the smaller, consonant mystery of the gap stretching forever between us and that world, dividing us from it–the very gap we go on all our lives, with all our activities, science, history, the arts, trying to bridge.
Guillevic is the poet of rural lanes lined with bushes, the poet of plain men taking home bread to wives, of cheap bureaus and sideboards, the poet of picnics, solitary walks, men in comforting cages of office and received wisdom, the poet of walls. He is a poet whose every line, with its simple diction and plain language, disavows all we imagine as poetic. He is the poet of a quiet and distinctive magic.
Little known in English-speaking countries, Guillevic has long been a major influence on and a huge presence in European poetry. Not that many American poets enamored of him haven’t tried to share their fervor. Early translations appeared in Aspel’s and Justice’s Contemporary French Poetry (1965, four poems from Elégies), in Graham Dunstan Martin’s Anthology of Contemporary French Poetry (1975, five poems from Sphère and Euclidiennes), in the Penguin French Writing Today (1968, a three-page extract from the single long poem "Paliers"). Teo Savory devoted a small volume in his Unicorn Poetry Series to Guillevic. Southern Illinois University published a translation of his Elégies by Maurice A. O’Meara in 1976. The landmark came with Denise Levertov’s 1969 translation of Selected Poems for New Directions. Subsequently, Auster’s The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry included nine poems translated by Savory, John Montague, and Levertov. To date, though, only the Levertov volume offers any truly representative sampling, and no critical essays exist in English on Guillevic’s work.
This is not, after all, terribly surprising. What is at the very heart of his work’s excellence–the simplicity of its diction, the unadorned language, its very modesty–renders it all but untranslatable. Even in French, Guillevic can be an elusive read. Slight, elliptical, gnomic, the poems vanish when looked at straight on. "Les mots / C’est pour savoir," he says. Words are for knowing. And by les mots he means, resolutely, French words. Because their mystery, their magic, is in the language itself, these poems do not easily give up their secrets, or travel well. They are their secrets. They crack open the dull rock of French and find crystal within. In English, all too often, only the dullness, the flatness, remains.
In her introduction, to date the closest thing we have to an essay on Guillevic, Levertov compares the poet’s work to that of Antonio Machado, in whose unprepossessing poems the play of sound and of idiom is essential, and the translation of which leaves behind only a husk, an empty skin. Of Guillevic, Levertov asserts: "He trusts the hard, the plain, the stripped, to speak for itself." Like that wind-torn, sea-nibbled Brittany landscape. And his work, Levertov says, is itself "a gathering of sacred stones." Like the menhirs.
Because what Guillevic so oddly does, in this bare, unembellished poetry of the plain life, is to create work in which nothing is incidental, nothing everyday, nothing taken for granted–work whose mystical content is forever at odds with the basic language from whose windows it peers out at us. "For me," Guillevic says, "the poet must help others to live in the sacred in their daily lives."
Now, by grace of two small presses from the British Isles, we have finally two major entries, a translation in full of Carnac by poet John Montague, and the same of Vivre en poésie, a series of remarkable interviews with Guillevic first published in French twenty years ago. Welsh small press Bloodaxe Books routinely publishes the best of contemporary European and American poetry. Ireland’s Dedalus Press includes, alongside homegrown writers, a Poetry Europe series listing Tomas Transtromer, Alain Bosquet, and the Finnish poet Pentti Holappa. Each should be roundly thanked on many accounts, not the least for its championing of work neglected here in the States. The two books at hand, both distributed in the United States by Dufour Editions, Inc., may go a long way towards filling in the blanks around Guillevic’s name.
John Montague’s rendering of Carnac is a marvel of accommodation, a coat of good material and plain cut upon which sudden felicities stand out like bright buttons. Having an ever-swelling folder devoted to Guillevic’s shorter poem sequence "Chemin," I can well believe Montague’s claim that, begun in excess of enthusiasm, little suspecting the difficulties involved (simple, direct language, right?), it’s taken twenty years to bring this translation to heel.
Montague follows the Montaigne-like play of Guillevic’s mind as it moves from sea to land to self, to those who created the megaliths, to the rude houses standing just inland. For example:
Church of Carnac
Like a rock
That has been hollowed
And furnished in a fashion
To banish fear.
Many men have come,
Have stayed. Land of bones,
Thus there was
the call of Carnac.
How did they sing,
Perhaps it was there
They knew less fear.
Centre of the sky and of the sea,
Of the land as well,
The light says it.
Singing, they were,
Not far from the sea,
To be let in by the light.
Beholding the sea,
Turning their back to it,
Imploring the land.
Eglise de Carnac
Qui est comme un rocher
on aurait creusé
Et meublé de façon
y avoir plus peur.
Beaucoup d’hommes sont venus,
Sont restés. Terre d’ossements,
Il y avait donc
L’appel de Carnac.
Ceux des menhirs?
Peut-être est-ce là
Qu’ils avaient moins peur.
Centre du ciel et de la mer,
De la terre aussi,
La lumière le dit.
Pas loin de la mer,
Pour être admis par la lumière.
Regardant la mer,
Lui tournant le dos,
Implorant la terre.
First urged by Levertov to translate Living In Poetry, only with time did Maureen Smith come to realize the urgency of these interviews both as cultural history and as a record of twentieth-century poetics. As with Montague, we have to celebrate the doggedness of an amateur and enthusiast, this turtlelike engagement that bites and will not let go. And, again as well, we have to celebrate publishers like Bloodaxe and Dedalus who maintain the pond.
Much of modern French poetry might be plotted on a simple axis. One strain, descending from Mallarmé and Valéry (and including Ponge, Pleynet, the group from the journal Tel Quel), emphasizes the poet as artificer, as maker of texts in which constructs of relationships between language components are be-all and end-all. The other, descending from Baudelaire and Rimbaud (and including Bonnefoy, du Bouchet, Dupin, the group from the journal L’Ephemere), embraces the poet as visionary, seer, and prophet, the poem as revelation. Respectively, as delineated by Gerald L. Bruns in Modern Poetry and the Idea of Language, they are the hermetic and orphic.
The other great dialectic in twentieth-century French and European poetry has been that between literature engagé and art-for-art’s-sake.
Thus the stage and blocking onto which Eugene Guillevic (he’d later discard the Christian name) stepped in 1907. A Breton, which is to say a Celt, born of peasant stock at Carnac, he came to manhood in the shadow of one of the great ritual sites from prehistory, in a landscape of austerity and of lives scarcely less austere, lives of poverty for the most part, lives that could disguise neither the hardness about them nor the cruelties that hardness occasioned. Here, one was never far away from, could not be long distracted from, the elemental. Rock, sky, wind, and sea, hunger, those mystery-laden megaliths–these were all real things, actual things, presences.
Moving with family from Brittany to Alsace near the Swiss border, coming up with Breton, then Alsatian and German, this French poet would not hear French spoken about him until he was twenty. And just as something of the hardness of that coast was impressed upon him for all time, so was something of his experience as an alien within the language. Gradually over the years Guillevic developed a poetry of common speech, a poetry without artifice; he did not want to knit an alternative world from the warp and woof of language, but to ferret out what knowledge he could of the actual world, to find what identification he could with the world and things of the world, from among the baffles of self and of language.
Carnac emerged in 1961, sixteen years after his first, Terraqué, and six virtually silent years after 31 Sonnets. Guillevic’s work was, by this time, widely heralded. He had become a Marxist, had developed somewhat casual ties to the Surrealist movement, and had served thirty years as a French bureaucrat in the tax office. 31 Sonnets, written under the influence of Aragon (who provided a preface) and later considered by Guillevic a serious aberration, contained politically oriented poems. This was by no means unprecedented. Exécutoire in 1947 and Gagner in 1949 had also included such poems.
But with Carnac, which he began writing at about age 52 just as he retired from public life, Guillevic came steaming into home port. Gone for good, thrown out like that Christian name, were the "poetic" forms and proscribed "proper" subjects for poetry. Back in Brittany, Guillevic took that bare, fraught landscape, those ancient stones, the small journeys, reachings and longueurs of daily life, and forged from them a poetry of common language, one drained of rhetoric and emotive image whose compression was like none before or since, a poetry that strives always not to say more but to say less, reaching out forever toward–but leaving space for–the inherent mystery of the natural world. He sought to relocate or re-establish among the things of this known, named world, a domain of mystery.
"In Carnac," Levertov writes, "Guillevic has sustained a profound book-length poem, but formally his method in it remains the sequence of short poems, each paradoxically autonomous yet closely related to one another." Whatever messages leak through to us from the other side, from the world, are small ones.
In his first collection, too, there had been this concern with things–insects, apple trees, armoires–this recognition that the world is forever outside us, apart from us. But whereas in Terraqué otherness was met with fear, with controlled terror that the poem might simultaneously celebrate and exorcise, by the time of Carnac a kind of serenity had emerged, a push on the poet’s part to accept, to understand, to achieve whatever small penetration might be possible, to be open to those small messages leaking through.
Alterity may be Guillevic’s obsessive theme. He is, of course, among the most outward-directed and least subjective of poets, so it’s only inevitable that soon he’d fetch up against the world’s blank face and lack of affect. However stubbornly we confront or make demands upon them, the world and its things remain unknowable. In a poem from his second collection, Exécutoire, he writes: "To see inside walls / Is not given us. / Break them as we will / Still they remain surface." Like the sea.
The influence on Guillevic’s work of the landscape of Brittany, its bleak cliffs and beaches chewed relentlessly by wind and sea, ancient stone crosses where roads intersect, Celtic menhirs, can’t be stressed strongly enough.
Primitive. Elemental. Again and again in articles on Guillevic one comes across such words. Even the poet spoke of himself as "a man of prehistory."
And so, in Carnac, he returns to, confronts, this primordial landscape.
"Carnac was a great joy for me, a deliverance," he asserts in one of the interviews in Living In Poetry. "I found myself completely, I found my country again, the land, the sea, I relived what I had been before." This book, he goes on, is an example of what he means by living in poetry: "making an ordinary object, however humble, become the equivalent of the ocean, or a menhir," living with exaltation in the communion with everyday things. "The role of the poet, I believe, is to make it possible to live what is sacred … help others to live the sacred in daily life."
Traditionally the poet comes to the landscape to divest himself of naming, of differentiation, of all that prevents him from speaking generally. Incorporating, suggesting, the landscape offers escape from particularity. And while the poet comes there seeking relief from naming, from knowing, he comes seeking also a paradoxical relief from self. In classic nature poetry, the landscape actually becomes an extension of self, body and world synonymous. But it is into the very gap between the two, into that divide, that Guillevic writes Carnac.
Both in life and language one must leave space for the sacred to occur. "I need to go into retreat; I need silence," Guillevic observes. "I need to go into my burrow, and then I feel surrounded by the universe, filled with it."
Language, another thing of the world, can prove just as elusive, just as obscurative. Every language, Guillevic tells us, is foreign. "Foreign, yes, because words are not made for the use they have in a poem. It’s the work of the poet … to make them say something different from what they would commonly say, by themselves."
Few have ever expressed themselves so eloquently on the calling of poetry as did Guillevic in this remarkable Living In Poetry. And as we look back over a career of some 55 years and two dozen books, we have to question whether anyone, in any language, has ever so taken hold of the necks of plain words, plain language, and wrung from them, again and again, so very much more than they intended, so very much more than we’d have thought them capable of producing.