Poetry in French, when it is not from France, tends to receive little attention. The preponderance of the ‘real’ French intellectual culture may have a natural way of eclipsing those around them, in particular their numerous historical colonies in Africa, Asia and Canada. The latter represents an interesting case-study – we are so used to thinking that literature in English is mostly produced outside of England (just like literature in Spanish is mostly produced outside of Spain), that Anglophone Canadian writers have often replicated their success internationally. Names such as those of Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje or Alice Munro are familiar to high-school students all over Europe. On the other hand, how many Francophone Canadian writers can you name? They are so under-represented, in fact, that I think it’s worth bending the rules a little bit for this entry in our series. Though ‘emerging’ is not necessarily a synonym for ‘young’, I expect it may crease a few brows to learn that today’s poet was born in 1949.
After picking up Louise Dupré’s most recent poetry book Plus Haut Que Les Flammes (Higher than the Flames), winner of the Grand Prix Quebecor du Festival International de Poésie 2011, I have been given a taste of what her rather obscure literary world can produce. It certainly made for an interesting introduction. The book is not a collection but a single long poem, just topping one hundred pages, divided in four parts. At the heart of it are a woman’s meditations as she puts her baby to sleep, torn between the anguish and violence of past history on one side, and the sense of hope simultaneously afforded and demanded by the child on the other. It is a surprisingly readable text, partly because the choice of form is such a natural free-fall: each section is composed of a single long sentence drawing on and on, with every brief stanza (usually two or three lines) connected by endless conjunctions. An example will give a better idea of what it reads like, so I’ve included a small extract from Part III, of my own translation, at the bottom of this article.
Dupré’s book makes for a fresh reading experience from the start. There is a certain apprehension that she may just mess it all up when she first references Auschwitz, but the theme and question of concentration camps comes up periodically in her poem, and eventually becomes one of the book’s central motifs. It is handled remarkably well. The first of the book’s four parts makes it a point of counterpoising the (hi)story of Auschwitz to the fairy tales that she tells her child – two issues that are in turn reflected in the child’s double nature as something extremely lovely and extremely fragile. The central conflict in both cases seems to be that between an unacceptable history and an indispensable future.
As the mother puts the child to sleep in part two, and then wakes to console the child from a nightmare, we follow the poet into a more careful construction of what we may call an ideology of the future (or should I say a deconstruction? It is hard to tell whether we are dealing with an architect or with a subtle arsonist here). For brevity, we may refer to such an ideology of the future simply as ‘the Dream,’ though this is not a term used by Dupré herself, especially not in relation to the ever-too-wakeful mother. Her argument is led to a solid and interesting conclusion: that the Dream, and the sentiment of hope for the child, are necessary for the mother, and not for the child him/herself. Without this concern for the Other, she herself cannot withstand the burden of history. At the very least, she cannot make sense of it, as her memory remains ‘a white frame over a white background / a terrifyingly abstract painting.’
Part III comprises a series of meditations on the concept of pain, with emphasis on the salvational ‘caress’ of the child. There are some gorgeous metaphors in this section, though one is left wondering how Dupré will close such an ambitious and momentous discussion on the relationship between motherhood and history. Unfortunately, the ending is the only bit that is somewhat disappointing. Dupré speaks of the ‘dance’ as the way of salvation, the method by which we redeem our present from past and future history. Obviously the dance is a metaphor, standing in for a type of performative gesture, an active rather than passive way of engaging with our history. That poetry should be an example of what the ‘dance’ represents is suggested with a certain sleight of hand. The first three sections all open by discussing some mysterious ‘poem’ coming to the mother from within, and the fourth begins with the lines, ‘And you want to learn / how to dance / on the calcinated rope / of words.’ In conclusion, then, Dupré responds to the problem of history by means of a salvational aestheticism.
In my opinion this paradigm is hollow. Aesthetical answers do not satisfy ethical questions, as the first historical precedent of the Book of Job exampled as far back as three-thousand years ago. Moreover, it misses the point that Auschwitz, culturally speaking, represents precisely an attack on the precondition of the aesthetic – something so brutal and intolerable that you cannot write poetry (or ‘dance’) anymore. In the words of Primo Levi (who in turn was paraphrasing Adorno), ‘[a]fter Auschwitz there can be no more poetry, unless on Auschwitz.’ That Dupré should demonstrate little or no awareness of this historical impasse is an important shortcoming for someone who wishes to bring the problem of the holocaust into her meditations.
I don’t want to overstress this type of weakness in PHQF because it’s a very common one in contemporary poetry – like many of her peers, Dupré can point to the problem with great lucidity, but she is less able when it comes to showing us a solution.
All that said, and aside from the final let-down, the execution on the whole is very strong. The idea of projecting the timeless historical problem through the mother-son relationship gives it a visceral and original representation, and the choice (and use) of form is brilliant. I cannot speak for the rest of Quebecois poetry, but this little volume is certainly one worth hunting down.
Plus Haut Que Les Flammes, extract from Part III.
no story, no face
your memory is a frame
white on white background
a terrifyingly abstract
that you scratch with the end of the nail
down to the blood
because words also leave
when the finger touches
and the ghosts that sleep there […]
Find out who our Emerging Foreign Poet #3 is next Wednesday.
Find out who our Emerging Foreign Poet #3 is next Wednesday.