Poetry Review: The Inventors and Other Poems

The Inventors and Other Poems
(Seagull Books, 2015)

Whether an enduring fan of the complex writing of René Char, or a recent inductee, readers of the 20th century French poet will be greatly surprised and positively overwhelmed by the latest English translation. The Inventors and Other Poems (Seagull Books, 2015), translated by Mark Hutchinson, is the complementary follow-up to Hutchinson’s previous effort on Char, Hypnos: Notes from the French Resistance (also from Seagull Books, in 2014). Together, the writing in the Hypnos war journal, and eclectic offerings in The Inventors represent what Hutchinson refers to as “the heart” of this leading member of the French resistance and master of symbolism and psychological complexity. It has been quite easy to agree, having read Char translations for several years: these two volumes fit together well enough and optimally present Char in a way the English language had not yet been able.

The sky still listened when the waters spoke.
Up from the dark rocks, into the air’s caress,
The stags come, fording the millennia.

– From “Lascaux: II. Black Stags” (p. 31)

Image via chicagodistributioncenter.com

Hutchinson’s translation work in The Inventors revolves around summation. As he admits, the selections in this short volume (roughly forty pieces) cover Char’s later, more mature work, with inclusion criteria serving to survey the varying styles and forms of writing that has brought recognition and timelessness to Char as both a writer with countless outputs and a human with countless experiences. From short, sparse conversational poems to cryptic and dense blocks of poetic prose, with the occasional aphoristic sequence, The Inventors serves to introduce the reader (or reintroduce through more sophisticated translation, for those already familiar) to Char’s breadth. Included in the volume are well-known pieces, such as the book’s title poem, or “The Library is on Fire,” which provide a chilling representation of Char’s unique range.

Rest at last, then? The life-raft? We fall. I write to you in the midst of my descent. That is my experience of being-in-the-world. Mankind is coming apart just as surely as it was once composed. The wheel of destiny is running backwards and its teeth are tearing us apart. Our rate of acceleration is such that we shall soon catch fire. Love, that sublime brake, is broken, of no use any more.

– From “Earth’s Precariousness” (p. 46)

From the brutal to the exquisite, from the charming to the outrageous, from the loud to the humble, Char often matched his range of style and form with an equally colossal range of themes. Coming out of and through war-ravaged France provided Char with ample opportunity to reflect and represent humanity’s greatest emotions and symbolic discourses. Char, whose militaristic and political personas failed to prevent his constant development as a writer, writes of moments of bloodshed and loss as he does reclamation and salvation through memory. His later life, spent through various areas of rural France, provide further exploration of the textures of his own humanistic vision. Unlike Hypnos, which Char originally wrote (before editing down) during WWII, Hutchinson’s latest volume is a fascinating convergence of wartime and post-war poetry from a French writer valuing the beauty of the image and the complexities of language.

Image via tisseur.net

At the prow of the roof, the screech owl,
With her accustomed eye,
Sees daybreak darkening the prize
That night left unensnared.

– From “At the Prow of the Roof” (p. 53)

Many of Char’s strongest poems leave the reader bowing their head through an oscillation of understanding. For me, not many poets are able to pierce my recognition of understanding in as fluid a process as those poems of Char. As with most contemporary English translations of Char’s work, including the translations in The Inventors, indicates, the French poet’s writing is packed with dense lines highlighted with subtle imagery providing a tricky yet mysterious impact. Char begins visions and scenes with an apparent and simple beginning that often gets completely morphed and trumped by metaphor. Char drew upon many literary and cultural influences both within and without the 20th century he found himself within (as Hutchinson has triumphantly explored and explained in a section of scholarly notes accompanying the translations). Some of these influences are ekphrastic and direct responses to visual artwork, specific people or experiences, or other writing. Some influences include Georges de la Tour, Martin Heidegger, and the caves of Lascaux. Other influences are vague or seemingly simple allusions that carry significant poetic weight related to specific experiences or historical events that exponentially grow in significance when biographically explored. Char’s poetry increases in its power and energy like the best poems: by carrying additional layers of meaning through each additional reading.

As faithful to his love then as the sky is to the rock. Faithful, sulfured, but ceaselessly roaming, concealed his path through the wide-spread expanse disclosed by fire, gripped round by wind; the expanse, the butcher’s hoard, bleeding on a hook.

– From “The Mirage of the Clock Hands” (p. 37)

The translations of Char’s often-difficult language often fail to open up his poems. As Char creates sophisticated metaphor using abrupt allusions and rapacious grammar, translations that do not take into account intonation, sound, and sonic readability often fail to connect as powerfully with the reader. Hutchinson, who admits in his introductory notes to being conscious of the readability and sound of Char, has crafted some of the finest translations to date. Char’s work comes off as both challenging and digestible at once. Hutchinson bases poetic liberties on extensive research and notes reviewed from original documents and annotations provided by the author himself, and works to craft as close an English equivalent as is possible through the thorough investigative and educational work conducted. Granted, the reader of this volume who has never read Char before will not notice the differences; but knowing the extent of the translation process will allow this translation to last for years and multiple generations of readers. Perhaps the one downside to the ambitions in this translator’s process is the potential anxiety other lovers of Char will receive when they consider creating a translation of their own.

Today they say the prospect of hail alarms them
More than the dead now falling here like snow.

– From “The Lords of Maussane” (p. 12)

As a final note, it should be expressed that the most thorough review of Hutchinson’s work has been impossible due to the lack of inclusion of the original French. While in the case of this volume, the lack of the poems in their original language does not feel awkward or to a disservice, the fullest examination of Hutchinson’s mode of translations is prohibited. Still, the book feels complete and welcoming, enrapturing as an English-language text of the poetry of René Char. Hutchinson and Seagull have released what English readers of Char have needed: a mixture of the beautiful and the scholarly that will open up all readers of Char’s amazing art to vast levels of new understanding.

Check out the book further and/or order a copy here.

Greg Bem is the Gaming Editor and a contributing writer for Queen Mob's. He has written numerous reviews for the Queen as well as other entities, including Rain Taxi, Seattle Poetry Lab, and a previous iteration of his personal blog. To hear about his upcoming reviews, follow him on Twitter.

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