To read a poem by Pierre Reverdy is to enter a world of dreamlike contradictions, surreal metaphors, and jarring juxtapositions. Marked by recurring themes of consciousness, time, distance, and memory, Reverdy’s work inhabits an otherworldly realm. As when viewing a cubist painting, it’s hard to maintain a sense of orientation—follow along a line toward its expected end and, surprise! the work takes an unexpected turn. In Pierre Reverdy, the New York Review Books presents an exemplary collection of Reverdy’s poems in new English translations. Translated by an impressive roster of respected Anglophone poets, among them Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Rexroth, and a dozen others, the works selected here are nevertheless unified by Reverdy’s distinct poetic voice and a propensity for jarring juxtaposition, creating dreamlike imagery painted with lucidity and yet tinged with the surreal.
Known for his associations with such figures as Guillaume Apollinaire, Tristan Tzara, and Andre Breton, Reverdy’s close ties to these and other founding members of the early twentieth-century avant-garde are not to be underestimated. Their influences upon Reverdy’s work, most notably manifest in his surreal imagery and unconventional form, are perhaps best illustrated by the book’s opening selection from Prose Poems. These works, square chunks of text consisting of syntactically normal sentences that nevertheless retain a semantic opacity and make for difficult, if not intriguing reading, doubtless contributing to Reverdy’s reputation as the quintessential cubist poet. Apart from their experimental form and use of language, two pieces drawn from this collection published in 1915, “The Intruder” and “The Spirit Goes Out,” particularly resonate with the modern sense of rupture, disorientation, and loss of an old world order, precipitated by what was then known only as the Great War. “The Intruder” begins with the intrusion of a human figure “leading behind him a caravan in chaos” into a world of silence and shadow, sparking a pandemonium heralded by “songs and shrieks” of the new:
A most ancient world was whirling through our heads and we were awaiting the moment when everything would collapse . . . the skies were grey and filled with the howls of machines that cut through our malaise. Once out in the street, we regained our century . . . But that other night, from what era did they all descend upon us, those spirits . . . ?
Similarly, in “The Spirit Goes Out,” Reverdy captures, with striking symbolism, the death of grand narratives simultaneously dealt with by many of his contemporaries. Prefiguring Paul Valéry’s 1919 philosophical essay, “La Crise de l’esprit” on the decay of Western intellectual tradition, Reverdy’s poem paints a scenario in which one might read the speaker’s turning away from lifeless ancient texts toward the piercing light of the present as a nod to Plato’s allegory of the cave,
So many books! A temple whose thick walls were built with books. And inside, where I had entered, who knows how, I don’t know where, I was suffocating. The ceilings were gray with dust. Not a sound. And all these great ideas no longer move, they sleep, or are dead . . . With my fingernail, I clawed at the partition and, bit by bit, I made a hole in the wall on the right. It was a window and the sun that tried to blind me couldn’t keep me from looking out
The poem’s final lines suggest liberation from the symbolic and a return to the real signified by the juxtaposition of darkness and light, a frequently recurring theme throughout the works selected in this volume. From burning lamps to brilliant stars, clouds of dust and pitch-black nights, these of Reverdy’s works are replete with symbols of illumination as well as elements of obscurity. While the two are often paired to create a stark contrast, many of Reverdy’s poems share characteristics of a world dulled by impenetrable clouds. “A Lot of People,” (translated by John Ashbery) offers a characteristic glimpse into this shadowy realm:
Over there is only a black hole
Beyond the gate a laughing head
And in dust the noise died away
All the birds are dead
The sun has burst
In the water where his eyes were drowning
Building upon themes of darkness and light, Reverdy’s work is replete with eyes, windows, and mirrors—symbols associated with the Lacanian concept of the gaze. Many of Reverdy’s poems examine the act of looking itself, as if describing the experience of visual perception from a detached and objective viewpoint. For the speaker in “Nothing”:
The world is erased
At the point where I will disappear
Everything is snuffed out
There is no longer even a place
For the words I will leave
Much of Reverdy’s work is permeated by a sense of self-observation reminiscent of lucid dreaming, as if the anonymous subject in poems including “That”, “False Portal or Portrait,” and “Inner Motion” is in fact the poetic persona speaking from beyond immediate experience. The mirror figures as a prominent symbol in many poems, offering a fixed portrait of perceived reality, “the oval holding my whole countenance frozen,” or, alternatively, appearing as a gaping portal to the unknown, “[sending] back no images” while “[n]ight lurk[s] in the background.” In “Body and Soul Superimposed,” it is “that icy black abyss ruled by a threatening void and an equally threatening silence: the likelihood of every possible laceration,”—a line that perfectly captures the overwhelming tone of Reverdy’s poetry, which would arguably make for interesting examination under a psychoanalytic lens.
The poems’ recurring references to light, gaze, and mirrors—as emblematic of the confrontational encounter leading to self-recognition—reveals the readily apparent influences of Cubism upon Reverdy’s work in ways that extend beyond stylistic considerations and touch upon contemporaneous issues of philosophy. Judging by the content as well as the formal structure of his writing, Reverdy clearly contributes to and shares in the avant-garde fascination with unconscious dream-states and unknown aspects of the human mind. By exploring the surface of objects and reflected images, Reverdy undermines the illusion of a cohesive self, revealing the fracturing and fluidity of identity. Yet Reverdy also transforms the “void” or “black abyss,”—always just on the verge of experience, hidden behind the glint of a mirror or below the surface of unfathomable depths—from a threatening state of breakdown, and into a promise of unveiled reality. In “Secret,” Reverdy writes, “after the anxiety of the tightest, straightest passage, we always find an oasis of calm and repose in the whiteness of the expanse, the silence.” The ambiguity with which Reverdy’s poems refer to emptiness and lack is perhaps best expressed by “Fate Founders,” which deals with themes of absence and presence, ultimately suggestive of the trace inscribed in and by writing:
And if everything I’ve seen has deceived me of reality
If there was nothing behind the canvas
but an empty hole
What reassures me a bit is that I can always stay on
And leave a faint memory on earth
A gesture of regret
A sour expression
What I did best
What Reverdy himself did best is amply demonstrated by the translations contained in this book, which brilliantly convey the linguistic meaning and artistic spirit of the original texts. In accordance with the Cubist goal of restructuring experience at the surface level to express or gain insights into reality from multiple perspectives, Reverdy’s poetic language is both compellingly evocative and yet nonetheless oblique. Although most of the works presented in Pierre Reverdy are treated by a single Anglophone translator, three renditions of “Live Flesh” by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, and Lydia Davis offer brilliantly nuanced versions of the poem, each maintaining the integrity of Reverdy’s artistic vision while exposing the play of language and subtle variants in meaning that allow for slight divergences in translation. Unfortunately, “Live Flesh” is one of only a few to be featured in so many versions, and this is a shame, as it provides a fascinating example of the subjective nature of translation and interpretation of work as richly symbolic as Reverdy’s.
While the works collected in Pierre Reverdy show off the poet’s skill to its best and most characteristically modern effect, it comes as no surprise that the poems exhibited are dazzling, dreamlike, and surprisingly contemporary in feel. With these excellent translations now making Reverdy’s work accessible to an Anglophone audience, this book deserves attention from not only students and readers of French literature, but anyone with an interest in early twentieth-century avant-garde poetry.