Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Irony of Light


Treading Lightly by Jacques Réda

In reference to his 1975  collection of poems, La tourne (the second of three collections included in this volume), Jacques Réda speaks of “the poet in search of the town as mandala.” An exotic analogy, surely,  it is also a fitting one, as over the years he has written poem after poem inspired if not preoccupied by his own experience of wandering the streets of his beloved city, Paris, with camera and notebook in hand, every day the adventurer, every bit the citadin, every bit the poet-flâneur. Yet his range is wider than that, touching, if lightly, on history and politics, and on language—poetry—itself. A devotee and veteran writer on jazz, his poetry tends to the musical, the spontaneous, the improvisational. Writes Aaron Prevost in his essay ‘Poetry, Swing and Jacques Réda,’ “One of the great pleasures of reading French writer Jacques Réda’s work is the buoyant élan poétique that coexists with his sense of melancholy and lightens it. Réda draws much of his inspiration for integrating this pulse into his work from jazz.”


Paul Auster, in his introduction to The Random House Book of Twentieth Century French Poetry, asserts that, in contrast to English writing, “French literary language has largely been a language of essences.” Indeed, unlike his predecessor, the radical poet and enfant terrible, Tristan Tzara, who’d hated the ordinary in language and vision, Réda clearly revels in it, makes of it something essential, extraordinary, sublime. He is, according to scholar John Taylor, “a dauntless explorer of the overlooked thing.”

Here, for your enjoyment, are a few of my favorite samples:

Rue Rousselet

They say the road with its old wall goes running off.
So it does, a few steps past the corner, then all grows still,
And the old wall becomes its own reflection in water
From long ago; and would you, if you walked on, change
       your life
Or your soul before reaching the opposite corner, which
By some other time, under the slow delicate light
Of leaves in a garden fenced around memories?
                                                                                            We saw
The key one day shining between forgotten books, fingers,
Clouds; all the rays of evening are looking for it
In the enigmatic symmetry of balconies
Where the sky leans over uncertain, waiting for a shadow;
—Slant against the road’s fleeting loveliness,
already it’s slipping slantwise through our hearts.

October Morning

Lev Davidovitch Bronstein ruffles his goatee, hands
Ruffles his shaggy hair; in a moment he’ll
Leap out of his waistcoat and lose his scholar’s spectacles,
This figure addressing Krondstadt sailors hewn from the
Timber or Finland and with scarcely less feeling
Than the rifle butts that let fly dirty snow.
He preaches, Lev Davidovitch, he talks himself hoarse
Over the leaden Neva the cruiser Aurora slowly
Turns its turret towards the dim façade
Of the Winter Palace.
                                      What a performer; what a yellow sky;
What a weight of history on the empty bridges where the
      Odd car
Rumbles, its wings bristling with bayonets.
Tonight, at Smolny, beards have grown; seared
By tobacco and filament bulbs, eyes
Roll, Petrograd, before you twilight, your silence
Where out there, in an earnest crowd of grim-faced
Lev Davidovitch prophesies, exhorts, threatens, trembles
Too as he feels the inert mass of centuries
Tilt irreversibly, like canons on their axles
At the edge of this October morning.
                                                                 (And already Vladimir
Ilitch is secretly back in the capital; later
He’ll sleep, with the same dotard’s make-up, in a glass
Forever unmoving below the bouquets and fanfares.
Meanwhile Lev Davidovitch shake his shock of hair,
Retrieves his eyeglasses,
                                    —where a little blood, a little Mexican
Sky will mingle on the last day, so far
From you, muddy October, raving in the flurry of red


Afternoon’s pale clarity above roofs of blue and rose.
The bell is about to strike; you want to sleep, like the tree
At the corner of the street when never a soul goes by.
But the orb of insomnia stands there, strident
As a cockerel in a deserted courtyard,
Between the shaft whose polished wood dares not shine.
And everything, even the blameless birds that’s fallen silent,
Shivers in the humbled poverty of appearances.
Sleep, or death, better your shadow than this infinite
Unveiling of dreams laid bare to the irony of light,
Than eyes than no longer have lids and can’t deny
This emptiness growing all of a sudden when the clock
        strikes two.


Jacques Réda, born in 1929, is the was awarded the French Academy’s Grand Prix in 1993 for a lifetime’s work. Aside from innumerable articles and essays on jazz, he is the author of numerous volumes of poetry, as well as works of fiction (including a novel) and non-fiction, perhaps the best known of which is his 1977 Les ruines de Paris.

Peter Adam Nash

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