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Review: Defying Fate, by Maurice Carème

The Belgian author Maurice Carême (1899 - 1978) is apparently much loved and seen as a major figure in his homeland. I read this volume with growing respect and a growing sense that for all their absence of obvious difficulty these were poems that would reward extensive rereading. Carême's predilection for short (sometimes very short) lines, the brevity and tight focus of the poems and their generally simple syntax and vocabulary give them a modest air, but they are the fruits of much meditation, accumulated wisdom and technical skill, and they cover a wide range of feelings and attitudes. There are fine dark poems and fine poems of delight in life or of a good humoured acceptance that creates delight, like the charming Mélanie. Some are constructed as superficially straightforward snapshots or anecdotes, others use ballad techniques, like the brilliant Le canot, and others have a tinge of surrealism.

Richly varied when taken together, individually these pieces are composed with a tact and skill that makes them grow unobtrusively in the mind. L'animal, for example, might be read as merely a poem of evocative empathy with a pet abandoned in a wood, but by stripping the scene to essentials and using universalising terms Carême gives it a frisson of threatening enigma and turns it into a brief, stark parable of metaphysical abandonment. And he handles rhyme and syntax with a dexterity that can become a powerful vehicle of meaning. Take L'homme et la mort. It is about how completely death is wound into a man's life:

La mort parlait avec sa voix,
S'ébattait dans son corps ...

That internal rhyme of mort and corps precisely reinforces the idea that our body is the body of our death. At the end,

[La mort] lui faisait, á l'aurore,
Regretter de n'être pas mort.

The return of mort as the last word, rhyming with the first phrase, suggests the snapping shut of the trap that the whole poem has presented, but the simultaneous rhyme with aurore offers not only grim irony but also perhaps a glimpse of hope. Typically, Carême leaves it to us how far we take this as a poem about one old man feeling the approach of death and how far as a parable of the relation between life and death in general. The many poems about death in the volume clearly reflect the author's sense of his own approaching end, but they are always depersonalised. A profound lack of egotism is one of Carême's most attractive features, and is no doubt one reason why he was a beloved children's author (although this is clearly not a children's book).

Translating rhyme always creates problems, especially when the lines are short. In a number of cases Pilling has wisely avoided it altogether, using less obtrusive patterning devices instead to produce translations that read almost as well as their originals. He clearly gave a great deal of thought to the practicalities of reproducing formal features on a case by case basis. In some of the translations, especially the lighter ones, copious rhyming works well in English. In some Pilling has stripped out almost all rhyme in order to use the little he does use with sharper effect. I felt that there were poems where the will to rhyme produced a dilution by verbal padding and others where rhyme was jingling or clunky, but overall this is a translation which serves the original very creditably and in the case of some individual poems much better.