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Review: Cold Spring in Winter, by Valérie Rouzeau

Just over two-thirds of the way into Cold Spring in Winter,

The sky's up on its pedals, dancing.
Sometimes the sun right in your eyes
I take my father's bike.
Radiant with spokes as if set free

and as the poem goes round and round always spoking freely, I'm convinced that (a) I am reading a weird and wonderful book and (b) the translation is a laudable achievement. Cold Spring in Winter is French poet Valerie Rouzeau's debut collection. It came out in France in 2003. It's a lament for the death of her father, who ran a scrap yard: a pertinent fact as it is simply quite dazzling to witness how Rouzeau mimics his job of picking through scraps of glass, metal and paper with her own delving into language's backyard of puns, inversions, slangy neologisms and fragments of songs and sayings:

Not deadying oh not desperish father
everlast get up run fast -

and later:

My father my father my father on earth
as he is in summer wind in winter wind.

Through linguistic and semantic games of hide-and-seek with her childhood self, Rouzeau chases memories of her father with the urgency of her fear that they might become unremembered. To achieve and sustain this effect of babble and squeak, Rouzeau has edited in rather than out the baby-talk of elision, pot-luck gerundation and meaning driven by sound and speech patterns that children tend to pick up on intuitively, when for example her father's voice drowns the goats' as walking baaack you feeling baaad / saying secret tiny words of tenderness.
If the reader starts wondering how this goat could have sounded so good in the original (balaaade toi malaaade), it's a sure sign of a good translation. The French lyrical tradition of Rimbaud and Baudelaire has been in the freezer since WW1 (for decades now to write a lyrical poem is to commit a faux pas in most literary circles in France), in favour of experimentalism and word games. Wicks has understood this and, give or take a couple of safe bets, she has resisted the temptation to cover any quirkiness with a lyrical muffler and has quite brilliantly saved a poetic technique from being lost in translation. As Wicks says in her translator's preface, she took a gamble and it paid off. As for Rouzeau, this poet has found a truly authentic voice in what will doubtlessly be a glittering career this side of the Channel.

Astrid van Baalen is a poet and translator and a co-founder of the Pars Foundation. She is currently completing her first book of poems.