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Review: Defying Fate, by Maurice Carème

Defying Fate, a posthumous work by the prolific Belgian poet Maurice Carême, reads like a selection of his major work. A celebrated literary figure in Belgium, Carême died in 1978 after being elected Prince des Poets to succeed Cocteau. Outwardly he lived a simple life as a schoolteacher in the country and wrote simply, often deceptively so. If there is such a thing as metaphysical simplicity which makes you think and feel profoundly Carême definitely cultivated it. I try to find a form that's so stripped down that it becomes transparent enough to resemble a window through which you can see my heart beating, he wrote. (His clarity is such that he is also considered a fine children's poet in Belgium.)

Carême sees the miraculous in the common, as Emerson, Transcendentalist with a capital T, put it. Take the beginning of Melanie:

My legs don't work any more
Said Melanie with a laugh.

She stood like the statue
Of joy planted there in the street.

And she performed miracles.
Isn't happiness of them?

He writes as beautifully and simply as his fellow lowlander Van Gogh paints. This dab of sky could be a response to one of Van Gogh's primitively textured interiors. Observing what he calls a 'banal' scene, a room with a table, loaf, knife and apple, Carême tells us an artist painted this and that when he adds a 'dab of sky' he made 'everything essential'.

The essential, to Carême, includes not just a celebration of daily life but a skeptical response to both conventional religion and conjectural contemplation. He pictures heaven as '... empty as a drab grey room / Abandoned to dust' and with wonderful concreteness asks, 'What time could it possibly be // 0n the clockface of eternity?' In another poem, 'He wondered why /' Carême questions why man even looks at himself.

But that is what we do, whether we think it does any good or not, and Carême is no exception, especially when he connects religion, at least metaphorically, to the moods of change we all experience:

There are days when it happens
That a angel is holding my hand

As it passes along a line of aspens
And there's thyme scenting the land.

As soon as I'm suffering, he abandons me
To go off and offer elsewhere
The portion of happiness that is my share
When I'm in tune with my heart and free
To enjoy better times in his care.

Translator Christopher Pilling is completely in tune with Carême. Translation is everything when reading a foreign poet and Pilling continues the high standards set by Arc Publications' ongoing series of non-English writing poets. As Carême's poems often rhyme, often irregularly so. Pilling rhymes when appropriate. Many of the poems use rhyme, but are not floored by set patterns - they keep to a line of thought, Pilling notes in his preface and he does likewise, ensuring his translations sound natural.

Ultimately, Carême is a sceptic who believes, believes in life and all its pain and pleasures. From the most bittersweet of emotions, youthful nostalgia, (He finds it hard to remember / That once, drunk on freedom / He tried desperately to climb... a tree - Poplar) to watching death without fear and 'with alert eyes' (Baptiste) to a depiction of a man who is battered and abused but is born 'kind-hearted' and ... only has room / For hearing the good / And seeing lilac in bloom (Seeing the good), Carême demonstrates over and over of how he believe(s) more in the heart's dark shadow than the light of intelligence.