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Review: The Book of the Snow, by François Jacqmin

Francois Jacqmin... his strangely settled yet unsettling vision...

Existential anxiety is the blood that serves these three significant collections from Arc's ever adventurous Visible Poets series. This series aims to bring those poets whose names have long foundered before English shores finally onto dry land. These latest three are native to Belgium or in one case Luxembourg. They all write in French and are European in their outlook, that is to say their work is still infected by the irrationally destructive historical traumas suffered by their continent and the existential questions this gives rise to. Philosophically poetic, yet avoiding leading their readers into thickets of unrestrained philosophising, all three of these poets are more or less grounded in what English poetry today serves as its unchanging menu du jour, that is the domestic, the everyday. But unlike much of the current English poetry of the everyday, which after a session with the self-appointed creative writing workshop surgeons, complacency sports acceptable levels of irony and seriousness, these Europeans manage something profound and truly excoriating downwind of all they have observed and privately endured. These poets are all transfixed by the void of the blank page, the nauseating underbelly displayed when language fails, when the beast rolls over. Even in the case of Maurice Carème, who appears to be at first glance a light playful poet, a stalwart with the nation's schoolchildren, there is a darkening undercurrent, a nervous scratching at the insubstantiality of belief systems as the imminent prospect of death alerts the mind to specify a final tolerable resolution.

According to Belgian writer and critic Marc Quaghebeur, Francois Jacqmin achieves in his writing a classical limpidity capable of opening up the faults of everyday life and of attaining a fragile tenderness. Philip Mosley, his able translator, and Professor Clive Scott echo these remarks in their illuminating introductions to this book and go further, alerting us to a visible poet who labours hard to become invisible, a poet whose one hundred and twelve meditations collected here in the unusual classical form of the French ten line poem or 'dizain', constitute a planned withdrawal from overt expression, the creation of a space through the neutrality of the snow field, to enable transcendental truth to flower.

Beautiful
without the disgrace of precaution, the snow
dazzled
with all its fragile experience.

Mosley says of Jacqmin:

As the snow falls, Jacqmin's irony suffuses it. By evoking whiteness and purity, dis-solution, dis-appearance, de-formation, he invents a Mallarmean palimpsest, a suite of poems aspiring to perfection, present yet absent in the pristine silent, snowy spaces of the page.

Scott alludes to Mallarme too, and goes on to argue that Jacqmin's simultaneous torture and release are fused in the dichotomy of the snow's abstraction, where language cannot penetrate the world's opacity, it can only expect to compound that opacity through its own ambivalences and approximations. In Jacqmin's work there is no end, no successful conclusion, only something unfinished, like the snow itself which continues to fall adding yet another layer.

When the snow stopped falling, it continued
to snow,
a minute powder
added
a border posthumous to the work of whiteness.

During the war, Jacqmin's family fled to England to escape the German occupation and there he learned English, writing his first poems in that language and immersing himself in its literature. When he returned as an adult to Belgium he inherited his original language and never felt truly at home with it. His poetry seems adrift with contradictions, the weariness of a consciousness that has been unable to anchor comfortably. We feel as perfectly coherent as nothingness, states Jacqmin in one poem and this would seem to sum up his strangely settled yet unsettling vision, to be dispossessed of the extraneous, where language the 'intruder' achieves its own obliteration by making its announcement on the page, but in doing so leaves room for a more meaningful prescient silence.