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Review: The Book of the Snow, by François Jacqmin

Artic Zen Master

Francois Jacqmin wrote his first poems in English, a language he learned as a child when his parents took refuge in England to escape the German invasion of Belgium. Born near Liège in 1929, Jacqmin spent the war in Britain, returning to Belgium in 1948, where he 'reappropriated' (a word he would never have seen the irony of) a French he was never at ease with. "My lack of attachment to French must have been reinforced by ... the poverty of its poetic means", he claimed, and he wrote elsewhere that the Walloons had not yet found their language. But with Jacqmin we sense that no language would have done: "the best path is the one that chooses neither word nor image", he wrote in the posthumously published prose-poetic sequence Elements de geometrie (2005)

Of course there is no choice but to choose, and the urgent absurdity of the task is what Jacqmin is about. As he writes early in The Book of the Snow: "When we follow the slope of an argument right down to / its proof, / we realise there is nothing to uphold". Le Livre de la neige is his best known work, and won, among other prizes, the Prix Max Jacob when it appeared in 1990, two years before Jacqmin's death. His poetic persona - sceptical, tentative, articulate about the limits of what can be articulated, and resigned but in a paradoxically fretful way - was seen as a correlative of his personality. He was discreet, modest and unambitious, content to write slowly, little and well: "I don't think one should be in a hurry", he told Le Soir, unless one's name is Rimbaud, and in my case it isn't". He avoided the limelight and did not court fame, though after winning three major literary prizes in a single week, he finally conceded that, by the law of averages, one of the awarding juries must have been right. He was not thought to be prolific, but since his death several important books have emerged, including, earlier this year, Prologue au silence.

"The time comes when hesitation reveals itself / as the most pragmatic way of being in the world", begins the second dizain of this parallel-text edition. To read Jacqmin is to see how easily the lyric impulse can sit with philosophical rigour, provided the two exist in enlightened mistrust of each other and of themselves. Jacqmin's thought proceeds by paradoxes, tautologies, negations and self-annulling aphorisms. Meanwhile, his lyric impulse is kept in check by a suspicion of language, and by a Mallarméan ambivalence about the whiteness of the page, its delicious invitation and its cold annihilating purity.
The Book of the Snow begins in Mallarméan vein - "Snow / overlays snow and cancels out its whiteness" - and the book, which in the French edition appears with one dizain per page (here, for reasons of space, it's two), feels both cumulative and constantly re-begun. Like Mallarmé, Jacqmin sees the page as a white abyss into which thought sinks, but also as an impenetrable surface along which language helplessly slides. The secret of manipulating both lies in a sort of suspension of self. A renunciation of thought and word. Jacqmin toys with a kind of arctic Zen - snow and not sand is his material: a great blinding expanse that is at the same time made up of millions of interlocking flakes. The poet rakes his snow garden like a Zen master, pushing at language and then retreating from it, grasping at an idea and then letting it go. "The snow is everywhere", he writes, and it is in "the endless belfry / of its whiteness / that my finest understatements ring out",

This poetry could have been dense or grandiose; it could have suffered from the malady of much French-language poetry of its time by turning to mandarin abstraction or arrogating to itself a sort of privileged urgency. Jacqmin alludes to this when he writes with an odd explicitness: !In poetry / as in every other domain, those / without honour / succeed... the swindlers stick to the unreadable". Jacqmin is a poet of the fine understatement, a resounding modesty that is nonetheless not naïve or complacent, something his translator captures with admirable sensitivity. He is fond of those moments when an illusory serenity takes hold and seems to be sufficient to itself: "You no longer fuss over the absolute; you / consider it to be a / displaced melancholy, / an improper sadness". But such statements are always undercut: there is more to say, more to think, and the snow garden is constantly in need of raking.