Arc Publications logo

50 years at the cutting edge of poetry publishing

“A meeting point for poets of all latitudes”
— Víctor Rodríguez Núñez

Review: Talking Vrouz, by Valérie Rouzeau

© Claire Trévien, Poetry London no.78, Summer 2014

Valérie Rouzeau personifies both the French establishment and the anti-establishment: she is a prize-winning poet and one of France's best known exports, but the tone of her poems is refreshingly different to the sparse faux-profundity that characterises so many of her contemporaries. Talking Vrouz is the second collection of her poems to be translated by long-standing collaborator Susan Wicks, and is a two-in-one affair amalgamating poems from her two recent collections Quand je me deux (2009) and Vrouz (2012). Wicks's notes are one of the unadulterated delights of this collection, explain the hazards of translating such a playful poet as Rouzeau while relishing in felicitous mistakes, such as the typo air-ghostess, which ended up in the final version of 'Asters or asterisks'.

The strengths of Rouzeau's poems are also their weakness, particularly in the first half, 'Quand je me deux', where the flotsam of words can equally delight and frustrate:

I rise and fall as the temperature does
Today's good deal the season season season
Seasonal story rain sun mercury moon...

'18 lines to what'

Rouzeau's poems are a detritus of references from French literature and beyond: Rimbaud, Desnos, Plath, Ginsberg, Apollinaire, Joyce, Charlie Chaplin and Beckett are among the many who detonate on the page with various degrees of success. Rouzeau's famous laconic tone works best when it's less weighed down, as in 'Rehearsal' which, in spite of some overly earnest lines, packs a surprisingly emotional punch:

You don't know peoples hearts
A hearts so hard to see
That sometimes you bump into it
What a pain to catch the train...

The platform's empty empty empty you stub your toe on air...

The second half of the collection, poems from Vrouz, is more apparently coherent in subject, a sequence of fifty-eight untitled, mostly sonnet-length poems, each written as a single sentence of stream of consciousness. 'Vrouz' is a term coined by Jaques Bonaffé to mean 'crazy self portraits with or without self'. It could also be interpreted as a portmanteau of Valérie Rouzeau's own name. Here they read as unfiltered diary entries, or something generated from a Facebook status-bot. They can delight with their (un)clarity of language as is the case in the opening of this apocalypse-like poem:

What time is it I'm happy there's a tree
The war atomic power happy there's a tree
That thousand billionth bird wiped out a tree
The promise of a forest of forgetting of I'm off
What time of evening like what time of morning
Here's a tree straight up and filling both my eyes
The page the landscape or the window you could say
A human being dying every second there's a tree...

It's necessary to quote Rouzeau at length as so much of her strength depends on the accumulative effect. This is the case here, where the repetition of the tree in this relentless flow builds and builds with 'atomic power', 'wiped out', 'dying every second' thrown in to disrupt and reassure the tranquillity of the tree until the final line, 'A tree that travels perfectly a tree' captures perfectly that tension between selfishness and hyper-awareness, living for the present and worrying about the future.

Ultimately, Rouzeau is a frustrating poet to summarise and review. She is easy to write off; there is indeed a plethora of 'embarrassing' phrases throughout Talking Vrouz that I could have highlighted to ridicule her. To do so, however, would have been both lazy and a sign that I have fallen for her tricks. Rouzeau rewards re-reading, discussion and petulant foot stamping. I encourage you to do all three at once.