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Review: Surrealist, Lover, Resistant, by Robert Desnos

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Others will review this sumptuous volume in the light of a knowledge of Desnos's poetry. I can only comment on how it strikes someone almost completely new to his writing.
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For me, the point of incandescence comes at the beginning of the next section, "Lover - Yvonne George", with five poems from the volume À la mystérieuse of 1926 and some from Les Tén?bres the following year. These leap off the page, both in French and in English. They're virtually the only poems by Desnos that I'd come across before reading this book. Ad?s tells us that they were written out of hopeless love for a nightclub singer who ignored the poet and died of drink and drugs in 1930. In a way, such information is irrelevant. The poems present no story and tell us virtually nothing concrete about Yvonne George herself; their power is of a purely lyrical kind, to do with the emotions of the poet. And yet they give a powerful sense of reality.
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During this time he wrote "The Night of Loveless Nights", so called in its French publication. At nearly 600 lines, full of abrupt transitions and associative leaps from image to image and scenario to scenario, it makes a powerful appeal to the imagination but I found it hard to bring its series of intense moments into coherent focus or hold steady in the mind. The tone shifts between violently-wrought abstract rhetorical [...].
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The next section of Ad?s's selection is called "Lover" and it covers the time of Desnos's relationship with the woman he married. It seems to have been a happy period. Desnos's fluency is very apparent, albeit largely in short poems, and it's matched by Ad?s's fluency as a translator. Though the imaginative pressure generally seems lower here than in the periods of frustration, the poems are easy to relate to and enjoy, covering a wide range of themes and tones - love poems, of course, but also absurdist games and some delightful poems for children. Darkness falls again and the poems become both more intense and more oblique in the final section, "Resistant", written during the Nazi Occupation of France. Here, Desnos, who was a member of two Resistance networks, had to hide his meanings in plain sight to survive the censor.
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As a parallel text, this volume performs a double service, making so much of Desnos's work available to English readers in its original French as well as in English. Of course translation on such a scale is inevitably uneven, especially given Ad?s's decision to use strict metre and fairly strict rhyme wherever Desnos does, which is a great deal of the time.
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(Ades) is gifted in the creation of varied and expressive patterns of sound and rhythm. I've already suggested that this makes his versions of the poems to Yvonne George superior to Caws's as English poetry, and many of his other versions give real artistic pleasure in a similar way - sometimes, to my mind, more than the original.
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Altogether, this is a book I've greatly enjoyed reading and sometimes wrestling with, a worthy transmission of a major poet with much to offer to very different tastes.