Poemes en Prose
by Pierre Reverdy, translated by Ron Padgett
Black Square Editions 2007
Reviewed by Ben Mirov
Not much is known about Pierre Reverdy. He was associated with the most important writers and artists of his generation, among them Max Jacob, Pablo Picasso, and Guillaume Apollinaire. He loved the work of Juan Gris. He published a short-lived vastly influential journal called Nord-Sud. Andre Breton called him “the greatest poet of the time.” He spent large periods of his life in isolation, dedicating himself entirely to his writing. He spent the last portion of his life in a monastery. He also created a modest body of poetry that has withstood the test of more than 100 years.
Despite the little we know about Reverdy in the way of biographical details, his poems continue to be a source of inspiration to many contemporary poets. He has had his share of translators, each of them erudite, many poets themselves. Among the best have been John Ashbery and Kenneth Rexroth. Ashbery, who recently released a translation of Reverdy’s long poem “Haunted House,” (Black Square Editions and The Brooklyn Rail) has long been a proponent of the French poet. Ashbery’s translations are excellent, as one might expect; often sounding more than a little Ashberyesque, they capture the calculated, austere imagery characteristic of a Reverdy poem. Kenneth Rexroth’s translations are equally breathtaking and perhaps more open and readable than Ashbery’s pieces.
Ron Padgett’s translations of Reverdy’s “Prose Poems” seem to fall somewhere between Rexroth and Ashbery. “Prose Poems” was Reverdy’s first book. Reading the poems, one cannot help but look for the nascent aspects that manifest themselves in his later work. Padgett has done an admirable job of remaining transparent while allowing all the nuances characteristic of Reverdy to shine through. The lapidary, Magritte-like imagery of later lineated poems runs throughout these translations. If nothing else, this is proof of Padgett’s sensitivity and skill as a translator. In “At Dawn,” for example, Padgett captures all the Reverdy-like elements that one would expect to see in the poet’s early work:
In my dream the head of a child was in the center.
If the clouds gather on your roof and the rain spares you,
will you keep the secret of this double miracle?
But no voice calls you. If you get up barefoot, you’ll get
sick. Where would you go, anyway across these ravines of
What draws me to Reverdy again and again is his ability to embody what Rexroth, in his essay “The Cubist Poetry of Pierre Reverdy,” calls “…simple, sensory, emotional or primary informative objects capable of little or no further reduction.” Take for example the sentence “In my dream the head of a child was in the center,” where precision and clarity of image coalesce with abstraction. What does the head of the child look like? What expression does it have? Why is it there? All these considerations are left to the reader of a Reverdy poem. No image is interpreted and the author’s opinion about his subject matter is never interjected (the imperative “If you get up barefoot, you’ll get sick,” is about as didactic as Reverdy ever gets). The effect achieved is one of a middle-distance, where images and ideas become preternaturally focused. A classic Reverdy image is one that cannot bear the weight of any more details than that of those which it has already been prescribed. Ornate description, didactic utterance, or further paring down would disrupt the grace and balance of the image. This quality makes each of Reverdy’s poems feel miraculous.
Beyond the phenomenal singularity of each individual image, Padgett’s translations also capture the intense architectural qualities of Reverdy’s work. In “The Cubist Poetry of Pierre Reverdy” Rexroth notes that in a Reverdy poem
…the ordinary materials of poetry are broken up, recombined in structures radically different from those we assume to be the result of causal, or of what we have come to accept as logical sequence, and then an abnormally focused attention is invited to their apprehension, they are given an intense significance, closed within the structure of the work of art, and are not negotiable in ordinary contexts of occasion. So isolated and illuminated, they seem to assume an unanalyzable transcendental claim.
In this section of the poem “Fascinated” we find the intense recombination of the physical strata of the world into the “radically different” structure Rexroth mentions:
All the eyes turn toward this point, and the street seems to want to leap over the balcony. And nothing is protecting
the sidewalk. Behind the old man who is smoking, there
is a younger and far too pretty head.
The images in this section, from the “All the eyes,” to the “far too pretty head,” seem to proceed based on a secret logic. There is no apparent reason why “the eyes turn,” or how this causes the street to “want to leap over the balcony.” The overriding sense is that the poem very well may not be held together by the experience of the poem’s narrator. If we tell our friend that we saw an attractive person sitting behind a man smoking at a sidewalk café, our friend will most likely take our word for it. This is not quite the case for a Reverdy poem; the juxtaposition and recombination of images forces the reader to cipher and grasp the information being delivered by the poem on a level that is as mysterious and subjective as the poem itself. In a sense, a Reverdy poem forces us to question neither the validity of its narrator’s experience, but the validity and coherence of our own consciousness.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the book signing for both “Haunted House” and “Prose Poems,” held at the CUE gallery in Chelsea. As Ron Padget scribbled his signature into my copy of “Prose Poems” I mentioned I was disappointed not to hear him and John Ashbery read. All he said in reply was, “these speak for themselves,” which says a lot more than I ever could about the quality of these translations.