Note: a French version of this conversation is available here.


Claude Ber is a French writer, essayist, playwright, philosopher, and professor. Her writings encompass poetry and prose—or vertical and horizontal poems, as she prefers to name them—while blurring those very delineations.

I first wrote to Claude Ber when I became acquainted with her startling, fragmentary meditation on grief, La mort n’est jamais comme (Death Is Never Like), which won the Prix international de poésie francophone Yvan-Goll in 2004. The book already had an English translator, she wrote back, but perhaps I’d be interested in her latest work? A thin cream paperback from Éditions de l’Amandier came in the mail shortly afterwards, signed.

I’ve been working on translating extracts from Epître Langue Louve (2015; Wolf Tongue Epistle) off and on for almost three years. One poem of this collection, “A Need for Light,” is included below. In this book, Ber’s writing is dense with allusions and unexpected illuminations, like a core sample of human nature. One line is reminiscent of imagism; syntax becomes a game in the next.

All this time, Claude Ber has patiently answered my translation queries with kindness, erudition, and just a touch of irony, in fair acknowledgment of the charming futility of the exercise. This conversation, conducted over email, follows in the same tradition.

—Elodie Olson-Coons

I would be curious to know what your work day is like: when you write, how you write, if you have a space dedicated to your writing

Claude Ber. Photo credit: Adrienne Arth

Claude Ber. Photo credit: Adrienne Arth

I don’t have a typical work day. It all depends on the phase I’m in and how the current book is progressing.

First I accumulate notes, some very brief or more involved fragments, which I’ll jot down at any given moment—sometimes even late at night—either in a notebook or, more often than not, in my iPhone notes, which I send straight to the computer. In this way, I reap and store material, which I leave to ripen for a long time, which I rework on a regular basis, and which will begin to take shape when the shape of the current book or books in the making begin to emerge.

I always work on several volumes simultaneously until one of them supersedes the others and begins to pull ahead toward its fulfillment. In this way, I don’t write collections, which would gather together my previous writings, but books—books in which, yes, some early sketches might find their place, but they’ll always evolve, sometimes considerably, as soon as they enter the framework of a book, sometimes years after that first rough draft. During this phase, I sometimes write eight to ten hours a day.

Thus I can alternate between very intense periods of writing, and more everyday stretches of time, in which I work every day, consistently, on notes, articles, different types of texts (poetry, narrative, articles, conference papers…) and moments of respite, too, where I let sensations, emotions, thoughts germinate in me, only scrawling a few lines here and there. When I live simply, enjoying all of life’s intensity…

I need texts to infuse for a long time, and I throw a lot away. Which explains, I think, the difficulty I occasionally have in responding to requests from magazines and journals, as I don’t have a stock of poems ready, as it were, only fragments and scattered sketches that I think of as under construction until they enter into the writing of a book.

If there are any rituals in my writing, they lie in faithfulness, which brings me back more or less every day to the screen, most often in my office in Paris, but also in the garden of my house by the sea near Nice.

The question of what a poem might be comes back again and again in your work. What we call a poem, where it comes from, what it’s for—this meaning seems to transcend the word. Can you tell me a little about this line of thought?


Every poet seems to me to bring to life, simultaneously with their writing, their own representation and conception of the poem. This questioning of the form is, for me, indissociable from its writing, in a kind of back and forth between doing, writing (as an act), and reflecting on the latter. This line of thought comes to the surface regularly in my texts even if the essence of my writing is not its own questioning.

Given the impossible nature of recapitulating this rumination on the nature of the poem here, a task which goes hand in hand with its writing, I could nonetheless try out a kind of cookie-cutter game of definitions. By saying, for instance, that the poem is a short circuit, or that the poem is a maximum of meaning across a minimum of surface, as opposed to “ad-speak,” which is a minimum of meaning across a maximum of surface! Or that it’s a kind of mille-feuille, a superimposition of layers of meaning which makes sense in all directions at once—with, in my language, the opportune homophony between the senses [“les sens”] and meaning [“le sens”]! Or perhaps that it trembles like a tightrope walker on the ridgeline between the spoken and the written, silence and wording, sound and meaning, between voice and sight, the immediateness of the experience of living and the perspective writing offers, between diastole and systole, the ping-pong of our feelings and the big bang of the universe, within the between-two-dateness of a life and its way of listening that must be listened to. In any case, it’s an excellent paint stripper, scouring the soul and the spirit, bringing back to life our capacity for listening, seeing, and feeling all at once. In all seriousness, the poem escapes its assignments, slipping between our fingers like an avatar, this time, of a kind of soap bar in a bathtub! You need a little bit of a sense of humor to keep the more narrow definitions of the poem at bay—as Zukofsky so wonderfully put it, “the best way to find out about poetry is to read the poems.”

This moving malleability of the poem doesn’t mean that it can be just anything, certainly not the soppy, sentimental nonsense that the word poetic too often is applied to. The poem is simultaneously a way of working with language and a way of being in the world, to live it and think it; as such, it is constantly in and under construction. The “poetic arts”—for this is a very ancient tradition, the poem presenting its ars poetica—developed by every poet as well as by the successive poetic currents, cannot be separated from its history. The poem is engulfed in history, it is written in the consciousness of its constants and metamorphoses as well as of this historicity. It asks questions and questions itself, too, when this interrogation bears witness not only to ourselves but also to a present shot through with a kind of un-quietness, an anxiety akin to Pessoa’s disquiet.  

It is through these moltings and variations of its forms that the poem tells itself and speaks to us. It seems to me, therefore, difficult to write without questioning what one is doing, knowing that only the poem’s writing, its doing, brings, not the answer, but partial answers, temporary ones, and endangered by this very questioning. In my latest book, Mues (Moultings), which is forthcoming, I worked, for instance, in yet another way on the simultaneously porous and nonetheless significant borders of the poetic into which my writing ceaselessly ventures, including, in this case, from a continuous movement from narrative to poem, as if through several levels of lamination. This exploration of form is not just formalist gymnastics; it is in line with my feeling, my perception of the world we live in, where the liminal, the “inter” and the “trans” in art and literature become a reflection of analogous entanglements and passings in the domains of culture, identity; an experience of time, too, where durations overlap and interlock. By its form, too, the poem is speaking about us and our here and now.

As to saying where the poem comes from and what it might be for, either we will be stepping onto far too long a road, or we will have to settle this somewhat abruptly!

Where does it come from? From us. From the depths of us. From our emotions, from our experience. From what connects us all and what makes each and every one of us singular. From our mortal bodies, reminding us of their fragility. There is an almost universal agreement that its history links it with singing, with the voice, the breath, with an orality from which it will emancipate itself more or less clearly in different cultures and to which it will return cyclically in various degrees, inseparable, in any case, from the body, from which it was born.

“Métro Parisien.” Photo credit: Adrienne Arth

“Métro Parisien.” Photo credit: Adrienne Arth

What is it for? A poem is useless—thank god! It is our testimony, an opportune reminder that usefulness’s transformation into a rule-stick is the road to enslavement. We are useless, life is useless, we are our own purpose, life is its own purpose. If the poem’s only task was to remind us of this, already it would be indispensable. It would underline, too, incidentally, the fact that language’s only function is not just to say something but, like delousing in primates, to put us in touch, to tame each other. This kind of taming, for me, cannot be separated from the poem. Far from meaning well and good intentions—a poem should not be written with any intentions and the fraternity of the poem is not sweet; its hospitality lies in disappropriation. In impropriety, for the language of poetry is not suited to any utilitarian use, but is in dialogue with everything—with ourselves, with the other, with words and worlds, here and elsewhere, living and dead, creatures and people, plants and rocks, novae and neutrinos, possibles and impossibles. The jumble of everything. In this hospitality, there is the explicit or implicit utopia of a City hospitable to all living things.

The free nature of the poem refuses roles and justifications. In this, it echoes life, all of life. Saying again that we simply are. The poem entails a consideration of all life or at least an invitation to presence in the here and now, to the antique wisdom of age quod agis, recalling that knowledge [savoir], flavor [saveur], and wisdom [sagesse] have the same root in sapere, to taste, where the taste for life can be felt and experienced like an appetite for being and desire, or at least attention, the most extreme attention to all forms of life, to the tiniest thrills of life. Can humanity get by without this? Can the City get by without this? And if one does, what is it missing? What, if not every one of us?

Would it be true to say that you’re more interested in the potential of language than in its limits?


I do not dissociate the two. To write is simultaneously to give shape and to subtract, to sacrifice. Phrasing something brings into being one possibility that excludes innumerable others. Everything depends, too, on what is meant by the potential and limits of language here. There is no thought outside language, no poem outside its formulation. Even the word inexpressible still belongs to language pointing at its own limits. Our own limits are responsible for the fact that we cannot find the words for a great deal of ourselves and of our world. Language’s limits are our own. I underline this elusiveness often in my writing, whether it’s to do with our inescapable historicity, our dark sides, the enigma of our being and of our lives, the narrowness of our senses, of our experience, of our spirit, but I do not conceive of speech as an instrument that might be exterior to us, a deficient tool—or, for that matter, an all-powerful one; it cannot be dissociated from our humanity, the power and powerlessness of which it simultaneously translates. I am as suspicious of the illusion of omnipotence, of the need for mastery, as I am of any lament for the impotence of language. Both share a kind of dream of absolutes and domination; powers they celebrate or impossibles they deplore—but all of our history bears witness to the devastation this wreaks.

No doubt the personal experience I’ve had of bearing witness to madness and the collapse of language, its true collapse, has made me consider the theme of lamenting the limits of language a somewhat artificial convention. In the face of absolute destitution, you have to learn humility. You cannot just stand there with your hands full, chanting this song of deprivation. It’s an affectation.

In any case, to write is also to “unwrite” oneself; to write is to take hold of something, but also to relinquish the self. In the writing of the poem, there is a conscious part—weighed up, counted, calculated—and a kind of letting go. A welcome. I write something of a poem, but the poem writes itself, and writes me too… The two ends of the stick are inseparable. The same goes for language: its potential and its limits are the heads and tails of the same coin. This is what I write with, in the aliveness, the energy of speech, which is that of life. In the taste for life, the joy of existing, feeling, but also in the consciousness, the experience of pain and death that goes hand in hand with it. Words cannot produce miracles. To speak death does not vanquish death. Language simply speaks of us, just as we are, between nothing and everything. The poem speaks of the infinitesimal preciousness of each life, its fullness and its limits, its suffering and its joy.

There is, in this relationship between poem and language, a distant memory of the creator’s Word, that trace of breath—the Greek pneuma or Hebrew rhua signifying both breath and spirit, transfigured into the sterile academic “inspiration,” but which originally stood for a moment when to breathe in was to live and to breathe out, to die. An inspired poet is a living poet, with the understanding that one can be dead in life… Writing, for me, cannot be separated from an awakening. An intensity. It is where the potential of the word lives, in the capacity to render something of the livingness of life. Living speech exists, giving life, reflecting life, as does dead or deadly language; just as there exists a fertile, brimful silence, and a hollow silence. This duality is present in my writing, marrying emptiness, fullness, life, death, exaltation and suffering. Everything that makes up the parts of us and our language. The poet, in my opinion, is always working—more or less—with oxymoron and paradox, reflecting, generating emotions, states of being or of consciousness other than speech, setting us in motion…

To write is to make an attempt at saying something, is to attempt, even, to say “what speaking means,” to use Mandelstam’s turn of phrase, without the illusion of achieving this task, and without lamenting one’s failure at it. In this ambivalence lies our own. In the ambiguousness of what we are, which writes itself into our language. Until now I have used word, language, writing as synonyms, but they are not. Word and writing update a “common” language, one that exists outside us, that we receive—we are born from the ear, as Rabelais saw it… We receive a tongue, a common language within which each of us will express his or her singularity. Speech is an act of the body, which lives through the body, in the moment of the body, chewing words in the mouth. Speech is throat, tongue, lips, teeth, lungs, breath, voice… Writing, on the other hand, is deferred. When I write a bird, I am writing at the same time its presence and its absence… In that space stands the poem, between presence and absence. In this attempt to make the bird appear on the page, and in the knowledge that it isn’t there…

To some extent, all poets say this, one way or another. A way to re-enchant the world, to convert the gaze, to open up a specific mode of being and feeling, to revitalize a tongue that has been worn down and made anemic by being reduced to the mere function of communication—all give meaning to this work with language, which looks to broaden its own possibles, to give the world a presence—“Where the mountain extends beyond the word mountain is a poet,” as Elytis wrote—to restore us to being by “purg[ing] from our inward sight the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being” (Shelley) or “intensifying” it (Bonnefoy). It must (including the desire that lurks, allusively, in these two letters) become present through and in the heart of words.

In this way, the poem contains both the memory and the regret of speech. It is dirécrire [“speakwrite”] in a single word, as I sometimes call this in-between thing, this tension between what the poem means to me, balanced and unbalanced between, on the one hand, the immediateness of experience, the vital impulse of speech and voice, and on the other hand, the distance of sight and the critical perspective of writing. The sound and the rhythm of the poem are the presence of the voice, of the vital breath, of the body within it. It is, no doubt, from this momentum, from the scale of this breath, in some of my texts, that comes the feeling of the potential of language. But this energy of breath, this exultation of the tongue is tied to its breaks, its stuttering, the white muteness of the impossible…

It belongs to the poem to stop trying to police meaning, to break out of itself, in an insurrection of language—murmur and noise alike, in the consciousness of the power of language that gives us our humanity, and in the knowledge, too, of its disempowerment, of its impotence which knows it can only summon the aftermath of what has happened or that vanishes in its own telling, in the experience that understanding is as much a dispossession as an appropriation and that, held in its sway, there is no way out.

Is the meaning of your texts something you consider fixed? How do you deal with the knowledge that the reader, real or theoretical, might have a different experience of them?


A book is a kind of freedom. A poem is a meaning-making “machine,” a strange machine with carefully calibrated cogs, but with no existing delivery model. This meaning only emerges and is activated only in our relationship to it. There is no poem until others have named it so. An open work, the poem is altered in every meaning of the term, shot through with a thirst for everything and by all othernesses, our own included. It is not assigned to any meanings, but attempts to produce sense and even maybe a kind of significance, which can only unfold within this relationship.

Of course, like in any relationship, two parties are involved, author and readers, and one should be wary of excessively leaning in either direction. Annoyed as I’ve often been by narrow and one-dimensional representations of poetry, I used to tell my students in a somewhat provocative way that a poem is like a shoe: the reader needs to have enough room to fit their foot in, without a slipper turning into a stiletto or a ski boot! This was a cavalier way of outlining the space reading inhabits, between on the one hand over- or misinterpretation and on the other hand the illusion of a fixed, singular meaning.

As I poet, I have nothing to say of the experience my readers have of my poems, which belongs to them. From the moment the poem is published, made public, it eludes me. I’ve done everything I can for it to “work”—and I have to believe that it can, when I publish it, as it would be dishonest to hand readers a text that one considers unfinished, but I can never be sure. It’s a risk I have to take. Writing is always a risk. After that, whether the poem lives or dies depends on others… In fact, over time, a work is judged on its capacity to give birth to readings and rereadings. The poet, meanwhile, is often long dead.

The reader’s experience belongs to the reader. I am not a guardian of the poem’s meaning: I wrote it, and there my role ends. The poem escapes all policing, including my own—or at least this is the best I can hope for, where my writings are concerned: for them to live on far from me and beyond me, for writing is the experience of dispossession rather than appropriation. I remember readers who read a father or a brother’s death into “ce qui reste” from La mort n’est jamais comme, despite it being explicitly about a lover’s grief, but these readings showed that they had made the poem their own, had read it through their own experience of loss. This is a good sign!

One does not write, it seems to me, to elevate the I—even if one writes with the self, with one’s life experience, one’s emotions, one’s vision of the world, one’s own sensibility, the poem is, in contradiction to this, a movement from the ego to the subject where the “I” is neither me nor the ego the subject… It is an opening, a call, an evocation, an invitation, an voice that spells out and calls out to the other. In this open dialogue, I am, once the work is finished, on the side of disappearance. This is only banal: we are neither owners nor masters of what we bring into this world, our works or our offspring. All we can do is attempt to make sure that our books and our children live on outside us, after us, and in any case far from our claims to them. In their freedom to be and to become. It’s only a comparison, of course, but one that reminds us that to give life, literally or figuratively, is to let go of it, to accept one’s finite nature and to stand back and let the other’s possibilities be.

The places in your writing feel very alive to me—the mountain pastures and fields of L’infime et sa disproportion (Epître Langue Louve) and Le livre la table la lampe (Il y a des choses que non) but also the bustling city with its asphalt, its escalators, its trains You live in Paris, but do you have roots in the countryside? Or are you a city dweller by nature these days?

“Vieux Nice.” Photo credit: Adrienne Arth

“Vieux Nice.” Photo credit: Adrienne Arth

My writings travel between city, sea and pastures, it is true. So do I. Already my childhood was split between the Mediterranean seaside and the alpine mountains of the hinterlands of Nice. I’ve always lived in cities, I’ve lived in Paris for years, but I return, cyclically, to my countryside and seaside home near Antibes. Once again, I am drawn to the in-between! I couldn’t live without the cosmopolitan urban bustle, the energy, the frenzy of big cities like Paris, Marseille, New York, London, Berlin, where I have lived, sometimes for years, sometimes only for a short stay. I like the breathless rhythm, the diverse population full of the whisper of multiple languages and cultures, the eternal sense of surprise. But I couldn’t live without silence, the contemplative serenity of a relationship with water, with wind, with trees, with animals, with the height of the sky and the vastness of the sea, the immensity of all that contains us. I’ve always alternated between these two worlds, the city saturated with all that is human, and relative isolation in the countryside, which I take to include the sea, which I can’t live far from for long. These maritime and mountain landscapes people my writing.

In any case, I maybe wouldn’t call them “roots,” because I am a little wary of such a term, given how it feeds dubious identity politics, even communitarian separatism. I prefer to think about what is unique and what is shared, over such politically ambiguous themes… We are made out of individual and collective histories, but we are not chained to them. Like in the African folk tale of the tree people and the boat people, neither should be forgotten: neither that boats are made out of trees, nor that we are both sedentary and nomadic—that our humanity, like our identity, is a patchwork, a fiction in movement.

We are made—our cultures, our identities are made from memory, but also from borrowings, meetings, influences, movement and unceasing invention. I am rooted neither in the city nor in the countryside, I have drawn from both wells, and they have both built me; and better than roots, that condemn us to immobility, I have legs that come and go, walk, move me from place to place, to discover and meet others, and myself. Life is movement; writing, too, is movement.

Relatedly—or perhaps not—could you tell me about Claude Ber in the early days of her career?


I am quite incapable of such a thing! I can attempt to reply to questions about my writing, even if it’s always with a feeling of some kind of betrayal, for if I write in poetry—and I do mean “in poetry” and not “poetry”—it’s because poetry says what cannot be said any other way. To comment on a poem is to always just miss the essential, which is said by and through poetry. I would be unable, on the other hand, to present a sort of account of what you refer to as a career and which I have never considered as such. Writing towards poetry is, for me, I will say it again, a way of being in the world, of living in it, of living it, of thinking it. Of course there is a concrete history of publications coming one after the other, of poems being distributed and received, which cannot be ignored since poems exist only through their diffusion and circulation, but that’s of a different nature.

The only reply I can give is that I felt very early in my life the vital necessity of writing, and that, as Rilke wrote in his Letters to a young poet, it is useless to write if one feels one can live without writing… Poems were, no doubt, initially, a response to an unease with the sequential nature of language—one of its limits! As a child, I found myself chafing at the bit when faced with language’s impossibility to render multiplicity, concomitance and the overlap within us of feelings, sensations, thoughts, perceptions which could only be translated one after the other. The poem’s leafed layout, its mille-feuille-like nature, its denseness, what I now refer to as “feuillature” [lamination] from the craftsman’s word for multiple layers of glass or metal, struck me as a manner of escaping the sheer weight of language’s sequentiality.

Next, I should refer to my first contact with poetry, first in foreign languages, in Italian with Dante—my maternal family having emigrated from Florence—then in Latin and German, then the “copains de génie” [genius pals] as Michaux named them, from Baudelaire to Chat or Michaux via Rimbaud, Villon, Hölderlin, Apollinaire, Mandelstam, Pessoa, Bachmann, Sachs but also Celan, Sylvia Plath, Withman and many others, so many others who marked my path… Which would take a long time!

And at last, one would have to enter into the heart of the matter, my life and writing, and that is what my texts are for. All I can do is add other texts to these in an attempt to come closer, go farther, into more detail, deeper—which is for me, today just as it was at the very start, the point of writing: an interrogation of the world, of ourselves, of our condition. In the end, and to use a disjunctive summation borrowed shamelessly and somewhat haphazardly from Deleuze, I would say simply that Claude Ber in her early days is very similar to the one who is writing today, and is made just as different from her by the time that separates me from her—and with it, the thickness, the density and the intensity of a life—and by a writing journey that has made me just as much as I made it.

Are there any contemporary voices you’re particularly interested in?


Again, I wouldn’t know how to answer this because my curiosity is insatiable, eclectic as hell, jumping without transition from a piece fresh off the press to something by Bashô, several centuries old. I understand that “contemporary,” in your question, means living writers, but certain contemporaries in this sense of the term seem further from us than long-lost voices… The notion of contemporaneity is complex and subjective. Without entering into that debate, let’s say that I partake of everything, from what is closest to my work to its very antipodes. I peck at a little of everything, wandering through the influx of the written word with a freedom that neither chronology nor hierarchy can stem.

This doesn’t mean I like everything, but simply that everything interests me and that I have little interest in the prizes and controversies that belong to literary life, and no doubt feed some fertile debates, but are quite alien to me. I’ve published many poets in my time as the head of a poetry collection [accents graves/accents aigus, Editions de l’Amandier], where the need to choose and define a kind of coherence is inevitable; I occasionally judge prizes; every month I invite a poet onto my website, this time without following an editorial line or even my own tastes, but for the sole pleasure of the variety of poems, contradictory aesthetics and chance encounters, and I don’t wish to hastily cite a few names which would leave out too many others.

I can only add that at the moment I am mostly reading foreign poetry. Its diversity is a mirror of the poem’s; a mirror, too, of the specificity of each culture, and of unique voices, far from poetry’s attribution to a narrow definition or to inevitably relative and fleeting biases. Or I could tell you, in no particular order, the titles of the books piling up right now on my bedside table, where Spinoza lies side by side with Wittgenstein, Jaume Cabré’s Confiteor, Huang Po, Li Tsi, Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Sebald, Tarjei Vesaas, John Ashbery, Ingeborg Bachmann, Shaking the pumpkin, an anthology of traditional Native American poetry, along with one of contemporary African poetry, several journals and several art books, including the catalogs from two expositions of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Egon Schiele, which I’ve just been to see at the Louis Vuitton Foundation…

Photograph from  Paysage de Cerveau , by Claude Ber and Adrienne Arth. Courtesy of Adrienne Arth.

Photograph from Paysage de Cerveau, by Claude Ber and Adrienne Arth. Courtesy of Adrienne Arth.

Tell me about your upcoming projects.


There are plenty… some clearly delineated, some still gestating. Two books will be coming out in 2019: one, published by Bruno Doucey, is the fifth edition of La mort n’est jamais comme (Death is never like), the other, Mues (Moultings), a new book coming out in a bilingual English/French edition with PUHR [Presse Universitaire de Rouen et du Havre], as part of a collection led by Christophe Lamiot. I have another poetry book in the works, which will need two, three years or more to take shape. With Epître langue louve then Il y a des choses que non, five art books and who knows how many articles released in the last four years, I need to make new honey! Underway also is a short story collection and two longer writings in prose, which I’ve been working on for a long time. That’s without mentioning the other art books and leaving aside commissioned articles, lectures, seminars and conferences which are starting to dangerously saturate my calendar… It’s a lot, but it’ll get done bit by bit, in parallel, like it always does.


***

A Need for Light

from Wolf Tongue Epistle by Claude Ber


…where man no longer praises the immortals

except with endless sighing

—Hölderlin


From light       a need for       light

in a darkness   a feeling of obscurity

a need for lucid light   by the quick silver of the olive trees

for equitable light

in a darkness through which the black of mourning women passes

 

a need to open this light

 

What happens when life deserts itself? she wonders. When life deducts itself from itself? And splashes either with blood or with tears. When words go like a cat to litter. Piss a stream of urine. When there’s no other shelter for speech than its flight. A little sawdust scattered around the box. In the domestication of consciousness, what is left?

When the gaze is barely hanging by a thread of hopelessness it clouds over. Its sun

stripped of a face

 

In water and sand inverting, shade forces light into the home of our being

the world, our mouths fighting over the bone of it,

and language in language’s nightfall, when no ghost of itself ironically haunts the word

it’s a shiver

jouncing at the end of the plumb line

 

She asks: What does absence mean, clutching at itself? A black hole of consciousness, collapsing inwards under all the weight of its history? Our conscience these days is like a sock turned inside out, nasty business!

And I have neither miracle words nor miracle hand to make

redemption’s cloverleaf

blossom at the worn heel

 

In the constant squawking of signals and waves – a rattle like a saucepan dragged along the road (a great silence comes over me. It’s dark, too) – is there a guardrail by day? Respite in the cramping of bent spines? she asks. Even just a file to gnaw away a corner of clear light?

Nails breaking at our fingertips spell the fragility of our night

and I have no ready answer to fit

her questions   like a glove

 

Is light just the other side of night? she asks. Something to clot this vastness?

I say vastness is not eternity. And comes a sonorous pause. Illusory breathing, but in the interstices between syllables, for a few seconds the thick night of the soul fissures

its thick bruise on the lace of this delicate, bluish, jangling night, over which the body leaning on the balcony bends

 

She says: it’s not what I’d call night, this length and the fingers that tear it. In the world the night she says but maybe I’m wrong…

corpse butchers: that’s what words are

and the night she speaks of is a cadaver of night. A grey insignificance. A betrayal of the night

in the mouth that within itself speaks its night

 

            A need for light.

Even candles, or embers. Their silky shadow. Almost beastlike. Like a little nocturnal feline with soft fur. A shell of moon crushes in on itself. Vanished into the plum tree foliage. Anecdote of the garden eye. Her nocturnal harvest. A consolation for the one who asks at the periphery of all things because there is no centre wherein the fall of language in her name might be named.

 

When the rope of consciousness snaps and its carcass is floating on the water in the basin where does it go fleeing into us? What is it that departs and where does one deduct oneself from oneself? she asks.

There’s no soul to this exfoliation

only fear and greed

or regret at not crossing a riverbridge arm in arm brimming with lovers’ joy or a greyhound racing, slender body under its long hair

the eccentric hip-sway of the Afghan hound

and the taming of speech to its astonishment

 

            I talk about you

                                                and it’s a kind of light

the wind outside has fallen silent

Lower your voice, she says, so I can listen to the ants marching on the trunk of the almond tree.

That which lives is silent. Often doesn’t cry. Nothing born quick in this scattering which submerges us.

If you pick a word from my lip keep it! she says

She calls, who answers?

In the ear’s labyrinth, no Ariadne to unwind the thread.

I’m in a hurry to end my sentence like one ends a life. Clutter for those who follow and weariness with waiting on

No monsters under pleather seats.

All inside us. In the ticktock of our chests.

And us begging for a little space to rest easy.

 

Hung from the 131 porticoes the nailing gaze fastens the

voice to the vault

a need for light                                                high enough

for light

by the larynx a spiral of ash, by the sink one of water stirring crumbs and peels, crowns of irises or arum lilies in rolled cone on fat yellow pistil, an antenna for lost speech, a phallus of flowers and the pollen outlining its laugh in the familiarity of words

but further                               past the threshold of the door

on the welcome mat

they’re deserting                         the dust in us

of so many steps in the absence of a path

 

Stairs lead to the road. The road to the high street shops. Then to the suburbs. Then, after the beltway, to crop stubble countryside.

Where are we going? she asks.

Crests of light rush to pupil and I stare without seeing. Rather, I listen, eyes closed, to the emptiness of the street at night

or now, barely broken, in the wheat

beneath the rumbling of the freeway

Sometimes rivers, prairies, mountains, glaciers, lakes, forests spring to the arch, she says. Ample. In a miraculous gust. A basket of life. Then erased

and the disfigurement stays

 

Suffering is not knowledge. Not even a vertical

break

it’s                   just                  pointless

strength and beauty offer no promise                         nor quest

                         only                 to the bare hand

the heart beats under the hutch of ribs

intimate timepiece carrying no other elsewhere than

time passing by

slightest glow between the shoots

laboured earth and the dry bark of it at the crest of furrows

 

Nothing worth losing hope over, I say, resting the spade against my knee, it’s only a life with its furies, its fears, its fumbling and, all this searching for truth, she has trouble settling into the pose, knees crossed yogic with just a cramp of ligaments at the twist of the ankle pulled up across the calf and straight the column of air running from stomach to skull centre, open wide so the soul can expel itself towards flight, the loose harpoon of it blown right through the pores.

Wise the maxims of wisdom but beyond refreshing the forehead

nothing but the towel damp with sweat rolled up on the chair

 

A voice pulses its tonguetip need for light through everything elsewhere like the 22 letters to the patriarch’s, words to inhale when short of breath and hope’s too much of an effort for the everyday exhaustion that climbs up stair by stair weary and sometimes bitter

a need        for

and its hammock stretched out for you to lie down in the chirping

of jays and sparrows

the woodpecker’s metronome like

a bird way of speaking self

into the thick of the world

 

What is it for, this whole-of-everything listening? she asks. Is it enough to send the darkness flying? To dry the blood, to wash out our soiled beliefs? To bring real happiness back, knocking on our windowpanes? Who will tear the nocturnal retina closing our faces in on their wrinkles and what fuel-oil for the winter of light?

Who will we be and will we be ten million years from now, heads hung from the neckline of oblivion?

 

            A stroke of light

like a heel kicking the silt of a lakebed, fins unfurled, my heart, say, my life, all at once, the sky for us and the light equal and undeducted

even if the water is mute

all at once          the nakedness of bodies

and a sovereign indecency                            all at once

established

all at once          space

breathed all 77 names into juxtaposed navels

Our lips carry the spite of the gods and their curse, may they crumble forevermore in the thorns, sceptre bursting out of the rushes and irises in glory

drunk through the mud of our mouths our beheaded gods

 

A sour apple falls in the puddle under the hosed trunk. Washes itself of all futures. And will rot in the water. Unless fingers gather it. A junebug slips in through the cut skin, its taste of ripe pulp under the warm palate of heat and stagnant water.

A penknife of light

to unhook stalk from fruit

our gods from our humanity and make peaceful night

in the scent of aloe and eucalyptus

the sea white and its moon path

that only leads to its glistening of damp stars

Orphans at last

caiman skin lain on the armchair like a simple dressing gown

and no other mystery to explore than

eyelids closing

 

            In the song, the cut tongue

watchful in our sights

between deserving and shortcoming the rule’s scourge weighs

mortals

and the voice whittles words out of their expectation.

That evening, she says, so the story begins and its end remains intact. An alto timbre. A high-pitched car horn. The whistling kiss. A bird’s warble. My head on the block, there’s nothing untrue in our stories, nothing true in our fables.

Cyclically, men decapitate other men or bury their women in the sand. Just like you’d trade a piece of cloth. The way you’d baste a piece of beef. Without remorse or worry. Not savagely. Not innocently. Sometimes in a sort of ecstasy of death. But most often collectively. An old raptorial, tyrannosauric inheritance. And those repulsed frozen in dazed herbivorous stupor.

Questions to questions. Inhuman to human. Two castanet shells chiming out all that is meaningless and terrible. 

Where are we headed in blindness and indifference? she asks.

And it’s a childhood voice murmuring from her lips,

because otherwise

speech passes through pork snout

 

            A cloth of light

to purge the curse’s stomach

so that other cords than hangmen’s vibrate

in the untouched invisible void

a need              for earth on us

to bury our history’s whole

                        with heavy earth. Fleshed. Sexual.

From gorgeous fat female earth, from good testicled earth rebirthing itself in the hair of sea lyme grass

and us with

asses washed by the ebb

A need          for eardrums to listen to light (its photo and quark aerobatics, its little light steps when, at dawn, girlish feet trot across the stains of day slipped into the half-light)

and eyes close to the disaster of seeing

 

An event                                 an annunciation with no

miracle

unsequelled eternity

finally the end

and the earth’s udder turned in on itself, a vessel for the mind – a concept into which to pour a thimble of knowledge – even if at the bottom of the wine bowl you find the dregs of youth eternal, already quaffed

Too late to listen

hands cupping conch to earlobe

oh living ones, on which side of what is real do you think falls the word which speaks its name?

Fright and terror are only our own, elsewhere is soft night, loose clay, galactic lumen unending

 

            For the duration in which a life curls up like a toadstool under the moss, all it takes is a ray of light scratching the windowpane – the stars too far to make a sign –, is the gleam of a streetlight, a match, a phone’s bluish aura, the encounter of headlights and fireflies bursting crushed against the windscreen, where the wipers clean away their pinkish traces, for these orders to get mixed up again and for it to become impossible to separate what we are from what we are.

A voice says I love you into a cellphone jammed between cheek and shoulder while hands fuss, cleaning hissing insect cadavers off the hood.

And that’s how

even if words prefer to flutter around the same corolla – and it would be a song of the prairie poppies – it isn’t and the whole of everything sets itself down at once. The river alders with their finches. The jabbering of pigeons with their carcass gnawed by red ants in the garbage cans on the squares. In the hindquarters of language an ass can bray with passion.

 

Peace in the congestion of impatient speech, nothing

says nothing more than an existence and its clarity circumscribed to the minute and the vast.

And march! On the double!

Death smells like formaldehyde and rotting meat

war like excrement and plasterboard rubble

what little flesh is left on the lips reeling off another

mantra of kisses

swift little snake, come, come sting the bared breast

that the word might disappear into flesh

nimbus laden with rain when nothing more of

what I know will ever be and

this shall be                 deliverance

 

            Shivering bells round mules’ necks. The abattoir is no farther than the summit. Converging in the thrice-greatest union of opposites. Goat dung will be changed to gold by Nicolas Flamel and the way to the peaks opens onto the peregrine’s Montjoie. The power of love will have us all reborn twixt the rosy lips of the pyramidal orchid.

What are you talking about? she asks. I stroke her cheek with my gaze, offering the spoken to her creative waiting, to the face’s clinamen, our voices lain down in us

with the desire to live like a word on the tongue

to swallow the universe’s multiples

for a satiated and consummated rest

 

            In the meadow a magpie. On the table eggs, chives, jug of milk and pinch of flour. A wooden spoon to mix it all up with a quick twist of the wrist. Oil smokes in the pan. Something is still being murmured at the notch of the horizon, in its folds of faded rays welcoming the untold, but nothing hatches wingless in the nest of speaking.

Two stones build two houses and seven stones more than five thousand, and after that you should begin counting.

Let’s admit that our words have the force of a quasar in a tongue where tongues end

that they are enough to invent other suns before ours goes black dwarf

 

I’ll spend my need for light going back over the tongue strung kernel by kernel to itself

unwinding the knotted yarn of floats

shearing nestlings for a down

of innocence

but what I invent of my life in this way has already taken place

it has eternity left to come undone

tomorrow is gone to meet me

here now a body leaning from the window

listens to the night

the need for light        within her       

softening

translated from the French by Elodie Olson-Coons


Claude Ber is a French poet, playwright, university lecturer, and the author of twenty-odd books. She was awarded the prix international de poésie Ivan Goll and the French Légion d’honneur in recognition of her career and ongoing commitment to human rights issues. Her works have been translated into several languages, and she regularly gives readings and conferences in France and abroad. Her latest publications include the fifth printing of La Mort n’est jamais comme and Il y a des choses que non. www.claude-ber.org

Elodie Olson-Coons is a bilingual writer, ghostwriter and editor currently based in Switzerland. Her work has featured in a number of journals and anthologies, most recently 3:AM Magazineminor literature[s], and [PANK]. She tweets @elllode, and is currently working on her first novel. thesecondpen.com

Over the last ten years, photographer and visual artist Adrienne Arth has exhibited her work in France and abroad in galleries, salons, career retrospectives and collective exhibitions. In her other life as Frédérique Wolf-Michaux (actor, singer, stage director), her artistic career has featured thirty years of theatrical creations and collaborations with musicians, visual artists and poets. https://adriennearth.com/

Banner image and photographs: Adrienne Arth

Edited by Madeleine Maillet