Jacques Darras: from Voyage to an Island Tongue

From here on in, the truth by half.

Or by quarter watch, deck alert to the sucking sound of maelstroms.

No more gulfs or abysses–Coleridge, Poe, Baudelaire–out of whose depths something newly human might emerge, daybreak of pure distilled water.

At every hour of the day and night, at every precise point of the earth’s curve, the four cardinal directions are conjoined.

There is no more absolute north.

No more arbitrary south.

Simply this taste for a diluted sip of sun and night–ice cubes in whiskey or malt shimmering with the shared burn of the light and of the dark one tries to keep at bay.

Two seasons in sudden alternation.

Identically at odds.

That there no longer be need for the mediation of dialectic (O German idealism) to heal the bitter divide between north and south, day and night.

That to the dictatorship of the sun, one prefer the knife of cooler lights.

The daybreak reverberation of truth.

*

No need to venture into the ice-floes to encounter the last of the polar bears. No animal breath ever managed to melt the slightest patch of snow.

Reindeer, elk, moose, all proofs of a paleolithic genesis gone wrong, a pitch-dark night during which the hunters invented their sooty mythologies around campfires of burning pine.

Where throwing a branch into the dying embers at the break of day was like adding a bough to the sleep of history, chanted by a shaman.

Away with theologians of the south, away with Chukchi sorcerers.

There is no longer a mythological north, how many times does one have to remind ethnologists of this, who get up every morning and, like Inuits, stubbornly oil their skin with seal blubber?

North is a precarious philosophy.

One that draws its quivering bow to unleash boreal floods, cascades of irisation, fragile hypotheses falling like the drapery of metamorphosis upon the walls of the imagination.

A philosophy more ursulian than cartesian, which does nothing to forbid the body in all its vulnerable and trembling flesh from inhabiting the rawness of death.

*

Between the tufts of marram grass, observe the sea.

The just measure of a North Sea beach, its shiver.

Pins pricking the skin, sweet acupuncture of life.

Blue badigeon of the sky, forever ready to plaster over wounds we never knew we had received.

When it takes root in the fresh sand, the shadow takes pleasure in its momentary stance.

Airborne, though not thwarting the stride of dunes.

The minimal amount of grass to measure the unquantifiable amount of space.

Just as wind force may be assessed by the prickles gently addressed to naked leg.

The whole horizon a vertical in flux.

Lying on its side in obedience to the water.

By change of heart.

Its tolerance an anger ever about to subside.

Hence green.

*

Common space common sea

As in “commons”–that communal field where English villagers set out their sundry flocks to graze.

The contagion of grass spreading to the sea.

Wave upon wave of the imaginary, off to the fields with its array of hops.

Great fields with barriers, berms of sand, pools for hunting, polders, moërs with dikes dreamt up by humanist architects, salt marshes acclaimed for those tender viands that would nourish the palate and palette of Van Eyck.

Communal sea fashioned by river mouths.

Mouths that spoke to each other, ruminated together, in extended colloquies of green saliva, fingering their clay pipes between two hands of tarot, jacquet, manille.

Beers, lambics, signed Steen, Teniers, ter Borch or de Hoogh, their tobacco smoke clouding up the cafes of Rotterdam or Antwerp.

Poor beggars dreaming of wearing their Sunday finery.

Of arks where the grass growing between plants and apple trees is a looking glass of the sea.

And here and there behind the dunes a steeple’s timeless chime.

A dovecote of hours, each flight on time.

So that the collocation of land and sea never cease.

*

As between Breskens and Vlissingen–one of the many mouths of the Scheldt.

Opening out onto six kilometers of sandy wave swell and wave lap, iridescent patches of fuel oil, tugboats in trance, hauling scows as dead as charcoal, white foam unfurled beyond the bar, against the emerald horizon, out into the open sea..

How include the overflow, that which eludes the four sides of the frame?

Especially when the sky surging so chaotically close refuses (reversal of perspective!) to be stretched full-length across the canvas.

Given that, barely a few minutes ago, far to the rear of this rough sketch of a painting, Rubens stands there at Sainte Gudule, sliding the body off the Cross like a dockhand unloading a lousy side of beef.

And given that, further upstream though nearer in time, the funeral barge of the poet Verhaeren remains completely stuck in the muck of industrial coal.

Should one seek shelter in the narrow strap of land occupied by the wool-trade village of Veer, before starting off for Scotland?

The staging area–the North Sea.

Exercises to assimilate space in all its elastic fiber.

One day it ought to be possible to walk one’s way through a sentence the way one wanders along its strands.

*

To ascend into the isles, without losing one’s wits, following the axis of the magnetic pole.

Work shop of red sand stone, gneiss, mica, basalt, the oldest in Europe.

Inner and Outer–near and far.

Hebrides. The Hesperides of the North.

Alighted upon the waters as upon a sheet of music.

A score suspended, fragments of harmonious land, awaiting instrumentation.

With all manner of fluid and contradictory streams of imagination swirling this way and that around their periphery.

Stable in their elasticity. Settlements of plasticity.

All the basic tasks–going aboard, casting off–taking as they always do several hours, eventually melting into the sheer breath of existence.

There will always be so much sky and sea around these isles that the seaweed becomes some human organ temporarily laid out to bleach beneath the sun.

The tide, shifting frontier of the year in flux.

For which no one shall ever pay a price.

On the condition that the cultivated acreage of the isle be too lean and thus fall below the threshold of looters.

A non-possessive offering.

*

A dark blue offering.

In the happy scur of color, space outdoes itself with a horizon of hills and peaks, sometimes appearing as an alternate version of matter.

An alternate version–a versification.

The isle, a natural poem–gratis.

The expense of spirit in a gift of land.

Spendthrift display of humility, of waste.

That the definition of the isle not be contained within herself like a continent, that her tininess exile her from any dream of conquest, even though she be less than content with her paltry lot.

And who insists on it.

By litotes, by allusion.

A rhetorical figure, the isle.

Saying little so as to say more.

The finest of schools to learn of the grammar of space.

From one syntax to the other, from one isle to the other, always arriving behind schedule, the bane of crossing by boat.

This roamer of peripatetic isles.

This mime of stability.

*

Aboard.

Aboard this vessel of the Hebrides.

On this all-too-early September evening, the night melding its greys with the sea, where the green lights of the buoys at the mouths of harbors, viewed from a distance, suggest frantic signals of distress.

With just what it takes to inspire true panic.

Mixed in with the inevitable dread of death (inherited from human mythologies).

Nor without a touch of Byronic irony, considering the absolute misery of life in these latitudes, be it only for the space of a few hours, on rough seas.

Naively offering up your soul, in the unlikely prospect of a shipwreck, to the scissors of the terns–these little local couriers of the Fates who snip wave crests with their wings.

While keeping a course landward, toward dawn’s sustained pinks, toward skies that seem to want to strike their inverted roots into the sea.

For in the morning coves will come, littered with cuttlefish bones, their whiteness barely separable from the sands, from the sleek brute force of tides.

Cliffs green with wave wash, spectacular scree of liquid chalk.

*

In a heath the color of dark violet grief, the tombstones rise–Callanish.

Like an ode whose terraces circle stolid lives.

Like a changeless monument to simile.

The unsolvable human algebra of like.

Ellipses, three enigmatic dots slung beneath the great vault of the cosmos.

All the while, hovering over these tiers, where several ghosts, distant inheritors of the rites of meditation, turn to stone (only their pale legs still alive), the cornice of the sky chips away into wrinkles of carved flint.

What self-serving bullshit!

Where you can still hear the stripes of cruel self-flagellation, flinching at the combined spines of sea horses administered by the West.

In this circus setting a nascent society invented a calendar for itself–a chess board of lunar lapses across whose blacks and whites the pawns of male resistance made their moves.

To harden time into an infinity of sexual bliss.

Lacking any lintel between pleasure and pain.

*

At Uist, the Atlantic races in from the open to spill unprompted into the heath.

Pale violet in pure morning blue.

Waves of water branching and sprouting into little lakes or lochs, rimmed by a one-lane road, humped and hewed.

Seen from a distance, behind the heaps of peat piled into comic ricks, the reflections of the sea and salt crust cause the profiles of the farms to seem twice white, afloat above the moor.

The water having here arrived to persuade the islanders that they no longer needed the land to thrive.

To stroll with soft soles over the marram, the machair, the sea lavender, to respond to the irresistible magnetic pull that tugs one to the margins of the isle.

The presumable source of the mirage.

From which to gain a view of the bay slotted by foam like a woman, barely suggested by the sepia of the horizon.

With three, perhaps four, diminutive isles, so flat, so supine they seem on the verge of being swallowed.

How is it that the reach of land beyond the boundary of the sea causes us suddenly to suspend our disbelief and to invite the vision of something other in relief?

As if, yes, as if something like Paradise might indeed be. . .

*

To reckon with the echo of the sea in the deeps of those two short spondees which need to be released into the three hours it takes to travel from isle to isle.

Uist, Uig–you-ist, you-ic.

Which one might take to be a conjugation belonging to an ancient island language whose inflections continue to be declined today, beyond anyone’s ken.

Skye, Raasay, Rona.

As if this monolithic alignment of names, isolated like rocks or stones in the waves, within calling distance of each other, might suffice to shape a tongue.

A tongue composed only of nouns, in the intervals of which would float a multiplicity of liquidities, syntactic elasticities.

As a horizon of expectation, is this not what all poetry is about?

Always further out to sea, never deep enough into ocean!

To steer an unreasonable course away from prose.

Away from prose, away from all its rhymeless reason.

So that, should Paradise exist for the poem, it shall only be accessible in the stutter of an archipelago.

All its isles hospitably uninhabitable at once.

*

All lands include inner lakes.

Some of them round as an icy stare, occasionally blotted by the dream of a cloud.

Which turns the surrounding terrain into a composition of hunted stags and boars dozing in the bracken.

Other lakes, overawed by the nearby mountains, settle for lesser ambitions.

Coiled into themselves like antediluvian snakes, folding their banks into rings, but nonetheless managing to drain into the sea.

The brutal offshore bite of winds suddenly justifying their patience, the yellowing lichen crowning their usual ridges of sea wrack.

At this altitude, no eye goes alone in the contemplation of them, without the deep guttural echo of the throat.

Liquids so chill they burn, lakes swallowing themselves and spitting out volcanic broth, once chewed.

Commonplace low-lying lakes, refined into lochs.

Proving how roughness, how hollowness, enters the tongue.

*

Lakes, lochs, their jagged banks fractal profiles of isles.

Land-locked isles.

Isles of water.

Isle/loch–a new syntax, fluid and solid, a new geography, a fresh revision of space.

Donne’s no man an island in need of Copernican revolution.

A new island, a future island, a break, a gap–space henceforth unmoored from itself, be it by substance, form or trace.

Rips, angles, creases, hollows, edges, gulfs, crooks, rias, peninsulas, bays–all addressed to the sense of touch.

To touch land while no longer touching land!

To touch land while losing touch!

A question of infinite tact, of eros.

Free from the frigid dictatorship of the eye.

The single, solitary eye.

As bright as an eagle in its selfsame sky.

*

Dawn on (Irish) Lough Dergh.

Russet lake water color of fern brake.

Immense patch of ferny ground, swell of scratchy leaves shriveled by first frosts.

The sky stamping its brief imprimatur of diluted blue on wave backs.

Like a Roman bureaucrat bored with his duties.

Four figures alevel the bow of a boat racing toward a stone basilica–Purgatory.

A voyage out of season, requiring an episcopal dispensation to dock.

Aground, glacial homes, empty dormitories, a nave swollen with silence for no one at all.

When the sky grows clement in June, here the penitents come ashore.

Three days’ fast–dry bread, scalding tea.

The object of which?

Cloaked in cloak or shift–the breeze always blowing in from the sea several kilometers to the north

–to relive the stations of the cross.

Naked feet exposed to rough scissoring rock, stuck in the sticky muck of clay.

Abrasions, chilblains, faintings, even.

*

The cold preserves.

As in the mummy of that reindeer hunter, frozen in the crevasse of a glacier for over fifteen thousand years.

Future venison for archaeologists out hunting.

But the cold does not merely preserve. It is the soul–not just the flesh–that one attempts to temper by softening the climes.

To lead it by degrees out of the flames of Gehenna (cf. Campo Santo).

So does Rome, catholic and legionary, turn space into a grid.

And moves into the North with its thermae.

With its gods of therms and terms–its goal, to extend the Church to every known space of Europe, to do away with Scottish showers and other local saunas.

Everything contracted into a locus of theology.

Because Celt, because Syriac, because Greek, the rebel isle of Ireland–ever since the haphazard attempts of the merchants of Alexandria or Tyre to convert it–will forever occupy a place on the Christian map half way between the pagan and the redeemed.

*

Purgatory, first and foremost, a colony.

But can war be forgotten when the Brit helicopters are so intent on rotoring their honey from the pale blue leaf of the sky, ready to spit their flames of Hell onto the entry to Purgatory?

Whereas the shores of Loch Erg, a few meters removed from the armed boundaries of men, display an infinite kind of wisdom.

Land and sea in happy compromise, signing their peace treaty in wimples of complicity, pax guaranteed by the ongoing amity of the reeds.

Points of light waiting, centuries on end, to be carved into sites of meditation.

Rounding a bay whose waters seem to have streamed here from Normandy, the isle of Devenish gathers nothing but the ghosts of penitents into the ruins of its hostelry.

*

No more locus of identity.

No more geometrical pivot of homogeneity.

Humankind, a provisional projection.

Screw the sociologists, screw their statistics!

What’s needed in language is as many subjects as arise in casual encounter.

The grammar of the neuter is a blessing.

To say il y a in French is to be indifferently neuter.

The unsinkable languages that will manage to navigate their way through the spaces of the future will feature neuters that are structured, neuters ripe for conjugation.

English always says “it” when a stone or crease of wave assumes an eminence, an imminence.

Every language surrounded by a great range of neuters, by seemingly inert geological space, becomes an island in the sea.

The neuter action of the universe places man happily at peace.

Among the moors, the images of gods acquire the busy music of the bee.

*

Hiving, melting, founding.

In early September days, space is pink against the banks of northern lakes.

While the vault of the sky above remains blue, casting a mineral sheen on sunken lava, with the violet ripples of the sea calling out to the tender sloping greens, the photographic plate emerging without the slightest chemistry of bromide or acetate.

The humblest of tongues to the ear are those which most encourage the world to cross the limits of the eye.

The French language stands in desperate need of more neuters.

Although heaths and moors are not lacking, nor causses with their limestone sinkholes spawning micas which capture the stars. But what might be lacking is the wave length narrow enough to register the tiniest dart of a bee.

For erasure is a quality of autumn light. Which maintains all the cohesion of linear form that summer has slurred.

Summer, stasis, status quo.

*

Under a Cumberland oak, the time of earthquakes.

Not the ecstasy of foam rushed by the reddish waters of the Rawthey, unleashing the brag of sweet tenor bull amid the April whiteness of hawthorn hedge.

But the tiny tremble of the bee, magnetic in its hive.

Attracted to the earth’s pole, attuned like fiddle on roof, like bow on chanterelle, as if identity had yet come into its own, as if all the principalities of Denmark had yet to acquire an unsuspected claim upon the throne.

Moors of the Brontës, of Bunting, of Hughes, of Hill, of MacDiarmid, where the angry thistle sometimes puts on its Sunday best as a high stemmed briar. To have so carefully harvested this honey of space, this musical buzz, is to break–here–with one’s tenuous grasp of the North.

Language of water, language of moors–language soaked with continuities of form, evident in all the metamorphic rock.

The light here will always be realer than heat.

Richard Sieburth

Richard Sieburth

Richard Sieburth’s Henri Michaux, A Certain Plume was awarded the PEN prize for poetry in translation in 2019; his Oswald von Wolkenstein, Songs from a Single Eye was long-listed for the same award in 2020.He is currently preparing an edition of Baudelaire’s Late Fragments for Yale University Press.

Jacques Darras, born 1939 in Ponthieu, France, has since 1988 been engaged in the composition of a long poem in 8 cantos about a short river in Northern France, La Maye.This, in addition to his French translations of Walt Whitman, Samuel Coleridge, William Blake, Basil Bunting, Malcolm Lowry etc. He was awarded the Prix Apollinaire and Grand Prix de Poésie by the French Academy in 2006.
Richard Sieburth

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Author: Richard Sieburth

Richard Sieburth’s Henri Michaux, A Certain Plume was awarded the PEN prize for poetry in translation in 2019; his Oswald von Wolkenstein, Songs from a Single Eye was long-listed for the same award in 2020. He is currently preparing an edition of Baudelaire’s Late Fragments for Yale University Press. Jacques Darras, born 1939 in Ponthieu, France, has since 1988 been engaged in the composition of a long poem in 8 cantos about a short river in Northern France, La Maye. This, in addition to his French translations of Walt Whitman, Samuel Coleridge, William Blake, Basil Bunting, Malcolm Lowry etc. He was awarded the Prix Apollinaire and Grand Prix de Poésie by the French Academy in 2006.