December 19, 2019

FRANÇOIS JACQMIN AND THE ENIGMATIC WALK


A family of wild turkeys roosts in the trees around Willow Pond. Mornings, they swoop down and  muster in the field, milling around till all seven (in August there were nine) are present. Then they parade, each in its own quirky style, up to and around the house, through the gate, across the hill and into the woods, pecking for seed as they go. They cover this territory many times a day, calling out in high reedy notes and odd bark-like chirps. Their tracks quilt the snow-covered yard in a chaotic map, an image of their foraging.

"Language trespasses on a white page which, like snow, creates a space of pure potentiality," writes Clive Scott in his introduction to Belgian poet François Jacqmin's The Book of the Snow (translated by Philip Mosley). Both page and snow, he writes, are spaces of "origins yet to be realized, where all is still intact."

Tracks on a white field.

     Who will make sense of
     the enigmatic walk you take when
     all is whitened out?
                          
A lot is happening in these opening lines. An ordinary walk becomes enigmatic when its tracks have filled in with snow. A walk that is enigmatic may nevertheless be made sense of, until it snows. And maybe the walk isn't even taken until all is covered in snow. This multiplicity opens the way to the poem's eventual arrival in a "there" that is beyond place, "an essence that is no longer a fuss of places."

Rhythmically, these lines in their English version establish an excited start that is both interrupted and propelled onward by the unstressed syllables that close the first two lines. This rhythmic flurry of uncertainty is carried throughout the poem.

Most of Jacqmin's poems in this collection enact similar uncertainties. "If Jacqmin writes one hundred and twelve dizains," Scott tells us, "it is because the experiment of utterance must be tried again and again, and must be repeatedly allowed to fail." Here's another beginning:

     Hounded by the night, the snow pushed the door
     and advanced to the heart of the abode.
     It penetrated
     like those gentle convictions you have 
     in dreams.

Like a folk tale, this poem confers agency and intention on snow. It enters the speaker's world, installs itself at the hearth. There, tired of itself, it awaits the speaker's "compassionate shadow." Whether the shadow, or the speaker, will join it is not known; the poem ends with the waiting. In this construction the inner self is experienced as an equivalent to snow: a space of potentiality.

As in a dream, anything could happen.


Philip Mosley's translation of François Jacqmin's The Book of the Snow (Arc Visible Poets) was a finalist for the 2011 Griffin Award. Read and listen to an excerpt here.