|John Ashbery (right) and Pierre Martory stroll along the Seine in Paris, 1958|
John Ashbery and Pierre Martory
With eyes wide shut
Adam Thorpe enters a world of vivid dreams but elusive meanings
Saturday 25 October 2008 00.01 BST
John Ashbery is regarded as America's leading poet, the grand old master of a "difficult Modernism". The Landscapist is his translation of the poems of his one-time companion Pierre Martory, in a handsome dual-language edition intended to establish a poet almost entirely unknown.
What it certainly establishes is the importance to Ashbery's career of his nine-year stay in Paris in the 1950s, when he lived with Martory and discovered the richness of modern French poetry. His fluid translations sound at times like a "lite" version of his own verse - which in his introduction he claims was something of a surprise: "I started to find echoes of his work in mine . . . though I hope I haven't stolen anything." Even the arch titles sound similar - "What I Say, Perhaps, Isn't True" - while "A Widow" manages to be eerily prescient of a specifically American catastrophe (Martory died in 1998): "How does one get to the foot of the twin towers? / One doesn't. The towers have stifled the streets. / Then nothing leads to the river under the bridges? / A recognized city reproaches us with yesterday."
Martory, born in 1922, belongs firmly to the post-second world war generation, while sharing the experience of resistance and combat (he fought in Morocco, where he'd grown up) with older poets such as René Char, Louis Aragon or Paul Éluard. In an interview he claims to have written poetry out of loneliness during the war, starting as a "descriptive" poet but swiftly turning dream-like and, well, hard to understand. Even his army experiences have left little overt trace, although Morocco flashes its exotica here and there.
While Ashbery claims the poems are sui generis, with just faint echoes of Rimbaud or Char, they seem to me, like most contemporary French poetry, firmly in the symbolist-surrealist tradition (as a dissident once put it to me: "Blame Mallarmé!"). They sound gorgeous in the original language, and conjure no end of images and associations, but their concrete meanings are always just around the corner. Zig-zagging from phrase to phrase, changing the dynamics mid-flow, they typically leave you either more space or none at all. The final lines of the aptly named and very obscure poem "Collusion" seem to be addressing this frustrated reader with some glee: "He has lost: I've invented for myself a friend / Without a face."
In that sense, Ashbery and Martory are the perfect match. "So I don't need reality's trampoline for flight?" cries Martory in "Serenity", a poem about being frank with himself. Poetry for him is a flinching from brute physicality and disappointment, something like a retreat into what is passing through his head (he suffered periodically from depression). In the title poem, shutting his eyes reveals a vast, forested landscape: depth is not in sight but in a willed blindness, a looking inwards that reveals "these bouquets, this fog of leaves, words of the wind . . . "
Martory wrote for himself, inhabiting his "private domain" and barely showing his poetry to anyone. It is significant that one of the few identifiable places in his work is the Père Lachaise cemetery, itself risen to symbolic status. "Père Lachaise" is a prose-poem written for a book of etchings, and is unusually approachable: "adolescents listen to the sap rising in them which shall one day flower under these flagstones and don't give a damn". The poem finally disappoints, however, never really rising above its descriptiveness.
If "Life" is a "whore with false eyelashes", there are many fractured glimpses of a paradise, an Eden linked to "ancestral memory" or the deeper layers of consciousness that, once reached, justify the act of writing verse in this associative way. Behind this, however, is emptiness or absence: "Door opening on nothing to say" (Porte ouverte sur rien à dire). This is the reality - the existential understanding of personal and general extinction. A poem ostensibly about drinking wine is haunted by the end of such pleasures, albeit drunkenly mixing its metaphors: "I know that of my footsteps nothing will remain / But a trace a cluster a drop."
I wonder if there's enough vigour in the impressionistic lines for more than a handful of the poems to be memorable, in either language - the kind of vigour, that is, that fires Ashbery's equally hermetic verse and sparks exhilaratingly across to the reader. My favourite poem is "Red and Black Lake", in which a straightforward storm on the water ends with a superb image: "Then the rain breaks loose in long curtains / that tuck themselves up from the asphalt in the glare of the headlights." Even without the music of the original, the vivid observation survives, and sticks.
• Adam Thorpe's Between Each Breath is published by Cape.
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