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French Forum 29.2 (2004) 55-68
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Transposing a Meadow's Silence (Ponge and Guillevic)
Et le silence, s'il est bien le dernier mot
dont ait à nous faire part la réalité, n'apparaît
jamais de manière si éloquente que lorsque
le réel est précisément en train de parler.
When understood as the absence of signs, silence is all too often considered a verbal phenomenon. As such it occurs, for example, in the pauses between utterances, or in the blank spaces between groups of lines in modern poetry, with the result that particular instances of silence take on a meaning from the verbal units that frame them. There is, however, another type of silence that does not depend on words for its appearance or significance: namely, the state of being that is exemplified by a natural landscape. Such a calm is in fact often made up of sounds (those of the wind on leaves and branches, or of passing animals), but what makes it even more different from the first type of silence is that its modulated forms and effects exclude human speech. They are impervious to any translation into words that one might attempt, primarily because they convey no message whatsoever.
Francis Ponge anchored most of his poems in such an experience of the world's self-sufficiency and of its silent indifference to whatever statements we make about it. "Le monde muet est notre seule patrie," he proclaimed famously in an essay of this title published in his 1961 book Méthodes.2 According to Ponge, "homeland" (or patrie) should be understood in the strong sense of the place to which each of us comes home: that is, the world of living matter to which we belong, [End Page 55] whether we like it or not, over and above any political allegiance that we maintain to a nation or state. It is a homeland to which we return repeatedly at various moments of our life—occasionally while playing in childhood, or when traveling across unfamiliar terrain, or whenever we are made aware of our own fragile materiality, during moments of ill-health or when those people close to us die. Returning to the world of matter, and acknowledging our own place within it, can also occur voluntarily, however, as when we choose to walk in nature or read literary works that celebrate treks through the country.3
Two such works are Ponge's 1967 poem "Le Pré" and a poem from Eugène Guillevic's 1979 collection Etier that is entitled "De la Prairie."4 In the pages that follow I shall examine the ways in which both poets recreate for their readers the natural silence of the meadows they chose to commemorate in writing. Of particular interest to me are the ways in which a natural, non-verbal, silence that characterizes the landscape addressed by each poem is transposed into the texts' verbal patterns, thus creating the impression that nature engages readers in a type of mute dialogue, or that its silence, to borrow Clément Rosset's remark cited earlier, speaks to us. In my discussion of these poetic effects Ponge's poem will be situated within the large dossier of variants and notes that the author published in 1971 as La Fabrique du Pré, whereas Guillevic's poem will be read alongside the three texts that accompany it in the penultimate section of Etier ( E 147 -89), and next to the long poem "Herbier de Bretagne" ( E 191 -210) which closes the book.
Ponge's "Le Pré" begins by noting the two types of silence that a walk in the meadow precipitates. First there is the breathless wonder experienced by the walker upon discovery of the meadow. Words of praise well up in the walker's throat—"Que parfois la Nature, à notre réveil, nous propose / Ce à quoi justement nous étions disposés, / La louange aussitôt s'enfle dans notre gorge. / Nous croyons être...