From Babel to Pentecost: The Poetry of Pierre Emmanuel by Mary Anne O’Neil (review)
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From Babel to Pentecost: The Poetry of Pierre Emmanuel. By Mary Anne O’Neil. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2012. viii + 296 pp.

This study offers the first comprehensive survey in English of the poetic writings of Pierre Emmanuel (1916–1984) — a corpus spanning almost five decades — and a number of strikingly ambitious attempts to give form and expression to its creator’s sense of cosmic unity. Emmanuel’s explicit and durable artistic engagement with Christianity generally leads to his being labelled a ‘Catholic’ poet —arguably a guarantee of critical marginality within the poetic ecology of his later life, and no less so in the decades since his death. Mary Anne O’Neil sees in the two-volume OEuvres poétiques complè tes (Lausanne: L’Âge d’homme, 2001–03) the beginnings of a renewal in the critical reception of Emmanuel’s work. The poet emerges in her own sympathetic study as a remarkably inventive and at times tortured modern spirit. His difficulties appear less in terms of metaphysical doubt than in the efforts of resistance and resilience required by a fully poetic practice as he conceives of it. This grounding of a poetic life in a radical sense of personal exigence is coeval with Emmanuel’s earliest published poetic work, over which the mentoring influence and personal example of Pierre Jean Jouve is acknowledged and palpable. Although Emmanuel’s philosophical and literary knowledge emerges here as ‘catholic’ in the wider sense, it is arguably from Jouve that a primary enabling complex in his poetry is taken and developed — that in which the spiritual and the (hetero-)erotic require to be thought and spoken in relation to each other, grounding a poetic practice that is thus both metaphysically expansive and inescapably wedded to the uncertainties of the poet’s experiential self. From the earliest work O’Neil’s approach is ordered principally around the religious character of the poetry, and the illustrativedescriptive exposition gravitates towards a version of the oeuvre as an essentially [End Page 416] felicitous, albeit occasionally troubled, embrace of Christian belief and symbolism. The second chapter discusses Emmanuel’s ‘war poetry’, a categorization whose validity is reinforced by the poet’s active Resistance engagement, though chronologically overlapping the period assigned to the ‘early’ work. Further chapters deal with his three biblical ‘epics’ (a form for which O’Neil claims the poet is unique in the twentieth century, his principal intertextual peers being Dante, Milton, and Hugo); with his shorter poetry; and with two stages of what was arguably a major late flourishing — the long poems Sophia and Tu, and what O’Neil terms ‘the return to myth’ of the Livre de l’homme et de la femme trilogy and the remarkable closing statement of Le Grand OEuvre, the poet’s personal ‘Cosmogonie’. While disclosing the maximal hopes placed in poetry by her subject, O’Neil offers regular glimpses of a poet passionately engaged with the problems of living in his allotted time and place. Greater consideration of his essays and autobiographical writings, which offer remarkable treatments of the problems of poetic individuation in a modern context, would have helped to problematize more fully this difficult balancing act and further make the case for Emmanuel’s significance to an inclusive understanding of French poetry in the last century.

Michael G. Kelly
University of Limerick
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