Dust of Words
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Dust of Words
Yves Bonnefoy, Début et fin de la neige / Beginning and End of the Snow. Bucknell University Press, 2012. Translated by Emily Grosholz. Watercolors by Farhad Ostovani. 114 pages. Illustrated. $19.99 pb.

Snow—the recurring theme around which this beautifully haunting book of poems is principally organized—might be thought of, even more broadly, as a unifying emblem for Yves Bonnefoy’s floating, fleeting, and sometimes vaporizing poetic words—the latter dissolution occurring especially when a word, like a fragile snowflake, dreams of attaining the limitless, the absolute. As Bonnefoy sighs, “all poetry falls short of putting its deepest impulses into words.” Indeed the poetic realm to which this greatest living French poet aspires is ultimately extralinguistic and consequently extraworldly, and therefore impossible to reach. Words can offer possible itineraries, but the destined geography is a “placeless place,” as Hoyt Rogers puts it, where elements of the outer world fuse indeterminately with inner cogitation, memory, and dreams—a space that the searching poet struggles merely to approach. As Bonnefoy expressed it almost a decade ago in an interview published by the Paris Review: “we are deprived through words of an authentic intimacy with what we are, or with what the Other is. We need poetry, not to regain this intimacy, which is impossible, but to remember that we miss it and to prove to ourselves the value of those moments when we are able to encounter other people, or trees, or anything, beyond words, in silence”—and in a hyper-attentive state of “presence,” as Bonnefoy calls it.

Meanwhile a worthy course, it would seem to Bonnefoy, is to continue the Sisyphean search, paying close attention to people and things present and absent—of the world and of the mind—in the hope of perhaps overhearing a few ghostly echoes from a purer poetic realm. Bonnefoy has given hints himself and critics have sometimes commented that the forever-evasive geography in question might be metaphorically akin to those golden Arcadian realms in Renaissance paintings that serve as idyllic backdrops to foregrounded things of this world; or, perhaps later, those mistily illuminated backgrounds (light being as important to Bonnefoy as it is to visual [End Page 157] artists) of Watteau’s early rococo paintings, with worldly love appearing front and center. Eminent French intellectual and literary critic that he is (having held the chair of comparative poetics at the Collège de France since Roland Barthes’s death in 1980), Yves Bonnefoy has also written broadly and profoundly on visual art, feeling that art (like music) possesses an inherent poetic advantage over writing and the realm of words.

In keeping with the above gloss concerning visual art, we come upon a second feature of these translated “snow poems” of Yves Bonnefoy—their accompaniment by eight equally haunting paintings by Farhad Ostovani, an Iranian artist living and working in Paris with whom Bonnefoy has collaborated on two dozen books and catalogues in recent years. In four of the eight paintings for this volume (the cover painting constituting the first), the eye is pulled to the background where lies a mysterious winter forest; Ostovani’s other four paintings with the wooded scenes are interspersed alternatingly and offer close-ups of several of the same trees with their barren and gnarly branches. One is tempted to think that the carefully constructed close-ups are meant to play off the grander and more romantically dramatic forest scenes—an opposition underlying a Baudelairian aesthetic that has intrigued Bonnefoy through the years.

Finally, to Bonnefoy and to Ostovani, we add to the production formula the all-important editor of this handsome volume, who is also the translator responsible for bringing the “snow poems” to us in English (offered next to the original French poems): acclaimed American poet, professor of philosophy, and longtime friend of Yves Bonnefoy—as well as of this magazine—Emily Grosholz. There have been a few other English translations since Bonnefoy published Début et fin de la neige in 1991: within a volume of Bonnefoy’s new and selected poems in 1995 (John Naughton, Anthony Rudolf, et al.); Alan Baker’s Beginning and End of the...