This review is about 5 printed pages long.
In Figured Image, Keith Waldrop has created perfectly lucid translations, making available to readers of English the most significant compilation of Anne-Marie Albiach’s work since her Mezza Voce (also The Post-Apollo Press, 1988). Waldrop’s limpid immediacy negotiates with deliberate grace the complexities of Albiach’s lexicon. She makes frequent use of words like “absence,” “figure,” and “trace”—a terminology, nuanced in her usage, but one that has since the 1980s become associated with an academic jargon. Without sacrificing this metaphysical dimension of the poetry, Waldrop achieves a physically pointed diction, a requirement if the reader is to grasp Albiach’s distinctive processes of articulation, her “ghastly / literalness of absence” that abrupts as if by inscrutable chance on the page (“EXCESS: this measure,” Figured Image 60).
How, in quoting from this text, am I to register the space between the terms of a title, like “Line Loss” or the spaces between lines and clusters of lines? That space honors Mallarmé, the forerunner to so many modern poetic practices, as well as Albiach’s. Moments of scored space, scored speech proliferate on her pages. I have chosen not to attempt to reproduce these spaces here. Thankfully the Post Apollo edition of Figured Image is a typographical facsimile of Figurations de le image. Equally Mallarméan are the signifiers that admit an aleatory process as in “Un coup de Dés.” None of this is precious. Image clusters dissolve and assert themselves by their own inscrutable process of seeking and shrinking from coherence. The work is not mimetic, as Mallarmé’s in some senses remains.
Possibly there are multiple Albiachs. For one of these, composition is a material process keying on the physical presence of a breathing person. “I live the text as a body,” she has said. Her work has also been described as a combat between “the trace and the blank page” (Jean Tortel). Her poetry, I am thinking of Anawratha as much as Figured Image, is the site of dismemberment, violent incision, both the space of the page and the marks on the page scoring the language in the double sense of “score” or “cut” and “score” or “arrange.” It troubles my ear that Waldrop translates, the French “incision” as “notch” in “Figures of Memory” (Figured Image 25). But then he gives us the exquisite “major cut” for “entaille majeure” in his translation of “EXCESS: this measure” (Figured Image 75), fusing laceration and a physical bliss with the musical and prosodic resonances that are sustained motifs in this poem.
Albiach’s approach to writing is almost formulaic, in a sense modular; it is definitive with respect to the practice of écriture with which her poetry is associated, along with that of Emmanuel Hocquard, Claude Royet–Journoud, Jean Daive. Écriture privileges the nominal flatness of language, the “différance”—as theorized by Jacques Derrida—that allows signs to defer to one another in relational chains that inscribe meaning. For Jacques Derrida, the “trace” is a presence but it is also the site of the erasure of the sign, “erasure belongs to its structure” (24). Similarly influential for écriture is Michel Foucault’s construction of “enunciation.” For the poets associated with this practice, the image is a presence, not a trope, “involution of discourse” writes Albiach in “Winter Voyage” (Mezza Voce 62). Social factors that constitute a regime of discourse often exist in an unresolved tension with the intentional use of language. “Such investigation strips bare an indeterminate time, / abasing the relapsed, gestures from this time forward,” Albiach writes in “Incantation,” one of the poems in A Geometry, a small book, that is included in Figured Image (18). The poems of A Geometry serve well as an introduction, a grammar even, for the practice of écriture. Keyed on the physical presence of a breathing person, images or expressions, in isolated, incomplete fragments, mark an absence that is also a trace of an absence. Her use of the word “trace / tracé” in the opening line of “EXCESS: this measure” aligns deconstruction and écriture as twins or parallels, complementary reading and writing practices.
I took up the writing this review, intrigued because Albiach’s title, Figurations de l’image, reminded me the discussion of the different senses of “figurative” and “figural” that occurs in the opening pages of Giles Deleuze’s book on Francis Bacon. The liberation of the figure from representation is a project of deep expressive importance for Deleuze. It can be said that the white space of Albiach’s page, combines with the erasure of the trace, so as to isolate the figured image, allowing aleatory recombinatory possibilities that are not representative but performative. This is precisely the needful isolation that Deleuze finds in Bacon and calls “figural” as opposed to either formal abstraction or figurative representation (9-10) Abstraction, Deleuze argues, is not the only alternative to figuration, the figural isolates the body in its presence on the page. Albiach’s physical presence is an antidote to abstraction.
Admitting a certain doubleness of purpose, I want to underscore that translation, like écriture, is an act of writing as well as reading. Consider the words of the title, “Figured Image.” They are more singular than the multiplicities suggested by “figurations” in Albiach’s title. “Figured” in its turn evokes a vein of semantic slippage and resolution, something to do with geometry, with the bass line of a musical composition, a fruitful redundancy between figure and image, all associations that are germane to an appreciation of Albiach’s practice. Such translation adds resonance to the text in the mind of a revisionary reader. With regard to the multiplication of felt resonance, Waldrop’s text stands as first among of the many useful readings that this suite of poems will continue to require. I assume he had opportunities to discuss the scope of allusion and reference underlying his choices with the author and with other translators, settling after deliberation upon a sense that allows sustained and attentive readings for the reader of English. Still the poet for her part will be more aware of the different meanings to her of key terms than the translator. The translator too will be aware of multiple possibilities foregone. Translation by its nature must isolate plateaus and layers that are deeply fused in the original.
I want to address some specifics in the handling of two poems, “Line Loss” and “EXCESS: this measure.” Images like the following from “Line Loss” are almost Roman in severity, “Draped in scarlet / they presided over the theme of an absence” (31). The matter under considerations seems a lust murder. “They” refers it seems to a couple exchanging embraces, a couple abstractly present. “Presided” is very royal, legal, juridical—the language borders on both absence and a dark erotism. Do I sniff the influence of George Bataille, on these pages otherwise so pristine and precise? The language of the translation catches some of this, but is it in the poem or a product of my reading? Are “they” lovers or judges, “Dans les draperies écarlates / ils officiaient ...” (37). The language is in any case, Roman, juridical. The image is not a figure, it is moment within shifting permutations. A certain calculus has been applied.
In another line, “opacity / not found in fiction” (34). We have in miniature, miniaturized what is essential about the practice of écriture—for the writing, in its opacity, accretes associations, is envisaged, flatly produces something other, but cancels that fiction. Reading is an effect of the presence of the text, of a writing that will not loosen or recede from its presence of the page. The French for disappearing opacities will always be more nuanced than English, “l’opacité / absents dans la fiction” (40). The double relation of absence and the opacity of figuration is much more insistent in Albiach’s original than in Waldrop’s translation. His is a reading among a congeries of readings. To gage Waldrop’s accomplishment consider how Peter Riley handles these lines, “the opacity / absentees in the fiction” (20). That sense of missing persons is also at play in Albiach’s language. Engagement with a text this supple requires many iterations, by many hands.
“Line Loss” is an erotic poem about “spasms” and “perfect liquidity” (31). Waldrop captures the innuendo and interplay adroitly. In a doubling of planes, “an attentive duplicity” figures of passion emerge in “aleatory displacement” (32). The poems cites its Mallarméan heritage, its deconstructive linguistic practices, and its Freudian (or Lacanian) slippage between courtroom and courting, catching this range of tonalities with an admirable precision, almost it seems as if to quote from itself, by these means presencing the deliberations of writing. “Counted steps” (31) become “an erotism narrated / with unheard precision’ (39). The cutting that is rendered as “precision” is a verb in the French “se précise inouïe” (45). Waldrop enables a rich array of readings.
Translation is a reading of the opaque; it is against its nature to remain opaque for then it could no longer claim status as a translation. Waldrop’s English is less grammatical in a sense than hers and in a sense more dramatic. His “the first traces / unnaming the name” (37) renders the rich linguistic ambience within which “écriture” as a poetic process is a partial response, partial step into complexities of its own apprehending. Albiach’s text reads, “Les traces premières / où se dédit le nom” (43). The reflexive nature of her deconstructive editing enacts the complexity of écriture.
In “EXCESS: this measure,” like other examples of Albiach’s method, she works between embodied constants, “breath” and a “gaze fixed” by discernible articulation, “following the sketch / an articulation or / discernibles” (47). The lines call for a reading that follows a score. “EXCESS: this measure” foregrounds compositional method; it is an important document in that regard. References to “dismemberment” and “rehearsal” seem to place the reader before a piano, an instrument of some description, possibly a flute, “the painful side of / inhaling” (50), practicing, “a score / abstracts the lure” (51). Generously spaced lines and clusters mirror hesitation and concentration “awkward at / the joints” (52). Think tired fingers. The tropes, from “score” (51) to “scar” (55), stage a personal resonance, allowing “nutritive lacerations” (58), as though the writing were on the body, the body like the page, the site of “dismemberment” (58). Then a larger gap between lines, an “abyss” figured and a “literalness of absence.” (60). The art is breathtaking, “prosody reflects” (85), and Waldrop’s translation matches the art.
Albiach, Anne-Marie. Anawratha. Marseille: Editions Spectre Familiers, 1984
Albiach, Anne-Marie. Figurations de l’image. Paris: Flammarion, 2004.
Albiach, Anne-Marie. Figured Image. Tr. Keith Waldrop. Sausalito: Post Apollo, 2006.
Albiach, Anne-Marie. Mezza Voce (Flammarion 1984). Tr. Joseph Simas in collaboration with Anthony Barnett, Lydia Davis & Douglas Oliver. Sausalito: Post-Apollo,1988.
Albiach, Anne-Marie, Two Poems: “Flammigère” and “The Line the loss.” Tr. Peter Riley. Exeter: Shearsman, 2004.
Deleuze, Giles, Francis Bacon: Logique de la sensation. Paris: Editions de la différence, 1989.
Derrida, Jacques. Margins of Philosophy. Tr. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago Press,1982.
Tortel, Jean. Quoted Jean-Marie Gleize. Le Théâtre du Poème: Vers Anne-Marie Albiach. Paris: Belin, 1995.
Donald Wellman teaches cultural studies and writing at Daniel Webster College. He was born in Nashua NH but has an affinity for place names in “M”: Maine, Morocco, Mexico. Fields, a selected poems, spanning twenty years of work, appeared in 1995 (Light and Dust). Wellman has translated from French, German, and Spanish. Currently he is working with the Spanish poet, Antonio Gamoneda. As editor of O.ARS, a series of anthologies devoted to postmodern poetics and practices, he derived personal satisfaction from the use of punctuation à la dada. His recent poetry engages emerging identities among mixed and indigenous peoples. Notebook: Cuaderno de Costa Rica, to be published by Ahadada, is the first of these projects. Others include Diario mexicano, Oaxaca and Prolog Pages. Excerpts from these projects can be found in various on-line and print media: Eratio Postmodern Poetry, There, and Fascicle, among others. His essay, “Creeley’s Ear” appeared in Jacket 31. His “Prose on Uxmal” will be found in the current Absent Magazine.
by Renate von Mangoldt
Keith Waldrop was born in Kansas and served in the United States military. In 1954, he met his wife, the poet and translator Rosmarie Waldrop while stationed in Kitzingen, Germany. He studied at Aix-Marseille and Michigan Universities, earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature in 1964. He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, most recently The Real Subject: Queries and Conjectures of Jacob Delafon: With Sample Poems (Omnidawn, 2004). His other collections of poetry include The House Seen from Nowhere (2003), Haunt (2000), Well Well Reality (1998, with Rosmarie Waldrop), and the trilogy The Locality Principle (1995), The Silhouette of the Bridge (1997), and Semiramis, If I Remember (2001). He has also translated contemporary French poets, such as Anne-Marie Albiach, Claude Royet-Journoud, Dominique Fourcade, Jean Grosjean, and Paol Keineg, and most recently Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (Wesleyan University Press, 2006).