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An Archipelago of Poetry

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977
The Presence of René Char. By Mary Ann Caws. Princeton. $16.50.
Poems of Rene Char. Translated by Mary Ann Caws and Jonathan Griffin. Princeton. $15.00 cloth, $4.95 paper.

RENÉ Char is today the undisputed giant among contemporary French poets. To read Char is to experience the best that modern poetry offers and at the same time to get a glimpse of the directions which poetry may take in the future. Yet to read Char is to face the challenge of entering a dense, elliptical, and fragmented universe, Char is a sketcher of traces, which demand reader activity and creativity, for his artistic vision is what Mary Ann Caws accurately describes as one of “passionate intuition.” Hence there is no given approach to Char’s poetic passage—the poem is there, just as a shooting star bursts into a showery pattern and quickly disappears.

Unerringly, Mary Ann Caws’s The Presence of Rene Char captures the meteoric flash of the Char text and still preserves the brilliant constellation which is his work from 1927 to the present. In her incisive study, Caws uses a variety of implicit and explicit approaches which range from formal description to informal structuralism. Reading the poetic fragments, she shows them in their complex multiplicity as well as in their pure unity. On every page, Caws practices the Char pattern: “The Word as Archipelago,” As each text is perceptively analyzed, it is linked with another one by verbal, rhythmic, imagistic, thematic, circumstantial, sonorous, or architectural correspondences. Using objective and subjective reading techniques, Caws draws upon her friendship, interviews, and letters with Char in order to generate a dialogue of direct exchange between herself as interpreter-translator and the poet as creator, but it is a dialogue which expands to include the reader in the Caws-Char conversations. In addition to the keenness of Caws’s own talents as a critic and scholar, who indeed illuminates the texts at hand, she succeeds admirably in focusing the reader’s attention on the presence of Char from beginning to end,

In a sense, The Presence of Rene Char is a personal book, one which has grown out of “a Vaucluse of the mind.” As such, it can only be appreciated and enjoyed, unfortunately, by those whose own reading of Char parallels Caws’s familiarity with the text, This is not a work for the general reader of modern poetry, for Caws’s style is hauntingly reminiscent of Char’s intensely crisped writing. Happily, however, Caws offers a companion piece, Poems of Rene Char, In collaboration with Char and with the British poet Jonathan Griffin, Caws’s translations of Char’s work appear in dual language format. The texts included in this anthology cover 50 years of Char’s productivity and stand as the best sampling of his work available in one volume. In addition, the selection of poems which Caws and Griffin have chosen to translate are the very ones which Caws uses in her study of Char, for her own book is based in large measure on the actual experience of being a co-creator in his poetic world.

The translations are not really translations in formal terms; rather, they are faithful renderings of Char’s ambiguous traces and in themselves constitute a perceptive reading of his poetry, The inclusion of a few previously unpublished drawings and manuscripts further heightens the reader’s pleasure and dramatizes the translators’ accomplishment. While the accuracy and validity of some of the translations could be debated, such arguments would be beside the point. While the volume may seem to be no more than a collection of Char’s poems arranged chronologically from The Hammer with No Master to Talismanic Night, it nonetheless maintains the aura of Char’s presence and invites the reader to glimpse that insurgent order which is the Char archipelago of poetry,


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