Contra Dancing with Pierre Reverdy
September 11, 2013 | by Diane Mehta
“I’d have to go up or it’s better if you come down and, arm in arm, let’s go somewhere else where no one looks at us,” says Pierre Reverdy in his poem “Further Away Than There.” So many of Reverdy’s tiny geometric poems are like this: refreshingly, dizzyingly cubist. You think you’re reading a poem but are being manipulated to move around it in a way that’s cinematic.
Reverdy’s is the latest in The New York Review of Books’s new poetry-in-translation series. The tiny ultramarine-and-turquoise book is packed with embittered, contemplative, spooky, lyrical, and emotionally honest poems. Reverdy dares to move a sentence into strange and misleading territory but it seldom makes no sense. The fourteen translators, who include Rosanna Warren and John Ashbery, are as disparate in tone, syntax, and translation style as you can get. It’s hats off to Reverdy, then, for producing work so exacting that it reads consistently and lucidly in English.
At the center of the French avant-garde, Reverdy founded Nord-Sud in 1917 with Apollinaire and Max Jacob, and was close friends with the cubist painters Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris. It’s because of these friendships that Reverdy became associated with literary cubism. (In March 1917, Juan Gris launched his treatise on cubism, “Sur le Cubisme,” in Nord-Sud.) Though Reverdy’s Nord-Sud lasted only a year, it embodied and advanced the avant-garde movements, especially surrealism and dadaism, that coalesced and overlapped in wartime Paris.
I skimmed the book from the back forward first, to see where Reverdy ended up. The varied forms (prose poems, fractured lines, squares, paragraphs) force you to constantly reassess, but the diction seemed deliberately chosen. Then I looked at Juan Gris’s paintings online. In Fruit Dish, Pipe and Newspaper, the diagonals cut up, down, and across the canvas. Turning back to the Reverdy, I closed in on a few poems, and found a parallel technique in a sentence in Always Alone: “In the street when our arms threw up a bridge, no one looked up and the houses tilted.” What an extraordinary scene—the pull between love and its boundaries, their private public space, houses tilting presumably around the lovers.
About face: By March 1918, Reverdy had already disavowed the term cubist as it applied to Nord-Sud and “condemned art that applies techniques of painting to poetry and vice versa.” Well, a man can change his mind. And good poets move beyond simple categorizations. The Serbian poet Charles Simic recently observed that, per our collective obsession with isms, “Poetic movements are great fun for their participants. Like dogs barking in unison in some village at night at some real or imaginary adversary, after a while they just bark for the pure enjoyment of it.”
Whatever Reverdy was doing or how he wanted to spin it, his poems contain structure and surprise. How does he do it? I was thinking about this when I put my Reverdy down to go to contra dancing down the street, which, it turns out, had been going on just five blocks from me for years.
I walked into an empty gym scattered with an oddball mashup of people: a tall, skinny man with a fire-orange halo of hair waited beside an old gentleman with a Charlton-Heston-after-seeing-God beard wearing too-short jean shorts. There were older couples with proud, direct stares, and a woman who, between her flaxen braids and prairie dress, resembled Chloë Sevigny’s character in the Mormon-marriage hit Big Love. There were men in skirts and four teens.
Contra dancing includes square dances, waltzes, polkas, and line dances. The choreography lays out a sequence of steps and twirls around the central axis of a couple. The pattern connects each dancer to his or her partner, and each couple to the next. Not unlike Reverdy’s progression of phrases and sentences. As the hours passed, more experienced dancers added flamboyant twirls and jigs between the steps, hurled their arms up or out at the end of a do-si-do, or swerved their hips around as they strutted back into the line. To keep from getting dizzy, the MC said, look your partner in the eye. So I locked eyes with strange women and men, their faces close. For hours, I locked gazes intimately with maybe one hundred pairs of eyes, cradled for brief moments in the arms of one stranger before being flung to the next. It was unsettling, and I was careful to wear a sanguine, trusting, or buoyant expression while meeting eyes and coping with the fact that everything was moving.
When I got home, I paged through the book, trying to figure out how Reverdy managed to knit it all together, even while he made me dizzy. Over the next few days, I thumbed through the poems deliriously. I read Reverdy the way I read John Ashbery, one sentence at a time, epigrammatically. I read a few of the poems out loud, a useful grounding technique, then looked over to the French and bumbled my way through it, skewering accents and making a mess out of every guttural or lilting sound I came across. Rhymes popped up internally and at the end of sentences. Reverdy locks it all down through rhyme while his images wander off. Then I looked at the translations and noticed that the only translator in the NYRB collection who held on to the rhyme, and briefly, was the formally fearless Marilyn Hacker. Rhyming’s a risk, because Romance languages simply have more rhymes than English. Hacker only does it once. Reverdy’s rhymes, despite the eclectic directions the phrases within lines or the sentences take, drive the poem forward. It makes the imagery feel inevitable. Just like those contra-dance meetings-of-eyes, the rhymes locks it in.
Here’s Hacker rhyming occasionally within the marvelous “Inn”:
There is a field where you can still run
Stars without finish
And your shadow at the end of the avenue
Which will diminish
There’s a comfortable pacing and chronology, and then, delightfully, it upends itself. “Finish” and “diminish” underscore the main idea that things will end, and their placement at the far right of the line suggests they come, like it or not, after a wonderfully free life of exploration. You can literally run to the end of the line and leap off into white space. (And if you do, are you dead or free?) You don’t have to decide anything in Reverdy, nor should you have to.
In Reverdy’s poems, there’s room to think and more than enough space for the reader to find yet more information and occasionally some clarity, even if that simply reinforces the knowledge positioning in the world is, if nothing else, slippery. Between the proximity of words and the rhymes that link them, you start getting a sense of where you’re momentarily settled. Often you’re in a house, Reverdy’s refrain and our world in miniature. Here’s a scene from “The Poets”:
A stairway that leads nowhere climbs around the house. There are, moreover, neither doors nor windows. You see shadows moving on the roof that rush into the emptiness. They fall one by one and do not kill themselves. They quickly climb the stairs again and start over, eternally charmed by the musician who forever plays the violin with his hands that do not listen.
It’s both a panning shot and a lesson in perspective. It’s typical of the way Reverdy carves out a beautiful space for his cynicism and loneliness. In “Vain Effort”: “Upstairs I found empty apartments; they had contained treasures.” The house contains pointless crime and someone begging for mercy. He says he’s afraid of “discovery”—but of being discovered or of knowledge itself?
I found my answer in “Nothing”: “In the night you see nothing gliding anymore but the shadow.” Fair enough, that literal and metaphorical darkness.
But then in “Messenger of Tyranny”:
He spits sparks on the night, cinders, love, lightning, broken wings, hate, stars and gold coins which hasten away. He spits sighs of remorse on the night.
The diction is hopeful, even as Reverdy seethes. Lists tend not to feel despairing because they move forward syntactically. So whatever Reverdy tells me about his anguish, the sound of his verse contradicts; the rage he feeds through his sentences have found a spot in the world, a little house of sorts, though he insists (don’t believe him) he is empty.
I found this throughout Reverdy’s prose poems, which don’t rhyme. Just as rhymes uplift Reverdy’s despair because they connect two parts (like contra dancing with its locked eyes and choreographed flow), lists prove that Reverdy is carefully itemizing emotions and images. He is invested enough to list them. These largely narrative poems exude pain, perhaps because they have no structure to contain it.
For now the alley is closed off by the principal letter on the sign that the wind slapped ceaselessly against the tree in the corner of the forest for sale.
In “Somewhere”, landscape doesn’t shelter. A craftsman dies and people pass through at a run at this place that’s “far from the city and high up in the air.” Is it heaven? “Down below spreads the equivocal earth.” Brambles bleed at the edge of the sky and there’s a tortured sunset and a living bush that singles our hands and cowardly souls. But, admits Reverdy, “after the anxiety of the tightest, straitest passage, we always find an oasis of calm and repose in the whiteness of the expanse, the silence.”
Diane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn. You can find here on Twitter at @DianeMehta.