Thursday, December 22, 2011

Discovering Raymond Queneau

PN Review 202 is filled with interesting translations, of Jean-Paul de Dadelsen by Marilyn Hacker, Hester Knibbe by Jacquelyn Pope, Pier Paolo Pasolini by N.S. Thompson. I like most the poetry of Raymond Queneau, translated by Rachel Galvin. The fourteen short lyrics from his book Hitting the Streets describe his walks about Paris with a keen eye and a sharp ear, and an imagination that is lively and sympathetic. "The Concierges" observes an "old verdigrisy grey-beard/ sobbing in his doorway." "Rue Paul Verlaine," with its amulet of a street name, begins with a vision of a street that the street hardly understands:

Sometimes I have a strange, penetrating vision
Of a street made of off-white and maternal tin
on either side the walkway beats like a wing
while the road bears all the weight of its being

The ghosts of Baudelaire and Rimbaud, besides that of Verlaine, haunt these poems as well as these streets. "Rue Paul Verlaine" is written in the sonnet form. "Elsewhere" is in flowing free verse that imitates casual wandering, and discovers in the middle of the stroll, in the middle of the poem, an unexpected view of a sea port, before going on its way.

The sense of loss, however, is not far away from the sense of discovery or rediscovery. In "The Flies," the speaker almost whimsically bemoans that "The flies of today/ are no longer the flies of yore." In his childhood, the flies of yore killed themselves joyfully, by gluing themselves to flypaper, by shutting themselves in bottles, "by the hundreds, maybe the thousands." In contrast, the flies of today "watch their step."

These are transitory, delicate, sympathetic poems. I was surprised to learn from Galvin's introductory note that Queneau founded Oulipo in 1960.

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