I vaguely heard of Michel Houellebecq before stumbling on his book of poems in the Labyrinth Bookshop. I did not know that he wrote poems, as well as novels. The Art of Struggle, translated by Delphine Grass and Timothy Mathews, is captivating from the first verse of the first poem:
Dawn rises, grows, settles on the city
We've come through the night and not been set free
I hear the buses and the quiet hum
Of social exchange. I'm overcome with presence.
This is an aubade, but not an aubade that I've ever heard before. The lyrical second line is sandwiched by two plain-speaking lines. The faddish term "social exchange" shares the same line as the philosophical concept of "presence."How can one be overcome with "presence," usually considered a good thing, as opposed to "absence"? The speaker has been defeated even before the day begins. The poem beginning "What we need now is an attitude of non-resistance to the world" gave me the epigraph for a new sequence of poems, "A Position of Defeat."
Like lizards we bask in the light of phenomena,
Waiting for the night;
But we will not fight,
We must not fight,
We stay for ever in a position of defeat.
In its resolute defeatism, the poetry is revolutionary. It not only indicts Western societies of the evils of capitalism and consumerism, but it also rejects the progressive optimism and piecemeal reform of liberalism. To accept the latter is to misunderstand how deep and wide the rot has set in.
An eternity package, all included,
Personalized local discoveries,
Bodies for sale in the clubs,
But no sex guaranteed for the night.
In his relentless focus on urban decay and modern ennui, Houellebecq recalls his poetic predecessor Baudelaire. He is more pessimistic than Baudelaire, however. Desire, lesbian or otherwise, no longer saves; it is dying itself, if not dead. The adventure of walking through the sleaze of Paris he has converted into the daily trudge to La Tour Gan, the nondescript office tower in La Defense, a better symbol for present-day Paris than the Eiffel Tower.
The compact quatrains of most of the poems are varied with the occasional prose poem or poem with long, languorous lines. Houellebecq has a gift for writing manifestoes. His poetry is not afraid of ideas. And one of the biggest is that there is no transcendence in life.