Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review


By Nicolas Pesquès, Trans. By Cole Swenson

Reviewed By Connor Fisher

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Near the beginning of his 1931 essay “Sincerity and Objectification,” Louis Zukofsky advocates the publication of poetry that meets the requirements of two criteria, “sincerity and objectification.” He goes on to explain: “In sincerity . . . writing occurs which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody. Shapes suggest themselves, and the mind senses and receives awareness” (emphasis added). This often-quoted passage suggests that poets can use language to join together object (or “shape”) and word, and that the mind can perceive a shape or object itself through suggestive poetic language. This is, in essence, an argument about the affect of objects and of words as they become identical. To Zukofsky, poets form thoughts and ideas with empirical objects rather than a linguistic system of signs and signifiers; the poem can almost become the object that it sets out to convey to a reader.

In his collection Overyellow (translated by Cole Swensen), Nicolas Pesquès rises to Zukofsky’s call and undertakes an ambitious project conjoining physical object and poetry. The collection’s preface explains the premise of the book: Pesquès writes as a daily engagement with Mount Juliau, a mountain which the poet can see outside of his study window. In a way, Pesquès attempts to rework the mountain in language: not to represent the mountain by describing its shape and size in a poem, but to bring some portion of the affect or nature of the mountain into a book, much like Zukofsky’s call for poets to think “with the things as they exist.” Overyellow describes itself as “a work about place —about the attempt to construct, through writing, the possibility of place in the external world . . . Pesquès’s interrogation of the mountain that dominates his landscape becomes an interrogation of language, of how it brings us the world and how it simultaneously denies us access to it.”

Pesquès displays an awareness of the philosophical difficulties of his long-term poetic project. He is not naïve about his observations of Mount Juliau: his repetitive study of the landscape renders the natural world as a mediated visible image. In other words, Pesquès perceives nature as an object just as artificial as the poem that he constructs to re-create nature. While poetic language can effectively reproduce or mimic nature, Pesquès presses language to do more. Designed to re-create (not simply represent) the flower-covered hillside, the poems in effect become an artificial copy of the already-mediated nature which Pesquès views. He lays out the difficulty early in the collection:

We think that, faced with a landscape, words can
construct a reproduction, but it’s something else
entirely, and the result is oddly
so hard to live with, so much less Edenic
than its model.

Over the following pages, Pesquès continues to contrast his poem with the “Edenic model” (Mount Juliau; the natural world) by accentuating the distinctions between hillside and book-length poem. Paradoxically and compellingly, he argues that the poem itself mimics or simulates the hillside—albeit with the crucial distinction that the book is read, while the hillside is observed. Reading, for Pesquès, is a valid and necessary way of perceiving the world, practically on the same level as vision itself.

Pesquès develops a statement on the efficacy of reading, with a telling reference to the color of the English broom flowers which blanket Juliau’s slopes: yellow. As he presents a written text to the reader, he asserts that the act of reading—when paired with the act of perceiving a natural hillside—can fuse together the two objects, the hillside and the poem, as they entwine and the poem becomes an imitation or simulacrum of the hill:

The mountain’s skin and my leaping eye.
And that yellow over there, projecting, such as it is in its shivering.
. . .
First-born landscape, like they call the poem a non-poem.
Or the pain of precise YELLOW.
. . .
Visuality that requires a specific body. A reading that presents the
broom fused to its construction.
A grouped group.

The color YELLOW (nearly always capitalized) functions as a key or an agent in the book by focalizing Pesquès’s attention. YELLOW has power, and lends a vibrant charge to Pesquès’s lines. In the poetics of Overyellow, the color itself acts as a mediator between the object (the actual yellow hillside) and the created image (the text of the poem). YELLOW—which, for Pesquès, is at once word and color—refers to both the English broom flowers and to the word on the page, while blurring the distinction and allowing the poem to fully simulate the hillside itself. To this effect, Pesquès gives readers the cryptic line: “OVERYELLOW or nature entirely preserved.” Nature itself is preserved on the page (by reproducing its affect), and the yellow of the English broom has been translated and preserved in the pages of Overyellow.

Pesquès goes into further detail, making perhaps his strongest claim in clear language. He states that the success of Overyellow in re-creating Mount Juliau depends, paradoxically, on the poem’s artificiality. As a deliberately artificial simulation, the poem overlays the “natural” object—the hillside—and replicates it, transforms it into language, and uses images of the color yellow to bind together poem and hillside, artifice and natural object:

it’s not understanding that makes the text accessible
it’s the return
the fact that the artifice is positioned exactly where the natural is
waiting for the same lighting.

Overyellow is Pesquès’s third book translated into English, and Cole Swensen has served as the translator on the other two. Swensen’s talent as a translator shows throughout the collection as she brings Pesquès’s often philosophical and occasionally opaque lines into English without rendering them stilted or impenetrable. She brings a wonderful ear to the collection, and makes the English lines sonically precise and often lush. Near the middle of the book’s second section (“Overyellow: the Dissolution”), Swensen translates these lines:

to touch what names the past, what pushes the horizon back
that the image might become rawer than raw
a jaw
around which one falls in turning.

In the quick rhyme of “rawer . . . raw / a jaw,” Swensen adds a light-footed sonority to Pesquès’s poem, which buoys the otherwise heavy text with an occasional sense of playfulness.

In a way, Swensen’s task of translation is similar to Pesquès’s literary project in Overyellow. Pesquès grapples with reconciling the natural world and the artifice of description in the medium of poetry. In doing so, he looks for ways to translate experience (looking at Mount Juliau) into language, which (as the preface suggests) resists this process of translation. Swensen’s task as a literary translator also plays with the thin boundary between re-creation and simulation. Doubtlessly, the crucial word “YELLOW” serves as a key mediator for Swensen’s translation, just as it did for Pesquès’s poems. With this reading, the text takes on a meta-poetic quality of which both Pesquès and Swensen are certainly aware. The clear task for both poet and translator is not to represent, mimic, or impossibly re-create a copy of an original object. To borrow Pesquès’s word, both poet and translator must create growth:

it’s not even as yellow as all that
the project is not to know the color
nor to exhaustively describe it
it is rather to grow.

Connor Fisher lives in Athens, Georgia. He has an MA in English literature from the University of Denver, an MFA in creative writing from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is working toward a PhD in English and creative writing at the University of Georgia. His poetry and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in the Volta, Rain Taxi, Dreginald, Word for / Word, Tarpaulin Sky, 32 Poems, and Typo.