Book Review

There could hardly be a better moment to translate Francis Ponge. Glaciers are melting; sea levels are rising. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continues to increase. Scientists and cultural theorists are beginning (perhaps all too late) to rethink humanity’s relationship to natural spaces and the beings that inhabit them. Such thinking demonstrates, as the philosopher, scholar, and writer Timothy Morton suggests, “that all beings are connected.” We as humans must consider how all things inhabiting an ecosystem—human, animal, vegetable, or mineral—contribute to its overall function. Enter Ponge, the mid-century French poet whose lauded 1942 prose poetry collection, Le parti pris des choses, interrogates the very nature of things. The collection examines inert objects at a radical level of specificity, placing them against the backdrop of consciousness and representation. Hence the urgency of Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau’s Partisan of Things, a retranslation of Ponge’s Le parti rendered with the prospect of anthropogenic climate change in mind. The collection inflects the already thing-oriented nature of Ponge’s work, underscoring the ecological consciousness inherent to his poetics. The result is a necessary new translation of a book that looks deeply and astutely at the nonhuman world, recognizing the role such entities play in shaping the assemblage of beings which comprise an environment.

The opening poem “Pluie,” or “Rain,” models the ecological connectivity Morton describes, tracing the various rates, forms, and sizes at which raindrops—as individuals and as a collective unit—descend: he calls it a “fine discontinuous curtain,” which “falls implacably and yet gently in drops.” The gesture disarms readers, who seek to view the rain either as singular or plural, but not both. Such simultaneity defies the categorization thrust on perception by grammar itself. But Ponge, via Corey and Garneau, insists on viewing the rain as a “network,” a collective of distinct nodes which functions as an individual unit. “Network,” from “réseau,” recalls the Actor-Network Theory popularized by French sociologist Bruno Latour—perhaps too overtly. The term is employed almost too frequently in academic circles, especially by figures such as those whom Corey cites in his introduction: Jane Bennett, McKenzie Wark, and Latour himself. And yet, Ponge’s translators have often rendered “réseau” as “web” or “mesh,” both of which are used by theorists to describe connectivity. (“Mesh” is one of Morton’s interventions.) In that regard, “network” lends definition to Ponge’s term, seeing it as a distinct form of relation similar to “web” or “mesh,” but that emphasizes the unique role of individual actors within an ecological sphere, which seems characteristically Pongian.

Ponge portrays the speaker as a participant in this “network,” even if his role is merely that of voyeur: “The rain, in the backyard where I watch it fall, comes down at different rates.” As much as Ponge draws attention to objects, one cannot forget the role human agency plays in shaping ecological systems. Such is the trouble of the Anthropocene: we have overstepped our bounds. But it is imperative not to overstate human presence. Anthropocentrism has played a major role in enabling the wasteful consumption of fossil fuels precipitating climate disaster. Already in 1942, Ponge recognizes such potential, and minimizes human presence in response. Rain performs nearly all action in the poem; the speaker is a mere node in the larger “network.” Of course, human presence is never entirely erased. An elaborate conceit betrays the poet’s rhetorical hand: Ponge compares the rain’s “intensity” to a “steam-powered clock whose spring is wound by the force of precipitation” (emphasis mine). Through clever double entendre, Ponge underscores the rain both as the simile’s vehicle and its tenor, comparing it not only to the mechanical potential of a compressed spring but to the spring’s necessity as a component within the clock’s ecology.

“Blackberries” more openly interrogates the poet’s role in shaping the ecology of the poem. Ponge begins by describing “bushes” as “typographical” (literally, “buissons typographiques”), “invented by the poem on the path that leads away from things (or toward the mind).” The suggestion is that, through the act of linguistic representation—by putting “things” into words—the poet creates distance between objects and the perceiving self. The “bushes” in the poem are mere representations of bushes, more a product of the mind than of phenomena as such. Corey and Garneau take some liberty here. The French reads, “sur une route qui ne mène hors des choses ni à l’esprit”: “on the path that leads neither toward things nor toward the mind.” Ponge uses this ambiguity to collapse the Cartesian division between body and mind, suggesting that linguistic representation is neither physical nor cognitive. Corey and Garneau emphasize this division, suggesting that if linguistic representation “leads away from things,” it must lead “toward the mind.” Neither model is necessarily correct, but by holding thought and things in partition, the Corey-Garneau version accentuates the materiality of things, highlighting their essential thingness.

The problem of representation—which in English is also the problem of translation—comes to a point in the poem’s final prose stanza. Ponge writes, “mûres, partfaitement elles sont mûres.” The line is notoriously difficult for translators because, in the plural, the word for “blackberries” is indistinguishable from the adjective “ripe.” The line might read, “blackberries, they are perfectly ripe,” imagistically suggesting that, teleologically, the blackberries have actualized their potential as blackberries. It can also read, “blackberries, they are perfectly blackberries.” That is, in the Platonic sense, the blackberries perfectly exhibit the essential attributes of blackberry-ness, transcending their particularity as individual blackberries. Both senses are built into the line, in French; the problem is traversing the chasm of language. As Corey and Garneau put it, “blackberries, they are perfectly blackberries.” Reversing Ponge’s typographical emphasis, Corey and Garneau highlight linguistic representation as the central conflict of the poem. The word “blackberry,” Ponge suggests, perfectly recalls the object, “blackberry.” For Corey and Garneau, the opposite is true: the object slips into representation—“toward the mind” and “away from things.” By rendering the object into language, one deprives it of its thingness, transmuting it from a material ecosystem to a linguistic one.

A late poem in the collection, and among the shortest, “The Piece of Meat” investigates the boundary between mechanical objects and organic materials. Subject to consumption, both are passive agents. But, as Ponge humorously demonstrates, even a piece of meat is not entirely inert. The poem consists of one long conceit, which describes the titular “meat” as a “kind of factory, milling and pressing blood.” Readers don’t typically think of organic processes such as digestion or decay in mechanical terms, which makes Ponge’s description especially beguiling. The process of decomposition, Ponge suggests, is as reliable and efficient as an assembly line. Indeed, “its exhaust manifolds, blast furnaces” and “vats” sit alongside “jackhammers and greasetubs,” much as they would in an actual factory. Like such entities, the piece of meat produces excess material, which it must purge: “Waste products,” he writes, “open to the sky, rivulets of slag and bile.” The decomposing meat also emits gas, as anyone who’s left organic matter too long in the fridge can attest. Corey and Garneau colloquialize Ponge’s language, underscoring his characteristic humor: “Serve immediately! Otherwise rust or other chemical reactions will manufacture the most revolting smells.”

Despite its relevance for ecocritics, some have sought to dismiss Le parti pris des choses as apolitical—a hermetic work concerned with the nature of objects but blind to the conflicts of the human world. Readers should keep in mind that the book was first published under Philippe Pétain’s Vichy government, when Ponge aligned himself with the resistance. The Nazi party was treating human bodies as objects, executing and incinerating them, less than eight hundred kilometers from where this book was written. In that light, it is difficult to read Le parti—its opposition to the classification and commodification of objects as tools for human use—as anything but a highly charged political tome, one that doubles down on its central premise (that things act as much as, maybe more than, human beings) in the face of catastrophe. While such poetics cannot solve the problem of climate change, it can help readers to retool how we think about the object world, our relation to it, and the systems of connectivity that comprise ecological networks in a global society such as ours. In its ability to highlight such systems and confirm the role things play in shaping them, Partisan of Things becomes not a mere translation but a model for hybrid thought, one equipped to tackle the intellectual challenges of an age on the verge of political and environmental disaster.

About the Reviewer

John James is the author of Chthonic, winner of the 2014 CutBank Chapbook Award. His poems appear or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, West Branch, Best American Poetry 2017, and elsewhere. He serves as Graduate Associate to the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practice at Georgetown University, where he directs Georgetown Summer Programs’ Creative Writing Institute.