Quand on vient d’un monde d’Idées, la surprise est énorme / When One Comes from a World of Ideas, Vast Is the Surprise . . . by Jean-Paul Michel

Author:  Jean-Paul Michel
Translator: Michael Bishop

Michael Bishop, tr. Bedford, Nova Scotia. VVV / William Blake & Co. 2013. ISBN 9782841032051

Set in free form, Jean-Paul Michel’s idealistic and analytical poetry shows him struggling with the confrontation between intellect and life. The poet attempts to answer a question that is fundamentally important to Western dualism: how to reconcile the highest, purest ideals with the messy candor of daily life. Beauty and poetic mystery live somewhere between these extremes, yet they remain elusive. In Michel’s poetry, they are found in a coded language rooted in the tension between an ever-changing original picture and its immobile image. This disconnect is reflected in the carefully constructed de-composition of the poems and in the unusual caesurae of certain words.

To translate this disconcerting and difficult work takes a translator whose style can faithfully mirror the poet’s. Michael Bishop, Michel’s lifelong translator, has the exact degree of literalness with a British charm that softens the violent austerity of Michel’s thought. The editors’ choice of placing the French and the English texts sequentially, instead of side by side, emphasizes the disconnects present in the French version. From the poem “Du diaphragme à la barrière des dents . . .” (From diaphragm to the teeth’s gate . . .): “Décide le Dieu du jour à venir. / Va / avec confiance à / ce qui vient. S’il est dit / que l’heure est bonne un vent / chassera les nuages. / Si l’heure est mauvaise, médite. Fais silence.” (Choose the coming day’s God. / Go / with confidence towards that / which is coming. Should a good hour / be announced, a breeze / will chase the clouds away. / Should the hour be bad, meditate and keep silent.)

The founder and publisher of William Blake & Co. Editions located in Bordeaux, a child of 1968 whose masters include Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and Bataille, Michel has been active on the French literary scene since the early 1970s. To date, he has published twenty-three volumes of poetry. His latest distinction was the 2013 Grand Prix Léopold Senghor de Poésie awarded by the Paris-based Cénacle de Poésie, Arts, et Lettres.

Alice-Catherine Carls
University of Tennessee at Martin

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