John Taylor is without a doubt the most prolific American translator of poetry from French into English, and certainly one of the best. He also happens to be one of the most insightful literary critics I know and an impressive poet in his own right. One of his latest translations is « A Notebook of Clouds » by Pierre Chappuis, a Swiss poet and essayist from the same generation with French-language poets Yves Bonnefoy, Jacques Réda and Philippe Jaccottet (another Swiss writer extensively translated by Taylor). « A Notebook of Clouds » comprises verse poems, poetic prose and fragmentary notes, creating a coherent whole in spite of its apparent heteroclite character, a form that is both lyrical and philosophical. The Notebook is literally made of “leftovers” from Taylor’s previous translations of Chappuis, which haven’t made it into the collection Like Bits of Wind: Selected Poetry and Poetic Prose 1974-2013 published by Seagull Books in 2016. Added to these are some other excerpts translated from a second, similar notebook, “Preliminary Notebook for the Notebook of Clouds, 1979-1984.” But the most surprising aspect is the book’s second part, “A Notebook of Ridges,” a long prose poem written by Taylor in response to Chappuis’s “Notebook of Clouds.” Thus, we have a book that contains work by two different authors, the second author being the translator of the first one, and his piece being inspired by the poetic prose of the translated author. « A Notebook of Ridges » delves into Taylor’s childhood memories from the flatlands of Iowa and replicates the philosophical mood of Chapuis’s collection. The dedication, “for Pierre Chappuis, because a cloud sometimes looks like a ridge,” gives us a hint about Taylor’s possible reasons for choosing the ridge: there is an obvious analogy between their shape, but the ridge seems almost like an inverted cloud.
The unusual nature of A Notebook of Clouds is transparent even at the most obvious visual level through changes in font type and size. As for the content, one can find anything from poetic meditations on the names of clouds (“Clouds, cloudlets, halos/stratus, nimbus, cumulus (scholarly pig Latin)”—74) to food descriptions (“Like entangled noodles which, softened and whirling, would come undone little by little in the cooking water”—20 or “Like the crackled film of cream on heated milk, with its bulges, folds, little craters, scars”—36). We don’t have access to the French original, but Taylor’s translation, especially the latter quote, gives us a remarkable phonetic association made of alliterations and assonances. One can almost taste the heated milk cream on one’s tongue.
Taylor’s gift at capturing sound patterns comes across especially when he is forced to translate certain provocative expressions, such as “luminous sphincter”—48 or “nipple-hilled”—21) but also when, through his choices, he allows what one might call “linguistic chance” to create a text that has gained something in translation: “Clocks and Clouds” (49) for what I suppose must have been “Horloges et nuages.”
Anyone interested in contemporary American poetry and essay-writing should read Taylor’s « Notebook of Ridges, » not only because it is very good poetry (or poetic prose, depending on the terminology), but because it is a fascinating example of what happens when cultures and languages mix. Although Taylor is American, his writing—at least in this instance—has very little to do with contemporary American poetry. The structure of thinking behind this Notebook is French, while the emotional and linguistic modulations are American. Like the French, Taylor often goes back to a word’s origin in order to meditate on a certain topic: “The etymology of ‘ridge’ runs, like a ridge, from meaning ‘back’ and ‘spine’ to ‘cross,’ ‘curved,’ and ‘crown’” (85).
He posits an association between the word “ridge” and childhood memories and adolescent aspirations, and as a consequence, he takes the reader back to his childhood mornings in Wyoming and summers in Iowa. Attempting to “turn topography into topology” (92), Taylor uses the topos of the “ridge” to reflect on things that are essential to him: his childhood, geography, but also writing itself: “Ideally, writing takes the writer each time out onto a ridge” (91).
At a philosophical and conceptual level, « A Notebook of Ridges » represents a synthesis between the inspiring poet (Chappuis) and the inspired translator-poet (Taylor), a mixing of “clouds” and “ridges” into a third element. This quote from Japanese introduces—ironically—a third cultural reference and language: “A fluttering fan/in the actor’s rising hand/the ridge of a cloud” (103).
Having been born of a translation from the French, « A Notebook of Ridges »—a poetic work written in English—keeps within itself the record if its origin and goes back to it: “La crête se détache toujours. The ridge always stands out and is ‘detached’” (105).
In the above example, we have a sentence (“La crête se détache toujours”) written in French by an English-speaking author, who then, proceeds to translate it into English. Taylor’s creative impulse is to go back to the origin of his prose poem, an origin that resides not only in the content of « A Notebook of Clouds, » but in the language itself in which the latter has been written.
Like Chappuis—and, generally, in the French tradition of fragmentary-poetic-philosophical meditation—Taylor quotes various French writers who have written on the topic at hand, and incorporates their thoughts into his own writing: “Sainte-Beuve forged the image of a ‘brilliant ridge of syllables’ when he was analyzing Chateaubriand’s style” (113); or: “The pauses or blank spaces between fragments, maxims, or notes whose words form, to recall Yves Bonnefoy’s phrase, ‘the ridgeline of a silence’…” (114). It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to state that « A Notebook of Ridges » is, in its very form and language, the result of a masterful collaboration between two languages and structures of thinking, a hybrid and hybridized Franco-American collection of poetic prose:
“Look and listen in English. Then in French. Then in English once again.
Clearness. Clarity. Clarté. Clarée. Clearness” (127).