John Taylor publishes this tribute to Philippe Jaccottet in The Fortnightly Review:
“Once approached—not even in the reality of a March day, but in a mere daydream—[the peonies] go before you, pushing open leafy doors, almost invisible barriers. . .” (“The Peonies,” After Many Years, 1994)
FOR DECADES NOW I have loved searching for, and admiring, wildflowers in mountain pastures. Blue gentian flowers along a path so high that the last vegetation is ending. Cotton grass in a drizzle, on an Alpine marsh. . .
All that, well before I discovered Philippe Jaccottet’s oeuvre and translated several of his books.
Then his poems and especially his poetic prose texts, beginning with Notebook of Greenery, helped me to deepen this fascination. Suddenly before me is a yarrow plant barely three inches in height; I had never noticed this species. Here is some campion with its minute moons—or are they little bundles of clothes? And this bit of moss whose name I don’t know. It is somehow the most mysterious. . .
So many “things seen” (as he would say)—a robin, a shade of color. . . Whenever walking down a path, I think of him with gratitude.
I stop without knowing why. It seems that there has been a “call,” but already this word seems too strong: it has come to me too quickly. I stop. It is now only mentally that I can come closer to this clover or to this great masterwort; perhaps I should say “only in sensibility.” Or some other word. I close my pocket notebook. When we try to formulate what seems to be happening inside us, outside us, we can already have taken a step backwards, or several steps. Then we move forward once again. Perhaps we even sense a kind of ephemeral certitude that we have fully experienced something; that we have seen that small, beautiful, ordinary thing; that we have suddenly and very briefly inhabited Being, in another way. Is this experience “metaphysical”? I don’t know.
Thanks to Philippe Jaccottet, thanks to his books that I have translated and to all the other books by him that I have read and reread, I have gained confidence in this lack of confidence, this plenitude of doubts that can even sometimes crush us when we face the enigmas of the world. His kinds of questioning and those doubts that he confronted probably with an inner turmoil that he sometimes greatly struggled to master (yet he managed to do so) make up the essence of our human condition in front of so many thresholds: a bit of lichen, a scabious flower, and then death. His writings show us how to invert our hesitations, our trembling, our distress into worthy, beneficial sources that can open once again like a flower after the night, after the early morning frost.
“So I will begin again because it has begun all over again: the wonder, the astonishment, the bewilderment; the gratitude as well.” (“To Field Bindweed,” And, Nonetheless, 2001)
John Taylor initially wrote this text in French for a special feature, in tribute to Philippe Jaccottet, which has also appeared in the online magazine Poezibao. He has also translated Philippe Jaccottet’s Truinas, his memoir of his friendship with the poet André du Bouchet, published by Odd Volumes for The Fortnightly Review. Taylor’s other translations of Jaccottet’s work include And, Nonetheless: Selected Prose and Poetry 1990-2009 (Chelsea Editions), The Pilgrim’s Bowl: Giorgio Morandi (Seagull Books), A Calm Fire and other Travel Writings (Seagull Books), Patches of Sunlight, or of Shadow (Seagull Books), and Ponge, Pastures, Prairies (Black Square Editions).