26 October, 2021 • • 47.5Poetry

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‘Image conscious of the breath in which it lives’

Harris Wheless

Georges Schehadé
Translated by Austin Carder
Poetries
The Song Cave
2021

Insofar as Georges Schehadé’s dramatic approach, with its naturalistic symbolism and Post-Surrealist aversion to spectacle, has been given serious critical appraisal, it was perhaps best interpreted by Jacques Guicharnaud, the noted scholar of modern French theatre: ‘Each play goes out to meet the spectator on his own ground instead of beginning with a dazzling avant-garde attack’, he explained. ‘Then the language becomes increasingly metaphorical, the images increasingly obscure, the situations increasingly unreal . . . Everything happens as if the poet were taking the spectator by the hand and gradually leading him into his universe of enchantment’.

Poetries is the first English translation of the Lebanese dramatist and poet’s selected poems. An overlooked member of the French Surrealist circle who was neither French nor an orthodox Surrealist, and in fact shares more of an affinity with the Symbolists of the previous generation, Schehadé is a neglected figure in the English-speaking world. Despite the widespread postwar recognition of the Surrealists and other members of the Parisian avant garde, the untranslated, and more specifically, Lebanese expatriates in France during that period, like Schehadé, have been neglected. It is the ongoing expansion of the Francophone canon which has brought Schehadé’s work back into discourse with that of modern giants like Beckett and Ionesco.

In tracing the development of his poetic voice, it becomes clear that the concrete natural imagery of Schehadé’s early poems served to prepare the reader for the shifting semantic and temporal landscapes which were to come. This is not to say that he strays from his pet subject, man’s fraught relations with the natural world, but that as his voice develops, he articulates his own singular approach to the modern lyric. The passing of seasons, lovers’ trysts, melancholia, and other narrative or framing devices recede and the poems reach a more direct confrontation with the metaphysical:

The history of dreams
The twilight hours
Are keeping order
Absence protects and connects them
Shadow wrapped in rippling silk
Abandoned gardens revoke their patience
They’ll return when distance ends
— The grass draping them in plums

The poems in this edition are selected from the poet’s six-volume magnum opus, Les Poésies, written successively between 1938 and 1985, beginning before he emerged in the ‘50s as a key figure in postwar avant garde theatre, and ending with the output of his final years during the Lebanese Civil War. This life-long poetic project, which is essentially his collected poems — constructed by the artist rather than posthumously by another party — gives us a glimpse of Schehadé the poet. For in these miniature epics he composed serial poems of the disjointed self, headlights roaming the sky which gesture at totality while also illuminating the gap between earth and cosmos. 

As Alexander Carder says in his translator’s note, ‘Schehadé’s unit is an image conscious of the breath in which it lives. The particular words that comprise it are not incidental, nor are they inviolable’. As such, the often figurative nature of Schehadé’s language necessitates the manipulation of syntax, word choice, and line breaks to transfer the image from one idiom to another. The form is free verse, with an assortment of assonance, internal rhyme, and diphthongs brought out in translation. The poems are quite short, often not more than ten lines. The lines themselves, as Carder renders them, are broken up and somewhat choppier than those in the original French — often only the length of a breath. In some cases, each line holds a discrete image:

Autumn like a red and yellow net cast over the trees
The smoke of a gentle breeze
A limping crow portends disaster

In others, as in the lines that follow those above, whole narratives of unfulfilled romance are dashed upon the rocks of the hard, white page:

Dreaming of the girl wandering in the wood
Like in a fairytale
I shout: O love grant her long life

But the echo returns and twists
Losing my words it answers:
Love love has lost its life

In a card game

Very few of the poems have titles and a small number have dedications, but most are unadorned, with nothing to signal overt themes or hierarchy of subject. These are chronicles of private moments, perhaps all the more private because they are fleeting — the fly will not alight twice upon your hand, nor will the grass hold its dew, or the shadow of a lover again flicker like a wind-torn flag. 

Seen in passing, these volatile images take on the qualities of memory, self-mythology, dissociation, resurfacing trauma. They make one think of disembodiment, drifting planes of existence and light, interred in a vast harbor. They counteract our insistence that selfhood can be discrete, known, tailored by our own hands. We try but cannot shrug away that nagging feeling that we are in exile from nature, from the man-made landscape, from our bodies and our minds. The horror of Schehadé is the destruction of the autonomous self.

While man and nature are intertwined in Schehadé’s poetics, it is by no means a harmonious coexistence. The earth is darkly personified; its vestiges are not pure of human faults (‘Since you’ve sinned like the tall trees’), and indeed, offer no solace:

Poor Lamartine
I carried your letters in a box
And nobody pitied me not even the dirt
Who holds every flower’s blood

Poet’s face at the edge of the water
You untied my entire life like these boats

This tension calls to mind the old Romantic binary: man and natural sublime. Following the Industrial Revolution, particularly in Schehadé’s time, man’s pretensions towards the sublime shifted — from the industrial to the political, with the rise of totalitarianism and a new age of imperialism. Here, we can trace conceptual lines that suggest the constriction of systems of governance or being: 

They don’t know
This is their last time seeing
Exiled orchards and familiar shores
Stars swim with arms of salt
As beauty saddens the night

In Schehadé, there is also a particularly modernist sense, as in William Carlos Williams, of text as natural setting, whereby a system of signs builds upon the tropes of modern lyric poetry. (‘The province of the poem is the world’; the poem is ‘the most perfect rock and temple, the highest falls, in clouds of gauzy spray’.) Schehadé further collapses the boundary between poet and reader using imperatives, as in the third line of the following poem, effectively conscripting the reader into the preservation of the image:

When autumn sends a shiver
Down the mountain
Place the swan’s eye on your neck
Wondrous wind in the dead of night
I love you I’ve been told

As Carder indicates in his translator’s note, Schehadé saw his poems not as expressions of the poet’s soul but as entities outside of himself, for which he served merely as a custodian in their journey to self-realization. In this, he echoes the self-conscious passivity of Gide’s narrator in his novel The Counterfeiters, written partly as a rejection of the French Symbolist school. The statement also reflects Lorine Niedecker’s conception (inherited from the Objectivists) of the relationship between poem and poet by which the former represents ‘the fact as it forms, that is not as it is cooked by the imperfect or predatory or sentimental poet’, rendering ‘the most immediate projections of the real’ without interference. This emphasis on exterior forces manifests in the verbal contours of the work itself. The word ‘absence’ appears throughout the collection, functioning as an image of the unseen and unknown. Sometimes it is personified (‘Absence saved a smile and speech’); sometimes it is cloaked in the figure of silence, as in this final stanza:

Eternal return of night
Trees hide in their leaves
And silence approaches from afar

Elsewhere, there appear natural and manmade vessels in which an absence dwells. In the collection’s ultimate poem, we witness interiors attempting to encroach on the world outside, and vice versa. And yet, the two worlds confirm each other’s differences. Their doors are not communicative.

When eyes vanish in sleep
Like faces at the bottom of a well
A dream pours its landscapes
Over the night’s sleeper
A dark sky flees its stars

In a window at dawn
A women bows her head
Still unknown in the dream

These poems necessarily take on a kind of lyric form. Regardless of whether the content is of human subjects or the natural world, the form is always a representation of human qualities. The trees sin, the flowers bleed, there emerges a utopia — not a human, or even humane society — but a utopia based in the twin sufferings of man and environment. It is a kind of suffering that produces an identification with the other. This identification, however, is not one of empathy. At its best, it is an articulation of a common realm in which all are fallen; against individual salvation, there is Utopia only in collective pain. Schehadé challenges us to sin like the trees, if only so that we too may lay amongst the dead leaves of autumn.

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Harris Wheless is a writer and recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he studied English literature. He is currently based in Raleigh, North Carolina.