Claude Mouchard Writing “with” — Mallarmé, Near & Far
Why compare a contemporary French poet who spends his life ensuring that others can be heard to Mallarmé, whose voice by its very singularity tends to overwhelm others if not reduce them to silence? Because, as I hope to show, the peculiar integrity of Mouchard’s work and its framing of poetry as a space for writing with other voices (a framing that continually threatens to erase the poet’s own song) suggest at once a striking contrast and a proximity to the Symbolist master’s work: a parallel and an equally dramatic performative departure, which can be grasped through certain shared formal traits. It is the intriguing mise à jour of poetic freedoms unthinkable without Mallarmé that makes Mouchard, for this reader, one of Mallarmé’s most authentic and exciting heirs.
I came to know this profoundly stirring poet in 1996, during one of his first trips to America to teach, shortly after the publication of “Enchevêtrée” (the first piece I translated by him) in the French journal Le Nouveau Commerce. An unassuming, self-effacing man, Mouchard has managed to avoid recognition from most French- and English-speaking readers alike, though he has long served as associate editor-in-chief of Po&sie, France’s leading poetry journal, and has published countless important critical writings, as well as three beautiful collections of poetry: Ici (1986), Perdre (1979; 1989), L’Air (1997); the poetic pamphlet Papiers! (2007); and several series of Notes (in Po&sie and elsewhere), two of which are abridged in the pages that follow: Du Darfour à la Loire avec Ousmane pour commencer (2008) and Tout seul, Khaled? (2015, here appearing in French as well as in English for the first time).[i]
Yet Mouchard is not reclusive, and his poetry, like Mallarmé’s, is as deeply and inventively engaged with what is happening around him in the world as it is conceptually abstract and attuned to his inner experience. His most recent poetic writing focuses on the plight of the exiled and homeless in France, an urgent problem of global consequence, and also constitutes a kind of lyrical supplement to his last critical opus, Qui si je criais…?, a reflection on testimonial writings around 20th-century political catastrophes; it is also a natural extension of the editorial work he has performed over the last two decades — tirelessly translating contemporary poets, from several languages and many different parts of the world (Japan and Korea in particular), in collaboration with the poets themselves or with other native speakers. Thus, though Mouchard is now only beginning to receive the recognition he deserves in the West, he is quite well known in other parts of the world (a book of his translated work was published in 2015 in China, and another will soon appear in Korea).[ii] His current primary project and concern has been to translate and publish in Po&sie poets from all over the African continent.
Mouchard’s work as editor, translator, and critic is in fact interwoven with his poetic writing, which he himself characterizes as a ceaseless effort to capture a reality that is constituted by words, but not only by words, so as to give voice to “political sensations.” And one of the most basic traits of Mouchard’s writing, which immediately recalls Mallarmé’s, is that its hybrid character often defies generic boundaries (even the loose ones we tend to hold today), so that many of his poems are so infused with political or critical commentary and vice-versa that they cannot be easily understood within either of these categories. Indeed, Mallarmé’s curious designation of his own prose poems as “Anecdotes ou poèmes” (curious given the supposed impersonality and unworldliness of his poetics) and his reference to the whole of his Divagations, journalistic texts devoted to topics at once timeless and current (literary, theatrical, and socio-political events), as “poème[s] critique[s],”[iii] points to a crucial link between his writing and Mouchard’s. I will return to this link, which manifests both poets’ attention to the typically hidden “other half” of Aesthetics, what Mallarmé calls “l’Économie politique.”[iv] I would like to begin, however, by addressing what first focused my attention on Mouchard’s writing and immediately suggested a parallel to Mallarmé’s: the inextricable relation it establishes between music and literature, through its innovative use of textual space and complex typography.
ENTANGLING ANOTHER’S VOICE: A MOTHER’S ANTI-TOMB
As a mere glance at the Notes presented here will show, typography and textual space are essential elements of Mouchard’s poetic composition. The 1996 poem Enchevêtrée, written right after the death of the poet’s mother, commemorates the last words uttered by her, precisely as she exchanged them with the poet, during a visit in which she lost her ability to speak due to Alzheimer’s. The typographical arrangement of that text, its spacing and the alternation between roman and italic type — which variously recall two of Mallarmé’s most explicitly musical texts, L’Après-midi d’un faune and Un coup de dés — expresses both the difficulties and the desire to communicate that the poet is talking about and yet ultimately helps to carry us beyond these: the lines work together in what Mouchard himself characterizes as a kind a requiem, an “oratorio,” to release and purify the spoken words (along with the mother’s spirit) into a realm of pure sound, light, and silence. Is this not a fundamental dream of Mallarmé’s, articulated in numerous texts of his?
What is more, Mouchard’s textual arrangements are as crucial to the unfolding of their complex ideas as to the visible marking of a progression toward the sublime through rhythmic and dynamic (or musical) effects. Thus, in Enchevêtrée, although the poem recounts a relatively simple, if fettered, and heart-wrenching final conversation between the poet and his mother, there are multiple levels and lines of reflection, description, and narration unfolding at once, which are themselves both syntactically and graphically “entangled.” The function of this visual arrangement is first and foremost performative rather than static: it presents itself at once as a score for the voice, for oral presentation, and as dynamic staging that assists us in the comprehension of its meaning, conforming perfectly to what Mallarmé described as his own ambition when he presented the lines of Un coup de dés as “subdivisions prismatiques de l’Idée” providing “une mise en scène spirituelle exacte,” and “pour qui veut lire à haute voix, une partition.”[v]
What is acutely original to Mouchard’s performative writing, however, and where it diverges most sharply from Mallarmé’s, is its extreme dialogical character. For as revealing as Mallarmé’s texts may have been on the fundamental sameness-in-difference of the world and the text and on the poetic self’s own inner divisions and radical equality with all others, most typically therein, a single if intrinsically torn poetic voice almost always speaks for others. This remains true even in such ambiguously theatrical texts as the Faune, Hérodiade, and Igitur, where dialogue is for the most part suspended.[vi] This is not surprising, for Mallarmé, no matter how experimental he became, always ultimately responded to what his time expected from the lyric poet: the articulation of an individual subjective reality that can also stand for or represent that of others. This is what is aimed at even in plans for his most ambitious, unfinished texts, where the presence and participation of others seems most crucial: whether this be in the Notes en vue du “Livre,” where an impersonal “operator,” Mallarmé himself in the guise of a top-hatted mc figure, shows in a secular rite the equality of all opposites and the “communion ou part d’un à tous et de tous à un”[vii] through an all-encompassing Book; or, on a more intimate plane, in the Notes pour un tombeau d’Anatole, where the poet commits his life’s work to carrying further into the world, through his consciousness and writing, the presence of his own deceased child — a dream that he did in some sense realize, since the “ombre puérile” of Un Coup de dés,[viii] often interpreted as an avatar of Hamlet, is clearly also a haunting figure of Mallarmé’s young son. Born of the Master’s virginal union with the Idea and ancestral battle with the sea, this ghostly presence also dies with him in the cosmic shipwreck, sinking back into the “vague / en quoi toute réalité se dissout,” where “RIEN/[…] N’AURA EU LIEU /[…] QUE LE LIEU.”[ix]
In Mouchard’s writing, by contrast, the continual winding and unwinding of the poet’s own words written “with” those of others seeks not only to preserve fragments of reality and self-expression, whether those be of another or his own, but also to represent the necessarily open-ended exchange that takes place as one tries to move (in) language between disparate voices, different ways of speaking. Rather than to seize a certain, definitive reality within a fixed and sealed monument as happens traditionally in poetry and still does, certainly, within Mallarmé’s finished texts, Mouchard’s current writing seeks, like Mallarmé’s unfinished Notes for “the Book,” primarily to set a work in motion and remain open in time. It also seeks, however, to embrace and convey realities articulated by others. Thus his poetry, in its typography and other salient features, aims at creating, for the reader, an experience that is autonomous and yet takes into account and supplements (represents, and yet also adds itself to) actual conversations, encounters between voices in the world. This ambitious poetic project, which is ongoing, he first formulated for me in a 2003 letter concerning Enchevêtrée:
What am I trying to do with such sentences?
“Realize” is the expression that comes to me. The lasting hope, which makes me write around them and for them, is that of realizing. Might it be in the sense that we can say, when witnessing certain events or hearing certain words, that we hadn’t at the moment “realized,” that time was needed to “realize” what had been seen or heard?
But the words quoted are precisely the ones I don’t need to realize. If they stay in my memory, it is by radiating — wounding, unresorbable — with an excess of reality.
It’s rather all of the rest of language and thought, which seems to me affected by a lack of reality. And it is in relation to those words — cited as inclusions —, that I try to realize, to create sentences that realize, that realize themselves.
Or rather it is a whole volume, which should then, around these quoted words, take form, and hold, fragile, but real. This volume should be made of sentences that move in relation to one another, balance each other and suspend each other reciprocally.
Some actually should be whispered, hardly audible, others should be felt in one blow — yes, like a vibrating blow —, even while remaining obstinately, as sentences, unfoldable (so as to deliver, if one wishes, a whole content).
And this volume, finally, would not be exactly closed. At least it should leave the impression that other sentences could still come there to play with those that are written and printed.
Thus, as we shall see, in a paradoxical development that cannot but strike one as being wholly natural yet unexpected and surprising, Mouchard’s intimate, moving preservation of the mother’s words, which gives form to Entangled, ultimately gives rise in his works to a space that preserves and embraces other lives, other voices, within the poet’s own community, in a dramatic opening of poetry to the world. Similarly, as we shall see, the above comments on the poetics of that matricidal poem continue to resonate, shape, and take shape in the last pages presented here, which respond to the death and capture the final words of another person most dear to the poet, a refugee from Darfur who became both a close friend and an anchor for his writing, through a long and careful process, undertaken by both men, to establish an intimate, familial relationship without ceasing to recognize their differences, in culture and language as well as in life situations.
Ousmane/Khaled: Leaving the initiative of words to … others
partitions have slowly collapsed “in me” through the years
[…] yes, blind or dumb each to the other were the two zones:
that (all of practices: gestures and conversations, behaviors of all kinds,
problems to resolve) concerning life “with,”
and that of writing (and of readings, of course, and of confrontations within a certain “intellectual” homogeneity)
[…] this repartition was undone,
like a wall which no longer needs be, and collapses
like a partition that one no longer sees
the internal walls of the heart
cooked by emotions
browned and purpled
they dissolved themselves[x]
A fascinating comparison could be developed between Mouchard’s political poetry (the pamphlet-poem Papiers!, Notes of the kind presented here) and texts such as Conflit and Confrontation, where Mallarmé reflects on chance and somewhat difficult encounters between himself and manual workers, non-intellectual, non-writing others he comes up against, digging and building within his writing space. Perhaps Mouchard, who intimately knows those pieces, will write of them himself one day? I only will allude to a striking situational inversion that especially binds Conflit and the Notes below, mainly to emphasize that as crucial as the concept of “conversation” is to Mallarmé’s theory of language,[xi] and as important as the notion of exchange between the poet and the ouvrier or the masses is to his vision of the Book, actual verbal conversations between himself and such others are avoided rather than included in his most politically oriented writing. Conversation with the homeless, though reported in the media and from other texts, and also variously represented as attempted, does not really happen either in Papiers!, Mouchard’s first explicitly political poem, published in 2007. But it will be important for me to introduce that work, because it contextualizes and leads to the open-ended personal/political Notes that follow, and prepares us for the peculiar weaving together of the poet’s own words with those of Ousmane / Khaled, in the unique serial way shown in the fragments presented here.
In Papiers!, Mouchard simultaneously registers what was being reported at the time, what was happening around him, and the effects he observed within himself and on others of the increasing tightening of borders, the difficulty of obtaining shelter, and the ever-worsening conditions of those left or arriving homeless in his country. He thus ultimately reflected in that piece as much on what it means to have as not to have identity “papers.” So Mouchard’s pamphlet-poem, emphasizing the equivocal significance of papers even from the title’s exclamation mark, leads us to feel and understand that such documents, necessary and life-defining as they can be, say very little about who we are. But contrary to what one might expect, poetry is not at all for him a vehicle for “identity” politics. “Nothing,” he stated in a recent Médiapart interview about his work, “is, perhaps, so anti-identitary as poetry and the translation of poetry.”[xii]
Thus, in Papiers!, the tension involved for him in the paradox of composing a political poem — the text is political because it clearly points to a problem and moves us to wish to resolve it, but remains poetic insofar as it does not pretend to resolve the problem in this way — becomes especially trenchant in the last pages. The poet’s most moving and striking encounter is with a mysterious “frozen man,” of African origin, who never speaks a word, who may or may not have papers, and whom the poet ardently wishes to help, but feels he cannot begin to know. The motif of the poet’s ever accumulating debt to those he reaches out to is thus explicitly and supremely developed in an encounter that is doomed to remain mute. And the pamphlet-poem literally closes as the poet realizes that his drawing of our attention to the problem of political outcasts in a verbal outcry is not just a rhetorical positioning or a manner of poetic writing; it converges also, as through a “demon of analogy,” with a momentary, pure outcry that actually escaped the poet himself (he recounts the “anecdote” though it felt to him like a dream; a shouting-in-frustration at the border, which might not only have been vain, but have had a negative effect). This involuntary cry broke out when, returning from a visit to China, the poet saw his fellow passenger with whom he had literally tried to break bread, impeded from entry and hassled by Customs officers at the airport. The gentleman was detained, Mouchard realizes, not because he had no papers, but because he had insufficient ones. Conscious that the most powerful gesture a writer can make is to move us in front of a problem whether or not he can resolve it, Mouchard highlights at the end of this poem the all-pervasiveness of Papiers! — the huge crisis these documents symbolize and entail both within and outside every border, raising endlessly complex questions for us all.
And so, in the last “movement” of Papiers! (44–46), we again see the crucial role of typography in Mouchard’s musical-political poetics; for the details of the event unfold in an especially complex pattern, combining the effects not only of verse and prose and several different sizes of roman and italic print, but also a passage of verse justified on the right, where the voice seems actually to come from a different place, to be situated elsewhere, as it conveys the poet’s efforts at “fraternization” with his traveling companion on the plane. Sewn through this ending — as happens throughout the 11 double-pages of Un coup de dés — and meaningfully underscored by the boldface, we find rather clear if reflexive language, a primary motif articulating what the poet has been grappling with through the whole poem. The boldface begins by positing a two-part question around which various other lines and styles of type are disseminated:
[…] a grasp on […]
what took hold of me?
It was […]
not […] a matter of undocumented persons,
but of insufficient documents…[?]
And ends with an answer
so then it was […]
really crying out […]
the question […]
The text resolutely refuses to close the question (even as it gathers the complex narrative that unwinds all around it), thereby asserting as much, I would venture, about the edges or boundaries of the poem — its simultaneous need for and rejection of strong lines (and thus partitions) to be drawn — as about the strictly political papers to which it also refers.
As in Mallarmé’s writing, correspondences between life and its representation in writing in Mouchard’s work must somehow be inscribed on the page, or realized in part, even if any grasp of the whole of them will by definition be recognized as impossible, just as socio-political problems and differences are irresolvable once and for all. They demand our ongoing attention even as they divide it, just as borders and boundaries separate “we” who supposedly belong within certain places from others who are invariably, inextricably in there with “us” too.
The political dimension of Papiers!, its action, which dares to assert itself at a certain moment in time, and yet in a way that is somehow enduring, announces then the creation of a new open-ended form of “œuvre-témoignage,” which Mouchard has been pursuing and intends to continue pursuing. It is this series that embraces the words of Ousmane/Khaled.
“Se percevoir, simple, infiniment sur la terre”[xiii] — the poet’s joy, so beautifully expressed in Mallarmé’s critical poems, whether he pursues it in Nature or on asphalt streets (cf. the end of “Bucolique” & “Solitude”), must always, ultimately, be sought alone: & in this quest, the presence of another, whether this be that of a child (“Don du poème”) or that of a peer or supposed promoter of poetry’s interests, cannot be experienced otherwise than as an interruption to the ancient calling & “sole duty” of the poet, which is “[l]’explication orphique de la Terre,” in a book that becomes by its very rhythm, “impersonnel et vivant, jusque dans sa pagination.”[xiv]
How then can the intrusion of the other into one’s own poetic space that Mouchard welcomes be productive for such an endeavor, how does it shape or inform the poet’s explanation of the world? Mallarmé nearly tells us this in Confrontation, where increasingly frequent encounters with workers in the field, digging holes in the earth beneath the morning sun, make him feel compelled to justify his presence. Thanks to the mute question “Toi que viens-tu faire ici?”[xv] formulated by the ditch digger’s gaze, the poet is able to establish his equality with him, showing that he too is somewhat removed from usual capitalist exchange, is not so much a proprietor as someone also paid to dig, create holes in, move around & process the earth’s resources, if not with his hands, with his head.
In Conflit, Mallarmé, having discovered a team of road-workers and well-drillers occupying part of an abandoned house in Valvins (which he does not own, but to which he customarily retreats to write), expresses his initial hesitations to still inhabit that “malheureuse demeure” in a countryside where solitude, once whole, is now “offended” by the laying of a train track. But by articulating his differences with these men in passages that include an actual insult, “Fumier!,” received from one of them, drunken & angered, as well as an imagined conversation between himself and the group, the poet ultimately reconciles his own need for quiet to work in the house and the noisiness of the workers, who need to rest, eat, and drink there too. And the “conflict” created by this chance-determined cohabitation is ultimately resolved, since the poem ends with quiet returning, the laborers having fallen asleep, succumbed (thru drink) to a pause & necessary pursuit of something beyond bread, & with the poet grateful, for his part, to be able to return to the elaboration of his own dreams, which he recognizes cannot be extricated from those of these soon to be considered anonymous workers.[xvi]
What Mouchard does by inviting those who have no work and no home into his house and making it in part theirs is extremely different, suggesting a world where the definition of differences that were still in place for Mallarmé, and in particular the notion that one, anyone, could speak for all, no longer pertains. Is this because, in a very global sense, others are always already inside any borders, including those of our own subjectivity, that can possibly be drawn?
How to begin? That is the question that Mouchard asks in the following pages, as he begins to draw for us a picture of just such a world, where solitude is still crucial, but essentially for explaining a fact that surely most contemporaries acknowledge: “to perceive oneself, [as] simple, infinitely on earth” today paradoxically requires representation of intimate and far-reaching communication with the other; global culture has evolved so that identity is always “imbricated.” Since this is true for all, all truths should perhaps be exchanged ones. Thus, in Mouchard’s recent poetic texts, we always find ourselves confronted with a voice that interrupts and fragments itself in the presence of at least one other voice, which owing to one form of alienation or another risks not being heard. The aim of Mouchard’s work is to make us hear that other voice, and through ruptures, interstices, and textual spaces that transpose real political and social differences, to bear witness to everything that has imposed these ruptures, and yet still emerges from their silences.
This infinite, open-ended dialogue, which the Notes capture in a deliberately partial way — Mouchard insists they should not be published as a whole and presents them serially, with occasional reworkings of certain passages, to prevent their mutation into a closed “work” —, reflects the poet’s deep concern with the central fact and dynamic of relations in human life, not only relations among people and texts, languages, and cultures, but also relations between the various states within the subject and thus the poetic self. The “other” within (like the other without) is not only shown, but warmly welcomed, given a home in Mouchard’s poetry, and this corresponds to a fundamental feature of the man.
“no,” says Ousmane: “this not-my-a-life.”
This striking feature of Mouchard’s Notes, which conceive of poetry as hospitality and as an ongoing debt to the lives and voices of others, appears all the more crucial when we recognize that their publication, or their emergence as creative works for others, has so closely accompanied the poet’s concrete day-to-day efforts to help a refugee from Darfur, actually retrieve a life that could be somehow partly his own, a worldly effort, which also implied a poetic process or a commitment of Mouchard’s whole person to explore and capture in the moment, in a kind of feuilleton, what this refugee’s life was along with his own and that of others.
If the internal and outer structure of the Notes can’t be wholly fixed, so as to retain their openness to the contingencies of life, the structure of the various fragments must be set to an important degree at the moment of publication in order to fulfill another aspect of their function, which is to welcome readers as well, and embrace them in the dynamic of a work-in-progress. The original open-ended movement of the work must be somehow preserved even as its parts are revisited and presented in print; lines must be drawn and redrawn in the sand, somehow conveying their own potential for displacement so as to ensure that they will be taken up again.
“WITH OUSMANE”: A SERIES?
Since his arrival here — July 2007 — “at home,” even his story has been a series which day after day I will have tried to follow with “notes.”
These notes have been enmeshed with what has happened, and doesn’t stop happening… Heterogeneous and jumping — under the impact of various and unexpected news. Enmeshed with decisions which life with O has demanded. Or “localizing”: insisting day after day on recreating and cautiously testing the “here and now.”[xvii]
The tragic truth of this “here and now” presented in the second Notes fragment below is that this man died of a sudden heart attack in the Spring of 2015, so that the poet is faced with entangling his last words with his own, and wondering whether and how he will be able to continue. Certainly he will, though the day-to-day notes recorded will have to embrace the words of other persons, as they already have begun doing. The only crucial change that occurs between the first and the second series of Notes presented here is that Mouchard no longer has to shield his friend’s identity. And so Ousmane, a fictional name (which, we learn in the first series, the refugee had chosen for himself), emerges as Khaled, true interlocutor of the poet, and co-author of the truth and value of his poems.
[i] Enchevêtrée, in Le Nouveau Commerce, n° 100 (1996) 47–67; Ici, Le Nouveau Commerce (1986); Perdre, 2nd ed. (Point-Hors-Ligne, 1989); Papiers! (Laurence Teper, 2007); “Du Darfour à la Loire avec Ousmane pour commencer,” in Po&sie, no 125 (2008) 113–123. The pages from this last text presented here comprise a minimally corrected and substantially abridged version.
[ii] Qui si je criais…? Œuvres-témoignages dans les tourmentes du XXe siècle (Laurence Teper, 2007); Chinese translation by Li Jinjia, Shui, zai wo huhan shi… ershi shiji de jianzheng wenxue (Qui, si je criais… Littérature de témoignage au 20e siècle) Shanghai, Presses Universitaires de l’Université Normale Supérieure de Huadong, March, 2015.
[iii] Stéphane Mallarmé, Divagations, in Œuvres complètes, II, ed. Bertrand Marchal (Gallimard, 2003) 277.
[iv] La Musique et les Lettres, OC II, 76.
[v] Mallarmé, preface for the 1897 Cosmopolis edition of Un coup de dés, in Œuvres complètes, II, ed. Marchal (Gallimard, 1998) 391.
[vi] For previous developments of ideas alluded to here, see my Performance in the Texts of Mallarmé: The Passage from Art to Ritual (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), and various articles: “Le dialogue suspendu: Mallarmé et sa postérité,” in Dialoguer. Un nouveau partage des voix, Études Théâtrales, Vol. II, n° 33 (2005) 19–29; “Parody and Metaphysics: Le Coup du ‘Livre,’” The Romanic Review, Vol. 93, n° 4 (2002) 445–456; “Apocalypse et modernisme: le Livre de la fin,” tr. by O.A. Duhl, Revue des sciences humaines, n° 234 (1994) 35–46.
[vii] OC II, 241.
[viii] OC I, 374.
[ix] Ibid., 385.
[x] These quotations from Mouchard’s Notes are not drawn from a previously published series; they are preparatory notes shared with me for a longer work, which may be combined or regathered with many others from the mass of over 1000 pages of notes taken on conversations with his friend, to be titled Avec Khaled.
[xi] OC II, 508–509.
[xii] Claude Mouchard: “Par le poème, il y a des événements qui ne cessent plus d’arriver,” interview with Patrice Beray, August 11, 2014. http://www.mediapart.fr/print/438793.
[xiii] OC II, 256.
[xiv] Autobiographical letter to Verlaine, 1885; OC I, 788.
[xv] OC II, 260.
[xvi] OC II, 104–109.
[xvii] This fragment comes from a series of Notes published in Poezibao (November 2012) under the title “Avec la peau d’une autre vie” (poezibao.typepad.com/poezibao/2012).