Valerie Rouzeau Pas revoir – Cold Spring in Winter translated by Susan Wicks; Arc Publications

Pas revoir, Valerie Rouzeau’s brilliant sequence of poems on the death of her father, is challenging in many ways and on many levels. The linguistic demands posed by its verbal dislocations and fragmentations, its allusiveness, and multiple lexical ambiguities would have put it completely out of reach of my French if I’d attempted to read it without the support of Susan Wicks’ translation. With her support, I’ve been able to appreciate beauties in the original which she has not been able to render into English – which is, after all, the point of a parallel text translation. For example, the poems of Pas revoir are set out as prose, but it’s striking how often their internal rhymes act as a kind of punctuation, unobtrusively shaping  their sentences into rhythmic phrases so that they seem to contain within themselves elusive suggestions of poetic form, making a strong impact as you read but dissolving as you look at them closely. These intimations of form suggest emphases of meaning. In the poem beginning “Ce n’est toujours pas toi ce cadavre” the rhyming of the repeated “toi” against “comme ça” and “si courtois” cruelly underlines the contrast between the person that the father was and the mere thing that he has been unmade into by death:

Ce n’est toujours pas toi ce cadavre
comme si toi tu aurais tenu en place
comme ça comme si tu ne savais plus
dire bonjour toi si courtois.

Wicks is alert to this strategy and elsewhere she has created similar effects herself, though rhyming different words and so creating her own different emphases.

Clearly there are delicacies of meaning that elude translation. In that last stanza, Wicks can capture the poignant understatement of “comme si” (“as if”) but not the multiple suggestions of “tu ne savais plus”, which she translates as “couldn’t bring yourself to”, which is fine, but leaves out “could no longer” and “no longer knew how to”. To my mind this last meaning is particularly touching because in echoing the baby talk by which Rouzeau so frequently conveys the depth of loss brought by her father’s death, it makes us imagine her as a child pitying and understanding another child’s incapacity, and this evokes the tenderness of her feelings for her father.

If there are inevitably losses in translation, there are equally gains, reflecting the translator’s own creativity. Wicks translates “Ce n’est toujours pas toi ce cadavre” as “It’s still not you this corpse”. In the spirit of Rouzeau’s method of writing, in which omission of punctuation within the sentence / stanza units creates multiple overlapping syntactical relationships, that reads both as a single unpunctuated phrase (“even now this corpse is not you”) and as a pausing one: “It’s still, not you, this corpse”. This gives a double meaning to “still” which has no direct equivalent in the French but which distils the essential meaning of the whole poem: that death has robbed the father of all the movement and social warmth he had in life. This seems typical of the way in which close collaboration between the two poets in the development of this translation has allowed Wicks to breathe the life of English into a French poem while remaining true to its author’s intentions.

The linguistic dislocations with which the sequence begins suggest Rouzeau’s shock, emotional splintering, inability to absorb or accept what has happened. Frequent lapses into baby talk convincingly convey what a blow to her developed sense of self this is. As the sequence draws to an end, the language clarifies and simplifies, beautifully embodying the writer’s painful acceptance of death, her recovered sense of her own self and life, and her recovered ability to interact with and enjoy the world around her.  This sequence is equally important for its rich human truth and for its verbal and formal originality, and it is so both in Rouzeau’s original French and in Susan Wicks’ fine translation.

I would like to thank the editors of the Manchester Review for their permission to use this piece, which I wrote for them, and to thank Ian Pople in particular for putting Rouzeau my way.

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