Quel est le lieu des morts,What are we to make of Yves Bonnefoy's poems? I have maybe perceived nothing at all of his meaning, with my meager French skills. But even the most careful reading brings little clarity: the poems seem to assemble a series of juxtapositions, of broken gestures and an eternally absent Toi. (Perhaps it is the same "you" to whom I always seem to address my own doggerel.) It is not difficult to detect a concern with speaking, with the appearance and disappearance of a voice, and with the unreachably distant but unimaginably powerful word. Bonnefoy might be to Derrida what Kafka was to Foucault.
Ont-ils droit comme nous à des chemins,
Parlent-ils, plus réels étant leurs mots,
Sont-ils l’esprit des feuillages ou des feuillages plus hauts ?
Phénix a-t’il construit pour eux un château,
Dressé pour eux une table ?
Le cri de quelque oiseau dans le feu de quelque arbre
Est-il l’espace où ils se pressent tous ?
Peut-être gisent-ils dans la feuille du lierre,
Leur parole défaite
Etant le port de la déchirure des feuilles, où la nuit vient.
- Yves Bonnefoy, "Le lieu des morts"
His 1965 Pierre écrite is thus particularly interesting. My conjecture is that it is a kind of homage to Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology: a travelogue to the places of the dead, where written stones, tombstones, announce each its own unenviable and incomprehensible fate. But Bonnefoy's approach marks a definite departure. For Masters, the name is a vital index to the person; the degraded tissue of Spoon River's communal life is woven out of references to names, each tomb/poem serving as the unimpeachable guarantee of its occupant's existence and right to a voice. Together, these links between name and identity allow the poet's world to exist.
For Bonnefoy, there are no names. Of all the words he uses to denote aspects of language (langage, parole, voix...), nom is the one he treats with the most care. We can see this especially in his first book, Du mouvement et de l'immobilité de Douve:
Je nommerai désert ce château due tu fus,And when the name is said with emphasis, it carries a special kind of seriousness:
Nuit cette voix, absence ton visage,
Et quand tu tomberas dans la terre stérile
Je nommerai néant l’éclair qui t’a porté ...
Je te nommerai guerre et je prendrai
Sur toi les libertés de la guerre ...
- "Vrai nom"
A chaque instant je te vois naitre, Douve.In Pierre écrite, Bonnefoy names no names, except the distant and disappeared Jean et Jeanne--the name of a house, even, not a person. One of his nameless stones describes a voyage--towards death?:
A chaque instant mourir.
- "Theatre," IV
Au centre de la lumière, j'abolisDeath is an abolition of the name, just as it is a renunciation of the audible voice. The stones are nameless, maybe, because they no longer have the right to a name, or the right to name. They are dead, fixed versions of the "Une voix" that appears throughout Bonnefoy's poetry. Is it his own voice? It never seems to speak from the same point of view; sometimes it is almost Proustian, as at the end of Pierre écrite, sometimes it is impassioned and bursting with vocatives. It seems always to be just coming into being, the text having caught it at the cusp of apparition. The stones have lost this quality, they always look back to death, they only speak in the many past tenses of the French language. Pierre écrite, the written stone: is it not also, in some sense, a petrified or petrifying voice turned into writing ("always already," in the now-tacky idiom)?
D'abord ma tête crevassée par le gaz
Mon nom ensuite avec tous pays,
Mes maines seules droites persistent.
En tète du cortège je suis tombé
Sans dieu, sans voix audible, sans péché,
Bête trinitaire criante.
Both "Lieu des morts" and the concluding narration of the voice emphasize one word: "feuille," or "feuillage." Leaf or foliage, yes; but also sheets of paper. The dead, with their "parole défaite," are condemned to rest upon the fallen leaves of writing. Bonnefoy always paints trees in his poems, almost as protagonists, and thus he must perceive the destiny of the doomed voice. It gets older, more petrified, inevitably. But was there ever a moment when it had yet not fallen? Would it ever even gain its name?