Jean Grosjean
Translated by Keith Waldrop
Burning Deck ($14)

by Mark Tursi

It's difficult not to read Jean Grosjean's first book Terre du temps (An Earth of Time), recently translated by Keith Waldrop, without considering the author's struggle with religion and his personal relationship to God. The editor's note at the end of the collection tells us Grosjean was a Roman Catholic priest who wrote this book while incarcerated in a Nazi stalag during World War II. Four years after the book's publication in 1946, Grosjean left the priesthood. So much of Grosjean's personal history and the context in which these poems were written insinuates itself on any reading of the text. This means filtering each section of the book via notions of captivity vs. freedom, human suffering versus love, transcendence versus fallibility, and religious faith versus doubt.

The book certainly does engage these issues, often beautifully, as in the poem "Labor," where the title phrase first appears: "Reading the eternal under open skies, you carve out an earth of time. Father, your son aspires no higher than your shadow." Throughout, issues regarding spirituality and love for God are pervasive. Grosjean is undaunted about showing his passion and exuberance for God's creations: "Herds of clouds coursed the sky. And we drank draughts of a wilderness milk. Our limbs lively in the heat of the day. Who is it kindles the highlands?—The mountain twists in guffaws of gold." However, even as many poems ring with similar enthusiasm and often celebrate the sacred quality of nature, there always seems to be an implicit or embedded kind of irony in this glorification; for example, the passage quoted above is, interestingly and incongruously, from a poem titled "Exile."

An Earth of Time also features interesting re-workings of biblical stories about major figures from Adam and Moses to Solomon and Job, where Grosjean seems to delve into the individual psyches of each figure in order to reveal the inner landscape of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Under most circumstances this would mean an undertaking so filled with gravitas, the weight of it would smother the reader. Via the poetry of Grosjean, however, it often seems like a light and airy romp through a summer meadow. The metaphor here is quite intentional, since many of the poems rely on natural imagery—the wondrous creations of God as Grosjean would have it—to reveal both inner emotion and the outward manifestations of humankind's response to the divine. In an epistolary poem titled "Samson," the author makes an obvious and explicit allusion to the Samson and Delilah story, but he renders the reference so deftly and subtly that the beauty of the images supplants the biblical implications: "Your lip on my eyelid like a dragon-fly on gorse . . . World, your smile is lost on me when given to everybody. Since you look at me as you look at foliage, I know how your cornea is constructed.—And I remain subject to your rolling gait!" It is not that the religious narrative is forgotten or rejected; rather, the imagery seems to create a more potent and boundless resonance.

Even with the ubiquity of biblical allusions and the important historical and personal context in which the book was written, these aspects are not the most powerful and engaging moments in the book. Even as the editor's note and the titles of the poems (e.g. "Creation," "Sin," "Adam," "Job," "Solomon") encourage us to read for biblical and religious connections, the most enthralling and interesting aspects of Grosjean's work is his imagery and the beauty of his language. He describes love, for instance, in this way: "A bird flies past. It's his shadow you see pass across you. // The traveler has arrived when he thinks he has never been elsewhere. Rose whose scent, fading, catches my breath." Again and again, Grosjean surprises and delights the reader with juxtapositions and imagery so unique and unexpected they broach surrealism: "Your countenance, moon, is detached from the horizon, the reverse of a falling apple.—Alone, arms in branches, mouth in the uncertain foliage, expelled from my body's hometown. // . . . The fig tree, inspired, shakes down the last star."

Though strewn with often delicate and stunning imagery, the book certainly does not lack in unsettling and even grotesque moments: "My dead sisters, like dessicated [sic] frogs, rush towards me, scenting carrion." Or in a scathingly satirical piece, again an epistolary poem—this time from David to Jonathan, two controversial figures who some biblical scholars believe may have been gay lovers—he writes, "I should piss the Southern Cross into a puddle? If that's all there is, I'll do it, but without putting my heart into it. Cigarettes." By mixing ancient biblical references with the objects and events of contemporary, day-to-day life, Grosjean seems capable of bridging past and present, religious and secular, myth and reality, comic and tragic.

Not surprisingly, some of the most disturbing imagery appears in the "Job" series of poems. The name "Job"—literally "hostility" in Hebrew—is consistent with its namesake. The Book of Job is often considered the most complex book of the Old Testament and involves an attempt to explain and reconcile the presence of evil in the world. It is in these poems that Grosjean seems to struggle most with humankind's relationship to God and, in fact, his own doubts and reservations about transcendence: "I was pulling the universe's sparkling van. But too many ragged hopes in childhood shanties have dried in their tracks. . . . // The louis d'or that, kneeling, I milked from past situations and toss to the clouds are nothing now but suns of stillborn worlds."

Moments of angst are contrasted with moments of joy throughout. Although uncertainty is pervasive, Grosjean seems able to find solace in human grace and nature: "Oar broken on the bank among pippins. Bleating with my valley echoes, this Mongolian overconfident of my fluency. But you, you put heliotrope in my sash before the wind rises. . . . // All I can do now is play the clown on the bridge to light your eyes momentarily." Once again, the exuberance is tempered by doubt, even fear, and happiness seems fleeting or at least coupled with trepidation: "Heart, absolute, that must have a son, your love exists only if it is returned. Sacred horror. Abyss on high, Father of God, what is this world but the print of your face running with tears." Grosjean's relationship between human subject and the objects of reality are often tenuous but are almost always connected to a deeper spirituality. The final instance where the title phrase appears provides a hint at this connection: "The facets of creation vanish in proportion as the zenith weighs and wakes in me. But the earth of time is yours, perfumer. Your seeds fill with stars the space with which you satisfied me." Or in "Jonah 6," he writes, "All the trees flowering, far into far off skies. Unexpected. Perhaps it's snow, but warm and scented. . . . There are days when matter is nothing more than spirit moving." This connection between matter and spirit, Grosjean constantly reminds us, is made possible in and through language, which for him is often synonymous with wisdom, knowledge or sin. But, ultimately, it is love and a connection to God via nature that allows humankind to transcend even the prison house of language: "In order to hear Love breathe, I sometimes hold back my Sentence. It is snowing."

Grosjean's paradigm is clearly Christian, but that doesn't make it easy to quantify his complex cosmology. One might suggest that Grosjean's project is the same as what is often said of Milton's Paradise Lost: he wrote it presumably to justify the ways of God to man, but he ends up explaining the ways of man to God. Certainly, the impulse exists: "God gives and God takes. A mad storm has carried off the house. Adam is astonished and Job sings. I fear your gifts, now that I know your ways. But woe is me if I disdain the windflowers. // Mankind is face and is music, at once poem like a peach—topping the fines, adorned in triumph—and agonized solitary monologue in the garden. Mankind, fatherland of men, the rest is exile." But there is simply too much trepidation, uncertainty, and despair in Grosjean for vindication or explanation for these to be his modus operandi. It is human experience in all its angst and glory that grounds Grosjean's spirituality and his poetics. He is more interested in the space between phenomena—e.g. "getting and giving," absence and presence, nature and God, grace and sin, chance and order—than he is in pinning down certainties about reality or the divine. And, it is always in the beauty of language linked to nature where one finds Grosjean's ultimate resolve: "The sage studies only function, but cannot get around chance. A globe is being raffled off in the sky. It's the first thing one notices. . . . // Glissando and ritournelle—I invented music in order to be alone. With you, I mean, fury of old Chronos and soft moth against my cheek."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2006 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2006