To Each Unfolding Leaf: Selected Poems (1976-2015)

Pierre Voélin
Translated by John Taylor
Bitter Oleander Press ($25)

by Greg Bem

Nothing more born on your lips
neither words nor the tress of screams
no breath
save the astonished shadows
the unstitched thread of the violets

("In a Hay Meadow" Words and Famine, 1995)

This first major collection of English translations of Pierre Voélin's poetry is monumental. Translator John Taylor shows himself capable of taking these works in their original French and, through impressive translation, reinvigorating their mental and lyrical capabilities. Here, the voices of the poet observantly command a landscape of promise and distillation, of past and present. These are works of statement and presence and trust. Despite countless contexts and a sprawling range of subject matter, To Each Unfolding Leaf is primarily about existence as fully lived and fully received, exquisitely open yet vulnerable and bruised. These poems hold many faces, and carry the weight of lineages followed and embraced by the poet.

How do these lineages become represented, though? As a poem describing and commenting on the tragic final moments of Paul Celan demonstrates, there is a timeless full stop in Voélin and his determinations:

Off goes the star to the grass
and the poet on the bank stands speechless

No more shortcuts are left
The curious earth is cooling
at his ankles

Once again he opens the black pages of the nettle
before a river suddenly sweeps him away

("Night of November First," from The Calmed Woods, 1987)

Heightened by a slow, simple language juxtaposed with symbolic frames and images, the subtext of this poem, like the bulk of Voélin's poems, holds a deep capacity, bridging the qualms and quirks of in-between and often-unheard. All of this before the swoop and the sweep moves the reader to the next iteration.

Along with exasperation and release, there is a deep, unmistakable, and profound empathy traceable from book to book, sequence to sequence, breath to breath, line to line. Voélin follows in the footsteps and carries forward the energy of those writers whom he praises, acknowledges, mourns: from Celan to Char, Chappuis to Dickinson, Mandelstam to Bishop, and many others, including some of his contemporaries, there is a networked resolve of compassion vibrating out of these concise tides of conjoined bravado and humility. Poems are charged with the brilliant light and decay of universal awareness as it plays out in the days and travels of our poet. Balancing an aesthetic of philosophy and a range of scaffolded imagism and surrealist play, these works approach the end-death and the lack of existence-just as they approach the rebeginning, the retaining of memories of activity and action. The concept of nothingness feels futile here; there is burst upon burst of rejuvenation and recitation:

and then the dead-enveloped in bark
those who die in the peat
or stick to the sap

I seek the language of memory
we listen to it-it is feverish-it straightens itself up

("A Squawking Sky," from Voices in the Other Language, 2015)

Life and its boundaries, capable of a personalized yet open crystallization, are described in full here, from the minute to the macrocosmic. The individual moment, experienced through feelings of urgency, simultaneity, and awe, is a moment precisely spoken for and through with a language of angled mirrors. This writing is deeply personal and spirited, but it is infestation too, at once a blessing and burden to the outsider.

As with many of his French-language translations, Taylor offers readers an extraordinary opportunity here. As he describes in his significant introduction, this project has been one of friendship, exploration, and a commitment to the emotional and intentional core of the original works, paying respect to the ideas and the original language in unison. Channeling these many fine lines covering the themes of loss and intimate memory as described above, Taylor's translated realms of Voélin find an appropriate binding in their book-length presentation. The voice of Voélin, its varied tones appreciated, finds a home and homeliness in the English portal of Taylor's craft. An excessive but valuable body of research, both in the book's introduction and in footnotes, provides explanation and authority to the poems and their own intimate histories, many the result of Taylor's own meetings with the poet.

It is fortunate that such collaborations have successfully allowed the transcription into English of so much of this extraordinary poet. The book feels full, rich, overflowing, and yet the collection brings together just eight of the author's published and unpublished books, most but not all in full display. The door remains open for what will hopefully be continued gifts of Voélin's poetry to audiences of the English language.

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