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FRANCIS PONGE EIGHT PROSE POEMS. The Dog. Following my own nose, I read a lot, and out of a sense of duty, do my utmost to think - scout's honour ...


The Dog Following my own nose, I read a lot, and out of a sense of duty, do my utmost to think - scout's honour - twice about these trails. Friends... , here you are... ! (If I've managed to express myself, I'll have a few readers.) (1924 - Pièces)

The Family of the Sage The sound of a fountain at night, under a bell of leaves, of the same tree against its trunk, cold and still - Father - that was your presence for us one day, in a cool room. You were cold, under a single sheet, veiled, one window open. What equilibrium, the four of us together, all seated without time, you yourself even better rested, stretched out, dead. What pure good health of the leaf-green, of earth and fluids. Steadily in us ran water in silence from the neck down the back incessantly to the limbs under grass. Through the mute window, a puff of wind, emptied out of the dark depths of the sky, wiped the sweat of the evening on the women's brows. And may a star also brighten, like your son's eye. Without saying so, you enjoyed this, Father! (1923 - Lyres)

The Final Simplicity Some years before the end of her life, our grandmother's flat had been reduced in size, deprived of its largest room for the sake of an enormous, red-faced widow. She now had three rooms left and occupied no more than a corner of each at a set hour. In her bedroom, disorder was restricted to the bed.

Her windows looked out over the tree-tops of a garden that was never damp, beneath a sky that was always clear but azure or periwinkle blue depending on the season; in winter, it was sometimes as pale as her little enamelled spittoon. … Hardly ruffled any more, the carpet in her sitting room. No more disorder in the bedroom, despite a few active hours. I sat there for some of the night, not far from a half-opened window. She no longer stirred, drawn up into the middle of the bed as much as possible. But then everything changed so quickly. In a few hours, the bedroom of the deceased becomes a kind of larder. Nothing much, noone there any more: except a kind of dross, a sort of foetus, an ashen baby one is no longer even remotely tempted to address - no more so than the brick-red baby emerging from the womb of a woman in labour. (1928 – Pièces)

The Telephone Apparatus From a portable cradle with a base of felt, depending on five metres of three kinds of cord which get entangled without detriment to the sound, a crustacean unhooks itself, humming brightly… while a metal cherry vibrates between the breasts of some siren under a rock… Every grotto endures the intrusion of a certain kind of laughter, the sombre and imperious fits of tinkling which comprise this instrument. (Another version) When a small, heavy, black rock, carrying its lobster as a snag, takes up residence, the house must endure the intrusion of a certain laughter and its sombre and imperious fits of tinkling. No doubt the laughter belongs to the dainty little siren whose two breasts have, at the same time, appeared in a dark corner of the corridor; who produces her call by means of the vibration of the little nickel cherry dangling between those breasts. The lobster immediately trembles on its cradle. You must now unhook it : it has something to say, or wants to be reassured by your voice. At other times, the provocation comes from you yourself. For instance, when you are tempted by the sensuously satisfying contrast between the lightness of the receiver and the weight of the cradle. Once the crustacean has been unhooked, what magic it is then to hear the cheerful humming which tells you that the countless electric veins of all the cities in the world are ready for the slightest whim of your ear! Now we must turn the moveable dial and, having noted the imperious ringing which perforates your patient, wait for the renowned click communicating his complaint, which is immediately transformed into affectionate or formal pleasantries. .. But this is where the prodigies end and a banal comedy begins. (1939 - Pièces)

Mistletoe Mistletoe bird-lime: a sort of Nordic mimosa, a mimosa of the mists. It's a water-plant, atmospheric water, that is. Propellor blades for leaves and sticky beads for berries. Tapioca swelling in the fog. Starch paste. Curds. Amphibious vegetation. Seaweed floating as high as the scarfs of fog, as the wisps of mist. Flotsam caught in the branches of trees, at the low-water mark of the mists of December. (1941 - Pieces)

Bread The surface of bread is marvellous first of all because of the almost panoramic impression it creates: as if you had the Alps, the Taurus mountains or the chain of the Andes at your fingertips and your disposal. And so an amorphous, eructating mass was slipped into the stellar oven for us, where it hardened and was transformed into valleys, crests, rolling hills, crevasses... And all these planes, then, with such clean joints, these thin slabs where the light beds its fires, concentrating, focused - without so much as a glance at the base substratum of flaccid matter. This slack and frigid subsoil called the crumb has a texture similar to that of the sponge: here leaves or flowers are like Siamese twins all joined together at the elbows at once. When the bread goes stale, these flowers fade and wither: they then separate from each other, and the mass becomes friable... But let's break it off here: for the bread in our mouths should be less an object of respect than one of consumption. (Le Parti pris des chases, 1942)

Moss The patrols of vegetation came to a halt once on the stupefied rocks. A thousand little rods of silken velvet then sat down crosslegged. Consequently, with the visible crinkling of the moss as it clings to the bare rock with its lictors, everything alive, caught in an inextricable jam and locked in underneath, panics, stamps its foot, suffocates.

And there is more ; the hairs have grown; in time everything has become even darker than before.

Ah, the anxieties of hairs as they get longer and longer! The deep carpets at prayer when you sit on them, are springing back up today with confused aspirations. Thus, not only suffocation but drowning has occurred. Now, when saturation point is reached, it becomes possible quite simply to scalp, from the old austere and solid rock, these strips of sponge-cloth, these damp door-mats. (Le Parti pris des choses, 1942)

The Ass (L'ane) The ass holds on to one end of the line and refuses to budge from the word go. It's no good dragging him by the article, cracking the apostrophe above him, He stands fast for as long as it takes, buttressed under the circumflex accent - so this is how he spites you, enrages you; worse still, ridicules you And suddenly, when nothing more is asked of him, he finally gives in. This kind of scaled-down horse, somewhere between a horse and a rabbit - he's to the horse what the rabbit is to the hare, except that they've swapped ears Has capital ears only, he's modest if anything, finding it hard to get going, But sometimes, if the load is not too heavy, he's apt to break into a very lively trot. Even so, if you're in a long shirt, don't go and - hoping to transfer his innocence to yourself Mount him, your legs dangling, trailing even, And bend his spine. You would be punished for it, scarcely a few days later. 'My god! My god!' you might cry. And the god of all true innocents would then forsake you. The god of beasts and things - and, for example, bread and wine, Which won't allow themselves to be reduced to the state of symbols any longer. But let's come back to our scapegoat. A fool always finds a bigger fool to make a martyr of him. What a disgrace, to mount an ass! Why not mount a rabbit! (1959-1974) Francis Ponge, by translator Ted Jenner

Francis Ponge (1899-1988), the poet of commonplace objects, took the side of 'things' (telephone, olives, swallows, shrimp, snail, washing machine, spider, pebble, etc. etc.) and gave these mute entities a voice as both their 'ambassador' and their 'hostage'. Their 'hostage' because only in the presence of such things could he readily discover something fundamental about the human condition. But there is also an important linguistic dimension to this relationship with things. Confronted with the problem of describing a mollusc, say, the poet is forced to fall back on analogies which often tell us as much, if not more, about himself. Writing about things for Ponge, then, tended to be a means of saying something about himself, his language and his humanity in general. For his critic, Alain Robbe-Grillet, however, it meant that things were no more than 'mirrors endlessly reflecting man's own image'. Ironically enough, Ponge's intention to show material objects being filtered through a subjectivity bears a close relationship to Robbe-Grillet's in those deceptively precise descriptions of things (erasers, for example, or a crushed centipede) that occur throughout his early novels. But a prose poem by Ponge is more than the presentation of an object as presented by a mind. It can also be a record of the poet's struggle to express the object in all its density, in all its essentially unfathomable 'thingness'. Ponge once wrote about making a text 'which resembles an apple' (e.g.) 'with as much reality as an apple ... only made out of words'. Ideally, the text should be an artefact with as much presence as its referrent; it should be something like a linguistic field of force in which multiple images, deliberate ambiguities, etymological puns, and even references to the shape of a word on the page, combine to express both an object of equivalent density in language, and (the Mallarméan paradox) draw attention to a writer, a subjectivity, grappling with the problems of expression. Not all the poems concern plants, animals, and inanimate objects; Ponge can write elegaically about human events (the death of his father, or the execution of the Resistance hero, Rene Leynaud). What they almost all have in common, however, whether they are the long, rambling, exploratory 'open' texts or the shorter, carefully controlled 'closed' texts, is the theme of language: the opacity, the density, and the materiality of the mother tongue; words as another kind of 'exterior world' so conditioning our perceptions that it becomes possible to assert that 'everything is language'. The notions are familiar now and were expanded by Sollers and the Tel Quel Structuralists into the 'death of the author' theory, which Ponge regarded as nothing more than dogmatic neo-scholasticism. To the ascendancy of reader over author, he preferred to see both co-existing in a dialectical relationship with the text; or, as he put it in For a Malherbe: 'Since you are reading me, dear reader, therefore I am'. The poems translated in this selection are from Le Parti pris des choses ('On the side of things'), Gallimard, 1942; Lyres and Pièces in Le Grand Recueil, Gallimard, 1962. 'The Ass' was published in Digraphe 8 (1976). Note: in 'The Telephone Apparatus', the lobster might be traced back to Dali's 1936 Lobster-Telephone. (The 'dainty siren', after all, seems to spring out of Mallarme's 'Un coup de des... '). On the other hand, telephones in the '30s had receivers with curved, elongated guards on the mouthpiece, hence the general resemblance of the receiver to the crustacean.