Michel Deguy

Two Poems, translated with an introductory note by Richard Rand

These two (exemplary) poems are typical of a corpus spanning sixty volumes of poetry, philosophy, and familiar essays (literary and political) over a period of six decades (1955 to 2015) — typical in the sense that Deguy alone could have imagined them.

In addition to his poetic labors, Michel Deguy has devoted a lifetime to university teaching and editorial enterprise (founding the quarterly journal Po&sie in 1977 and serving ever since as its editor-in-chief, while sitting as well on the boards of Critique and Les Temps Modernes). He has travelled the world for fifty years as a peripatetic diplomat of French literature (these two poems attest to that fact), and has authored major studies on du Bellay, Marivaux, and Baudelaire. Though highly respected in France and abroad (translations abounding in many languages), Deguy is not especially favored by the bigger organisms of French culture (the Collège de France, the Magazine littéraire, the Quinzaine littéraire, Le Monde

Here, then, are two poems concerning two cities, two towers, two bodies of water, and two currents of desolation. The first, "Europe in Lisbon", presents the Tower of Belem on the north bank of the Tagus, while the second, "September in New York", gives us the verbal equivalent (or apparition) of the Statue of Liberty (by way of a list-poem at the close). They wear their learning lightly: "Europe in Lisbon" turns on a line ("Una torre fabriqué/ del viento en la raridad") from a romance by Góngora ("Ciego que apuntas", 1580), and offers other, subtle salutes to Renaissance verse along the way (as in the vers rapportés at the close). It laments a lost poetic genre, the Renaissance love-lyric figured by the Tower ("turning our past into losses" is a byword of Deguy's).

"September in New York", a poem of mourning for a lost friend and a lost grandson, gives a wave of the hand to Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery, rising suddenly from a rather straightforward set of reminiscences at ground-level towards a complex set of intersecting crossbars on the vertical. We can only hint at the quickness (élan, wit, clarity, concentration) of Deguy's impassioned verse, as it enfolds historical and personal time into the time of poetic thought.

Original publications: "Europe à Lisbonne" in Arrêts fréquents (A. M. Métailié, 1990); "Septembre à New York" in Desolatio (Galilée, 2007).


Europe in Lisbon


Love from the prison of Love is “set free"
Behold There remains this beautiful void
of hollowed-out love This marble kerchief
a lover waved at the ocean waves
or a captive troubadour waved at a captive lover

Now speak of a castle of water petrified
The castle for a captain's watch
Prompting our Renaissance poets to think of a Feudal
Vow fulfilled by a prince fulfilling a verse of Gongora's
“A tower made of the wind in Rarity”

And now
The Tagus withdraws the carpet rolled at its feet
Knowledge too has withdrawn
Like an ebbing tide in a time of ignorant dryness
With labels foaming a froth of dates

From Belem's Tower to Stephen’s
I would not dismiss the sense of the visit
That our polyglot cultural ticket provides
Through the castle-keep I followed the house-keeper
Hired to keep this void so devoided

Knotting a ribbon of stone on the third-floor landing
Tidying up the turbans of stone, the shields of stone,
                      the sultan’s, the crusader’s
               to prepare the return
of Love that will not return


September in New York

For Raphael,
For Kenneth

The sea-wind lashes the publicity flags above the Metropolitan Museum steps, with the Egyptian show-room at their side. Clouds rise over the East River, merging with the contrails toward La Guardia; I am leaving the so-called “Splendid City,” the center of a very obvious social order, the apple of our concord. My host is dead, and my grandson will never have spent a few days here, never have kept the memory of the New World. I'm alone, on a mound of black granite in the Park, crying inside.

What's with me and New York? Like everyone else, I could live there, I'd love to live there. I always love to visit. This preference above all others is tempered by life in Paris. Responding several decades ago to an incipit of Michel Butor's declaring “I hate Paris,” I offered this counter-echo (friendly, of course): “I love Paris”.

If I didn't live in the heart of Paris, I'd choose New York. Like everyone else. If the whole world were polled tomorrow, half its inhabitants—three billion people—would dream of living in New York. No wonder Immigration is so arrogant.

By “New York,” we generally mean Manhattan, along with a piece of Brooklyn, a view of New Jersey across the Hudson, and the routes to three airports. Manhattan is the most highly valued “thing in the world” (a classic syntagm), the most “shown,” the most publicized. All over the globe, at all times, a thousand films, t.v. series, millions of spots, millions of posters, all kinds of advertisements, praise and sell New York—“Manhattan, New York, New York,” as the American post-office puts it—the global city.

Every year, I used to stay with Kenneth on Claremont Avenue, a short street on Columbia Heights, running parallel to Broadway and Riverside near the intersection of Broadway and 116th Street; sometimes coming from Buffalo or UCLA for the weekend , depending on the schedule of the University I was visiting.

Here I stop my story, because my New York is no different from yours. I have nothing to say unfamiliar to the foreigner going on foot. We would step out on Broadway, hailing yellow cabs, Haitian. Kenneth, the love-lorn bachelor; or we would drive his old Japanese car to Chinatown (where to park?), bagging our wine beforehand; we gorged on baguettes; or in Little Italy. I learned to switch subways, the local for the express, downtown; in the Public Library’s garden on 42nd Street, readers were warmed by the autumn sun. I listened to poets, or even took part in readings on St. Marks Place and Washington Square; I crossed the Square, southwest to northwest, to lunch with professors at NYU. I stood in line at Carnegie Hall, at the Met, at Lincoln Center; I listened to gospel singers on 125th Street, or to jazz at the Blue Note. I went down Broadway, an oblique bandolier, from the Cloisters to Battery Park, drinking expresso on Union Square or near Times Square (Martine and I loved the Gramercy Café); or, like the neighbors of Frick’s Palace, the amateurs of his collection, we would verify his Vermeers on Sundays, his Goyas, his Titians (Rembrandt! Turner! Dürer! Van Dyck! Piero!...). Then go with the flow down Fifth Avenue (with the Park Zoo to the right), down to the smell of manure on the Plaza.

I wanted to show New York to Raphael; I wanted to present Raphael to New York. For the past four or five years, I never went to New York without the hope of bringing him along; tried everything, within the limits that were set by his school-work and his chemotherapy.

I wanted to transmit New York to Raphael; I wanted to share his days of discovery, give him New York. Confide it to him, confiding in him. Next to him, arm in arm, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, waist to waist, ear to ear, nourishing his attachment with my own love for the city. Watching his affection start to grow, attaching him to the world in that way. And, if it had been possible (as indeed it would have been, for two or three years), having Kenneth along, the grand old poet of New York, my friend from New York, my host for forty years—taken away by leukemia, the bald terror.

And now Kenneth is dead, and Raphael is dead. And having not seen them this year, after two trips and a vacation, sadness in the middle of the street suddenly pulled me up by the stomach, flattened me like a centrifuge, flooded my eyes. Or, during lunch in the Village with the Harveys and François Noudelmann, chagrin gagged me, a bandana of tears readied me for my execution. In the clarity of the day after, sorrow fell from the sky; I was in the inner courtyard of the Spears’s house. Yes, a house in New York! On the corner of 5th Ave. and 9th Street, my very dream for Raphael. Or, more precisely, an improbable evening that no one would ever have dreamed of: André Spears had entrusted me with his house in the heart of the city; in the heart of this heart lies a garden, small, secret and open, closed in upon itself like Héloïse’s garden at Clarens — to be opened so. From there, I would have shown Raphael the streets of the campus, the city and the campus trading places, University Place, America, modern times. Alone, more or less devastated, I was at the foot of the night’s well, branches fanning across this private, interior, New York courtyard.

On the corner of University Place, perched at that kind of counter facing the street, always at an angle—tucked away in those celebrated nooks where, in earlier days, the long new-york bar (still there) would fill the pause for whiskey with smoke—we would have ingested a BLT (bacon lettuce tomato) while mimicking students bearing their cups, burgers, markers, baskets. In the unreality of a highly improbable, though not impossible, past, we would have joined Kenneth Koch on the other campus, on the Graeco-Roman steps where I once embraced Jacques Derrida, stepping out in a robe honoris causa. But the great Kenneth, New York’s poet, is dead.

The big “pomme”?
No. The palm of the hand,
the isthmus,
the great sky-scraper-bearer,
the palette, the grille, the grill

                 /the vertical, the incomparable
                 the new arrival in the city standing in the very
                 with Pan Am’s height right in the traffic
                 like stars descending a show’s staircase
                 or a surfer crouching on foot
                 in the city of axes / Thus /…/ I
                     hailed it
                 in a poem for John Ashbery/

the porteress
belted bristled
stream-cinctured bathed
pointed eleutherian
daughter of Arts and Arms & Laws

quadrilled                  orthogonal
tunnelled                   streaked
netted                        twisted
diastemic                   crossed
bisectress                  flownover

        her map in my pocket like
        the finger
        print of her enormous thumb

toweress                   torrified
turnedover                halfbreeder
journalist                  streetress

         her portable rotisseries
         on street corners
         with mustard for em-
         ployees one p.m.

joggeress                      paraderess
copter-chirperess         villageress
flic-ess                         delinquent
carred                           howling
the yellow of the cabs the blue of the cops
the siren’s alert
parkee                            enSundayed
sloped                            encompassed
centered                         green-lighted
enveloped                       purseress
big-binned                      discharged
musician                         musal

retiarian                           gulliverian
garrotted by bridges         grillings
suspended                        caged

                                         the muse



RICHARD RAND, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Alabama, has published translations of works by Jean Paulhan, Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Nancy. He also serves on the editorial board of the literary review Po&sie.