Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Bibliophile, by Max Jacob

Philip Harvey

Le Bibliophile

La reliure du livre est un grillage doré qui retient prisonniers des cacatoès aux mille couleurs, des bateux dont les voiles sont des timbres-poste, des sultanes qui ont des paradis sur la tête pour montrer qu’elles sont très riches. Le livre retient prisonnières des heroines qui sont trés pauvres, des bateaux à vapeur qui sont trés noirs et de pauvres moineaux gris. L’auteur est une tête prisonnière d’un grand mur blanc (je fais allusion au plastron de sa chemise.)

This enigmatic prose poem was written by Max Jacob sometime in the first half of the twentieth century. It is an entertainment, not unlike the writings of Dame Edith Sitwell living across the Channel in England at the same time. It is an artful diversion for the bohemian salons Jacob visited in the years before it was risky in Paris to be a cubist-surrealist and a Jew. The Francophile poet John Ashbery has made this translation, complete with American spellings.

The binding of the book is gilt wire mesh which imprisons cockatoos of a thousand colors, boats whose sails are postage stamps, sultanas with bird-of-paradise feathers on their heads to show that they are very rich. The book imprisons heroines who are very poor, steamboats which are very black and poor grey sparrows. The author is a head imprisoned by a great white wall (I allude to his shirtfront).

The book is commonly regarded as a liberating cultural creation, not so frequently as  a prison. We like to think of the book sharing its riches and find puzzling the idea that here the book holds back its gifts. Even the author lives in some kind of prison, or his head does anyway. While the ‘gilt wire mesh’ contains various exotic and unusual things that we may admire while they are on show, we are left with an unsettling sense that the book as object is here presented as a constricting control mechanism with no known means of escape.

What a curious Parisian poem! Would an inward incarcerated Bastille not require a revolutionary act? Would the ill-gotten gains of a cruel empire not ask to be set free again so they could return home? Would a decadent Paris fallen under foreign occupation not desire liberation, if it were the last thing on earth? Is life inside a golden cage containing every marvel known to world exploration still, after all, life in a golden cage? Rich and poor, old and new, exotic and local exist side-by-side in awkward juxtaposition.

Perhaps the poem is a satire directed at an unnamed author, but time has rendered any such secret meaning obsolete. We treat the author in the poem as a type, a kind of role player who must play out his part in a slightly absurd cultural game. Maybe the author is Max Jacob himself. If so, then the poem may be read as self-mocking. His relationship with his book is one of shared imprisonment: they are trapped together and cannot escape the implications of their shared existence as ‘a great white wall’.

Is the author in the poem the same person as the bibliophile of the title? On face value we assume this to be the case, but if not then the poem takes on other meanings as well. For indeed, the aesthetic and collecting habits of a bibliophile may well be those of capture and imprisonment, where the purposes of the book maker are secondary to the bibliophile’s purposes. The poem gives little away in this respect and all we can do is contemplate the possibilities.

John Ashbery would not have been aware of the meaning of the sporting Australianism ‘shirtfront’ when he worked on this poem, anymore than the Prime Minister of Australia when this year he threatened to shirtfront the President of Russia. Such political farce could well have been working material for a Max Jacob poem. Shirtfront in the translation is a contraction of a much longer phrase in the original, ‘plastron de sa chemise’, which sneaks in at the end but is critical to our understanding of the whole poem. In some ways the poem devolves to the word ‘plastron’ which doesn’t just mean, as in English, shirtfront, but has implications of being a breastplate, even a jacket that keeps everything in check. When an inmate wears a ‘plastron de sa chemise’ we imagine he may even be in fact wearing a straitjacket. Or perhaps we are being told he is stuff-shirt?

We are amused by the idea that the author of a book is imprisoned by ‘a great white wall’. We think of the wall as the white page that may simultaneously be his outward expression, but also the very fact that defines and restricts him. This thought passes through our minds, until we are told (in brackets) that Jacob refers to the shirt worn by the author. We picture Buster Keaton or similar figure of the period, locked absurdly into the very garment that should make him liberated but in fact permanently entraps him.        

Max Jacob leaves his enigmatic book for our amusement, or puzzlement, or frustration. We begin making up stories about the fascinating things imprisoned inside his book, just as we do when spending time over a box by Joseph Cornell. We wonder if the women ever met, where the ships sailed, and whether the birds’ descendants are still picking away to their hearts’ content. And why.

This is the sixteenth in a series of essays about the book in poetry, first released at this site.

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