Sunday, 18 November 2012

& then we vanish to become the book

Philip Harvey

This is the sixth in a series of pieces about the book in poetry released at this blogspot.

The French seem to have a relationship to language and books that others think enclosed. Whether you are an 18th century encyclopaedist striving to enclose all knowledge in a line of tomes, a 19th century academician pronouncing on what is not real enough French for dictionary inclusion, or a 20th century theorist fixated with the perpetual postponement of ‘closure’ in texts, you seem determined to treat books, and by extension libraries, as an end in themselves. This thinking, with its belief in rules and culturally correct style, has had a heavy influence on French word use, including French poetry. The symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé, for example, is renowned in France for saying, “all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book.”

This saying was made by someone living in a society surrounded by, educated by, determined even by books. It couldn’t be any other way. Such a saying would not occur to anyone living in a non-book culture. Translations of the Mallarmé saying differ, with another asserting even more outlandishly, ‘everything in the world exists in order to end up as a book.”  The truth of this saying will always be open to discredit; it makes one wonder about the exact extent of French irony. Are the French simply too ironic for their own good?

There are those who would get annoyed at my simple empirical dismissal of Stéphane Mallarmé’s saying. He is being rhetorical, not literal. He is concerned about our fix with the text, not anything outside the text. Certainly the saying raises powerfully in our minds the human desire to have the last word. Much of the written word is propelled by our interest in making definitive statements, in setting everything straight. So much of literature (and here I include science and medicine and psychology and all the disciplines) is about one author capping the work of previous authors, of being the person who gets it all down most accurately. A task of librarians is to keep up with the books that say it new, while preserving all the other ones that were doing the same thing. Even in theological libraries, where we have already been well warned that this is a “weariness of the flesh” of which there is no end, daily we have to be ready to spot the book that best contains “all earthly existence”, if only for the next seven days. There is the seven day wonder and there is the Sabbath to consider.

Stéphane Mallarmé himself confessed in his essay ‘The Book : A Spiritual Instrument’ of his saying that “I am the author of a statement to which there have been varying reactions, including praise and blame.” Nothing has changed in this respect, indeed whole conferences continue to be dedicated to the Mallarméan effect. If, as I think is right, we treat his proposition as a poetic springboard rather than a classical inscription on a plinth, let alone a rod to beat ourselves, or a call to bibliographical absolutism, then it may occasion linguistic and imaginative possibilities as yet undreamt.

The entire influence of modern French thought on American poetry will never find its way into print. Stéphane Mallarmé’s saying, though, seems to be an influence on the following untitled poem by David Meltzer, found in his collection ‘When I was a Poet’:

& then we vanish to become the book
which is our tomb

& then we vanish not within but beyond
all those photographs others remember
time with

the “we” is of course me

here in Ragas typeface

here sensing Death
the send of seeing
the book the page
the letter the word

easy enough
“tomb” & “womb”
no immortal
needs the Ouija
for that ah ha
clotted by layers
of wrong fuel & foods
building death within

yes, death
yes, da’ath
yes, the dot that
hits center
to unfold
& explode


The dot is very explicitly placed in the centre (Australian spelling) of the verse column, drawing attention to the unnamed cause of the poet’s death.

Meltzer himself was still alive when his poem was published by City Lights Books of San Francisco in 2011. He is staying calm about the stressful issue that confronts authors, and in particular poets, namely that the words chosen for remembering will become all that is remembered after the author has died. He wants to speak freely, knowing that this is his only chance. Accepting death, he still wants to be remembered for what he said. He even shakes the cage of words he has constructed, a cage made out of Ragas typeface, as though the font itself could speak to the future of the one and very especial David Meltzer. That he is actually speaking for all of us when he says “we” is reason enough to catalogue his book and place it at 811 (Dewey) on our shelves.

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