Treason. Poems by Hédi Kaddour. Translated by Marilyn Hacker. Yale University Press, 168 pp. 2010. Hédi Kaddour writes a verse with clear antecedents in the meditative, ironical poems of Baudelaire and Verlaine. If that dates him a bit, so be it. Kaddour’s poems enchant with their ability to retain an intonation we immediately associate with Romanticism and Symbolism, hardly “state of the art” these days, combined with a wry sense of how a poet of that tendency inhabits uneasily, or maybe at times breezily, our much less “poetic” world. The flâneur of today must live in a world where “a man declares / That buying books will soon become a clear / Sign of derangement, yes, insanity” (l’homme affirme / Que l’achat de livres sera bientôt un signe / De très forte aliénation mentale).
The world Kaddour’s poems partake of is a world where that possibility has always been the case inasmuch as “the Poet” has always been a figure of “très forte aliénation mentale” – a view that became commonplace after Romanticism, and, one suspects, Kaddour finds no reason to relinquish it. He wears that outlook, we might say, as a mask over the features of his more persistent strain of polite skepticism about the Poet’s grand sense of outsider status, the inspired “folie” that makes poetry possible in that tradition. “‘Save your tears,’ his mother told him early on, / ‘For more serious things.’ Poetry, / Grief contained by meter.” (“Garde tes larmes, disait très tôt la mère, / Pour des choses plus graves.” Poésie, le chagrin contenu par le mètre.)
Can this interplay with familiar territory in French verse come across in English? I have my doubts, but those are doubts of long-standing since French is simply too flexible to suffer transformation into English, so that translations tend to seem hamfisted in comparison. Take for instance a poem on the rather phallic bust of Verlaine in Jardin du Luxembourg: “Verlaine? He stands erect there on the grass, / Lyre and palm tree behind him, a bronze bust / Of Verlaine atop three good yards / Of cement prick around which writhe three / Unlikely Muses …” (Verlaine? Il est dressé sur l’herbe / Lyre et palme dans le dos, Verlaine, / En buste, au sommet de trois bons / Mètres de pine granitique où se tordent / D’improbables muses…). Kaddour’s “lyre et palme” references symbols for Apollo, but "palme" can simply mean the leaf, generally a symbol of success, the way we use the term "laurels," whereas "palm tree behind him" causes us to imagine an actual palm tree behind the statue which is a bit surprising, given that "dan le dos" suggests "on his back" as much as "behind him". And we lose that repetition of the great man’s name that Kaddour uses with a shrug as if to say “eh, Verlaine, as a bust” (with all the attendant irony at the spectacle) that “a bronze bust of Verlaine” cannot convey, simply a flat declaration of the object of the poem.
Which is to say that I’m very pleased that this edition contains the French on facing pages. Reading Hacker’s Kaddour without the French tended to leave me with very little impression of the tone of the poem. She renders faithfully enough the words of the poem, but even there I have my cavils, as for instance here in “The Double,” one of the denser poems. Kaddour says: C’est presque aussi la même folie de poussière / dans le même rayon de soleil; Hacker says: “It’s almost the same dusty madness / in the same sunbeam.” Literally the phrase is: madness of dust, not very felicitous but closer to what Kaddour wants: the image of dust motes in their “mad” dance in the sunbeam, a figure that I can’t find in “dusty madness” – which reminds me more of my unvacuumed desk.
Ultimately, all I’m pointing out is how hard it is to render the effect of verse like Kaddour’s in English. In French such effects may seem a bit staid, but I’m enough of a classicist in things French to appreciate the effort of these poems, most of which begin with lines that are rhetorically quite graceful. And every now and then there’s a jab of that Gallic spleen we expect from the French:
Knothead wears jeans knothead Wears blue he writes to be A writer writes that he is a writer And gets his pals to write That no one could be more a writer His photo says it all it’s the face Of a writer with a flair for writing.
Hédi Kaddour reads his poetry (in English) at the Whitney Humanities Center, Room 208, 53 Wall Street, New Haven, Wednesday, October 27th, 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.