LYRIC COMPANION Philippe Jaccottet/Mahon “Airs”

Each flower is a little night / pretending to draw near //But where its scent rises / I cannot hope to enter / which is why it bothers me / so much and why I sit so long / before this closed door // Each color, each incarnation / begins where the eyes stop // This world is merely the tip / of an unseen conflagration

from Selected Poems, translated by Derek Mahon (Wake Forest University Press, 1988)

FRAME of REFERENCE In the charged field of aesthetic happening, the most useful thing might be the art of a sacred magic that enters into the fluid porosity between the human and the divine. What is “useful” in this field has an aesthetic charge that cannot be separated from the sacred and the beneficences and the curses of the powers on us. WILLIAM DESMOND The Intimate Universal, p. 269.

In his preface to his Selected translations of Jaccottet’s poems, Derek Mahon contrasts the poet’s presuppositions with those of Samuel Beckett. In “Airs,” the book from which our poem has been selected, Jaccottet says, “To start from nothing, that’s my rule. Everything else is distant smoke.” Beckett, however, said that the poet must accept his fundamental lack, “ failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion.” Mahon concludes that they share the presupposition that they have almost nothing to say, but finds Beckett too systematic and anyway, unlike Beckett, Jaccottet is in love with the earth.

This comparison amounts to a mini-dialogue about nihilism and the many shades of gray. But the stark difference is clear to Mahon: Jaccottet starts with the lack,the nothing. His love of the earth makes a big difference. Mahon’s pithy discussion draws on the biblical narrative of Genesis: creation from nothing, the difference, the lack, the love.

The poem itself reconfigures the Genesis narrative at several removes, but Mahon is not wrong to situate the poem in the contrast with Beckett. The poem opens with a thumbnail of the poet sitting mute in front of a flower which has cast a spell on him. (See the FRAME of REFERENCE.) Mahon’s superb ear translates something of the original’s light touch and its rhythmic play between the syntax and the line length.

It’s important to read this small poem aloud to come under the sway of its scope and dimensions.

The opening couplet involves us in an insuperable, an “existential,” difference. The flower only “pretends” to close the distance between the poet and itself. The descent into the frustration and resentment on the side of the poet is vigorously expressed in the middle stanzas. The final figure of “the closed door” has the crispness of the opening image, woven of essential “is” and personification. Unlike the opening, this middle draws on the original myth of origin: “toute vie” begins where our appreciative glance stops. The flower is closed to our affectionate regard.

Mahon emphasizes the Ur-myth of the Biblical / Christian origin story by translating “toute vie” as “each incarnation.” This is in line with his conclusion that Jaccottet “is in love with the earth.” And so we have reached the turn of the poem. We can’t go on. Color, that inexplicable dimension of things that often articulates the differentiating beauty of the individual, is a tease, a bad cosmic joke.

Nihilism is the only word for it. The ardor of his love and the depths of his wretchedness as a spurned lover yield to a compact universalizing image: framed by the distinction “seen/unseen” the image of the depths of the world as a fiery chaos draws on Nietzsche’s myth of Dionysus, to mention only one version of the “Nothing” which is really, it would seem, Everything . And yet the poet’s love of the beauty of this world sustains his patient loyalty to this incomprehensible finite other (Beauty).

Thus the lyric narrative comes to a resolution OUTside itself— other than thought; the “thought,” which is smartly expressed in the traditional image of the fire beneath the surface, does not exhaust the Eros of the poet.

Author: Tom D'Evelyn

Tom D'Evelyn is a private editor and writing tutor in Cranston RI and, thanks to the web, across the US and in the UK. He can be reached at D'Evelyn has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Berkeley. Before retiring he held positions at The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard University Press, Boston University and Brown University. He ran a literary agency for ten years, publishing books by Leonard Nathan and Arthur Quinn, among others. Before moving to Portland OR he was managing editor at Single Island Press, Portsmouth NH. He blogs at and other sites.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: