My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Reverdy
So writes Frank O’Hara in, “A Step Away From Them.” Pierre Reverdy was widely admired by New York poets in the mid 20th century, including O’Hara, Kenneth Rexroth, and John Ashbery. They loved his work. They translated it. Did they truly understand it?
Reverdy is mysterious. He writes carefully, slowly, repetitively. He follows strong, internal rhyme schemes and builds atmosphere cinematically. He is a master mason, stacking word upon word into a beautiful structure. He produces what he calls a “purely artistic emotion,” in which the images are stripped of context so they can shine as pure language. They have no concrete meaning that has not been given to them by the poem itself. Reverdy seeks primitive purity, and here his writing reveals more about his own soul than he is perhaps comfortable admitting. After all, his poetry is full of walls, barriers, closed rooms, and his own literal journey is to arrive in the shadow of a walled monastery.
Before this, though, he spends his time in 1920s Paris, mixing with all manner of new aesthetic movements. He is often associated with the Cubist movement in art, and certainly he works closely with the Cubists for several years including founding Nord-Sud, a magazine dedicated to Cubist theory but, honestly, his poems reach far beyond Cubist aesthetics, springing from a far deeper spiritual source and achieving a far more coherent form. He denies, for what it’s worth, that he’s a Cubist poet.
In any case, his work is soon enough claimed by the Surrealists. In 1924, Andre Breton writes in his “First Manifesto of Surrealism,” about how, “In those days, a man, at least as boring as I, Pierre Reverdy, wrote: The image is a pure creation of the mind. It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less remote realities. The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is remote and true, the stronger the image – the greater its emotive power and poetic reality..etc. (Nord-Sud, March 1918)”
Breton is correct that Reverdy uses startling pairings of images that aren’t used to modify each other so much as to create a secret language shared only between themselves, a hidden fruit, a spark that tingles and yet has a fleetingly haunted existence. Comparison kills the reality and leaves it dead on the page. There is no comparison in Reverdy, but at the same time, he seeks not create absurdist, pre-intellectual realities but to simply make space, close his eyes, and spy a wider reality. He isn’t proving a theoretical point, he’s trying to escape a dark room, he’s fighting for his life. In any case, he does not describe himself as a Surrealist.
Reverdy is a poet, sui generis, as all the great poets are. He refuses to date his poems or include any biographical information. The images conveyed are to be all the context a reader requires. He is said to pray often, “Let me never be well-known,” and strives to, “become boring.” I hope he will forgive me both for saying a little about him as a person and for urging that he, in fact, deserves to be very well-known.
By 1926, many of the biographies I’ve read speculate that he is suffering from a recent, alleged break-up with Coco Chanel, with whom he is said to have had an intense liason. He loses his mind and disappears into the country to live out a bitter, unfulfilled existence. He takes refuge for a year or two in the Church but soon moves on to a bleak, psychological wasteland that he will inhabit until he dies. I doubt this interpretation every bit as much as I doubt he was a Cubist or a Surrealist.
Here’s what really happens.
For a number of years he is a close friend to Jacques Maritain. He goes to Maritain’s house to join in intense discussions of life and faith. He is also close friends with Max Jacob, who encourages him in his developing faith which begins to blossom in the early 1920s, many years before he moves away from Paris. Reverdy’s poem, The Thief of Talent, is about Max Jacob, who is both his friend and his enemy. Both men are conflicted. Both sinners. Both hopelessly attracted to the dark night at the heart of the Catholic Church. Jacob removes himself to a monastery. Soon after, Reverdy follows suit, writing before he leaves that, for him, the blood-stained doves have died, the tears have all been shed, and the door of the monastery is open. It is a gate in the wall. The only one he has ever found; “the limit of the cloister and of / liberty”
He symbolizes his freedom by publicly burning a bundle of his papers and removing to Solesmes. Here, near the monastery, he quietly lives for the rest of his life writing intensely evocative, windswept poems. It seems to me that hardly anyone who should know better actually understands the impetus of his work, and the reason is highly ironic; his biography and personality have colored the writing in inexplicable ways and everyone thinks of him as a depressed prophet of some modernist art school. In every description of Reverdy I’ve read, his Catholicism is either not mentioned or only mentioned in passing as a phase from which he quickly retreated in cynical alienation. His early years in Paris are considered groundbreaking, his faith brings the good times to an end but it is ephemeral, springing from nowhere and disappearing after only a year or two, and his later years are bitter. The Reverdy that has come down to us in history is mediated by his translators and interpreters. He would hate that.
In the end, yes, Reverdy’s faith is conflicted, full of darkness, and struggles mightily against his feelings of entrapment. He writes that, “faith is a bush full of thorns.”
He often finds himself, the nameless protagonist of his poetry, at a crossroads. This is a place he returns to again and again because it combines the idea of the Crucifixion with the action of voyaging. It is here at the crossroads that he will pause in bewilderment, a solitary man pinned to his torture instrument; “Finally I will have lived all alone / Until the last morning / Without a word having been indicated as to what was the right way.”
At the crossroads, we are pulled to pieces. Life is to be a traveler, forced down the road against our will by the river of time. To remain is to stagnate. But if one wishes to move, which is the correct direction? To understand that Reverdy could not choose and yet felt that he was being moved against his will is to understand his poems. When it came to traveling he chose only one pilgrimage, to make a permanent home against the monastery wall.
(A beautiful translation by Brian Prugh. Translating Reverdy is extremely difficult and I’ll make a post soon with translations of another of his poems)
Comme on Change / How to Change
Let someone tell us this story
Let someone tell us what he became
That no one else speaks to him anymore
The street is black
The night comes gently
And the spirit surrenders
To other movements
At the bottom kneeling on the heap of stones
And hands bound
All the ones who forgive
For the heart racked
They are all still there behind
The starry looks
All the mistaken names
The muffled laughter
Finally the brutal wind dispersed it all
And alone he went into the shadow without echo
He saw the sky the wall the earth and the water
The story the remorse
All was forgotten
It was not the same at all anymore
At the corner when he turned around