Sunday, November 29, 2015

`A Blissful Eternity Would Not Suffice'

Robert Melançon’s For as Far as the Eye Can See (trans. Judith Cowan, Biblioasis, 2013) is a collection of 144 twelve-line almost-sonnets, meditative in tone, somber celebrations of appearances and their depths. More than once I thought of Ahab’s boast to Starbuck – “All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks” – but in a minor key and without Ahab’s mad wish to the “smash the mask.” Melançon savors the real. The book’s French title, more evocative than the English, is Le Parades des Apparences: essai de poèmes réalistes (2004). Here is Cowan’s rendering of 36: 

“It all has to fit into twelve lines—a lesser sonnet—
all that’s depicted at every instant inside the cave
dug out by Plato for the chaining up of those 

“whom he deemed to be dupes of illusion. But in his
system’s sphere, the soul struggling to be free
had to swap for a stale whiteness, all pleasing things: 

“these wind-harrowed trees, the play of sun and shadow,
that pink-and-brown bird alighting on a wire.
 So I shall settle for the paradise of what I see: 

“I trace this rectangle of twelve lines and
make of it a window through which to observe
all that appears, and that happens once only.” 

The French title alerts us to the presence in this fallen world of “paradise,” which for Melançon is neither Eden nor a hedonist’s delight. His stance before creation is contemplative and sometimes worshipful. Often the speaker in his poems is seated at a window, admiring the view, weighing its implications. In 36, the poem itself is a window “through which to observe / all that appears.” Navel-gazers and professional malcontents need not apply. Borges, who observed that “Paradise is a library, not a garden,” shows up in Sonnet 85, in which Melançon renders a booklover’s paradise: 

“Here on this side are the call letters PA
for Latin, and over their the letters PQ
for Romance literature, which is to say                                 

“for paradise: so much prose and poetry
that a blissful eternity would not suffice
for us to read it all, from Lucretius and Horace 

“to Saint-Denys Garneau, Borges and Montale,
from Aulus Gellius to Joubert, to Cioran, to Léautaud.
One could just as well say Seneca, and Ponge, and Leopardi, 

“Petrarch, Pessoa, Montaigne . . . one recites these names
And those of Sbarbaro, Erasmus, or Martineau, giddy
At having inhaled the inexhaustible catalogue.” 

Most academic libraries use the Library of Congress call letters, not the Dewey Decimal System. The PA section includes Greek and Roman language and literature; PQ, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese. 85 will elicit two possible reactions from readers: They will object to an eternity of tedium, or they will intuitively understand it and wish they could dwell in such heavenly fields. I’m grateful that on Melançon’s honor roll of authors are several who are most important to me. The poem reminded me of a passage by a writer utterly unlike Melançon, Sir John Betjeman, who I am reading attentively for the first time. In his blank-verse autobiography, Summoned by Bells (1960), he includes a reader’s reverie: 

“Untidy bookshops gave me such delight.
It was the smell of books, the plates in them,
Tooled leather, marbled paper, gilded edge,
The armorial book-plate of some country squire,
From whose tall library windows spread his park
On which this polished spine may once have looked,
From whose twin candlesticks may once have shone
Soft beams upon the spacious title-page.”

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