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Translator's Note: The Trees Delete Themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere

by Karen Volkman


This prose poem, from Francis Ponge's Le parti pris des choses, opens with the title (virtually a poem in itself) "Les arbres se défont à l'intérieur d'une sphère de brouillard." This title is unusual in Le parti pris—it stands out as a particularly long and detailed framing in a book of titles that are for the most part the simple names of their subjects ("Le Pain," "Le Papillon," "Le Feu," etc.). Ponge takes great care here to phenomenologically position his readers—we stand outside the "" which englobes the trees in a strange world of obfuscation and erasure. The trees' actions take place "à l'inté" inside this hazy closed world, and the inventory of destructions they undergo grows increasingly more interior. From the outside, our impeded vision implicates us in their diminishment even before the body of the poem begins—the trees are already vanishing in our out-turned blighted sight, through a perceptual act of the inner eye. We therefore number among the trees' effacers.

While "delete" is an extreme word for the process, I wanted to open with the violence of this dual erasure. Ponge's detached, gently brutal tone keeps pathos at a distance in what might otherwise descend into predictable elegy for autumnal dissipation. Nor does it allow consoling thoughts of seasonal cyclicality and affirming renewal. The trees partake of deadness by nature and by habit—the succession of violences processed and endured is part of their slow meditative being. It is even, it seems, part of what we find so comforting in their presence—our arboreal co-inhabitants of earth are oblivious to our hysteria in the face of such quotidian violations as desiccation and decay. Like Rilke, who viewed death as the unseen side of life, Ponge reclaims deadness as non-negating; unlike Rilke, he doesn't mystify the transition. Death is not terrifying, nor is it the mother of beauty—these trees are too preoccupied to be beautiful. Their self-cannibalizing and life-relinquishing aren't transformative relational acts, but plain brown practice.

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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