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Translator's Note: What I Know

BY FIONA SAMPSON

 

Patrick Dubost performs his poetry, using a tape loop to layer live reading against his recorded readings played precisely one or two beats later. It's done with economy and verve. French, a language notoriously difficult to sing, is revealed to be capable of rhythmic precision, a kind of thought percussion both analogous to and refreshingly removed from the walkie-talkie Anglo-Saxon pentameter. These performances offer other revelations, too: of the surface hiss of multiple alliterations, or the way in which sound forms itself against itself, in alternations of density and simplicity, like moiré patterns. They also give the listener the experience of that descent into complexity which is "having a thought." As number three says, "Toute pensée, pour prendre corps, doit ménager sa part de flou."

But such sound experiments are nothing new. Dubost is unusual because what his poetry has to say matters, too. (How I like that phrase, "has to say": as if language arrives carrying itself under its own arm.) Aphoristic, comic—often philosophical—the uncompromised "burden of his song" sets up a dialectic with the glittering surface of sonic play.

This makes for an unusual separation of poetic powers. Of course, a poem is not an egg. The outer surface—let's call it diction—does matter as much as what the poem touches upon, and how. But fashionable vagueness about where sound leaves off and content begins—indeed, a superstitious conflation of the two—may tempt us to believe that surface is all. This might be a function of cultural post-modernity, or the result of workshop pragmatism: if a poem doesn't exhibit signs of craft at first encounter, it's probably in some difficulty. But Dubost's separation of powers allows us to contemplate the possibility that the felicities of surface and of more-slowly-unpacked content might, after all, be differentiable, giving pleasure through unexpected counter-valance as much as predictable relationship. As if the poem were not so much hard-boiled as chocolate-cream egg.—FS

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This poem originally appeared in the April 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

April 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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