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Literature & Criticism

A Voice from the Shadows

by Michael G. Kelly

Consideration of Luca’s life and work readily suggests a poetics of dislocation on several, intensifying levels. Dislocation, firstly, in the assumption of the pseudonym by the emerging Jewish-Romanian artist (born in 1913 in Bucharest), inhabiting (according to Dominique Carlat’s major 1998 study, Ghérasim Luca l’intempestif) the name of a deceased monk of whom it was noted, in a detail retained from the dead man’s obituary, that he was a ‘linguiste émérite’. This initial act of self-dislocation is amplified by the defining event of migration, with the movement into another language and its cultural scene as an inseparably traumatic and transformative one for the migrant writer. There is thus a Romanian-language as there is a French-language Ghérasim Luca, whose genetic links and underlying preoccupations are perceptible, and who yet require that they be distinguished from each other. A further dislocation is that of poetic practice in its confrontation of the historical forces compelling such migration and this is realised, ultimately, in the violence very dramatically done to language in Luca’s written and spoken performances, where the language itself is anatomised, estranged and realigned in the expression of foundational scenes or urges. All these dislocations make of this particular poet one who wrote, as it were, from ‘without’ – both external to the ambient order and in a state of permanent ‘want’.

Of course, Luca’s exemplar status within the theoretical discourse of Deleuze and Guattari’s littérature mineure, being the referenced writer who most directly becomes ‘bègue de la langue’, who would make language stammer, warrants in itself that unfamiliar readers in English take a serious look at his works. But the theoretical attractiveness of this position, in particular for how it contributes to a reconceptualisation of the marginality of the poetic, should not overshadow the range of Luca’s merits and inventions as a writer and performer of poetry. The Ghérasim Luca apparently revealed through littérature mineure, the poet of ‘Passionnément’, belies the coherent diversity of a broad body of practice. Indeed, as this late volume (La proie s’ombre was first published by José Corti in 1991, three years before Luca’s suicide at the age of 80) of poetic writings demonstrates, the by now critical commonplace linking ‘minority’ and ‘stammering’ requires reappraisal as only one part of a broader exploration of language’s contingencies and the opportunities for creative intervention which these offer.

Gherasim Luca (photo: Wikipedia Romania, released under GNU FDL licence)

Many of Luca’s works bathe in a carefully modulated and sustained sense of menace where language’s porosity, the compossibility of contrasting and overlapping meanings, heightens the lack of ease that is fundamental to the poet’s artistic subjectivity. Rather than a performance of unhousedness here, Luca is particularly attentive to effects of homophony, punning, indeterminacy, and the specific logical circuits and resonances made available by particular given words. Both French and English titles of the work allude to the self as an elusive object of poetic practice – and specifically to its capacity for reflexive action. Luca’s great gift is in the creative negotiation of this inner distance between the hunter and the hunted – something like a creative principle of dis-identification which keeps the scaffolding of identity in clear sight (thematically and performatively). Self-Shadowing Prey thus begins à l’orée d’un bois, the ‘edge of a forest’ which almost immediately becomes an openly ‘mental’ one (or, as Luca immediately puns with perfect homophony in French, a mantal (‘mantil’ in Caws’s version of Luca’s coinage, that is – mantis-like) space, where the mental is already the scene of ‘an old insect anguish / waking up as man’ (2)). The reflexive movement thus emerges not as the inner dynamic of a self homing in on its human core, but rather as the profoundly disquieting presence of an unspeakable biological substratum, troubling and repelling the circling efforts of language. The head is a globe, within whose tropics ‘the myth of a kind of utopian / jungle surges into the world’ (6). Both attracted and repelled by this primal scenario, consciousness is experienced as the sense of a lack among ‘those exiled from the center / and from the shade of a golden foliage’, exiled ‘between the walls of their somber cities’ (8). Yet the effort of poetic work is always from within the mental space – that is, compromised and bound up in the strictures and improbable connections of a given language. Thus, in ‘Towards the non-mental’, the centre-justified verse figures the mental process as an obsessive circling in and around the phenomenon of thought itself, a process sustained through language’s inexhaustible but insufficient resource of comparison. The movement is both violent and self-cancelling: ‘the thought [la pensée] turns upon itself  / with a static frenzy’ (27). Moreover, (the) thought is seen as ultimately irreducible to anything outside itself, the thinker-poet concluding with ‘a headache comparable / to the static frenzy of a thought / comparable to the incomparable’ (31).

The territory of Self-Shadowing Prey is thus the mental, Luca’s fundamental subject the idea that language-thought is distressingly confined therein. Yet this is leavened in parts of the volume by the recurrent interest of the poet for the I-Thou scenario. Protocols of exchange and reversal supplant the frenzied circling about the self in these instances, while retaining much of the latter activity’s uncanny attention to the secret affinities between words. In texts such a ‘Zero Gunshot’, an intimacy emerges as the elaboration of a kind of idiolect – not so much a fully private language as a relentless intensification of the potential of a number of words to generate multiple levels of association within a private logical circuit. The extent to which the active embrace of the accidents of language is key to the success of such texts is underlined by a translational gain in that piece, where a lascivious-sounding ‘ma langue glisse’ reappears as ‘my tongue slips’. The accident, the slip of the tongue, appears here as the highest form of design, faithful to Luca’s surrealist pedigree, but central also to what one might call a deconstructive intention at work across the full range of these texts.

Gherasim Luca: 'Vierge à la Colonne', collage. (Source: Wikipedia Romana, used under GNU FDL licence)

This exploitation of contingent associations and connections (language’s apparent accidents), rather than specific conventional or grammatical properties of the language in question, becomes the motor of poetic practice. Hence a paradox that is fundamental to Luca’s work: it highlights the contingency of language in a way that radically embeds the poem linguistically, one that goes beyond the standard untranslatability of poetic writing, in the system of its emergence. Translator Mary Ann Caws reflects in her introduction on the opportunities offered by Luca’s text for ‘an explosive meditation on the possibilities of surrealist translation in the broadest sense of the word’ (vi / vii) – while ascribing the attractiveness of her translation project to its ‘obvious impossibility’ (i). She is right on both counts, in that the project’s necessity and its insufficiency are fundamentally connected. A reading of the unimpeachable English versions, presented in the first half of the volume, will certainly convey a sense of the special mental landscape of the poet Luca as well as the intensity of the poetic voice, but can but hint at the infernally logical circuits of association proper to the anatomist of language, writing in (and around) French. The French-language original, reproduced in the second half of the volume, is thus a necessary shadow at the back of its translated self – like the prey of Luca’s title, it is the unbridgeable but passionate distance between it and its other self that makes their relation fascinating.

One feature of the writing in Self-Shadowing Prey which transcends largely intact the extreme difficulties of translation is the importance of pacing and varied repetition to the achievement of some of Luca’s troublingly memorable effects. The piece which conveys these effects most fully is the longest of those in the main part of the volume, and also the last. Titled ‘The Forest’, it is a work of almost brutal word play, arguably the most refractory to translation in the volume, but its power lies in a variably incantatory structure which lends hypnotic plausibility to Luca’s improbable yet elementary associations.

The volume concludes with an ‘Annex’ containing three further pieces. In ‘The Key’, remarking that ‘you don’t get out of the absurd / except through the absurd itself’ (82), the poet voices an anti-utopian critical position that is a good deal more frontal than in the preceding pieces, giving rise to a more overtly and conventionally political-sounding poetry. ‘Le Nerf de bœuf’ (the name of a kind of whip used for flogging, that is untranslateable when, as here, the necessary association with the nerve and the nervous are maintained in the title ‘Ox Nerve’) transposes the conflict scenario back into an imagined geopolitics of the body, culminating in the perspective of an apocalyptic viscerality (Luca’s text abounds in connotations of a nuclear age, but the Cold War is as much within as outside the subject). Finally, ‘Uninitialled Crimes’ [i.e. ‘rhymes’] concludes the volume with a bewildering inventory of –isms whose essential ‘homophony’ confirms their status as the verbiage of abstraction and generalisation, all under the insufficient genius of comparison so readily facilitated by language. These pieces are more in Luca’s declamatory vein, even if the underlying analysis is consistent with the implications of the earlier texts. Throughout, his dissection of language discloses telling contingencies even as it performs disquiet. It is this unceasing sense of troubled urgency that demands attention, and ensures this brave translation project is also an entirely welcome one.

Ghérasim Luca: Self-Shadowing Prey
Translated by Mary Ann Caws
Contra Mundum Press, New York 2012.
ISBN: 9780983697213.
Paperback, 248 pages, USD 18.00, GBP 14.00, EUR 12.00

Michael G. Kelly teaches French and Comparative Literature at the University of Limerick in Ireland. He is the author of Strands of Utopia. Spaces of Poetic Work in Twentieth-Century France (Legenda, 2008), and co-editor of Chantiers du poème. Prémisses et pratiques de la creation poétique moderne et contemporaine (Lang, 2013).

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