Nathalie Stephens' JE NATHANAËL
A new publication by Canadian poet Nathalie Stephens should be more of an event than it currently is. The author of collections of poetry in both English and French, the new edition of her JE NATHANAËL (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2006) is her own translation into English from her original French text, published by Montreal's l'Hexagone in 2003. Currently living and teaching in Chicago, Stephens has lived in a number of Canadian cities over the past few years, including Toronto, Guelph and Montreal, and has published a number of books and chapbooks including You But For The Body Fell Against (New York NY: Belladonna, 2005), The Small Body With It Rises From Under (Calgary AB: NO Press, 2005), L'Ingure (Montreal QC: l'Hexagone, 2004), Held (abrégé) (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2004), Paper City (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2003), Species: Ex(hib)it (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2003), Je Nathanaël (Montreal QC: l"Hexagone, 2003), Grammaire des sens (Calgary AB: housepress, 2002), What Exile This (as an issue of STANZAS, Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2002), L'embrasure (Laval QC: Éditions TROIS, 2002), There Is No Object Between Us (Calgary AB: housepress, 2001), All Boy (Calgary AB: housepress, 2001; Toronto ON, BookThug, 2004), Somewhere Running (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000), Underground (Laval QC: Éditions TROIS, 1999), Colette m'entends-tu? (Laval QC: Éditions TROIS, 1997), This Imagined Permanence (Toronto ON: Gutter Press, 1996) and hivernale (Toronto ON: Éditions du GREF, 1995). In addition to this, her collection Touch to Affliction, is forthcoming in 2006 with Coach House Books. Simply for the sheer amount of work that she has published, it seems strange that there wouldn't be more attention paid to what she is doing.
As American poet Cole Swensen recently wrote on the writing of Nathalie Stephens for a recent issue of the on-line journal 91stmeridian.org:
"Only the writer who astonishes language, who dares to tamper with it, is worthy of the epithet," writes Nathalie Stephens, and she lives up to the challenge she sets—hers is a use of language that alters the language as she uses it. And in her case, this means two languages, as she writes in both English and French, often using one to infiltrate the other, to crack the other open. Often we sense the two languages passing each other, and as they do, a charge arcs from one to the other, making each stand out in sharp relief.
Not surprising for someone with two native languages, she's attentive to betweens and uses them productively. In her most recent book, the quasi-narrative, Paper City, one of the two main characters is b—betwixt. In conjunction with his other, n—néant—they negotiate worlds not unlike our own. "I open my mouth and drawn, (n) had been known to say. She was neither of one rive nor of the other, and her appartenance, while flagrantly resisted, was hotly debated, contested and denied," she writes. Thus positioned in a middle space, suspended in the river of language, Stephens is in an excellent spot to unleash her philosophic bent, which sifts through relationships—of language to illusion, of the body to language. Working with these staples of experience, she develops an open-ended philosophy of language, one that refuses to delineate or in any way to describe, but that instead, brings it alive and puts it into motion.
Themes of desire, gender, and their social ramifications play out in her often dense, turbulent prose passages and give them a momentum that sends us hurtling through their lushness. There's a liberating agenda right behind that lushness, a determination to give agency to the unexpected—to distance, to isolated letters, to marks of punctuation. It amounts to an exacting generosity that creates a marvelous contrast with the sparse layout of some of her texts, such as Touch to Affliction, which is presented in part here. One page ends with the isolated line "And you have yet to speak." This is an open invitation, but it's also an obligation, and positions the reader right where poetry is always trying to get us, which is to say, waiting for the next word.
Stephens has always been the kind of writer able to cross boundaries as though they didn’t even exist; what other writers spend their entire careers attempting, seems to come as easily and as fluid to her as water. As she wrote of her own work in her poetics statement in the anthology side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 2002):
Read or write text across genre. Fuck with the potency of pre-configuring form. Rail. Or better yet, say nothing, mouth wide, temples beating, fist wedged between teeth. Write it all down. Cross it all out. (What's your blood type?)
There is confusion in it. The persistent refusal of delineation. Want something hard to bite into. Something that will break. Take a new form. Spill.
What Faust asked for I got. Look inside. See nothing. Look again. I have scripted folly with a fine chisel on my leg bone. Strips of skin piled neatly on the table. You wanted this. (p 223)
Working her prose almost as an extension of Nicole Brossard's expansive texts [see my recent Brossard review here], Stephens' JE NATHANAËL moves as a single thought, a single idea opening up throughout a series of small sections. Divided into two openings and five sections ("books"), here is the opening that comes after the first opening, the second:
My dear Nathanaël I will not write. Every day I take your name
into my mouth. I take it and give it away. I would like to inhabit
it as you do. Know what it is to belong to no one. Not to exist. Or
rather to exist infinitely. I tire of thinking the body differently of
searching out the right word for what belongs neither to language
nor to silence. You are right not to answer. To go quietly along. As
for me I am running and still nothing. I would like to speak to you
of the disjointedness between word and speech. Between touch and
breath. Skin and flesh. I am a bit like you I don't exist either. If I
say: I am I am lying a little bit. Languages hold this way of living
against me. I distrust books because of the noise they make. You know
how to cultivate silence. I am learning from you. I am learning to be
quiet. I am learning to love beside love or the definitions imposed on
it. The body leaves itself that's one good thing. At any rate mine does.
Nathanaël I did not find you in any book. In any poem. I found
you in me. I invited you to dance. We moved similarly. Although
distinctly. I sit every day in my garden. Some days I lie in the grass
or in the snow depending on the weather. Sometimes it rains. Breath
precedes the body Nathanaël. I am breathing differently. (p 11)
I see the boy again. It has been a long time. It's noon. The sun
stretches into a great gash across the sky. Light spills onto his
face. The boy is no longer beautiful. He is a boy among so many
ushers in the street in the middle of the day. What was I looking
for ? What did I find in its place?
Solitudes. I wait for dusk. The western sky split in two. Burst.
Last night I dreamt of a body that was no longer a body. Words
bore it no resemblance whatsoever. (pp 75-7)
Through her notion of doubling, from the body to gender, Stephens writes an unblinking eye, and works her way through the body whatever it might be, and whose. It would be impossible to not be taken in.