Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Jean Grosjean, An Earth of Time, trans. Keith Waldrop


The foliage of tall beeches went swaying. Herds of clouds coursed the sky. And we drank draughts of a wilderness milk. Our limbs lively in the heat of the day. Who is it kindles the highlands? – The Mountain twists in guffaws of gold.

Sapphire born from a window and creaturely feeling. Spray from the flashing sphere, falling on the curve of ocean. An envelope containing signs has come for me. The sea! and the rest left behind.

Your blood blends into the gold of your hair. My son, alight with love in the sunshine of my embrace! – Father to my eyes, which you fashioned for a perch, I have recognized your breath in leaves budding.
Another book discovered during our recent move is the late Versailles writer and translator Jean Grosjean’s An Earth of Time (Providence RI: Burning Deck, 2006), translated from the French by Keith Waldrop. In An Earth of Time, Grosjean’s concerns are the abstract and earthly movements of Biblical characters, writing Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah, Samson, Jonathan, Job, Jonah and Salomon, as well as others, through small movements in compact sections. 

Grosjean’s prose-poems are less a matter of rewriting or retelling than exploring, parts of which read out as an exploration of the lessons of the stories of a faith, as the author attempts to work through the meanings of various passages, characters and stories. According to the biographical information at the back of the volume, Grosjean “was born in 1912, became a Roman Catholic priest and was incarcerated in a Nazi stalag during the Second World War. He left the priesthood in 1950. He is a noted translator from Near Eastern and other languages: the Koran, books of the New and Old Testaments, the Pléiade editions of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare.”


How, Father, could you love me, without making yourself useful? And what use, if I bear up to it all? Listen to how my rattlesnakes flee the threshold as you wake. Still, I alone can teach you to expect no return. Heads of mountains collide with clouds.

Sad for you, brother, that I weave these words you will not hear. The jewels I intend for you will be hawked abroad, continent by continent. And, cowardly, I leave you only my absence to despise. The most delectable pipeful that ever I’ve puffed.

Imperceptible breath, you pass three times a day across our bodies, a gentle mist, aroma of burning leaves, gleam of hoarfrost. You bind for life the unbound. A single day as heretofore would be too cruel.
What strikes me is less a matter of the Biblical element but more the flow of the prose, listening to the laments, the strong emotions and even love-passages, writing one character to another, as Samson writes Delilah, Moses “To the Nations,” Joseph to Jacob or Isaac to Ishmael, and later, Rebecca, as Grosjean writes:
Above a cup of tea, a summer rose on fire. From time to time, a certain fragrance.

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