Blandine Longre is a distinguished French translator of English texts, but here in her first collection Clarities, she has turned to poetry. But interestingly and crucially, Longre has not chosen to write in her native tongue, but in the English language, which therefore is one thing, but not the only thing that makes this poetry significant and worthy of English scrutiny. How many of our native English poets of either sex can even begin to attempt to hold a conversation in a foreign language, let alone write poetry? A handful at best. Of course Rilke famously wrote some four hundred poems in French, but none of them are considered to be amongst his most revered and celebrated works. But Rilke was a spectacular exception, a manifest aberration lodged in an impossible to locate space between objectivity and inwardness, whose true nature has still not been properly established, despite the prodigious amount of secondary literature devoted to him.
For most poets there is no recourse but to launch forth in the language they first mewled as, armed with their embryonic calling, they exited the womb. But Longre has other ideas. She rejects French as the vehicle for her unconscious linguistically screened utterances and produces a collection of poems of extraordinary imposition and depth in the Anglophone. She is as Anne Sylvie Homassel suggests, ‘A gifted intruder into a language which is not her own…’ Furthermore these poems seem to owe little to modern English poets, but take their cue rather from the likes of John Donne, a reverence for whom Longre makes no secret of. She includes at the opening a quote which is perhaps most prescient in terms of her own poetic. ‘For his art did express a quintessence, even from nothingness…’ On the rear of the book there are two blurbs, one from Paul Stubbs who states ‘Her ‘subject’ is only the incontrovertible will to spew forth the chippings of a language not yet fully realised…’ Yes and we might well say the same about him! (see above). But what Stubbs means in his mechanical shredder metaphor, is that Longre takes the neat and complete language bricks as they are offloaded at Calais and deliberately smashes them, then reconstructs them to make another kind of brick which will better advance her own personal structure. Instead of following documented paths in the construction of this language, she has it work hard for its expressive credentials, goading it to make it perform in ways it could never imagine, to make it perform with authenticity for her alone. Words end up trussed, bound together and thrown mercilessly into the sea of the page. Sink or swim instructs the poet. ‘Notimeness’, ‘clock-mauled’ ‘steel-etched’ ‘oughts-to-be’ and the wonderful ‘twitchy-thorny’, are all thrown over the side. Either they adapt or die. In this sudden and treacherous struggle for survival, a new language forces its way through the shell to the initial distrust of the page and a metaphysical breakthrough of a kind is achieved.
Longre does not want to express herself with someone else’s borrowed voice or appear on the stage of her feelings dressed in hand me down clothes. Therefore she always makes and dons her own haunting attire. ‘I am a field, a realm and a route / an expanse of everdark crops / awoken and unadorned and brambled / yet hardly maimed by the too still rivulets of reality…’ From ‘Avoiding the Blackest Eye of Might’. Longre seeks to transmogrify the ardours and ecstasies of the flesh into language. Within this ambition is attendant pain, loss and a grim awareness of the scraps of transcendence that may be gathered in, despite relationship implosion. In ‘Épouvante’, ironically a poem titled in French, she writes the morbidly majestic and almost phantasmagorical line, ‘Wreck-born snakes refusing to embrace their wet doom…’ and later in the same poem the uncanny ‘Aside a vertigo, the secret pledge of their cluttered selves: / built on an acridity of presages and their own / bisecting truth – horrendous.’ What is one to make of this? The inevitable response to Longre’s poetry from a UK audience would be that it is ‘difficult’ and ‘hermetic’, or that it is ‘surreal’, ‘chaotic’, ‘confusing’, ‘delirious’ etc. But this shuffling of the dreary pack of suspicion should be music to Longre’s ears, because it is wholly predictable and perhaps necessary. These are all traditional knee-jerk protective mechanisms that the island nation employs to quickly face its pointed stakes out to anything that may cause it to lose equilibrium.
Longre’s poetry, if it was allowed entry, would be a French fox with Anglo-Saxon teeth, let loose in an English henhouse. Confusion and panic must ensue when lines like ‘Alien to its own words (meaning-gouged, spewed out, led astray) / a gorgoned mouth turns its clammy / stares beyond my charred eyeballs, / at the flying dampness of / those medean tears of mine.’ peer hungrily around the door. But the power here is not so much in the horror soaked central section which almost shreds itself to vacancy in the combines of inner rage, but in the indefinable beauty of the last line ‘at the flying dampness of / those medean tears of mine’ which seems to soften and slow like a brake in its alliteration and rhythm the harsh imagery that precedes it. There is something lurking within this seemingly brazen poetry, which is tender and precious, like an injured bird you kept in a cardboard box that you hide from others and desperately hope will not die. Though there are influences of Sexton and Plath here and these poems could be said to be aligned to a woman’s pain and toil endured by the blundering machinations of the opposite sex, these poems are more about a wider broken trust, the disintegration of promises and aspirations, which could apply to anyone. Therefore they are for everyone. So it is to be hoped that these white hot poems, which resist, with good reason, categorisation or critical platitude, will find readers who can appreciate their unorthodoxy and existential agility. Or will the Anglophone reader once again revert to type and hold the foreigner at the turnpike for deigning to ‘re-speak’ their hallowed language? Perhaps Longre herself has glimpsed a possible future in that regard in the acerbic ‘heroism’ of the poem ‘Shame-faced’.