Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Cool Poetry for Hot Nights - Memories of Pierre Reverdy's 'Selected Poems'

Some time after my big sister Jan left home to get married, it was agreed that my brother Phil could have the big front bedroom to himself and I could move into the little box-room at the back of the house that had previously been Jan's. This room could only be accessed via my parents' bedroom, but I rarely felt any lack of privacy because they always went to bed after me and usually got up before me. Jan' s bedroom became mine for a few years from, I suppose, my mid-teens until we moved house when I was 17. Here it was that I read books, wrote songs, did my homework, listened to the radio and perused university prospectuses.

The room was directly above the kitchen (which doubled as a bathroom) and, immediately beneath my window was the flat roof of the outside toilet and a view over next door's garden onto West Street. On summer nights, when my parents were fast asleep in the next room, I would sometimes climb out of the window and stand on the roof of the toilet to enjoy the cool air and admire the moonlit sky.

Around this time, I bought a copy of Selected Poems by Pierre Reverdy. The book was published in Cape Editions in 1973, originally priced at 75p, but my copy had been marked down - first to 40p and then further reduced to 20p - making it worth taking a chance on, even though I had no idea who on earth Pierre Reverdy might be. The paperback, a mere 96 pages, (just about the shortest a book can be without it being a mere pamphlet,) had a white cover with the title printed in silver. This elegant cover was concealed by a green dust-jacket, with some blurb explaining that Reverdy was, in fact, 'one of the great figures of twentieth-century French poetry ... a contemporary of the Cubist painters and the Surrealists.'

As a working-class boy growing up in Shropshire I knew nothing of Cubism or Surrealism but it all sounded terribly interesting and exotic. I had no way of knowing if Reverdy was a famous poet or not but I liked to think he was suitably obscure, a secret discovery of mine which nobody else - or, at least, nobody I knew - had uncovered. The Mexican poet Octavio Paz recognises this quality when he describes Reverdy as 'a secret poet for secret readers’.

Reverdy was born in 1889, moving to Paris in 1910. When his father died, he was obliged to try to make a living by writing and published his first volume of poems in 1915. He associated with fellow avant-garde poets and painters including Guillaume Apollinaire, Max Jacob, Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso. Reverdy was among the founders of the monthly literary review, Nord-Sud, which became a focal point for the first cubists and surrealists and featured the works of Louis Aragon and Andre Breton.

Greatly admired by other surrealist poets, Reverdy nevertheless sought to move beyond surrealism in his later poetry and his work became more mystical and spiritual. After twenty years in Paris, Reverdy retired to the Benedictine Abbey of Solesmes where he lived as a lay associate. He continued to write and publish poetry, making only occasional trips to Paris to see his old friends, until his death in 1960. This life of simplicity, spirituality and seclusion naturally permeates the poetry. Mary Ann Caws, the American author, art historian and literary critic, finds his work 'at once impersonal and intimate, crystalline and opaque, simple to the point of austerity. The landscape of his poetry,' she writes, 'is both instantly recognisable and, devoid of local specificity, imbued with an otherworldly strangeness.'

The very first poem in my green-covered paperback - bafflingly-titled The Same Number - begins with the lines:
The hardly open eyes
                The hand on the other shore
The sky
            And everything that happens there
The leaning door
              A head sticks out
From the frame
And through the shutters
You can see out...

Perhaps it is this jumble of windows, doors, sky and 'everything that happens there' that first inspired me to stick my head out, climb outside and take a look around at the moonlit, urban landscape. These images, 'devoid of local specificity', may just as well have been North Street and West Street as the Place Vendôme or the Boulevard St Michel.

One of the attractions of the book was that it was a bilingual edition with what is called parallel text (i.e. Reverdy's original French poems on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page by, according to the blurb, 'one of America's foremost Cubist poets' - Kenneth Rexroth.) I have to admit that, at no time in the past 40 years has either Reverdy's original French or Rexroth's English translation made a great deal of sense to me. I understand the words but not the meaning of the phrases. The blurb, though, reassures us that making sense of Reverdy is a difficult task because he apparently 'sought to break down and then reform language, to achieve a poetry of direct perception, poésie brute as he called it.'

The American author Paul Auster describes how 'Reverdy's strange landscapes ... combine an intense inwardness with a proliferation of sensual data.' Auster notes that, although 'almost mystical in their effect, his poems are nevertheless anchored in the minutiae of the everyday world; in their quiet, at times monotone music, the poet seems to evaporate .... The result is at once beautiful and disquieting as if Reverdy had emptied the space of the poem in order to let the reader inhabit it.'

Take, for example, these lines from Turning Road:
...When the fires of the desert go out one by one
When the eyes drip like blades of grass
When the dew falls barefoot on the leaves
Morning hardly risen
Somebody seeks
A lost address on a lost road...

Though I still struggle to grasp the meaning, I have no problem with this poetry of the empty space, this 'poetry of direct perception.' I perceive the slim, green volume (with its concealed white cover beneath), the two swathes of text, French to the left, English to the right, and I directly perceive the teenage boy, absorbing the quintessential cool-ness of the words of a Surrealist, Cubist, French poet in the heat of a summer's night in a box-bedroom in Shrewsbury - a poetry of pure atmosphere.

Many a summer since - but only on very hot nights with a deep, dark blue sky - I have revisited Reverdy's Selected Poems. The mere sight of the cover is enough to transport me back to the strange exhilaration of being that working-class teenager who stood surrealistically on the roof of the outside toilet in the middle of the night, with his head full of French poetry and of the promise of travel and escape.


  1. Cor blimey, that's really literary, mate! And I used to think Cubists were people who made boxes! So it was you standing on the roof over the kitchen all those times - I wondered who it was! It seems like your poetry book cover does the same as the madeleines did for Proust in conjuring up all those memories....I think we've all got our own version of the 'madeleines'.....

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your comment. Yes, sorry about that. I did come over all literary but then it is supposed to be a blog about books, music ... and time travel, so this ticks two out of three boxes (those boxes that, as you say, Cubists stand on.) You're quite right that the Reverdy book is, for me, a Proustian madeleine. I invite readers of this blog to add a comment letting me know what their particular madeleine might be...

  3. Our house is full of madeleines (now, there's something you don't hear every day) - what with me being a hoarder and all. But one of my favourites is my 1966 Corgi Batmobile. It was my favourite Christmas present that year. Possibly my favourite Christmas present of all time. That Christmas morning we went over the road to church - our sister Jan, you (Tone) and myself. I took my Batmbolie with me. You took your Man From UNCLE car. And we played with our cars as we sang carols. Magical.


About me

My photo
Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).