"Prairie's powers" by Gustave Roud; translated from the French by Alexander Dickow

photo copyright Fonds Gustave Roud, BCU, Lausanne

Prairie's powers

Who would think to question a vast and ordered landscape’s irresistible ascendancy, at once over our gaze and, piece by piece, over our total being? It enslaves us gently, in the manner of a symphony. The sky, vacant or pasture to the clouds; the lands drawn out to their horizons with their naive features intact, or molded by the hands of men, offer to the eye their grand themes, in no way bound to any temporal progression, but pronounced across space in unison, where they forever secure the paradox of a simultaneous and immutable counterpoint. It is rather our vision that follows the length of each motionless phrase, enmeshed in the lace of shapely melody, the magic net, the relentless snare that every season, every day, nearly every hour bends, with the weight of so much fresh bait, beneath new harmonies. And the spirit eagerly suffers the delights of an expert capture: in an even more startling paradox, these delights teach the spirit its most secret, most essential strengths. More than Amiel’s celebrated remark, every landscape is an emotion, Brulard-Stendhal translates this mystery perfectly to my mind: the landscapes drew their bows across my soul, for this expression highlights the lasting likeness of landscape and lullaby.

A mysterious power plays indeed in the case of those grand, ordered spaces whose virtues surpass those of a mere soul-stirring bow to attain those of an immense orchestra, laying its plies from total silence to pure fury into a sheer universe of variegated inflections, and which, merely to interpret a few eternal themes, keeps at hand the sorcery of notes a thousandfold. A power still more mysterious in the case of an isolated fraction embedded in the larger landscape, whose welcoming gesture, by the secret virtue of a single clump of trees, of a liquid glint below a dark cluster of leaves, likewise draws us softly towards our finest self.

There I daydream, laying in a balmy October prairie where the encroaching evening spreads the ash and the oak trees’ shade alongside me – a fleeting prairie, bounded by a screen of trees and a creek of little violence; one of those ennobling sites where the most rehearsed gesture, the most everyday thought, divested, as it were, of its contingency, reaches toward a simplicity serene and near to greatness. My friend and his cart, some weeks ago, were here loading the soft aftermath with which the wind delights to mix the mower’s hair, or to cling to his scorched and naked shoulder. And this familiar labor, these always identical movements; the horses’ halt, their advance; the pitch, the draw of the rake; the pitchfork empty, the pitchfork full and in full swing; it all unfolded against the dark and leafy backdrop like a sort of dance, steady and flawless, from which were banished any rhythmic misstep. Then like a rash of angry hives across the mown ground the meadow saffron lit their tufts of flame. There was no one left. On Sunday, occasionally, the sound of laughter and brushing against leaves along the hedge: little girls were shaking the high hazel boughs. The grass grew green again, little by little, from one dew to the next. One morning, from up in the village, a herd hurtled down in a great tumult of cries and cowbells, immediately hushed. Only one shepherd led the herd, yet the beasts, their muffles lowered to the chill forage, proceeded at an even pace, as though the strange calm of this place had dimly arrested them. I remember it. A rain as soft as mist began to descend; the boy, kneeling, was trying to coax a blaze from smoke beneath an enormous ruined umbrella as blue as his damp overalls. Already I could no longer hear the bells; they were themselves the thoughts they punctuated in perfect time, muffled or clear, and in the tempo of my step I also felt this tranquil cadence, as though recovered in it, and once again overhead, in the lovely sprays of branches dark against the sky in sequence. What is called plenitude is perhaps less abundance than concordance; it is a call and response, a concert in which each voice sings itself alone, yet nourished by the songs of others in its ear.

And poetry, which I had not dared to invoke for such a long time, was suddenly present as if it had obeyed some mysterious summons. Poetry, or a poet, rather. A lifeless stanza that had haunted me for hours sings suddenly in its fullest wealth and in the searing reality of its music:

If only
My very courage does not expose me. This first we
Must understand. For like morning air are the names
Since Christ. Become dreams. Fall on the heart
Like error, and killing, if one does not
Consider what they are and understand.
But the attentive man saw
The face of God...(1)

I can see this Hölderlin, once he had taken leave, at the time of the hymns, from that which men call “life”; Diotima dead, Schiller cruelly silent, I can see him plunging alone into his grand prophetic Night, where, as lord over time and space, poring over the “immeasurable fable” of Earth and of humankind, he senses his imminent defeat, prepared to lose heart before the surge of presences conjured, gradually stronger than his expiring voice; casting ever rarer lightning-strokes across the centuries, and ceaselessly repeating this despondent cry to stave off the threat of silence: Ah! I have so much, so much left to say! – knowing full well he shall never say it.

My prairie listened then just as it listens now to this still resounding lament. It even seems to me, at certain moments, that the prairie makes that lament its own, and grieves too, wherein each tree, each leaf, each clump of grass signifies in the face of an imminent winter that shall rob the prairie of its voice. Now the prairie too is alone, and like the poet, sovereign in its solitude. Before late autumn’s final farewell, it rehearses its farewell daily, its welcome to the night. How may one abandon this place without secret affliction, as it sinks majestically into shadow, overrun little by little by the chill of hidden water; the green of the ash dwindling to ashes, their own high, blind bulk burdening the feeble daylight; while around them evening draws out and distils a sky forever more akin to crystal?

(1) Friedrich Hölderlin, trans. Jeremy Adler and Michael Hamburger, Selected Poems and Fragments (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 247-249.

Gustave Roud (1897-1976) was a Swiss poet and translator of Novalis and Hölderlin into French. Rarely overblown and never pompous, Roud successfully fuses Romantic sublimity and classical restraint. Because of his repressed homosexuality and self-imposed seclusion, Roud’s landscapes bristle with sexual energy even in the absence of the masculine silhouettes that occasionally appear. The desire to envelop and possess the object of the gaze lends unparalleled intensity to a contemplative attitude suddenly bereft of detachment. Prairie’s Powers (Pouvoirs d’une prairie) was published in Air of Solitude (Air de la solitude) in 1945 (now published with other selections by Editions Gallimard as Air de la solitude et autres écrits, Paris, Collection Poésie Gallimard, 2002). Roud was Philippe Jaccottet’s mentor and direct literary ascendant, and is now considered one of the most important Swiss writers of the Twentieth Century. But because of his seclusion and natural distaste for literary promotion, Roud remains a discrete presence in France and elsewhere. Prairie’s Powers is one of Roud’s most visibly Romantic texts, while others, such as Requiem (1967), extensively reinvent familiar forms.

Alexander Dickow is a bilingual poet and translator who writes in French and English. He has translated poems by Aaron Belz, Amy King and Ana Bozicevic-Bowling into French, and is currently preparing a book-length selection of Gustave Roud’s works. He is also the author of a book of poems in French and English, Caramboles (Paris, Argol Editions, 2008), and irregularly maintains a weblog, Voix Off. He currently lives in Châtillon, France. Child, cowritten with his wife, is forthcoming in December 2009.


Will said...

I need to spend more time with this one (and not falling asleep on red wine) -- Roud seems like a made up character from my blog!

Thank you so much for publishing it.


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