Poems by Jean Follain

In Paris in the mid-twenties both the life and literary beginnings of Jean Follain were quiet. He associated first with a group that included Erik Satie, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy, and Leon Paul Fargue, and in 1933 he brought out his first substantial collection of poems, La Main Chaude (five had been published earlier, in a small edition, and others had appeared in literary reviews). Since that date he has published a succession of books of poems, and since 1935, when Paris appeared, of prose pieces, whose aim is to conjure the sense of specific recollections of places, occasions, objects.

In 1942 Follain published a short volume of prose recalling in deliberate and composed detail the village of Canisy, in Normandy, where he had been born, and where many ot his early childhood memories are rooted. The book is not a commentary on the poems, but it is (with his other prose writings) an agreeable and helpful relative, and they both set out from the same place. There are passages in Canisy that waken echoes in many of the poems:

One evening during the 1914 war. while the stratus clouds built up in layers on the horizon, Mother Aimé, a washerwoman, standing on the doorsill talking to my maternal grandmother, was led to say, “This war will not be as bad as Napoleon’s. It was bad at Berezina when the men and horses died in piles. I had a great uncle who was there and told us.”

I looked intensely at the stones and the puddles on the road and I thought that the stones and puddles, on the eve of Berezina, must have been just as calm, just as interrogative and as ready to lose themselves in the shadow.

When she had said, “Good-night, Madame.” Mother Aimé left, one hand on her hip, and my grandmother began to close the white shutters that were held against the wall by fastenings in the shape of busts of little people that looked Italian in Renaissance feather bonnets.

The “I” is more openly present here than in the poems, though even in Canisy it is never confronted but refers—a regard. In this passage, and in much of Follain’s prose, as well as in his poems, the regard is suspended, whether deliberately or helplessly, and the complexity of its circumstance as the bearer of memory is clear. Who is the “I” who is thinking those exact things about the puddles and the shadows; and who recognizes that the shutter fastenings in the shape of busts of little people were wearing Renaissance feather bonnets? Is it the child of eleven or so, or the man who left when that war was over and has gone to Paris and the legal profession and the literary world? It is more than both: it is the suspended regard which they share; and the evocation of this “impersonal,” receptive, but essentially unchanging gaze often occupies, in Follain’s work, the place of the first person.

It does so because memory has a special role in his writing. It is not simply a link between past and present, life and poetry. Memory, as distinct from the past it draws on, is what makes the past a key to the mystery that stays with us and does not change: the present.

Follain is deeply concerned with the mystery of the present—the mystery which gives the recalled concrete details their form, at once luminous and removed, when they are seen at last in their places, as they seem to be in the best of his poems. This is their value “in themselves.”At the same time it is what gives them the authority of parts of a rite, of an unchanging ceremony heralding some inexorable splendor, over a ground of silence. And for Jean Follain it is a fulfillment not only of a need for ceremony but of a fondness for the ceremonious, in which each detail, seen as itself, is an evocation of the processions of an immeasurable continuum.

And both the passage of time and the sense of the unchanging show the details to be unique. Follain never regarded them otherwise—that is the child whom he did not betray.

Poems translated in this issue:

Cadences

Matter

The Square

The Tragic In Time

The Useful

The Song of The Dragoon

The Secret