La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals by Philippe Jaccottet (Trans. John Taylor)

la clarte

By Michael Collins

The late Philippe Jaccottet, winner of the Petrarch Prize, the Prix Goncourt and the Schiller Prize once claimed, “Everything – I think I can say this – everything that has given rise in me to a poem or a poetic prose piece has done so, it seems to me, because an opening has taken place in the wall of appearances; an opening through which, in addition, a happy light did not necessarily pass; what rushed through might have been frightful.”[i] This passage seems particularly descriptive of the meditations that make up ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ and ‘The Last Book of the Madrigals,’ his final, posthumously released works.

‘La Clarté Notre-Dame’ is a sequence of prose sections, spanning the final decade of Jaccottet’s life, that arise from and reflect upon one such “opening,” the sounding of a unique chapel bell:

I’d never heard a tinkling—prolonged, almost persistent, repeated several times—as pure in its weightlessness, in its extreme fragility, as genuinely crystalline . . . Yet which I couldn’t listen to as if it were a kind of speech —emerging from some mouth . . . A tinkling so crystalline that it seemed, as it appeared, oddly, almost tender . . . Ah, this was obviously something that resisted grasping, defied language, like so many other seeming messages from afar—and this frail tinkling lasted, persisted, truly like an appeal, or a reminder . . . (6-7)

The abiding experience accrues great devotion, a poetic inspiration that never finds verse form: “I must keep it alive like a bird in the palm of my hand, preserved for a flight that is still possible if one is not too clumsy, or too weary, or if the distrust of words doesn’t prevail over it” (5). The poet’s faithfulness is rewarded in continual and invigorating attempts themselves at reaching for the expression of the ethereal sound, ranging from a “limpidity which a heart would hardly be able to conceive, to hope for; and yet which would have enough power to act on a heart without any reference to its own nonetheless undeniable origin” to a synesthesia resonant with myth: “I had to think of morning dew that would be—as in a fairy tale—winged, and metamorphosed into aerial sounds . . . ” (13). A humble resilience results from this ongoing practice of linguistic devotion to the ultimately unsayable, yet even this modest dignity rests upon the mere possibility of his own life being somehow akin to the mysteries of his own reverence: “Would thus my life, so close to the end, at last discover itself to be an appearance of sense as fragile, yet also as persistent as all those signs of which I would have been the gatherer, the ‘re-gatherer’, and the too-clumsy interpreter?” (14)

All of these gentle considerations are confronted and threatened throughout the work by the rising drone of mindless cruelty that pervades the same world, represented by the recurrent figure of a man being released from a Syrian prison while hearing the screams of those still being tortured:

Therefore reduced, at the very end of my life’s path, to staggering between two aspects of my experience, at least both of them being indubitable: the gathering of signs, which is almost all my poetry, with the last sign received, this year still, as the starting point of these pages—all those signs whose singularity is to be minute, fragile, barely graspable, evasive yet undoubtful, indeed quite the opposite: very intense; in the final reckoning, the most precious things that I will have received in my life, without my having looked or even hoped for them. And on the other hand, the growing fright of one who walks in a corridor of a prison in Syria and will never be able to efface from his mind the screams that he has heard rising from the lowest circles of Hell. (20)

The fellowship of past poets, readings of their work and the memories it framed, provides recurrent and essential succor:

Defenceless, however? Not completely, because I had experienced those unexpected encounters as by far the best part of my life, some of them remaining completely interior or almost, and of which I perceive today that they were all oriented in the same direction, embellished with a mute joy, directed towards what Plotinus, as a rereading of Shestov has just reminded me, called the Very High, with the same terms that Hölderlin, all the same, still dared to call the Sacred, and even the Gods. Encounters sometimes prepared, without my being aware of it, by all those fragments of poetry which had come to me from all sorts of places, which were so well engraved thereafter in my memory, and which also proceeded, however different they were, in the same direction. (26-7)

Though these textual embodiments of the sacred may bridge death in finding the next generations, the awareness necessary to engage with them, in accordance with its own perceptive nature, circles back to its consciousness of the very evil that can only manifest materially because it is utterly unconscious of itself:

As for he who gets immersed in listening to music, with closed eyes, and imagines himself, for as long as he listens, sheltered from the worst; while this coat protects him no better than that of the snow.

Comes the moment of the torn coat, the torn body, and too often tortures with no thinkable excuse for them.

Comes the destruction with no remedy and of which one cannot speak without lying, without flourishes, if not those armfuls of flowers that merely mask the unbearable. (36)

The enduring truth, perhaps, that we may take from this “opening…in the wall of appearances” is the plurality of delicate, life-affirming synapses it fosters, in which both wisdom and innocence past are borne into the future:

I cannot help but notice, at this very late moment, as I write these already trembling lines, that here I’m touching the exact heart of what made me write, and which excuses, or in any event explains and justifies, all my repetitions from the onset, or nearly so.

To which responds the little bell of my childhood, the one that my father would ring at the garden gate…a little bell tinkling shrilly in the falling snow (34-5)

The sequences comprising The Last Book of Madrigals can be read as following the life of an intimation such as the bell, through a lifecycle – or several – within creative development that allows the inspiration to morph and take on new perspectives, as the title indicates. Here the initial life declares itself “While Listening to Claudio Monteverdi”:

When singing, he seems to call to a shade

whom he glimpsed one day in the woods

and needs to hold on to, be his soul at stake:

the urgency makes his voice catch fire. (49)

In a process that will play out in various ways over the course of the sequence, the speaker then moves into an imaginal scene in which the shade disputes with him:

              ‘I’ve no wish to be led away by your too-ingenuous angels,

but rather by those gentle women, even if they disappoint,

those merry ones suddenly—who knows why—so serious,

and we’ll take the white cherry trees for a lamp.’ (51)

The speaker first decries then incorporates the other perspective, merging it with his original one into a modified third:

would their way of leading astray also guide,

since they’d be the most faithful images

of the ephemeral sky?

It’s their gaze I gaze at, for quite a while,

to verify these landmarks for my future steps. (51)

As with the bell, the speaker enters into a form of dialogue with the place in himself where the “wall of appearances” has opened, and, as in ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame,’ this conversation expands over the course of revisitings to include the voices of imaginal characters, poetic ancestors, and mythic echoes. Within the psychic movements of the text, the experiential, living qualities of myth are consistently invoked through dialogue with the other poetic elements, the replicable nuances of perception, feeling, and reflection in which the reader may join the speaker. Take, for example, the conscious, felt rebirth of placing oneself as a small life within a vastness of voices and stories both ancient and present:

Then I raised my eyes: the whole wide sky

was around us,

with chirping in the stubble

like stars along the ground.

A last flight, like a trail of silence, was visible

and I said to myself: ‘So now we’re born again,

baptized by the long summer night.’ (53)

The fusion of stars and crickets combines unlike senses while also interchanging the grand and humble, the immanent and transcendent in a poetic gesture that corresponds with the larger moves between the speaker’s voice and those “other” voices great and small that the poems incorporate. This can be observed in more extensive imaginal developments throughout the collection as well”:

I believed that with its creaking wood and wheels,

once the day had snuffed out its fires, this chariot

would almost join the other one

where each of us would hardly have to reach

to gorge ourselves on ripe stars. (55)

Other images, perhaps indicative of communing with the past poets in a more direct way, reflect the polyphonic nature of “the poet’s” voice, its awakening of the textual voices of the departed concurrent with correlatives in the living world:

The streams have awakened.

The least clear voice intertwines with the clearest one

as their fast waters weave together.

So that I can be bound with similar bonds,

I’m happy to reach out my two hands.

Thus bound, I free myself from winter. (71)

The classical identification between poet and weaver moves from image, to mythic invocation, to refrain and extended metaphor as the poems unfold, the shifting between roles helping to facilitate accompanying movements of tone and perspective. Hence, in one poem Penelope “reweaves the blue cloth of the sky” in order “to protect us patiently and faithfully / from the black archer with his too-frigid arrows” (73). The colors in the weaving are then commended to “swift jockeys of summer, / wear them to glorify the invisible woman / who bet her beauty on your fiery spirit” (75). Spring’s affirmation of new life is the explicit concern of this weaving, the mythic renewal both fusing and expressing the invigorating feeling and sensation: “Who on those flaming benches around the arena would doubt / that living grace will triumph over a bundle of bones?” (77)

The intermittent use of second person and imperative draw the reader into the drama as both witness and surrogate to the speaker’s explorations, perhaps a subtle way of this poet passing on his own legacy:

Look at the swifts:

as many wrought-iron arrows in the walls,

shot towards the four corners of the sky

when the summer evening falls.

And he who still writes on the last staffs,

perhaps, of his life:

‘That unknown woman fishing in her lightweight skiff

has struck me as well.

I first thought it sweet to be her prey,

but now the hook tugs at my heart

and I don’t know if it’s the daylight or me

bleeding in these pearly waters.’ (81)

The poem places the central perspective with the reader, through which the speaker views both his own mortality and, perhaps paradoxically, through it, his own enmeshment within the daylight and water as a vital and ongoing part of the life of the world despite the impending cessation of “his” consciousness:

There’s a beauty that the eyes and hands touch

and that makes the heart take a first step in song.

But the other one steals away and we must climb higher

until we can’t see anything any more,

the beautiful target and the tenacious hunter

blended in the jubilant light. (83)

As in the meditations of ‘La Clarté Notre-Dame,’ however, the perspective that affirms its temporary place in ongoing life is not at one with the voice located closer to personal mortality. In fact, one important moral contribution of both works is bringing the two into intrapsychic dialogue. Here, the birds carry the blurred projection of transcendent self and the shadow of death that it implies for the individual poet, through which he recovers his deep, unwavering vocation:

In the distance, the blue tents of the mountains

seem empty.

What are you sombrely scheming on your wires,

nervous birds, my familiar swallows?

What are you all going to take away from me?

If it were only the summer light

I’d willingly wait here for your return.

If it were only my life, carry it off.

But the light of my life, cruel birds,

let me keep it so I can brighten November. (99)

The movements between mythic macrocosm and imaginal immanence, in parallel with the reflexivity of speaker and addressee positions, facilitate many framings of this inner dialogue, bringing forth various moods, perspectives, experiential openings, and insights. In doing so the reflections weave together objective knowledge of the human confrontation with death with the mythic experiences of ongoing life in ways that transcend both poet and text, brightening Novembers for those yet to add their own threads to the choir of tapestries.


[i] Jaccottet, Philippe. Ponge, Pastures, Prairies. Translated by John Taylor. BSE Books, 2020pg 37.

You can find the book here: https://www.seagullbooks.org/la-clarte-notre-dame-and-the-last-book-of-the-madrigals/

Michael Collins’ poems have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines.  He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala, the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances , which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews . He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center and is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, NY.

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