Friday, April 26, 2013

The Pine Woods Notebook

After the defeat of the French army and the German occupation, Francis Ponge set out, travelling by foot and bicycle, to reach the Free Zone.  It was a month and a half before he reached a small village in the Haute-Loire and there, reunited with his family but with no access to books, he began writing in the only paper that was available to him.  Over the course of a month, this pocket notebook recorded his repeated attempts to express the essence of the landscape he now found himself in.  The pine woods, like this part of unoccupied France, were a shelter, 'where one can roam about at ease, without underbrush, without branches grazing the head, where one can stretch out on dry ground, not spongy, quite comfortably.  Each pine wood is like a natural sanatorium, also a music hall... a chamber, a vast cathedral for meditation (fortunately a cathedral without a pulpit) open to all winds, but through so many doors it's as though they were closed.  For winds hesitate before them.'
August 7th: The wood is like a room - 'A carpet prevails over it.  A few stray rocks supply furnishings' 
August 8th: The pine tree is mostly dead wood and 'flares up only at the very peak: something like a candle'
August 9th: The masts of the trees are 'crinkled, lichen-cloaked like an elderly Creole'
August 12th: Pine needles are like bristles, 'hard as the teeth of a comb.'
August 13th: 'These woods are of a type of structure that has a very high ceilinged ground floor and above that an extremely complicated framework of upper floors, ceiling and roof.'  
August 17th: Within the wood there is 'perfect dryness.  Assuring vibrations and musicality.  Something metallic.  The presence of insects.  Fragrance.'
August 20th: The pine is 'the elemental idea of a tree.  It is an I, a stalk, and the rest matters little.'

August 21st: The wood is like a hairdressing salon - 'aromatic brushery in an overheated atmosphere' and 'fragments of sky like shards of mirrors.'

August 22nd: It is a 'temple of caducity'

August 24th: 'Above all, it is a slow production of wood.'

As Ponge walked and wrote he assembled the elements for a poem with the tentative title 'Sunlight in the Pine Woods.'  But what he eventually published a decade later in La rage de l'expression (translated for Archipelago Books by Lee Fahnestock) was not this poem, or even the kind of short prose pieces that brought acclaim when Le parti pris des choses appeared in 1942, but the notebook entries themselves.  The observations quoted above are found among lists and dictionary definitions, rewritings, plans and half formed ideas ('would it be possible to disentangle a forest...?')  For Ponge poetry is always imperfect, but a reader of The Pine Woods Notebook can follow him into the trees and witness poetry in the making.

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