Writing is an expansion of consciousness, maintains poet, translator and actress Hélène Cardona – whose bi-lingual book of poetry Life in Suspension/La Vie Suspendue (2016, Salmon Poetry) I reviewed on February 12,2017.
If the event of putting pen to paper to create something new opens our minds, then the act of translation, Cardona further points out, turns us into alchemists and magicians. In her introduction to Beyond Elsewhere (2016, White Pine Press) – the English version of a slim volume called Plus loin qu’ailleurs (2013, Éditions du Cygne) by French poet Gabriel Arnou-Laujeac (Blog, Facebook) – Cardona quotes the Canadian writer Anne Michaels and observes that translation “is a kind of transubstantiation”. The figure of the translator serves as an intermediary, a technician, a negotiator who spells an enchantment between languages and produces texts that span cultural differences, overcome geographical and temporal barriers.
In Arnou-Laujeac’s Beyond Elsewhere – through Hélène Cardona’s interpretative efforts – we find a lyrical narrative that is soaked in a saddening sense of loss, of exile and set alight by a persistent, gloriously hopeful search for the ineffable, the absolute. One of French poetry’s most innovative new voices, Arnou-Laujeac is a graduate of Science Po who has studied human rights and philosophies both Western and Eastern.
His book opens with an elegiac note, with the imagery of shadowy temples. The wheel of history is being diverted mechanically by controlling, anonymous hands in cold rooms of power. The four winds have been emptied of their God, a certain “specter of absence” has covered every atom of the universe. In this dark and suffocating era of machines and self-interest, in this century without an open sky and fixed anchor, the poet begins to harbor Dreams of Elsewhere. Dreams of Beyond Elsewhere. He aspires to acquire a space, a state of transcendence.
Refuge and relief appear in the shape and form of a mad first love – the poet is able to “ward off” the rusty society, the ugly automated world of naked, lusterless matter. He writes of his encounter with the object of his desire:
She reveals herself to my gaze naturally, the way spring unveils the blueness of sky or the gold of your skin. She slowly removes makeup, masks and ornaments, and gives me a vision of herself bewitched, of herself bewitching: she adores me and I unlock her.
Sprung raw from a virginal flame, passion takes us whole under its animal breath: the sun sparks impale our bodies galloping in a crash of oceans.
For a while, the lovers reign in a world where the beloved becomes everything – “the only face of what is faceless”. They are drunk, intoxicated in a “shoreless elsewhere”. Meeting and mating, for them, is a liturgical affair. They are wild swans who access a magical plenitude in “the holy of holies of their intertwined bodies.”
Soon however, there is a conflict, a drifting apart. An earthquake of disenchantment. The passion is profaned to vestiges. He has lost her, he has lost paradise. He is alone, inconsolable. Lost. Painfully, he reveals:
I shun the heights of love, haunted by the memory of a vertiginous fall.
The whole world becomes a wasteland, a desert where the poet is cursed to wander, pointlessly drinking false mirage water. As he does this, he mentions a cryptic verse by a famous writer:
Gradually I understand. I gradually accept. I recall in my flesh Samuel Beckett’s lines, in the somber and lucid heart of absence:
they come different and the same / with each it is different and the same / with each the absence of love is different / with each the absence of love is the same.
“They” could be people, “they” could be places – with whom and in which the poet continues to feel directionless and unappreciated.
Desiccated and distressed, he is tempted to embrace nihilism, to adopt the doctrine of the absurd, to surrender and declare that the universe is not inherently meaningful. But the poet goes on, refuses to give up. He continues to seek the unknown, something more, something else:
I resist its [the absurd’s] misleading vertigo, its lying mirrors, its sick beauty. Through centuries of ancient glory to come, I am immune to the hissing snakebite of death nestled deep in the human soul. I stand beyond the borders of nothingness, outstretched toward the inaccessible.
He fills his mind with memories of an unreachable yet conveniently close Kingdom overflowing with offerings of love. He sees this world with new and clearer eyes. The poet begins to recognise the value of himself (“Me”) and the value of that which is not-him (“All Other”). He is struck and stunned by the grace and variety of nature. He finds himself entranced again, by a mysterious woman – who is that grace and variety personified:
She is the rumor that rumbles at the bottom of the seashell stranded on the beach. Her beauty derives from elsewhere. She is the sun’s song, the moon’s sighs, an endless dream springing from the depths of another dream with a woman’s bust and eagle wings: her, then me in her; her, then light.
In the middle of this aesthetically-charged spiritual experience, the tumult of the world recedes for the poet. Natural time, he is certain, is a ring on the finger of a gorgeous supernatural Eternity.
He is captivated by the azure sea, by the fiery aurora. He finds a realm beyond the visible one.
He ends his lyrical narrative with an invocation of the “original lovers” – Heaven and Earth, who touch and merge at the horizon. He thinks of the black night, the scintillating expanse of the skies – the celestial assimilations, “the great luminaries contemplating each other”. And beyond the cover of the constellations, he knows, the invisible Seer of all things remains, who cannot be captured in images. This Seer is the First Cause – God – the Being who also happens to be pure and inexhaustible being-ness, orchestrating and holding the cosmos together.
And so – drawing from the adventure of his own spiritual journey – the poet presents to other lost and stateless souls a beautiful and genuine promise of return, of release. Stylistically spontaneous and thematically deep, Beyond Elsewhere is a challenging read. Arnou-Laujeac effortlessly distills whole schools of knowledge in short verses and phrases – from ancient Biblical to modern existential. The book may look fragmentary and abrupt in a first and quick reading but it will disclose itself as a delightful psalm, an enlightening talisman when engaged with again and again. It deserves to be.