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Infinity, Minus Forty Yearly Installments: Noun Complements (1972–2012)

1. In September 1972, funded by a scholarship, I took the Orient Express to Vienna. Sixteen-hour journey, upper bunk. Less than enthusiastic about sharing a room in the student hostel, I looked for a studio and moved into 48/18 Fleichgasse, Vienna 15.

2. Certificate in German obtained, composition of a master’s thesis on the relations of words and music in the opera Lulu by Alban Berg. Alongside that, a course in electroacoustics at the Hochshule für Musik.

3. Exploration of the city into its lowest recesses. In October, on the banks of the Danube canal, I discovered, written on a building, “DDSG”: “Donau-Dampfschifffahrts-Gesellschaft.” In that instant I recalled Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän, a made-up word that children repeat for fun: the captain of the company for excursions by steamboat on the Danube. It could be the beginning of a story whose title would be “Noun Complements.”

4. That evening I wrote the word on a sheet of paper, attached a new noun to it, then, out of curiosity, still another. The extension by successive additions swiftly rendered the whole thing unreadable. It was necessary to maintain the same number of noun-units, six, each new addition pushing a word toward the exit. The words first written in German I translated into French, where they turned phrases. On the basis of their isometricity I called them lines of verse.

            the captain of the company for excursions by steamboat on the Danube
            the wife of the captain of the company for excursions by steamboat
            the daughter of the wife of the captain of the company for excursions by boat
            the dog of the daughter of the wife of the captain of the company for excursions
            the kennel of the dog of the daughter of the wife of the captain of the company
            the carpet of the kennel of the dog of daughter of the wife of the captain
            the color of the carpet of the kennel of the dog of the daughter of the wife
           

5. In 1971 I had made the acquaintance of Louis Roquin at a concert at the Paris Biennale. Through his good offices I sat in on the weekly meetings of GERM, the Group for Musical Studies and Practice (Groupe d’études et de réalisations musicales) founded by Pierre Mariétan, which brought together composer-musicians. The group was the first in France to play the works of American minimalists, most notably Terry Riley. I witnessed the recording of “In C,” a piece in which 53 formulas are repeated in an order chosen by the players and in slow, progressive modulation.

6. In December 1972 I once more crossed paths with Louis Roquin in Bonn, where he was working with Karlheinz Stockhausen on the recording of “Momente.” I sat in on rehearsals. Stockhausen gave a detailed account of the structure of his piece, conceived as an organism composed of autonomous events that set up a variety of relations among themselves. Together with the GERM composers and with Riley he set my course: to write a poem the way music is written.

7. In Bonn Louis Roquin was the first hearer and first reader of “Noun Complements.” He told me, “It’s very good, but there aren’t enough.” Very well, then: the poem will be infinitely long!

8. Rules for composition very quickly surfaced. The introduction of a new word depends on the association of ideas, on position with respect to other words, on synonymy, on accumulation; or it obeys the constraint of a rhetorical or stylistic figure, or an invented one. If infinite, the poem aspires to use all existing nouns without any hierarchy: words born of local lingos, dialects, foreign languages, dead or invented languages, technical jargons . . . to write in all languages a poem about language.

9. I also made use of techniques from electroacoustics: montage, insertion, splicing by cutting into vocabulary as one cuts into tape.

10. Each newly added word takes the grammatical position of “subject.” Thereafter it is progressively pushed toward the exit; in each verse it distances itself from the semantic focal point before disappearing. After a few hundred verses, it is no longer necessary to set the six nouns in a line; thereafter the manuscript notebooks contain only a long column of nouns, a long litany read along the vertical axis. In other words, each word is used only once in the poem, even though it makes five appearances in the position of modifier. A card file registers words already used with the number of the corresponding verse. The index of the poem.

11. While staying in Paris in March 1973, I got back in touch with a high-school student whom I was tutoring in German. His father, Georges Charbonnier, produced a radio broadcast, “Art, Method, Creation,” on France Culture. After a working session I asked his opinion of the text begun in Vienna. He ran through the opening verses, riffled through a few later pages, then raised his head and declared, “You’ll be on the radio next week.” That first show, broadcast on March 23, steered the poem toward orality and determined the means of later presentations: the voice amplified by a microphone capable of catching the slightest inflections, of accenting breaths, whispers, mouth-sounds.

12. In May 1973, first excursion on the Danube, starting at Melk.

13. Invited to participate in the Eighth Paris Biennale on September 21 and still influenced by electroacoustic technique, I recorded a passage an hour and a half in length, which was played at an evening performance in which the dancer Susan Buirge and the musicians Eugénie Kuffler and Philippe Drogoz also took part.

14. The first “live” readings didn’t happen till January 1975, in a Parisian café-theater called La Cour des Miracles.

15. In June of that year, organization of an event that I titled “Hors-Texte,” which presented an exhibition of visual and sound poetry and a performance (the “Music in the Street” festival in Aix-en-Provence). There I first made contact with Pierre Garnier, Jean-François Bory, Julien Blaine, Bernard Heidsieck, Henri Chopin, François Dufrêne . . .

16. On January 22, 1976, first reading with the sound poets at the Galerie Annick Lemoine (“Panorama of International Sound Poetry”). “Hors-Texte 2” with a forty-five-minute reading from “Noun Complements.”

17. The choice to publish a text through the oral medium grew initially out of my closeness to the contemporary music world. The composers and musicians of GERM interpreted their own work, and I thought to do the same with words. I did not pick up the term “sound poetry” because it seemed to me to belong to its three great French founders: Heidsieck, Chopin, and Dufrêne.

18. Since 1975 I have been a member of the Oulipo. The “Noun Complements” were the reason for my cooptation. I thus split myself between two adoptive families that I have kept at an equal distance, remaining in an in-between where I could create my own synthesis.

19. From then on each new reading was called “Hors-texte” followed by an ordinal number, a designation used until 1982. Still under the influence of music, I decided to apply to the reading of text modes independent of meaning. Basing my practice on parameters of sound—tempo, nuance, notation — and using that vocabulary, I set the rate of recital (lento to prestissimo), the volume (pianissimo to fortissimo), and the tonality (furioso, doloroso, appassionato, etc.). The text became a score, and only orality could do justice to its full evolution, as I have summed up in a formula: the launch of the word into space is the final stage of writing.

20. Invitations to read in various towns and countries; each reading must be unique and ephemeral. The scheme of the reading is set as a function of the location, based on the weather history, for example, or on the tide almanac, or on facts about the course of the Danube.

21. Print publication was envisaged after the end of the seventies, initially with the aid of the Bank of France. On every banknote that passed through my hands I wrote one verse. In a notebook I recorded the value of the bill, its number, and that of the verse. Some merchants noticed nothing, others worried that the bill might no longer be worth anything; still others became readers. At the ticket window of the Gare de l’Est in Paris, for instance, the employee pointed out that there was something written on my money. No kidding—what? She read the entire verse in a loud, clear voice and then shrugged. “It doesn’t mean anything,” she concluded. “All right, take it to the pulper at the Bank of France.”

22. On Wednesday, March 26, 1980, volume 73 of the 112th year of the Journal Officiel de la République Française, which promulgates laws and edicts, published verse 5,883 of “Noun Complements”: “The association of the auditor of the sonority of semanticism of the substantive of the poem.”
President: Louis Roquin.
The title intrigued the prefect’s office, which summoned us. The founding of a subversive society is forbidden by law, but how about substantive? Brief grammar review in the presence of skeptical functionaries.

23. But there were grounds for anxiety in that number of the J.O.: “Association for the Block of Houses in the Place des Fêtes,” “Committee for the Organization of the Festival of Public Education of St. Omer,” “Committee for Defense of the Interests of the Residents of Pérenchies,” “Service for the Replacement of Agricultural Workers of the Canton of Tinchebray” . . .  The germ of a collection of ready-made phrases.

24. The “Register of Forty Pages Reviewed, Marked, and Initialed In Accordance With Article 31 of the Decree of 16 August, 1901, by the Head of the Office of the Prefecture” has been left immaculate. It will be put at the disposal of visitors to the exhibition, as its guestbook.

25. Starting in 1982, “Oral publication” replaced “Hors-texte.” A radicalization of the procedure, a return to the etymology: “make public by the spoken word.” The expression makes a better account of what comes into play in the crossing into orality. The text in manuscript takes the form of a series of words to be read vertically, step by step, the axis of the poem keyed to the time of writing. Oral publication is a horizontal deployment, the abscissa of the poem keyed to the much longer time of its reading or performance. In this way Oral publication sets itself off from a simple reading-aloud. This crossing into the horizontal has an impact on meaning, and occasionally underscores the inversion of logical connections.

26. In the same way that a river’s flow varies depending on the geomorphology of the regions it traverses, the flow of meaning is also subject to variations: abrupt veerings due to the play between literal and figurative sense, whenever a polysemous word authorizes a modulation, a crossing from one semantic field to another (cf. harmony in music). A slowing as the narration ponderously takes shape, line by line; eddies when synonyms accumulate and meaning grows dilute. As each new word is introduced, it reorients the direction of the wording that preceded it. Fluidity, instability. The meaning remains elusive, slippery, offering nothing but flashes.

27. In 1983, in response to an invitation from Arnaud Labelle-Rojoux to participate in the series of “Cahiers Loques” [“Rag Journals”], I collected 14 excerpts from “Noun Complements” under the title “First Decade: Noun Complements. 1973–1983.” I have always hesitated between ’72, the year the text began, and ’73 when it first was read!
February 5, participation in the “Internationales Festival phonetische Poesie” in Vienna, organized by Gerhard Rühm. I traveled by Orient Express once more for this return to the source.

28. Since my initiation into computer use in 2000, a conception of the poem in 3D as a spatialized network has replaced the image of its linear unfolding. The same words stray in various directions, independent of the main flow, branches of an arborescence. They play the role of switch-points that permit interconnection, the click that shunts meaning off toward a new field.

29. In 2002, on the occasion of the poem’s thirtieth anniversary, while living in Wiepersdorf (near Berlin), I wrote a long passage based on a particular linguistic event: following the exodus of a number of French Protestants into Germany during the wars of religion, the practices of the Huguenots promoted the borrowing of French words. Nouns—words in exile subjected to the norms of another tongue—became capitalized. They sometimes found themselves decked out with a neuter definite article they had never had before: “das Engagement.” The first Oral publication of “No Man’s Langue” took place at Centre Pompidou on April 30, 2003.

30. Thanks to a meeting with Franz Hammerbacher and Reto Ziegler, founders of the Viennese publishing house Korrespondenzen, “No Man’s Langue” served as a launching pad for a much larger project, a sequence of 2,888 verses (the Danube is 2,888 kilometers long), published in 2006 under the title “2888 Donauverse. Aus eine unendliche Gedicht” [from an endless poem]: an autonomous sequence added to the some 20,000 verses that already existed.

31. Like “No Man’s Langue,” certain portions of “Noun Complements” have titles: “Recto Tono,” “Gobi,” “Pole Position,” “The Troubles of Language,” “Potential French,” “The Four National Languages of Switzerland,” or “The Course of the Danube.” They come accompanied by images or samples of sound, may even be matter for theatrical performance.

32. The story began by chance on the banks of the transcontinental and multilingual river Danube. Baptised Danubius by the Romans, it changes its name as it crosses Mitteleuropa: Donau in Germany and Austria, Dunaj in Slovakia and Ukraine, Duna in Hungary, Dunav in Croatia, Serbia, and Bulgaria, Dunarea in Romania and Moldova. There is still some doubt about the location of its source, and it has three different lengths, the 2,888-km figure being measured from the source of the Breg in the Black Forest. At the end of the nineteenth century the British engineer Charles Augustus Hartley decided to measure it from the delta, using the lighthouse at Sulina on the Black Sea as the zero-point. On account of silting, the sea has since receded seven km, and the lighthouse now rises from terra firma. The first 151 km included in the delta area as far as Galați are measured in nautical miles. Its end is also its beginning, like the circular Chinese poems I’ve been translating these last twenty years!

33. Besides the insurers, cooling-system technicians, shippers, restaurateurs, and all the other entrepreneurs who use the river as their trademark, the Vienna telephone book contains an Andrea, Ingrid, Markus, Michaela DONAU.

34. In an earthenware crock mix 250 grams of softened butter, 250 grams of sugar, and one packet of vanilla sugar. Add 5 eggs, one after another, and then 350 grams of flour and half a packet of baking powder. Grease a round cake pan with butter. Pour 2/3 of the cake batter into it. To the remaining 1/3 add 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder and one of milk; stir. Pour this darker batter on top of the lighter batter. With a fork draw undulations on the surface, then lay on 200 ml of pitted cherries patted dry. Bake for 35 minutes at 180° C. Thus the “Danube Wave” cake ripples out into the world. You can also roll and polish, in your mouth, some “Danube Pebbles” (Confiserie Heuschober in Linz), or listen to Strauss . . . How to represent the river? The Austrians have imag(in)ed it in blue.

35. Each Oral publication subjugated to a scheme of reading requires the text and its rubrics to be inscribed on a writing surface. The first notebook was handwritten by hand. Next, each typed page of text was sorted in a binder, inside a plastic sleeve on which notes for the reading were pasted. I tried using a roll of wallpaper — too fragile. At last a typewriter with a wide carriage allowed me to type on a roll of drawing paper until . . . they stopped making ink ribbons. In the meantime I had been studying Chinese calligraphy; I chose the medium of brush and China ink to make manuscript scrolls. The writing gesture is unique and unforgiving, and in that it resembles Oral publication.

36. For this fortieth anniversary I conceived a new run of 2,888 verses. I wrote them in calligraphy on a scroll 50 meters long, divided into five columns. The text is broken up by insertions painted in acrylics: stenciled kilometer markings, reproductions of logos and navigation signs, arranged as found along the course of the Danube. The signs bring some signification into the landscape. Elements of an international code, they can be read in any language in the world, without translation. Even colors signify: red for the forbidden, blue for the recommended. The scroll may thus be deciphered like a chart, a panoramic view on the scale of 1 verse = 1 kilometer. A legend guides the visitor through the journey.

37. “The Course of the Danube,” subtitle “Gigantexte No. 12,” joins a series of large-scale works in exploring the visual aspect of the written text, appropriating and transposing certain codes used in communication (the braille alphabet, sign language, nautical pennants . . .) via a variety of media: paper cutouts, stenciled lettering, fabric swatches, acrylic paint . . .

38. In 1976 I participated for the first time in a group show, “Festival of the Letter,” at the prompting of Joan Rabascall (Galerie Fachetti, Paris). In a piece called “Tour de main” I showed a text transcribed into sign language, with each hand-character drawn in ink. Since 2010 I have used this alphabet to insert text into landscape. I ask passersby to make a letter with their hand, which I then photograph; later the photos are assembled in a text. During a stay in spring 2011 in Linz (the town where the first company that offered excursions on the river by boat was founded), I asked several people to write in this manner a word against the backdrop of the Danubian landscape. A second series was put together around Vieux Port, starting from some verses relating to Marseille. These images, montaged in “flipbook” animations, are to be projected on a screen. I found out in Linz that the young Viennese Josef Kyselak (1799–1831) had already given some thought to writing on landscape. He wandered through Austria, Bavaria, the Tyrol, and Slovenia with his white wolfhound, “Duna,” stopping on occasion near this or that monument or castle to carve his name into stone. He signed in this way a stone jutting out over a viewpoint on the Danube.
Josef Kyselak, homonym of Joseph K. This is the moment to point out that these 2,888 verses are dedicated to Bernard Heidsieck!

39. At 45°8’53” N and 29°45’34” W, Sulina is a long way from Marseille, whose zero-point brings me closer all the same. In 1998, in residence at cipM [Centre Internationale de Poésie Marseille], I became acquainted with the sea-level gauge and devoted a text to it. This structure, now closed, served to determine elevations with respect to sea level for all of France, for which it is the zero-point. A fifty-meter reach of the Danube was thus to thrust itself into Marseille for the length of an exhibition. In 2010, during a seminar at the University of Germersheim, Professor A. F. Kelletat had his foreign students translate this sea-level-gauge text into thirteen languages. They performed the result one evening at the Hufeisen Theater. Thus the zero-point points towards multilingualism.

40. One last word, this one to introduce at the poem’s end to stake my claim to the infinite: métail, archaic term for metal alloy, since this proper noun is altogether common!

*

[Translator's note: In the columns of single words Métail operates by a process of "connotative slippage" whereby a word's signification is shown to be dependent on context, indicated here by the words above and below it. There is thus a Danube-like flow of shifting meanings through the whole list. So in the series man-son-prodigality, the bridge from man to son is the phrase "son of man," and from son to prodigality it's "prodigal son." Because the phrases that contextualize nouns in French are sometimes different from those in English, I have used arrows to show the direction in which this slippage happens and notes to explain cases where the flow would otherwise be hard to follow, preferring this method to replacing Métail's words.]

1972.  solstice
1971.  ecliptic
1970.  break⇓/⇑
1969.  day
1968.  fall
1967.  twilight⇑⇓
1966.  god
1965.  verb⇓/word⇑
1964.  auxiliary
1963.  infinitive
1962.  mood⇑mode⇓
1961.  minor
1960.  corruption
1959.  abuse
1958.  confidence⇑⇓
1957.  man
1956.  son
1955.  prodigality
1954.  expenditure
1953.  surplus
1952.  balance
1951.  debit⇑⇓1
1950.  drink
1949.  alcohol
1948.  rate⇓/level⇑ 
1947.  exchange
1946.  agent
1945.  market
1944.  broker
1943.  speculation
1942.  stock-exchange
1941.  value
1940.  judgment
1939.  lack
1938.  pot⇓/luck⇑
1937.  handle⇑/bend⇓
1936.  arc⇑/bow⇓
1935.  arrow
1934.  direction
1933.  forbidden
1932.  passage
1931.  servitude2
1930.  dependence⇑/outbuilding⇓
1929.  annex
1928.  building
1927.  contractor
1926.  construction/
1925.  material
1924.  resistance
1923.  passivity
1922.  nonviolence
1921.  demonstration
1920.  axiom
1919.  evidence
1918.  empiricism
1917.  experiment⇓/experience⇑
1916.  test⇓/proof⇑
1915.  laboratory
1914.  preparer
1913.  microscope
1912.  double lens
1911.  enlargement
1910.  lens⇑/lentil⇓
1909.  pod
1908.  seam
1907.  opening
1906.  hour
1905.  quarter
1904.  four3
1903.  ingredient
1902.  dose
1901.  administration
1900.  council⇑/counsel⇓
1899.  discipline
1898.  mortification
1897.  penitence
1896.  confessor
1895.  martyrdom
1894.  street⇑⇓4
1893.  corner
1892.  bistro
1891.  terrace
1890.  parapet
1889.  wall
1888.  demarcation
1887.  boundary
1886.  stone
1885.  age
1884.  doyen5
1883.  dignity
1882.  investiture
1881.  fief
1880.  tenure
1879.  concession
1878.  privilege
1877.  abolition
1876.  night6
1875.  shirt

 

1. débit de boissons = bar
2. passage de servitude = right of way
3. quatre quarts = pound cake
4. Rue des Martyrs in Paris
5. doyen d’âge = aged Calvados
6. abolition de la nuit = oblivion

*

0840.     the visor of the cap of the fan of the cyclist of the breakaway from the group
0839.     the shelter of the visor of the cap of the fan of the cyclist of the breakaway
0838.     the dysfunction of the shelter of the visor of the cap of the fan of the runner
0837.     the rain through the dysfunction of the shelter of the visor of the cap of the fan
0836.     the flood of rain through the dysfunction of the shelter of the visor of the cap
0835.     the ark of the flood of rain through the dysfunction of the shelter of the visor
0834.     the mammal of the ark of the flood of rain through the dysfunction of the shelter
0833.     the young of the mammal of the ark of the flood of rain of inclemency
0832.     the survival of the young of the mammal of the ark of the flood of rain
0831.     the instinct for survival of the young of the mammal of the ark of the Flood
0830.     the unanimity of the instinct for survival of the young of the mammal of the ark
0829.     the tractability of unanimity of the instinct for survival of the young of the mammal
0828.     the submission to the docility of unanimity of the instinct for survival of the young
0827.     the yoke of submission to the docility of unanimity of the instinct for survival
0826.     the collar of the yoke of submission to the docility of gregariousness of instinct
0825.     the décolletage of the collar of the yoke of submission to the tractability of gregariousness
0824.     the neckline of the décolletage of the collar of the yoke of submission to tractability
0823.     the bosom of the neckline of the décolletage of the collar of the yoke of submission
0822.     the dove in the bosom of the neckline of the décolletage of the collar of the yoke
0821.     the droppings of the dove in the bosom of the neckline of the décolletage of the collar
0820.     the track of the droppings of the dove in the bosom of the neckline of the décolletage
0819.     the stain of the track of droppings of the dove in the bosom of the neckline
0818.     the washing of the stain of the track of droppings from the dove in the bosom
0817.     the soap for washing the stain of the track of droppings from the dove
0816.     the Marseillais with the soap for washing the stain of the track of droppings
0815.     the port of the Marseillais of the soap for washing the stain of the track
0814.     the old man of the port of the Marseillais with the soap for washing the stain
0813.     the ferry-boat of the old man of the port of the Marseillais with the soap for washing
0812.     the slip of the ferry-boat of the old man of the port of the Marseillais with the soap
0811.     the pilings of the slip of the ferry-boat of the old man of the port of the Marseillais
0810.     the cement of the pilings of the slip of the ferry-boat of the old man of the port
0809.     the mortar of the cement of the pilings of the slip of the ferry-boat of the old man
0808.     the pestle of the mortar of cement of the pilings of the slip of the ferry-boat
0807.     the millet of the pestle of the mortar of the cement of the pilings of the slip
0806.     the sorghum of millet of the pestle of the mortar of the cement of the pilings
0805.     the field of sorghum of millet of the pestle of the mortar of the cement
0804.     the irrigation of the field of sorghum of millet of the pestle of the mortar
0803.     the ditch for the irrigation of the field of sorghum of millet of the pestle
0802.     the digging of the trench for the irrigation of the field of sorghum of millet
0801.     the pick for digging the trench for the irrigation of the field of sorghum.
0800.     the handle of the pick for digging the trench for the irrigation of the field
0799.     the support of the handle of the pick for digging the trench for irrigation
0798.     the do-nothing with the support of the handle of the pick for digging the trench
0797.     the king of do-nothing with the support of the imbecile with the pick for digging
0796.     the inertia of the king of do-nothing with the support of the imbecile with the pick
0795.     the reputation for inertia of the king of do-nothing with the support of the imbecile
0794.     the badness of the reputation for inertia of the king with a do-nothing for support
0793.     the disaster of the badness of the reputation of the king of do-nothing
0792.     the carnage from the disaster of the badness of the reputation of the king
0791.     the extricator from the carnage of the disaster of the badness of the reputation
0790.     the madman of a shooter in the carnage of the disaster of badness
0789.     the machinegun of the madman of a shooter in the carnage of the disaster
0788.     the rat-a-tat-tat of the machinegun of the madman of a shooter in the carnage
0787.     the bullet in the rat-a-tat-tat of the machinegun of the madman of a shooter

“L'infini moins quarante annuités” first published in Le Cahier du Réfuge 214 (2012). © Michèle Métail. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Tom La Farge. All rights reserved.