Writing the Rack That Wracks Us: On Translating the Poetry of Marie-Claire Bancquart

By Christina Cook

One of the many things I have Marie-Claire Bancquart to thank for is introducing me to the world of things. I don’t mean an initiation into the pleasures of 24/7 QVC or a penchant for crying into piles of pricey men’s shirts à la Daisy Buchanan. Rather, she helped me see myself as one thing among many which exist in concert with one another—and it is an illuminating, humbling vision.

The story goes back to the coal mining town of Aubin, France, in that uneasy time between the two world wars: when Bancquart was small, she contracted bone tuberculosis, and for treatment spent several years in a full-body cast, experiencing the world horizontally, she has said, as an almost inanimate layer of the natural world. This intimate inside knowledge of things would become an elemental part of her poetry, along with her not-unrelated embrace of Atomism, the ancient Greek theory of nature that postulates a universe made up of “uncuttable” atoms which continually recombine with other atoms into different forms of organic matter. The image that most beautifully expresses this idea, for me, is in Bancquart’s poem “Icare,” where Icarus, having fallen out of the sky, “opens his eyes over the red earth,” preparing his reappearance “in the English rose” many years hence (Dans le feuillitage de la terre, Paris: Belfond, 1994).

This reappearance is, importantly, not a rebirth, a reincarnation, or a rising again in any way: transcendence plays no part in this purely physical phenomenon. When I sat with Marie-Claire Bancquart in her study in 2005, she told me:  “I think earthly things are destined to die like the earth itself. And this common death brings us much closer to the animals, plants, and all things on the earth. I don’t think there’s any fundamental difference between us and these other things, for example, between my cat and myself.” (full interview in Cerise Press, Summer 2010)

The comfort she finds in this worldview is functionally no different than the comfort a Christian finds in the promise of Heaven, or the assurance a Hindu finds in reincarnation—except one could say hers requires a little more, well, bravery. This bravery plays out in her poetry through unapologetically no-frills language and powerful concrete imagery, much of which is set in Paris, encompassing everything from bugs on the undersides of old bridges to the glittering Eiffel Tower. Her poem, “Millennia,” for example, distills mankind’s physical connection to the world into an image of a Parisian street market: “Mankind, this late in coming, rewinds a thread of the world/along the stalls of early produce/crates, market palettes/smell, wet, like their tree of origin.”

These deceptively simple lines open up a sweeping vision of mankind’s umbilical connection to its pre-existence on earth. Where this poem offers a large-scale panorama, her poem “My Bones” gives an intimate close-up of the speaker imagining what her own bones’ existence will be like after she—in whom they presently cohere—expires:

            My bones have beautiful remains
            already cut, it’s true
            already
            mended together
            as they bravely remain.
            They hold
            my flesh and skin on.
            I bring their troop along
            and bring myself along with it.
            (old impression: being only partly part of it)
            before the glass of prehistoric displays
            where, among supposedly sharpened stones, arrowheads,
            are femurs, visibly broken
            but pieced back together.
            Which just goes to show, in ten thousand and some-odd years,
            my dear bones now on the asphalt, you can appear
            in exhibitions mounted after a loco labor
            near beer bottles and submachine guns,
            this old rack
            in my life
            that has wracked me.      

Just as the prehistoric femurs are on view with an assortment of other artifacts from that time period, she matter-of-factly imagines her own damaged bones on display “in ten thousand and some-odd years” among other artifacts from her own time period: “beer bottles and submachine guns.” The ramshackle “troop” of her stitched-together bones and the disembodiment conveyed in her “bones now on the asphalt” give the sense that she sees her body as a jumbled collection of pieces held together in a state of bodyhood that is only temporary, as all things are temporary, and predisposed, as all things are, to break down into recombineable component parts.

The biggest translating challenge in this poem was staying true to the prosody that enacts the reappearance of one given thing in the form of another (Icarus in the English rose; leg bones in museum artifacts): in the beginning of the poem, Bancquart uses repetition to play on the word variants restes (noun) and restent (verb). Translating these into “remains” and “remain” was easy enough. However, the variants fourbi and fourbue and the end of the poem were less so, fourbi meaning “gear, kit, shambles or disorder” and fourbue meaning “exhausted.” I spent many hours seeking English-language equivalents, which eventually led me to “rack” (a framework or grating on which articles are placed, an instrument of torture, a cause of acute suffering) and “wrack” (to wreck). My acquaintance with and deep admiration of Marie-Claire Bancquart informed this process for me, enabling me to engage at an intuitive as well as intellectual level.

Marie-Claire Bancquart’s suffering didn’t end when she emerged from the plaster cocoon of her childhood—the after-effects of the disease would continue to take their toll on her, and her discomfort was visible to me when I visited in the summer of 2005. Despite this, she insisted that I, forty years her junior, take the more comfortable chair in her study the morning we spent talking there, insisted that I have the more comfortable seat in the car when she and her husband, the well-known composer Alain Bancquart, drove me around Paris for the afternoon.

In the single day I spent with her and our many communications since, she has revealed herself to be—like the cosmogonic elements she’s made of—a force of nature. A powerful poet with a profound worldview and a finely tuned writing style, she is regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary French poetry over the last fifty years. When I discovered her work, I discovered a gap in my knowledge of literature and an opportunity to grow as poet. When I discovered how little of her work had been translated into English, I discovered a canyon in the canon of contemporary poetry known to American scholars, poets, and readers. There are, of course, many such canyons in the US, where relatively less work-in-translation is read than in any other western country, but with Words without Borders and its peer journals doing the critical world-mending work of publishing such translations, this canyoned landscape is becoming more lush, one volume at a time.


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