Ici, mais plus maintenant: Poésie; Photographies de Milan Chlumsky
Les Impressions Nouvelles, Brussels, BE, 2019
112 pp., illus. Paper, €12
Jan Baetens’s poetry volume is a visual feast of black and white. Accompanying it are Milan Chlumsky’s lunar and Venusian photographs, black rectangles printed with soft semi-circles and ghostlike figures in white. In an allusion to the transmedial comparison between poetry and photography that raises its head more explicitly elsewhere (pp. 45-46), Baetens suggests that the black and white of the poetic imagination overspills even the words “noir” and “blanc” (p. 60). Day and night underlie one another like footsteps under a blanket of snow, reversing the usual image of footprints:
«La jour la nuit subsiste
Et sous le jour la nuit
Comme pas sous neige» (p. 31)
Similarly, by contrast with the first epigraph (p. 5) — in which snakes brush away footprints rather like the trail of crumbs in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ — the photographic traces of the moon’s passage are captured here, blurred but not erased (pp. 77-79).
The author’s titular concern with the dimensions of space and time soars from the heights of the moon down to a football, a stone, an open mouth and a gutter. If there is a logic of spherical metonymy in these images, the same is true of the stars and constellations which pepper these poems with a familiar circularity. In one starry poem, space stretches the distance between being and appearing to new proportions; a star which “déjà n’existe plus / Quand elle se manifeste” is, in the end, no more distant than a painted ceiling (p. 55). Again, the poetry reflects on art as object of investigation.
The resemblances and chains of imagery (see p. 33) that run through the collection are counterbalanced by displacements and contradictions. This is a poetic world in which earth can be heaven, milk can be glass-hard, and cotton can be barbed. The poems are clever, there’s no denying it, and subtly take their cue from the odd and counterintuitive reversals already present in language and life: “Avec le train à l’arrêt / Et la gare en marche” (p. 41). Phrases such as “[le] temps qui reste” and “au demeurant” slip from figurative temporal meanings to literal spatial ones, but there is a lightness of touch for which the reader is grateful.
Alongside this cerebral and celestial loftiness, we find a relentless focus on stuff. Baetens’s vignettes are saturated with small details and bolstered by a real descriptive power. His return to the figure of the nature morte seems to me to gesture less towards kitsch or cliché (despite his elevation of the “cliché minuscule | Que je ramasse ou jette par terre” [p. 46]) and more towards the weight and solidity of the real, the fodder of the everyday. This is maximalist, enumerative, accumulative, citational poetry, richly textured with the effet de réel.
In the second chapter, ‘Hôtel H.’, the hotel setting emerges by way of doors, stairs, taps, lights, drawers… One poem cautions us against impatience: “Finis seul ta ronde / Dans cette chambre qui tourne dans ta tête” (p. 94). Indeed, even at their most carnivalesque and eclectic, the poems never appear rushed or breathless in an attempt to exhaust their subject matter; if anything, they sometimes threaten to collapse under the weight of their motifs, riffing enumerations, and towers of words (p. 59).
All of this creates the impression that the poems follow grooves that are not entirely of their own making. The hotel, in the end, is made partly out of bricks and mortar and partly from the words in which we dwell. It, too, has an ordering presence. The hotel imposes its life cycles and routines by means of “la machine des chambres” (p. 88): permutations of fresh linen, fresh glasses, fresh guests. This recalls the earlier poem in which water moves in rivulets along little trenches in the ground. Words flow in the same way: “Rainure de mots ni bons ni faux” (p. 38). The water speaks, time speaks, the hotel speaks and so do its walls. And we follow behind, “Sans moi, venant derrière, / Courant après, marchant dessous” (p. 100).
On top of being clever, the collection is wry and cheekily self-deprecating, especially when it references poetry as a craft. Poetry gets left lying around (p. 37); it is “une longue liste de listes” (p. 52); it’s a washed-out affiche (p. 63). In the latter poem, Baetens also self-reflexively nods to the proliferation of stars in his own work: “En cet endroit […], | J’ai dit ici, j’ai dit maintenant, | Les étoiles s’attroupent impatientes.” Not only that, but he brings us back down to earth with a bump at times. Don’t dream of eternity. Walking among the stars or on the moon is possible only with one’s feet on the ground:
« Nous n’irons pas aux étoiles
Fermons les yeux, elles n’existent plus.
Même sur la lune c’est encore la terre
Qu’on aura sous les pieds
Et la tête sur les pauvres épaules. » (p. 65)