For the past few years, Black Square Editions, run by John Yau, has been putting out beautiful paperback books in translation such as Pierre Reverdy’s rollicking work of short fiction Haunted House (translated by John Ashbery) and Reverdy’s Prose Poems (translated by Ron Padgett). Its latest venture is Brian Evenson and Joanna Howard’s translation of Walls (Anamneses) by Marcel Cohen who, according to John Taylor, “has produced some of the most innovative and arresting short prose in contemporary French literature.”
At 5.5″ by 4.5″—about on par with the Green Integer volumes or the books in The City Lights Pocket Poets Series—this is one of the smallest books that I own; it is also one of the most fascinating. It is the kind of book that I wish well-dressed elderly men passed out on the street instead of those pocket-sized bibles that one inevitably sees immediately abandoned on the tops of newspaper machines.
A compendium of aphoristic passages, a flipbook of presences and absences, an exquisitely minimalist travelogue-cum-commonplace book, a remembrance of things past by way of the fragment: it is difficult to categorize this text, which was originally published in 1979, but it is quite easy to appreciate its grave acumen and elegance.
As the title suggests, these authoritatively stated sentences directly meditate on walls both physical and figurative, and sometimes a careful observation of the phenomenal world exists in the same sentence as the metaphysical:
Little flowers blooming between the stones of the wall, detritus of time at the confluence of all memories.
Some of the entries, enclosed within parentheses, ostensibly recall a significant memory:
(As a child, leaning from the train window so as not to lose sight of my mother waving her handkerchief, how was I to understand that an ordinary wall, looming unexpectedly up, suddenly obliged me to speak of her in the past tense.)
Some have the sagacious tranquility of haiku:
Wall of China: above the clouds, jets pass without even catching sight of it.
And some, as is the case with much of Cohen’s writing, explore the historical trauma of WWII (this particular example probably refers to the quelling of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943):
(Warsaw: Sunday, they came after mass, in their fine clothes, as one goes to a show, to see, on the other side of the ghetto walls, the last combatants jump from the windows of buildings in flames.)
It is significant that the last two of these passages occur on opposing pages, creating a stunning contrast (that bridges time and space) between the sublime, machinic indifference of the jets and the despicable exhibitionism of the rich during wartime. For me, these kinds of contrasts (that occur within the text’s interstices, within the copious white space of the pages) made this book as urgent and as suspenseful as any mystery novel, and its best passages chilled me to the bone: “Walls nearly respectable if one doesn’t get near enough to see the marks of the fingernails.”
Michael Leong is the author of the poetry books e.s.p., Cutting Time with a Knife, Who Unfolded My Origami Brain?, and Words on Edge. His creative work has been anthologized in THE &NOW AWARDS 2: The Best Innovative Writing, Best American Experimental Writing 2018, and Bettering American Poetry, Volume 3. His co-translation, with Ignacio Infante, of Vicente Huidobro’s long poem Sky-Quake: Tremor of Heaven is forthcoming from co•im•press in late 2019. His critical monograph Contested Records: The Turn to Documents in Contemporary North American Poetry is forthcoming from the University of Iowa Press in May 2020. He has received grants from the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and the National Endowment for the Arts. He teaches in the School of Critical Studies at CalArts.