I first heard about these two books from M. Kitchell’s post at HTML Giant.
I went to the Dalkey Archives website and read:
“In 1983 Jacques Roubaud’s wife Alix Cleo died at the age of 31 of a pulmonary embolism. The grief-stricken author responded with one brief poem (“Nothing”), then fell silent for thirty months.“
I immediately bought both Some Thing Black and Alix’s Journal, but it wasn’t until tonight that I finished reading them, first Jacques’s, then Alix’s.
It took me the past three days to finally finish reading these, particularly because I began with Some Thing Black. I kept putting it down. Every time I read a few poems I felt the need to get up and walk around, breathe, get air. I kept experiencing terrible waves of sadness. Jacques’s words are overwhelming. Here are two poems that appear consecutively in the book:
First “1983: January. 1985: June” (p. 31):
The rhythmic range of words fills me with horror.
I can’t bring myself to open a single book of poems.
Evening hours should be abolished.
When I wake up it’s dark: still.
Hundreds of dark mornings have been my refuge.
I read innocuous prose.
The rooms untouched: chairs, walls, shutters, clothes, doors.
I close the doors as if silence.
The light rises over my ears.
And “I Can Face Your Picture” (p. 32):
I really can face your picture, your ‘likeness’ as it used to be called. it’s difficult, but I can.
Scattered among lights, among your shadows.
Enumerated place after place: walls, drawers, this book:
Images of you, these words.
Your writing and typing: Canadian.
Your twofold tongue. sight.
But I can’t bring myself to listen to your voice again: the cassettes you recorded, all those hours, at night, the final months.
Other traces of you, come through my other senses, are only inside me. These I stumble on and choke.
And this one, “Novel, II,” which appears later (p. 51):
[. . .]
A man, alone because of a death, gets a phone call. The call is from the woman he loves, who is dead.
He recognizes her voice. She calls from a different, possible world, in every respect like the world he is used to except for one difference: in that world, she is not dead.
But what will he say? What has happened in the world in the last thirty months? What will he tell her? How could he enter that world where the horror has not taken place, where her death is abolished, where the struggle against it continues, where they still stubbornly fight the battle that, here in this world where he still is at the moment he picks up the receiver, has been lost?
He will pick up the receiver and hear her voice. This world where he still is (the phone had rung, but he has not yet moved his hand in order to answer) will be forgotten.
This world will not have been. It will have existed only as a possible world where there is death, and not life. A world he will always think of even though it is unthinkable.
Imagining, in his imagination from that other world, this world where she would be dead. But he will not, in fact, be able to imagine it.
The telephone does not ring. As long as it does not ring, that new world, that possible world, is still possible. It is still possible that the phone will ring and the voice be the voice of the woman he loves, who is dead. Who is no longer dead, has never died.
The phone will ring. The voice which the man who is alone because of a death will hear is not that of the woman he loves. It’s some other voice, any voice. He will hear it. This does not prove he is alive.
Overwhelming sadness. I want to get up and run all over again, scream or something. But this doesn’t change the fact that I have a second reaction to his work, a reaction that’s difficult to pin down. It’s something like disgust, or horror. It’s a response to some of his other poems. Poems that are slightly different. Weird. Tonally strange. Unsettling. Upsetting. It has something to do with his memory of Alix, his memory of her body:
from “I’ll Turn Away” (p. 59):
Shreds of your body decomposing crumbling toward dissolution’s sober, rigid flowering unimaginable utterly except via the archaic the resurrection of certain words biblical which are not my tradition: two.
or this, from “Pexa et Hirsuta” (p. 62):
Your pubic hair which didn’t interrupt your belly,
Hirsute the fragmentation of your names
I always said together, one clashing with the other: Alix Cleo.
Where the missing vowel sign was: ‘naked.’
What was hirsute in your nakedness was not the pitch-black hair around the moisture where my tongue would drain you.
Not your nakedness, your name. Saying it, on coming with you.
So. I mean. Okay. I get it. He’s got moments, we all do, where it’s not just the daily life missed but the intimate life missed. But to get these jolts of sexuality in the midst of so much sadness upset me for some reason, during the reading process, while now, as I write these words, I feel more intellectually supportive of the inclusion of these poems. Why do you think this changed from the time I read it, and had a gut reaction, to now, when I am thinking and writing this post? Just time and space? Distance from the initial, immediate response?
Then there’s Alix’s Journal. Reading this book after Some Thing Black is its own ride. I was so used to her being dead in Jacques’s world that her very words on the page created an immediate, haunting effect. I felt spooked. Yet, within this strange feeling, her words also allowed me greater access to and appreciation for Jacques’s point of view. For instance:
from “4.1.80,2 A.M.” (p. 28):
Jacques asked me to jot down a phrase I had uttered during a conversation with him in the middle of a Wednesday:the photograph of a loved one,however close and familiar that loved one may be,in itself restores the love from a distance: the primal intangibility and strangeness,always fascinating, of a face one has not seen.
or this, from “6/7.1.80” (pp. 28-31):
Oh, to free the soul of things.Their incorporeal double.Your other face,the one you don’t see,before you look out,beyond your life:a redoubling born of an amorous gaze–yes, I love you that far.
Obviously,this was no ordinary gift: to give you,at two o’clock on a Sunday afternoon,the image of your death.[. . .]
I told you that I’d passionately loved life from afar but without the impression of being there or being part of it.Unhappy,I would photograph tranquil lawns and happy families.Henceforth, with one foot in this heavenly life, ah well . . . I’m still photographing death and its nostalgia; but the quiet side of its horror[. . .]
I wanted, I told you, to extract death from its impure ore, wanted to free myself from the death drive in order to reach the decision of death.The drive remains, but not that, the other death.
And what about that reaction I had to Jacques’s sexualization of a dead woman? Try reading this passage from Alix’s Journal and not having a little more sympathy for them both:
from “1.VII.82” (p. 191):
Learnt today of an almost complete hormonal deficiency of progesterone.amongst other things.after an analysis session where I was trying precisely to find out which sex in me was trying to kill the other.came back saying to myself that I haven’t managed to ovulate, neither hormonally nor mentally.what a ridiculous situation.to wait thirty years,to spend ten years suffering from depression,from hemorrhages,from metrorrhagia,to finally say to myself:that was it! and to immediately also say that it was impossible to untangle cause and effect.but no reason for me to be so exhausted.
Or this, from “17.VII.82” (p. 191):
Physically ill,despite drinking much less,and smoking little.the sleeping pills, and above all the fatigue remain.but no longer is the disorderliness and scattering of my mind to blame.
Nostaligic for quiet,quiet confident nights,when finally the countless demons withdraw,demons of vengeance,anger,indignation–in a word of indignity.Yet by day,some real cheerfulness together.
I feel a terrible loss of gravity,of internal weight,this happy world where decisions make themselves,where the presence of another doesn’t throw me into a state of craziness and paralysis,where simple fabrications rise to the surface and flourish, stripped of the straightjacket of proud tergiversations.
I feel like all I’m doing is quoting these books. It’s the words that matter, though. The truth behind them. The confessions. The confusions. These lives lived. These lives lost.
I highly recommend these books. Get Some Thing Black here and Alix’s Journal here.
And I’ll close with this last poem from Some Thing Black:
Your death speaks true. your death will always speak true. what your death speaks is true because it speaks. some have held that death speaks true because it is true. others, that death could not speak true because truth has no truck with death. but in reality, death speaks true the moment it speaks.[. . .]
Your death, you admitted, means nothing? it shows. what? that it means nothing. but also that in showing this it cannot, by the same token, be abolished.
‘My death will shed light this way: you’ll be able to accept its senselessness once you’ve climbed it as a step leading beyond itself (and have, as it were, thrown away your ladder).’ I don’t think I understand.
Your death’s been brought home to me. This is it: nothing and its opposite: nothing.
Neither what happens nor what does not happen. all the rest is indifferent.
Within this mirror, circular, virtual, closed. language has no power.
When your death is done. and it will be done because it speaks. when your death is done. and it will be done. like any death. like anything.
When your death is done. I shall be dead.
2 thoughts on “Contemporary Verse Novels: Jacques Roubaud’s SOME THING BLACK and Alix Cleo Roubaud’s ALIX’S JOURNAL”
Thanks for this, Molly. I knew of the Roubauds, but Dalkey’s excellence is so unstinting, I can’t keep up. The excerpts you cite suggest again that memoir’s most potent incarnation is as poetry.