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from the March 2010 issue

Emmanuel Moses’s “He and I”

Reviewed by Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Emmanuel Moses makes his introductory appearance to an Anglo-American readership with a collection of poems, He and I, translated by Marilyn Hacker. He and I is in fact a compilation of writings that are scattered across three different books in their original French: L’Animal (Flammarion, 2010), D’un perpetuel hiver (Gallimard, 2009) and Figure rose (Flammarion, 2006). In He and I, his poems are selected and presented in five sections: “He and I,” “More News of Mr. Nobody,” “Riverbend Passage,” “Études and Elegies,” and “The Music that Sets Him On This Road.” Intertwining different episodic narratives, the sections set out to illuminate complex rapports between “he” and “I” — be they merely pronouns, imaginary personages or concrete personalities of flesh and blood.

The book greets us with an opening piece entitled “Small i.” Open-ended and without punctuation, the poem runs in free verses, and comes across as concise and refreshing at once. Weaving like a riddle that begs for more questions, or a jigsaw puzzle that laments its missing pieces, it polemizes the poetic construct of “I” versus “i” by addressing one of these personae in the third person:

    Small i suffers and muddles
    a sky-blue thread stripes his heart
    as if his eye had leaked into it

    he wails he vomits himself up
    little master Small i
    scarlet with anger
    at his intestinal torpor

By introducing a humbled “i,” the speaker seems to hint at a hidden Big “I.” Is one simply older than the other, or…? The way in which “he” and “i” manifest themselves in one homogeneous self takes on an urgency that the title poem, “He and I” further explores:

    later the man watched the child
    score a point while expecting
    the white-gloved waiter
    who’d bring him his bowl of raspberries
    on a bed of ice
    neither of the two was happy
    or unhappy

Here, the relationship of a father and a child seems clarified, though the poet philosophically repudiates the flat and empirical notion of polarity (“neither of the two was happy / or unhappy”). From the translator’s preface, we have the privilege of knowing that many of these poems relate in one way or another to the author’s deceased father, Stéphane Moses, a scholar born in 1931 in Berlin, and educated in Morocco before moving to France. Notably, one of the poems, “Funeral Supper (Repas funèbre),” set in an elegiac tone, was written in memory of his father. Emmanuel Moses, now aged fifty, has inherited from his father a polygot experience: born in Casablanca, he lives in France, has spent time in Israel, speaks four languages, and continues to travel widely. As such, passersby, strangers and acquaintances from his voyages and chance encounters are naturally incarnated on the page as “Miss China,” “Tourists,” and the various “you,” “him,” and “I.”
These abstract identities abandon their arbitrary selves and become gradually more engaging when a central figure “Mr. Nobody” (Monsieur Néant) enters the poetic landscape. Enigmatic and iconic, “Mr. Nobody” embodies a doubly-masked identity of duality and non-duality: he bears a name that refutes existence, despite his metaphorical and physical presence. Who/What/Why is he? Mystery shrouds. The collection walks a tightrope between suspense and the gradual revelation of the pseudo-character of Monsieur Néant. In a revealing and expansive sequence of poems that are grouped together as “More News of Mr. Nobody,” each character presents him/herself in a theatrical yet convincing manner. As an illustration, “Mr. Nobody” walks in and out of each poem as if opening and closing doors. Far from being fickle-minded in his pursuits, he is in constant quest of existence. Beyond his ironic and paradoxical self, what intrigues most is the bigger question of how “Mr. Nobody” relates himself to others, and how he constructs his realities. Everywhere but nowhere, he is anywhere yet somewhere. Very much alive and full of surprises, “Mr. Nobody” is witty, sharp, and inquisitive, possessing an attractive sense of both dark and light humor. Not only does “Mr. Nobody” travel, he falls in love and joins the “Broken Hearts Club,” engages in a conversation with his own voice, goes to the theater, suffers from allergies and even takes pride in being the sole survivor of a mountaineering expedition.

The translator Marilyn Hacker has adopted a literal approach that still manages to keep its fidelity to contextual significance. The musicality present in the original French texts is punctuated differently in its English translation, focusing on thought ahead of language, so as to keep intact the narrative threads that in turn render the various personages more accessible — hence appealing. All in all, a clear voice and its lyricism convey themselves with transparence in Hacker’s beautiful translation.

Yet it is unclear why certain verses and details from the original French version—however implicit or repetitive they are—were left out, and if it was deliberately done so because of an aesthetic agenda. One of the strongest poems, “Alive” (“Vivant”) is one such example in which lines and nuances such as “à essayer de déchiffrer des signes qui n’en sont peut-être pas” (“to try to decipher signs that perhaps are not signs”) or “à une page lue quelques heures plus tôt dans ton bain” (“of a page read in the bathtub a few hours earlier”) are missing. From a critical perspective, there are also specific word choices in English that are more colored, textured and explanatory, than their original French equivalents, which are in fact denser, more conceptual. Take for instance, Monsieur Néant, who is translated as “Mr. Nobody” instead of “Mr. Nothingness,” a choice that undertakes more interpretation and authorship than the naked act of translating. (To be precise, Monsieur Néant is not Monsieur Personne.)

He and I ends with a hopeful outlook for the conceit of the poems. Although “he” does not take a respite from constant travels, and uncertainties as well as an unknown road still lie ahead of him, he continues to be on the move, with confidence and dignity. The last section of the book entitled “The Music That Sets Him On This Road” is largely inspired by specific people and places, both historic and personal: the painter Julius Bissier, the city of Istanbul, Saint John of the Past, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Orléans, Burgundy, Majorca, the Café Lirico, the Byzantine lacemakers, the Baltic Sea . . . The last poem suggests that the city of Buxtehude is our traveler’s final destination. Although he no longer remembers how and why exactly he has embarked upon this long voyage, “he”—or shall I say “I/i”?—remains far from elusive or fragmented. The more he travels, the more he seems to come to terms with the zone between the parallel “he” and “I/i.” Like all voyagers, he transcends the basic instincts of survival; living from moment to moment, in displacement and on the verge, but never immobile in time and space.

    the innkeepers
    unused to seeing clients arrive
    at that time of year
    made him welcome
    he would have a meat pie and a piece of fruit for dinner
    sleep in plushy beds
    all for a few coins
    then would depart again at dawn
    across the sleeping white-roofed villages
    having forgotten for quite a while
    the music that had set him
    on this road.

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