Julien Vocance: One Hundred Visions of War (translated from the French by Alfred Nicol), Reviewed by Miriam O’Neil

Celebrating 18 years of publication, issue #114 of Gloria Mindock’s Červená Barva Press Newsletter includes Miriam O’Neil’s incisive review of Julien Vocance’s One Hundred Visions of War, published by WisebloodBooks.

Julien Vocance: One Hundred Visions of War, (translated from the French by Alfred Nicol)
Wiseblood Books, 2022.
ISBN: 9781951319373
Reviewed by Miriam O’Neil

Here is Julien Vocance’s description of a moment in the trenches during World War I.

Shells come crashing in
shy of our trenches-breakers
that don’t reach the shore. (23)

Here is his reality and his translation of that reality-his experience and his way of removing himself from that experience, at least in retrospect. As Dana Gioia, in his Preface to this translation by Alfred Nicol explains, unlike those poets of World War I who wrote in “hypnotic [ ] traditional meters” or in “the avant-garde glorification of violence-with its priapic cannons and flowering explosions” (viii), “Vocance sought clarity not enchantment. He found a moral stance without any taint of moralism by adopting a radical form into French, the Japanese haiku….” (viii). 

Alfred Nicol explains that, whereas the traditional subject matter and themes of haiku are the nature’s beauty, changes of season, and such, Vocance’s adoption of the form to his poems about World War I create a “tension between the traditional subjects and themes [ ] that serves to heighten the expressive power [of his Visions]” (xi).

And anyone who has seen an even remotely adequate film about the trench warfare of World War I will recognize these images, such as this brief verbal sketch: “We get a quick look/ around when bursts of gunfire/ light the horizon.” (12) is followed by “Fireworks fill the sky./ Yet another sacrilege/ over these mass graves.” (13).

In the nightmare of battle, the natural world has its human imitation when “Black birds in wild flight/ gaining speed, com[e] this way,/ shells swoop down.” (75). Vocance notices the quotidian in the horrific “Blood spilled, washed with rain,/ muddied, dried…Bright crimson blood,/ so colorless now.”(78). And as those horrific images accumulate, the speaker also moves us from the first experiences of ‘rookies’ in the trenches, to the nighttime grave digging for that day’s dead, to a field hospital where he notes a patient, “All swaddled in white,/ dressed for the sarcophagus:/ no hands, feet, or face.” (88).

Each set of (mostly) 17 syllable poems placed against the white field of its page enlarges the emotional impact of that verse, insisting on a kind of lingering, a momentary stay before the next image or scene insists on its own presence. And, thankfully, as Vocance’s one hundred visions arrive at their conclusion, the reader is returned to the world beyond the trenches, to “The young nun [who] is thrilled/ to have a sketch of Jesus/ the soldier gave her.” (94) and the “consul’s wife” who makes her required visit to the hospital coming and going in silence. Toward the end of this small, sequenced collection, the war begins to take its place in the past, just barely and we learn that for Vocance, “This is the realm where/ shadows feel their way along/ through an endless night.”(98). In other words, wars end in the world but not within the warriors-there, they may continue for a lifetime. 

For all that World War I was conducted along lines of demarcation between armies, it too had all the hallmarks of a world gone temporarily insane. “Two rows of trenches,” wrote Vocance, “Two lines of barb-wire fences:/ Civilization.” (102). 

In that war there was the surface inference of order and means and something similarly (if insanely) at stake for both sides, some sense that each government and its representatives on the battlefield and had right on their side. There was an answer to the question, “Why?”. And in looking back, via his “visions,” as readers we survive the horrific and emerge back in the light of our own lamps in our own homes. But now, thinking about the citizens of this world facing the unsought atrocities of wars and/or persecution waged upon them in places like Yemen, Myanmar, Ukraine, the Uighurs of Xinjiang Province in China and elsewhere, I wonder what Vocance would write of their suffering; how would he or could he speak to the involuntary horrors those citizens face. It seems that in those places, where people wanted only to live their lives in peace, ‘the shadows’ still insist on feeling their way along. We are more than a century beyond World War I, the ‘war to end all wars,’ and we are still in the trenches, still blinding and bloodying, torturing and killing our fellow beings. 

And then there is this-this slim volume of poems written in French in a form borrowed from the Japanese and translated into yet another language. The poems allow a slow building of impressions. A familiarity we realize we cannot ignore settles in. It is a small collection of images that asks us to see again and again, to be cognizant and compassionate and unflinching in our gaze. We need this reminding.

2023 Newburyport Literary Festival Poetry Events

Saturday, April 29 Poetry Readings at the Newburyport Public Library

9:00 AM. Breakfast with the Poets—Powow River Poets Read New Work 

Join us for coffee and pastries— and some strong poetry to get you up and going. These locally based, nationally recognized poets will refresh your palate. Al Basile, Daniel Brown, Rhina Espaillat, Paulette Demers Turco, and Barbara Lydecker Crane will read from books they’ve published since last year’s festival. Owen Grey will moderate.

10:30 AM. Out of this World—A Reading from Outer Space: 100 Poems 

Throughout human history, poetry has provided stories about what people observe in the sky. Stars, planets, comets, the moon, and space travel are used as metaphors for our feelings of love, loneliness, adventurousness, and awe. Editor Midge Goldberg and contributors Liz Ahl, Robert Crawford, Michael Ferber, Deborah Warren, and Anton Yakovlev will read from the anthology Outer Space: 100 Poems, recently published by Cambridge University Press, which includes poets, astronomers, and scientists from the 12th century BCE to today, from all around the world. Midge Goldberg will moderate.

11:30 AM. The Poetry of Mary Buchinger and Alfred Nicol 

The theme of loss and the heartbreak of it, whether sudden or slow, unites recent poetry by Mary Buchinger and Alfred Nicol. In One Hundred Visions of War, Nicol, whose own poems are known for their sonorous power, has now translated the piercing WW I poems of Julien Vocance from the French into a moving series of haiku. In Virology and the forthcoming Navigating the Reach, Buchinger’s reveries on landscape and human loss move us with their supple beauty. For these poets, the encounter of keenly observing self and world yields visions sensitively drawn and superbly crafted.

1:30 PM. The Poetry of Wendy Drexler and Andrew Hudgins 

Knowing the “mess we’ve made of us. . . the mass and rush of us,” and in keen sympathy with the creaturely world, whether herring, bluebird, or screech owl, Wendy Drexler finds in the “mirrored labyrinth” of memory a profound reclamation, as experience refracts memory and memory resonates in experience. The richly entertaining characters of Andrew Hudgins’s monumental body of work derive from his singular childhood in the South. Hypnotic and musical, his poems pivot on moments of unexpected humor, capturing both woe and wonder. For both poets, time shifts the meaning of our remembrance.

2:30 PM. The Poetry of Matthew Buckley Smith and Alan Shapiro

Matthew Buckley Smith imbues his poems with the same subtle wit, knowing heart, and genial, meditative tone he sometimes deploys on his podcast Sleerickets, lending these poems of young romance, written in faultless meter and rhyme, a wry and ruminative tone. In addition to his fine poems, the Festival must also thank Matthew for bringing the poet Alan Shapiro to us this year, with his new book Proceed to Checkout, which follows on many much lauded collections. Shapiro’s poems sparkle “with formal precision and imaginative openness, social conscience and psychological savvy.”

3:30 PM. The Poetry of Aaron Poochigian and Amit Majmudar 

In the dazzling American Divine, the celebrated classicist Aaron Poochigian happens on the divine everywhere—in a passing mongrel bitch, a roadside totem, the traffic lights lavishing Christmas glory— while with flair, he notes the pretensions to the divine in himself and in certain peculiarly American sects. Add in oxycontin, and ecstasy can cross from pretension to madness, as Amit Majmudar, a diagnostic nuclear radiologist, as well as a colossus on the literary scene, shows in What He Did in Solitary. Majmudar explores the cultural nightmares that make solitary confinement a fact of our lives, while celebrating with delightful potency the perpetual becoming of the world

Leslie Monsour Introduces Rhina Espaillat

Leslie Monsour. Rhina Espaillat: A Critical Introduction. Story Line Press (2013) 

Reviewed by Alfred Nicol

Often, when Rhina Espaillat is invited to read her poetry, the person who introduces her begins by saying, “This poet needs no introduction.”  Yet Leslie Monsour’s Rhina Espaillat: A Critical Introduction has much to offer the lucky reader who has just discovered Espaillat’s work as well as those of us who think we know her well. The first of the book’s five sections is an elegant meditation on her poetic achievement, pairing her “deep regard for craft” with her insistence that poetry must remain accessible, must communicate with the reader: “I’m after the meaningful ordinary… that everyone else can understand and that can serve as a bridge between my life and everyone else’s.” 

Here and in the succinct biography which follows, Monsour’s intelligent, witty prose seemingly follows the play of thought, inviting the reader along on a leisurely stroll while calling attention to the high points of Espaillat’s poetic achievement and the major events of her life as she goes, as though happening upon these things by accident. We get all the pleasure of a tour without the aggravation of an itinerary. It is only after the fact that we notice how the arc of the narrative ends with Espaillat’s triumphant return to be be honored in the country from which her parents were exiled.

The felicities of Monsour’s style are no less evident in the book’s third section, which includes close readings of several poems that hint at the riches to found in her work as a whole. She cleverly displays a bit of that abundance by inserting a partial list of the urban and suburban animals Espaillat has written about: “Among Espaillat’s menagerie we meet a startled, ill-fated cockroach; an escaped terrarium crab; a rat nesting in an automobile engine; a bored zoo seal; a marauding woodchuck; and a camera-shy raccoon, keenly observed with the humane, philosophical involvement Burns gave his mouse…” A consideration of Espaillat’s frequently anthologized poem “Bilingual/Bilingüe” leads to an appreciation of her work in translation, and to this remarkable insight: “Espaillat’s naturally inclusive impulse to link diversities allows her to translate poetry with a facility she stores somewhere deeper and richer than intellect.”

Part IV of Monsour’s Introduction is a wide-ranging interview, in which Monsour’s astute questioning gives her subject an opportunity to expand on the themes discussed in these essays; that is to say, Rhina is invited to introduce herself. Monsour somehow prevails upon her to read a poem published in the November 1947 issue of Ladies Home Journal, which Espaillat dismisses as a “sappy love poem” written at a time when she “didn’t know which end of a guy was up.” 

And in the last section of the book, Espaillat speaks without interlocutor. We are presented with Espaillat’s poem, “Impasse: Glose.” Monsour’s graceful decision to step back and give her book’s subject the last word is of a piece with everything else she’s done so admirably in this book. Rhina Espaillat: A Critical Introduction is essential reading for anyone who loves poetry.