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.