One Hundred Visions of War: The North American Review recommends “an intense read of the entire volume in one sitting”

Ann Spiers’ review of One Hundred Visions of War by Julien Vocance was published over two months ago, but has only recently come to my attention, like a birthday gift from out of the blue. What pleases me most is that her praise for the book includes admiration for the physical object: “In addition to the poems’ strength, Wiseblood Book’s book design facilitates an intense read of the entire volume in one sitting.” Thank you, Ann, not least for giving me yet another opportunity to thank Joshua Hren and his excellent team at Wiseblood.

Avalanche of Good Fortune

The lazy opportunist in me thinks it’s okay to re-purpose an email I just wrote to Joshua Hren and Mary Finnegan at Wiseblood Books as a blog entry. So here goes:

Lots of good things happening in connection with our book. Here are four things to be thankful for, all of which occurred this week.
 
You may remember my telling you that Barbara Loots, whom I met at the West Chester Poetry Conference years ago, was so impressed with Vocance’s poetry that she looked into entering One Hundred Visions of War in the collection of the National WWI Museum and Memorial. She just sent word of her success. Here’s a message from the Vice President of Collections at the museum:

Dear Barbara,
 

Thank you for contacting the National WW I Museum and Memorial. Your offer of a potential donation is very generous, and we are very interested in adding it to our collection. 

As an international resource, the Museum and Memorial has been collecting since 1920 from all 36 nations in the war and our collection now numbers over 350,000 items. Your donation will make a valuable addition to our collection and could potentially be used in exhibitions, research, public programs, and education initiatives. 

Please mail the objects to the address below. Upon receipt, a member of the Collections Department will examine each item and send you a gift agreement letter. Please allow 60 days from the object’s arrival for receipt of letter.  

Thank you again for your donation offer. We are grateful to be the recipient and assure you that we will adhere to the highest professional standards for its care and use.  We greatly appreciate your consideration of the National WWI Museum and Memorial. 

Respectfully, 

Christopher A. Warren, JD, PhD

Vice President of Collections & Senior Curator

National WWI Museum and Memorial

2 Memorial Drive | Kansas City | MO | 64108

theworldwar.org

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Ned Balbo wrote a great recommendation of the book in his omni-bus review in Literary Matters. Here’s the link: https://www.literarymatters.org/15-3-beloved-communities/.  You’ll see that we’re keeping glorious company. Just to read the authors and titles of the other books reviewed is recommendation enough!
 
Then, there’s this weird coincidence. On Thursday Gina and I took our granddaughters to ride their scooters on the rail trail in Newburyport. There a Little Free Library box near on the trail, and I can’t go by one of them without glancing in at its contents. There was an issue of Modern Haiku. I’d never seen an actual hard copy of the magazine, so grabbed it. It turned out to be the most recent issue, and leafing through it I found yet another review of One Hundred Visions of War. This one isn’t nearly as sympathetic. Its author finds fault with my counting syllables and with my not including the french versions; ironically, he then dismisses his complaints as nit-picking, having devoted two-thirds of his review to them, and gives the book his recommendation. It’s a head-scratcher, but the reviewer is none other than Paul Miller, from whom I learned almost everything I know about Vocance. In my intro to the book I give credit to his two essays, available in The Haiku Foundation Digital Library
 
Finally (for now), Tony Tsonchev, editor of the Montréal Review, accepted two of my poems and, noting my most recent publication, asked me to write an essay about Julien Vocance to pair with an essay on Japanese Bushido philosophy that appears in this issue. I told him that all I knew about Vocance I’d learned from Miller’s two essays and Dana’s Preface, and from an intuitive sense of the poet that came to me in the act of translation. To talk about about that third source would bring me perilously close to the Region of BS, so I declined the opportunity. He then asked permission to reprint Dana’s Preface; (having run the idea by you and Dana), I sent him the text and he’s including it in the issue that’ll come out shortly. I’ve already seen the proof. It’s got a big, obvious link to information about One Hundred Visions of War.
 
An amazing little avalanche of good fortune. 

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.

Reflecting on One Hundred Visions of War

My conversation with Gayle Heney about translating Julien Vocance’s One Hundred Visions of War, written in the trenches of France in 1916, was recorded at the HC Media Studio in Haverhill on January 23, 2023.

Gayle has been producing her award-winning program Write Now for over ten years. Previous guests include Andre Dubus, Rhina P. Espaillat, Paul Harding, and Meg Kearney.

Click here to view.

Reading at G.A.R. Memorial Library, West Newbury, MA

Reading by Local Poet Alfred Nicol

WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 22 6:30—7:30 PM G.A.R. Memorial Library, 490 Main Street, West Newbury, MA, 01985

In honor of the one-year anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, local poet, Alfred Nicol will read from his most recent publication, One Hundred Visions of War, a translation of Cent Visions de Guerre by Julien Vocance. These poems, written in 1916 in the trenches of WWI, are among the first haiku written in the west.

Dana Gioia, who served as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts for six years, writes in his preface to the book, “One Hundred Visions of War is a major poetic testament of the Great War. Few works of such audacious originality are so accessible and emotionally engaging. More than a century after its publication, Vocance’s sequence has lost neither its shock value nor its strange tenderness. Alfred Nicol… has restored a lost masterpiece to English-language memory.”

Alfred Nicol’s poems have appeared in Poetry, the New England Review, Dark Horse, Commonweal, The Formalist, The Hopkins Review, Best American Poetry 2018, and many other literary journals and anthologies. Nicol lives in West Newbury, Massachusetts, with his wife, Gina DiGiovanni.

Registration is required for this event. To register, please scroll down the library’s event page here.