2008 Poetry Finalist The Landscapist: Selected Poems, by Pierre Martory

by admin | Feb-19-2009

Each day leading up to the March 12 announcement of the 2008 NBCC awards, we highlight one of the thirty finalists. Today, NBCC board member David Orr discusses Pierre Martory’s The Landscapist: Selected Poems (Sheep Meadow Press)

Pierre Martory lived mostly in Paris and wrote entirely in French, yet his poetry is probably better known in the United States than in his native France. That it’s known at all is largely to the credit of Martory’s translator and one-time companion, John Ashbery. As Ashbery points out in his introduction to The Landscapist: Selected Poems, Martory worked steadily on poetry and fiction throughout his life but largely limited his published work to the journalism he produced as the drama and music critic for Paris-Match. “Since Martory shunned literary politics and people in general,” writes Ashbery, “I translated many of his poems in order to make them known at least in English.” Subsequently, “American colleges and other poetry venues invited him to give readings, and he was particularly gratified when a poster at the Institut Français in Boston billed him as a great poet still undiscovered by the French.”

Well, they don’t know what they’re missing. Martory’s poetry is gentle in the best sense of the word—intimate even when abstract, solicitous even when obscure—but it’s also troubled and troubling work, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. Ashbery compares Martory’s voice to Edith Piaf’s, and that sounds about right. Consider the conclusion of “Pell-Mell”:

Tarnished under dust and behind dirty glass,
Gilded by the lightning of memory,
I consider you, moments of my happiness and distress,
Being too poor to disdain so little.

Most of the poems here are atmospheric affairs that shift rapidly from image to image; the key question for Martory is often how (and whether) we hold on to our experiences.  As he writes in “The Landscapist,” “The great calm of the sea and the skies / The fear born of waves and clouds – / Mirrors reflecting themselves – / Where should we look?” And the desire to record can just as easily yield to its opposite, the desire to erase and dissolve. The short love poem “Soiree” ends:

It was the hour to take flight
To take the station in its box and the signals at the end of the wire
The distant names in italics on the map
And what hand they didn’t know ready to seize
Their hand at that hour that evening or never

If Martory’s poetry is indeed not yet widely admired in his home country, that’s a pity—because even with the distance added by translation, The Landscapist will seem close to home to many readers. 


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