BY PAUL-NEWELL REAVES
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
My copy of The Voice of Things, by French prose poet Francis Ponge, is well worn― split in the spine on page 32, my favorite pages turned down in the top corner. Though he ran in the 1920’s surrealist circles of Breton and Giacometti, literary recognition came late in Ponge’s career, and The Voice of Things was not published until 1942.
Ponge takes objects and describes them― lyrically, fancifully, but mainly simply and directly. Rain, the candle, the oyster, all become the subjects of his prose poems. In “The Pleasures of Doors,” he notes that kings never experience the joy of pulling a handle gently until the latch clicks.
His work is a celebration of simplicities, and the most simple of objects become his heroes. A snail becomes “a long ship with a silver wake.” Meanwhile, the pebble “once out of water it dries immediately. Which is to say that despite the monstrous efforts to which it was subjected, no trace of liquid can remain on its surface; the pebble with no effort does away with it.”
This book has directly influenced my own poetic attempts. I believe art should be complex, to adhere to complex reality, so I take Ponge’s direct, descriptive style and apply it to places. What can be more complex than Place?– intertwined as it is with notions of Home, Distance, Culture, Architecture, Class Difference and more. So I take Ponge’s simple style and balance it with difficult subject matter.
My translation is by Beth Archer, and I recommend her edition because she includes several other works by Ponge: “The Prairie,” and “Le Grand Recueil.” Also look for Soap, by Ponge, a 100 page publication of draft after draft of his successive attempts to perfectly describe soap. It seems almost to bubble in your hands.