My response to Rene Char’s “Not Eternal nor Temporal”

stonelyreMy original post published thanks to Susan Scarlata at Lost Roads Press

Alexandra Mattraw on Rene Char’s “Not Eternal Nor Temporal,” translated by Nancy Naomi Carlson (Tupelo Press), originally published in Char’s “Le Nu perdu” (1971).

“O wheat in May, green in the shivering earth that has never known sweat.  A happy distance from diving suns of the ends of lives.  Low-lying under the long night.  Color glows, watered.  For vigil and last rites, two bedside blades: the skylark, bird who alights, and the crow, the spirit engraving itself.” – Rene Char

Most new parents would agree that the first six weeks with their newborns lured them into a ferocious battle with Time and Pain.  This battle, which usually boils down to one with Control (or lack thereof), can’t be won by the human sufferer in any linear sense.  I believe poet Rene Char also knew a version of this truth.  In the midst of dawn surreality, before the new day has broken but after the fan humming comfort of post dinner drowsiness, a mother awakens. Her heart tightens, her eyes widen in terror, and her disembodied physical self moves to the yowling bassinet, her will dominated by a biological imperative that has nothing to do with human law or Time blinking rudely in iPhone glow.  An hour or so later, after the sh*t, piss, nursing, blood, vomit, drool, swaddling, rocking, and crying (by both parties), she lays her tiny beloved back down with the most tender and careful of gestures, realizing that one wrong move could destroy the moment, startle her baby awake, ruffle her tired husband, and begin the cycle all over again. Yet later, mother and father learn the pointlessness of judging any moment as a static entity over which they can exercise control.

It is within this swampy reality, where I quickly learned to be grateful for a glass of ice water (let alone a shower) that I reread this mysterious little prose poem by Char.  The title alone encompasses the exact paradox I continue to consider as a new mother and an amateur Buddhist.  How to embrace the moment and suffering despite the chains of our socially constructed view of Time?  As such, the “O Wheat” apostrophe here thrusts me into a different sort of meditation: How can I, through a radical acceptance, survive my human vulnerability without dwelling on that very frailty?

Char claims this wheat “[shivers in an] earth that has never known sweat.”  He personifies wheat that knows sweat only from the hot farmer’s dripping brow yet paradoxically “shivers” like an infant.  Doesn’t a body sweat in order to shiver and cool down in spring heat?  No, Char reminds us, Demeter’s wheat will never know pain or suffering, or at least, not through our chosen understanding of these categories.

I’m also interested in the rather obscure image of “A happy distance from diving suns of the ends of lives.”  Certainly, this emotionless wheat trembles (with fantastic, French Symbolist influenced synesthesia!), but only because of wind.  Unlike people, unlike prideful Icarus falling from the sun, wheat does not obsess itself with beginnings nor ends, nor with the horror of looming war, nor with the terrible grief of a colleague who passes, nor even with the joy resulting from a son’s first smile.  However, even this metatemporal wheat, united with nature (and all that stands beyond Time), grows old and meets its thresher, as will I, as will my son, greeting an inevitable “vigil and last rites.”  Of course, the curious difference is that the wheat, like Wallace Stevens’ Snow Man, moves within a song beyond thinking, “low lying under the long night” (Char).  The wheat grows through the “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is” (Stevens).  I respect wheat that doesn’t fret about the existential is-ness of its plight.

Interestingly, the final sentence of Char’s poem also recalls his belief that “the truth is in the blade.” We are confronted with “two bedside blades,” “the skylark” and “the crow.”  Surely, a double-edged truth then.  Char teaches us that truth and beauty can only result in the coexistence of good and evil; life and death; empathy and violence.  In digesting Char’s symbology, I return to my postpartum experience in which my child was my skylark (symbol of daybreak/light/life), while my physical pain and resulting spiritual realignment led me to several deaths: my own childhood and idealizations about parenthood being merely two of them.

Char’s conceptual vision in these lines isn’t my only fascination.  I can’t help but note the striking musicality of Carlson’s sonically resonant translation.  She has preserved the aural essence of Char’s French as well as his poetics, inventing layered assonance and resulting internal rhyme; lulling alliteration; and a condensation that allows each image to sharpen its counterpart.  For instance, Char’s “O le ble vert dans une terre qui n’a pas encore sue, qui n’a fait que grelotter!” becomes “O wheat in May, green in the shivering earth . . .” In English, this long “e” assonance has always reminded me of the wet, fertile green rush of May.  The sound itself elongates in the throat and mimics a sigh of contentment.  This gorgeous lyrical pattern echoes throughout all the lines: “wheat,” “green,” “shivering,” “happy,” “diving,” “lying,” and “engraving.”  Similarly, the repeated long “i” fills us with a delightful brightness: “lives,” “lying,” “diving,” “night,” “rites,” “bedside,” and finally, “alights.”  The poem is endowed with a feeling of crescendo (“color glows,” a bird who lights and flies up in order to land/ “alight”) and decrescendo (“low lying,” “diving,” “watered,” “engraving,” etc.), with the appropriately woeful “O” assonance repeating as well.  In short, we are gifted with an explosion of song that comprises both sides of Char’s bladed and rather violent truth—one that Blake and Keats also new well— death and suffering (“the crow”) sit in the same temple with birth/joy (“the skylark”) and are wed as one “spirit” (Keats, “Ode on Melancholy” and Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell).

Perhaps, Char challenges us to encounter a vision of Time’s meaninglessness, teaching us to live each day with gentleness, with what I recently heard someone call a “circumcised heart.”  This open heart comprehends each blade life deals us as one incision closer to a fuller life— a higher consciousness.

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