Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Douglas Messerli | How to Explain the Misfortune (on Jean-Jacques Viton)

how to explain the misfortune

This morning I awake to hear the news that French poet Jean-Jacques Viton had died (born in Paris in 1933), dying apparently yesterday, Sunday, March 14th in Marseille.

     I did not know Jean-Jacques as well as I knew his wife the poet and fiction writer Liliane Giraudon, but I did attend a reading of his at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California, and afterward we invited Jean-Jacques, Liliane, Rae Armantrout, and her husband Chuck  Korkegian back to our house for dinner. Howard took a long time to prepare the meal, and I recall Rae being anxious for the hour since they were still intending to drive back that night to San Diego. I’ve mentioned this fact elsewhere, but today I truly comprehend her consternation for such a late-night drive. I believe Howard and I would have chosen a hotel in which to spend the night, but Rae and Chuck did have, after all, a young son waiting at home.

     I don’t remember anything else about our conversations, alas. I do recall that Jean-Jacques, probably because of the language differences, was mostly quiet. And Liliane also did not speak English well, as I later realized when I dined with her, Henri Deluy, poet Joseph Guglielmi and others at Deluy’s house in the suburbs of Paris. What might have Howard prepared given that Liliane herself is an excellent cook? Perhaps basil and pasta, which we often served our unexpected guests in those days.

      This morning I wrote a poem for Jean-Jacques, using the devices I often use to write through the work of other poets: small accidental choices of word units, association, repetition, and rhyming and punning, obviously in this case, on the English-language translation by Aaron Kunin and Anne Kawala. I also often dive into the original poem as well to re-translate phrases or to apply English rhyming-words to the original French text.

      It may be useful to see Viton’s original to see if any remnants of his own poem have made it through the complex associative and linking process.


Cher donc qui ? ( - cher toi sûrement, vieil appareil

 talkie-walkie déjà daté de la conversation

1921 – 1971


j’aurai retenu

une suite de fables que je repasse au sas

tu en feras ce que tu voudras

quant à moi bien entendu

le courant peut parcourir le haut et le bas

mais il faut que tout change

mauvais genre sans apparence histoire brève

ça cache une désolation

il règne ici sur l’eau desséchée

tout au bout d’une voix qui chante soprano « malgré tout »

une grande faille quotidienne

on ne peut pas l’écarter avec la main

il faut pousser l’espace pour faire du vide

avec ombres récits brefs illustrations

sait s’y prendre qui prendra le dernier

contra         ste de faux amis imbroglio

quand tout va mal le pire

peut encore arriver

période artificielle dite nouvelle saison

avec oiseaux rapides en fuite

vaches aplaties dans des recoins d’herbe

comment expliquer que le malheur s’abat comme ça


      My poem, dedicated to him, reads as follows:



for Jean-Jacques Viton


A consternation explains the misfortune.

Who can move it aside, push space into emptiness

without a little imbroglio? Artificial time

is called a new season, and it reigns here

in this parched land to create the beginning

of what we can only hope might be filled.


At the far end of a soprano’s voice there are

illustrations of what comes next, the imbroglio

in the seraglio’s palace where everything inevitably

must go wrong. A consternation explains

the shadows, the flattened cows against the glass.

A fast bird is on the lam.


I might have kept the row of false fables

to dine upon. I might have drank from the

parchment under water. I might have spoken

to all those false friends. It is called a new reason

to tell you why everything came crashing down

into the recesses of the necessary explanation.


In the seraglio the women come and go.

The man outside is waiting for the water

to return to its vases. The castrato sings

in his soprano’s voice, calling out for the consternation

to end.  He pushes aside the emptiness

and enters on the lam into the imbroglio


Falling in the dismay of his embarrassment.

The time has come to admit the season is no longer

real. The palace doors have closed, and the harem

has escaped. The cow’s faces are pasted upon

the surface of the grass. The bird flies quickly

off.  The friends flee, faced with the end of the fable.


Los Angeles, March 15, 2021

Reprinted from Facebook (March 15, 2021).









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