Review by Greg Bem (@gregbem)
Like Bits of Wind by Pierre Chappuis, Translated by John Taylor (Released Seagull Books, 2016)
A poem is entirely momentum towards the Other, love, though it is but absence.
(from “The Other,” in The Proof is in the Void on page 322)
I believe I failed. I believe I read Like Bits of Wind in an entirely inappropriate manner. The book is huge, and represents hugeness. Nearly 400 pages densely laden with verse and prose of the most incredible poetry, a poetry that fills land and mind in ways that go beyond spirituality, beyond practicality, and yet encompass both. I read the book in just a few days. This is the wrong thing to do.
Swiss poet Pierre Chappuis, with the daunting assistance of translator John Taylor, has given the English language a gift. This book of books is an arousing and arresting blockade of meditations, insights, and critical commentary on a world of language at once pristine, concise, and disturbingly present. This book of books pervades the core with an immense energy, while giving significant credit to a writer whose aesthetic and poetics is focused, chiseled, alarmingly bountiful in its beauty and clarity.
Mountains of dream, of haze:
words unburdened of their meaning.
(from Full Margins, section 2, on page 25)
The translated books included in Like Bits of Wind are: Full Margins, Blind Distance, Abstracted from Time, The Black of Summer, Within the Voice’s Reach, Cuts, and selections from The Proof is in the Void. The original publication dates of these books range from 1992 to 2014. Each book is so significantly unique that to fully explore their individual identities in this writing here would be a disaster, but I will touch upon their core qualities. Full Margins and Cuts provide sparse verse described by John Taylor in his introduction as Haiku-like and skeletal.
The heart of Like Bits of Wind is filled with longer, larger, sprawling poems taking up form through prose, written in both the traditional paragraph and in staggered sequences of lines. Finally, The Proof is in the Void, which is remarkably the earliest book included, closes this collection. In it Chappuis explores a poetics that is transfixed on developing an attitude toward the nature of language. He writes of the void and absence. He explores silences and egos. He records questions relating to the trembling and reverberation within. Though his references are numerous, and his homages and respects are indefatigable, I found his critical work undeniably similar to Rene Char and Paul Eluard, the work of Chappuis being equally as illustrative and varied.
It speaks for itself! A gesture, a landscape, a photograph, a revealing blunder, a style of dressing, etc.—the expression always designates that which escapes words, takes place ore expresses itself apart from them. Moving water, passing clouds, a piece of music, a face all speak for themselves without us having to wonder how they occur or what they are saying to the world.
(from “Speaking,” in The Proof is in the Void on page 358)
And yet Chappuis is distinctly outerworldly compared to the mystique and inquisition of Char and Eluard, and the countless other 20th century European writers. Though I would never hesitate to label much of the poems in Like Bits of Wind as avant garde, I would be more elevated to label them natural, of nature. A nature poet at his core, Chappuis brings the bounty of his poems inward through the very immediate and majestic spaces around him. These are broad stroked spaces. This is an expressionism that unlocked an image rather than crystallizing it. These are descriptions that touch upon the relationship between the heart of the individual and the heart, equally beating, of the earth, air, and water nearby.
And by “nearby” I mean Chappuis explores space and existence via close proximity. Like reading the work of Bei Dao or even Li Po, reading Chappuis, no matter how condensed or how expansive the piece, brings an immediate space, an exquisite environment, through the voice of the speaker and plants it, a seed or greater, into the mind of the reader. That he has even called out 18th century haiku poet Fukuda Chiyo-ni gives further to this point. The work of Chappuis, unique to himself, feels like a blend of linguistic philosopher and Zen Buddhist—though to classify him and his work as such would only damage the even broader potentials found in his poetry.
For the time being, breathtaking chilliness and transparency.
To go, over random paths, like someone on the lookout for an echo, through the forest assailed by a thousand flame tips.
(from “Noon Fanfares” in The Black of Summer on page 186)
At the beginning of this writing, I mentioned that reading this entire book in a few days is the terrible way to do so. The overall feeling, the milieu, found within Like Bits of Wind is containment through very singular, pensive moments. Some of these moments are more temporary than others; however, they are still spaces of the heightened mind. They start at the core of being: the heart’s beat, the lungs’ breathing, the eyes and their zeroing in on what is present and what is not.
Though there is never an instruction to approach these poems slowly, my body’s reaction to reading the book quickly was, on the whole, negative. As soon as I fell back, the last page flipped, my reader’s hands urged itself to return, to start again, to take the pace of a slowness Chappuis has offered. Indeed, much of the gift of this book of books is Chappuis’s own landscape, map, which contains fundamental exercises in the construction of the image. In truth, my first reading was exaggerated by a sense of nostalgia. I remembered encountering William Carlos Williams for the first time. Remembered encountering Ezra Pound for the first time. Remembered seeing the image for the first time. Chappuis in this book has provided another opportunity to relearn how to see—no, how to feel—through the image in new circumstances and situations, and it is extraordinary.
Clearness seemingly letting herself be carried away with regret, sliding along languidly, joyously, cheerfully, lingering in hugs and kisses, in love with herself, scattering her reflections that fragment as soon as they are gathered; soon she dives headlong into the rapids, emerging with each lash of the water, impatient for the heights of pleasure.
(from “Weather Clearing Up, April” in Within the Voice’s Reach on page 213)
When you visit Like Bits of Wind, you will find yourself entering a world that is essentially relevant and yet uniquely its own. Through an exploration of what is possible, and how it is possible, the poems here will arrive to you and transform you. These writings carry aesthetic consequences, in the best way possible. How Chappuis and Taylor have managed to do so much in a single collection, and yet remained accessible and inviting, is a feat unto itself. With its receipt, with its encounter, I feel only joy in offering it as a recommendation to readers of any form of poetry.