Un bureau sur l'Atlantique

Emmanuel Hocquard

« Blank Spots »


You are welcome to this
map, though it does not
begin to charts the necessary
roads or any event.

Keith Waldrop 1


The preface to 49 + 1 nouveaux poètes américain  2 ends: "This anthology hopes to make a contribution to contemporary French literature. And also, to a certain extent, a contribution to contemporary American literature." This conclusion is the point of departure for the following observations:

1 — When I speak about the French translation of contemporary American poetry as a contribution to contemporary French literature, what do I see as the nature of this contribution? I'm tempted to reply: a rip. Or a hole. Or even a "blank spot."









(Lewis Carroll, The Hunting of the Snark)

2 — My generation will probably be the last one to have seen the "blank spots" on maps of the world where the countries and colonial empires were colored in red, orange, blue, green. There remained a few blank spots, indicating the few still unexplored zones. Today, the maps are completely colored in and the explorers are replaced by tourists.

2 bis —

"Other maps are such shapes,

with their island and their capes!

But we've got our brave Captain to thank"

(So the crew would protest)

"that he's brought us the best —

A perfect and absolute blank!"

(Lewis Carroll 3)

3 — For me, then, the contribution of translations of American poetry to contemporary French literature consists of: 1) creating a distance within a space-time in the process of incessant narrowing; 2) expressing that distance; 3) reinserting "blank spots" within the general coloring context.

3 1/2 — I see this as an additional reason for rejecting bilingual publications (American and French texts on facing pages) which imply not only something like an equal sign (=) between the two texts, but also a possible proximity. Unless the whole northern Atlantic Ocean can fit in the fold between two facing pages, as in: A Fold Unites Two Continents.

4 — When I wrote that contemporary American poetry in French translation is a contribution to contemporary French literature, I didn't mean to say that French literature is enriched or augmented, but rather that its surface area is expanded into unexplored zones. Today, to translate American poetry into French is to gain ground.

Unowned territory. No man's land. Not for selling or building. And definitely not a ground for meetings, exchanges, dialogues, discussions, influences, communication in short, but rather an initial space of observation and reflection.

4 1/2 — Reflection is meant here in every sense of the word.

5 — I also remarked: "My real pleasure is reading American poetry in French… My satisfaction could be expressed in these terms: no French poet could ever write this.4

5 1/2 — Besides, what sort of language is it, where the phrase 'in perfect American' rings strangely like a displaced echo of the expression 'in perfect English'? "Perhaps my dilemma about whether this expression is American or not is exactly the point, since its ambiguity puts Reznikoff's relation to the language (American or English) and the men in question." (Benjamin Hollander 5)

Perhaps the same thing came be expressed this way: "No American could ever write this."

6 — Finding oneself in this strange situation. Without even being able to speak of exoticism, since exoticism is itself a matter of habits.

6 1/2 — No, it's on the contrary strangely familiar and at the same time so strange, you see. This distance. The distance between what can be written directly in French and what can only be written indirectly, through reflection, though translation.

7 — The distance between habits and politics, for example. Or: what unarticulated political intonations does the translation of American poetry suddenly articulate in French? What politically "blank spots" suddenly speak through our habits?

7 1/2 — "More than once, I tried to imagine an apartment in which there is a useless room, utterly and deliberately useless… This would be a space without a purpose. It would be good for nothing, be related to nothing.

Despite my efforts, I couldn't follow this idea, this image, to the end. Language itself, it seems to me, acknowledges its incapacity to describe such a nothing, such a void, as if we could only speak of what is full and functional.

I patiently tried to follow this idea… I never arrived at anything really satisfactory. But I don't think that I completely wasted my time in trying to get past this uncommon barrier: Through this effort, it seems to me that something that might be a statue of inhabitability showed through…" (Georges Perec, "D'un espace inutile" 6)

8 — Political in what way? In the way the American detective novel is political. But not political like the neo-noir French novel. (Incidentally, it would be interesting to try to find out why the majority of French translations of American detective fiction sound so fake.) Political like Gertrude Stein, the Objectivists, Jackson Mac Low, the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and so many others, not like Kenneth Fearing or Ezra Pound or the Beatniks.

9 — Political. That doesn't imply that today's American poets are particularly involved in actual political struggle. It simply means that they situate political reflection, radically, in the field of language.

9 1/2 — "Taking words and placing them in someone's mouth when the text requires something about necessity distinct from the facts." (Norma Cole  7).

10 — Rips. Holes. "Blank spots."

11 — In the hole we found beside the road
         something would eventually go

Michael Palmer, "Construction of the Museum"  8.

11 1/2 — In 1990, something of considerable importance occurred, but the few people who were aware of it didn't fully take account of its importance. This was the founding of the Negativity Museum. Michael Palmer spotted a gigantic hole alongside the highway and decreed it to be the dream location for the construction of the museum, of which he named me curator before returning to California. I scrupulously performed my duties up until the end, meaning until the day when entrepreneurs erected a building on the site of the hole, which, ipso facto, crossed out the museum on the map of the world. Filling in, coloring. The only trace of it is the poem in At Passages.

12 — The political force in question is equivalent to the force of language. Its strength in place of its power. Gertrude Stein's grammar, Charles Reznikoff's recopyings, Jackson Mac Low's chance-intentional language blocks, Armand Schwerner's tablets, David Antin's spoken poems…

Any child knows how to play with these things, while we all too often content ourselves with pronouncing on or against. The will of language as a key to a different political space. America blank on the map or the re-embarking of Rochambeau.

I am the Captain of this letter which begins


But there is no sailor to hear him,

the deck is empty and the postmark

covers most of the fleet, it has turned cold since Rochambeau landed

and when the French learn of what USA 10c means

they will cut off his title, Le Comte

no longer, only a name

in a time on a stamp on a card

for a reader who turns away from 1780

and remembers the water, white as their eyes.

Michael Davidson, "The Landing of Rochambeau. "  9.

13 — Wittgenstein's Rhinoceros: any child can understand that he crosses the room. And can extrapolate from that consequences for life, in other words political consequences.

13 1/2 — "How far has Wittgenstein's Rhinoceros gotten?" became like a pas-word between us meaning: "How far have you gotten in your dealings with the world" (Jean Frémon 10) ; not "For whom are you voting on Tuesday?"

14 — No politics without animals. "The Whale places the object at a distance. The title enforces an estrangement, actually an abstraction of the whale. Neither this whale nor that whale. Then an empty place, an unoccupied spot, establishes itself. A space without a subject, (a "no man's land") where the speaker is missing: […] place of locution lacking a subject that allows himself to be perceived in the traces of his speech […] A discourse that, fatally, will do violence to both language and to the language. That will constitute a loss in terms of the abundance associated with the unspoken or, better yet, in terms of the richness of the not-yet-spoken." (Claude Richard, "Melville: la lettre blanche 11 )

15 — Political in place of metaphysical. A hole in place of a lucrative building. The backers of the City of God cultivating the art of blabbing about the unspeakable. A comical project. Charlton Heston receiving the tablets of the law in the Cecil B. de Mille movie.

15 1/2 — Israelis and Palestinian both claim Jerusalem for their capital. That would be comical it weren't for the deaths. If one group, for its own reasons, insists that Jerusalem should not be the capital of the other group, and vice-versa, there's no solution. But if both, for opposite — that is to say identical — reasons insist that Jerusalem should be their capital, why can't Jerusalem be, at the same time, the capital of both? Jerusalem, capital of Israel; Jerusalem, capital of Palestine. That way, everyone is happy. Any child can understand this. Now, about the falcons.

16 — I don't know for sure, but apparently about twenty pairs of falcons live in Paris, where they have supposedly been reproducing since the Middle Ages, nesting in certain belfries. Their hunting grounds presumably extend over a radius of several dozen miles. Based in the capital, they evidently seek their daily sustenance as far as Royaumont. Personally, I've never seen a falcon over Paris. And, even if I had, I would have taken it for a quick pigeon. I assume that the majority of Parisians are equally unaware of their presence.

I think this story is very edifying. It shows that two territories that are unaware of one another can exist in the same space, with not interferences or connections.

"The feathers of the birds are red or orange or blue or green, colors unknown to a bird or as words to viewers in a foreign climate." (Barbara Einzig, "Life Moves Outside" 12)

16 1/2 — For days all the radio and television stations have been boxing our ears with this high philosophical debate: should daylight savings time be done away with? Should the winter or the summer hour prevail? At what hour does the sun rise? Etc.

At the fourth beep the time will be exactly eight o'clock is clearly a command, not a piece of information. Why should the whole world go by the same time? Wouldn't it be enough for those who have some business to take care of together to synchronize their watches like before a hold-up, and let the others live life at their own pace? In the 50s, L. Mumford cleverly showed the role of the belfry-clock order in the birth of capitalism.

"The Eliminator is a clock that doesn't keep time, but loses it. The intervals between the flashes of neon are "void intervals" or what George Kubler calls, "the rupture between past and future." The Eliminator orders negative time as it avoids historical space." (Robert Smithson, "The Eliminator" 13)

Still, the system of hours and time-zones is good for one thing: differences in time in different zones. The necessary lag between a voice and its echo, between one language and another. But also between us.

17 — Take the strange see-sawing (with its chain of mediators) between Sun  14 and Théorie des Tables  15, a story that starts in the middle. To the question "What gives meaning to your life" Claude Royet-Journoud answered in 1989, "Michael Palmer's latest book, Sun."

Time line. I met Michael Palmer at Robert Duncan's in San Francisco in 1981. He had just translated "Les espions thraces dormaient près des vaisseaux" for Paul Auster's anthology 16. In 1986 "Baudelaire Series" (the central section of the long poem Sun) was translated at Royaumont 17. This work of translation became the negative (the shadowy precursor) with which I set out to develop my Théorie des Tables, published in 1992. Michael Palmer translated the book, which Peter Gizzi published in the United States in 1994. I was at that time working on the translation of Sun (in its entirety), published by P.O.L. in 1996.

But no time line accounts for any story. We can tell whatever we like, but it will never amount to the telling of a story, because it is as impossible to speak of as it is to translate of.

The two guys know each other a little. They have in common a reciprocal esteem and 20,300 miles as the crow flies. They are engaged, long-distance (without really acting in accordance — that's the mediators' role) in a sort of across the ocean billiard game. For them, the duration of the game is of no importance because they give as big a damn about beginnings and ends as they do about continental drift. Never any letters, a few amusing postcards, from time to time sending books, like in the lovers' quarrel in Une femme est une femme. They never have anything to say to each other or to share, above all no points of view on anything whatsoever, even on translation. On the occasion of their rare and brief random meetings in the course of travels, they work out, on the corner of a hotel or cafe table 18, the fine points of translations in progress. That's all. Apart from this, each one plays alone for himself. Game out of sync, long distance, at a distance.

18 — "For, as it eventually turned out, he cared not to consort, even for five minutes, with any stranger captain, except he could contribute some of that information he so absorbingly sought.

Herman Melville, "The Gam" 19

18 1/2 — I arrive at a perilous and let us say disreputable passage here. I could have translated Sun as "Solitude". Of course, I didn't. Before designating a fashionable social plague, the word was (and remains) one of the great poetic plagues. One of those words that should be retired from the language and disinfected before being allowed back in circulation. Gilles Deleuze, for example, utilizes it when he tells that his role as a professor was to teach students (in search of communication because they feel lonely) that they should be glad of their solitude. That they could proceed only as a function of their solitude. "It was my role as a professor to reconcile them with their solitude."

I'm sure that translation has a lot to do with utterances. And utterances, like (genuine) mushrooms, aren't cultivated, aren't manufactured; you gather them when you find them. No individual subject (no writer), as great as he may be, has ever invented or produced the slightest utterance. I would say the same thing about utterances as Olivier Cadiot has written about poetry: "(they) are in the language. It suffices to delicately disengage them and them make a mold of them."

When I say that translation seems to me to have a lot to do with utterances, I'm talking about solitude. Because utterances are rare. Not because there are so few of them, but because they can be spotted only in a rarefied space, a no man's land, a space without a subject.

And utterances are solitary. By this I mean that they do not communicate, they do not form links, that they are without connection, even if there are several of them on a page. But they beam like idiots.

Translating Sun or writing Théorie des Tables, the work of an idiot, has helped me "reconcile myself with my solitude."

Perhaps something like that is also meant by "Michael Palmer's latest book Sun."

19 —  though a name appears nonetheless
           inside a pumpkin's lighted head--

           this name or that--

           a scattering of hours some sound
           Then ego scriptor blotted out

                                                      (Michael Palmer, Sun 14).



  1. "How to Tell Distances," in A Ceremony of Somewhere Else, Awede, 1984.
  2. Anthology, by Emmanuel Hocquard & Claude Royet-Journoud, Un Bureau sur l'Atlantique Series/Royaumont, 1991.
  3. In The Hunting of the Snark.
  4. In 49 + 1 nouveaux poètes américains.
  5. In The Eloquence in Question, Reznikoff's 'Manner.
  6. In Espèces d'espaces. My italics.
  7. In Mars, Listening Chamber, 1994.
  8. In At Passages, New Directions, 1995.
  9. Burning Deck, 1985.
  10. In L'île des morts, P.O.L, 1995.
  11. In Lettres américaines, Alinea, 1987.
  12. In Life Moves Outside, Burning Deck, 1987.
  13. In Nancy Holt, ed., The writings of Robert Smithson, New York University Press, 1979.
  14. North Point Press, 1988. French Translation P.O.L., 1996.
  15. P.O.L, 1992.
  16. The Random House Book of Twentieth-Century French Poetry, 1982.
  17. Série Baudelaire, Les cahiers de Royaumont, Éditions Royaumont, 1986.
  18. Here again, the story starts in the middle. As I mention in the afterward to Théorie des Tables, it took me a very long time to realize that Montalban's table faithfully described "a procedure that would, over the years, force itself upon me as a way of working, writing, and translating." It took an American to make me fully understand this anecdote related to Roman antiquity.

  20. In Moby Dick, Chap.53.

Translated from the French by Stacy Doris

(1997 in Le « Gam » N° 2)

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