March 22, 2013
review "At Point Zero" (on Anne Portugal's Nude) by Douglas Messerli
At Point Zero
Anne Portugal, Nude, trans. Norma Cole (Berkeley: Kelsey St. Press, 2001)
by Douglas Messerli
With over four books of poetry published in France—all on the list of the distinguished publisher P.O.L.—Anne Portugal is fast becoming recognized as one of the major French poets. Her book Le plus simple appareil has been translated in a beautiful edition as Nude. Before I go any further with this review, however, I must admit that it was originally to have been published by my own Sun & Moon, but in the financial duress of the last few years, was taken on by Kelsey St. Press. So I am prejudiced to like it. However, it rereading the work—years after my original encounter—I do feel I have some observations to make.
The work, divided into seven parts—"the bath," "the exhibition," "the garden," "the elders," "the visitors," "Susannah's letter," and "the painting"—is really one long work thematically based on the biblical tale of Susanna and the Elders. That story, canonical in Catholicism and apocryphal in Protestantism, added sometime in 100 B.C. to the Hebrew-Aramaic version of Daniel, tells the story of Susanna, a beautiful woman married to Joakim, whose house is the site of the local court. Two of the elders of that court desire Susanna and plot her rape. As she takes a bath in the garden, they hide themselves, observing, and then offer her the choice of sexually submitting to them or being accused of adultery. When Susanna refuses to give in to their demands, they denounce her, trying her in the court and sentencing her to death. Enter Daniel, who interrogates the two elders, proving their guilt and Susanna's innocence. Praised by her parents, Daniel becomes a hero among the people.
Portugal's work, however—although containing the bath, garden, nude, elders, and sexual encounters—is hardly a literal retelling of the Bible tale. Rather, for this author the work is an interweaving of what it means to be a woman in contemporary France and a study in formal structures, a kind of verbal painting, which she lays out early in the book with a series of panoramas. Indeed, the work is addressed to an unknown who "knows painting" ("You really know painting"), presumably the individual to whom the book is dedicated, Marc Silvain. But the author could be addressing anyone else, even possibly the poet Guillaume Apollinaire to whose poems Portugal makes reference throughout Nude, and who, as the author of The Cubist Painters, certainly did also know painting. Already in the second section, "the exhibition," Portugal alludes to Apollinaire's poem "Annie," which describes a Mennonite living on the shores of Texas between Mobile and Galveston, passing a garden filled with roses by a villa "Which is one huge rose." And in "the garden" she connects that poem with images from Apollinaire's "White Snow" and "Palais," which, ultimately, in the last section, reverberates with Portugal's references to Apollinaire's "Rosemonde," "the rose of the world," and again to "Palais," as Susannah turns back to Rosemonde's palace.
To focus on these echoing patterns, however, would be to mislead the reader. Portugal's work, far from being a sort of academic compilation of literary references, is lyrically dense and complex in its structure. And for that reason, if for no other, I long for a bilingual edition, where I could compare the complexity of the original—it's multiple puns and enjambments—with Cole's translation. For, if the poem begins with the simple image of Susannah at the bath, a plump and blonde Swede, as the author see her, "limned" by "the two elders' heads," it soon swirls into a series of multiple images, of numerous Susannahs, a woman naked in a field in Normandy while at the same time a passionate girl in a sateen nightie. The poem becomes a "vessel borne upon multiple waves," just as Susannah becomes all women, Venus and "a plump woman who's put on weight she's put on weight." Portugal's work, in fact, is like a cubist painting, a series of images overlaying each other which together portray not an instant in time, a symbolic flash of womanhood, but all women through time, being both preyed upon by the opposite sex and sensually aroused by its attentions, a woman moving forward in history while turning back to the romance of Rosemonde's palace—which leaves man eternally starting out again "at point zero.”