The Pleasures of a Book: Francis Ponge

Francis Ponge bookThe Nature of Things, by Francis Ponge

Translated and with an Introduction by Lee Fahnstock

New York: Red Dust, 2000 (2nd printing)

Originally published as Le parti pris des choses
by Editions Gallimard Paris, 1942

Poems crowd into the meager paperback like moss on a stone: the book teems. Its ink and glued binding give off a faint odor of fermentation. The margins are scandalously narrow, and the shorter poems don’t even get a page to themselves. Often they lack the most rudimentary spaces between their stanzas, and poorly reproduced engravings are the only illustrations.

But what fecundity! The French originals linger somewhere close by, like shed undergarments littering the floor around a marriage bed. And between these thin covers, everything is in flux, surrendering to multiple readings — at first slow and tentative, then gradually more assured. The off-white paper takes on a greenish cast, like the base of a flame. Fire or ferment, some kind of oxidation is clearly taking place, beyond the normal decomposition that disorders the senses after a good, long read.

Entering a poem by Francis Ponge, we become conscious of the way our thoughts take on the shape of whatever they encounter, though never as a mere vegetal clone. Eyes and lips no less than tongues serve as reproductive organs for the mind. To a poet like Ponge, there could never have been more than one poem in existence at a time. It’s we readers who are to blame for this profligacy: it’s our throats that burn, it’s our paper bodies that are spent.

As for the book, it will not lie flat. The moment I remove my fingers, it springs back to its original position: shut tight, but for the slight gap of the top cover.

15 Comments


  1. well I think you should send this artfully written review off to someone and make some money already…you’re good!

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  2. Yes, I see what you mean! This is some kindred cousin to that Bilge Kerasu review: the wandering, embroidering sort of review.

    You know, I think they can be more effective in making somebody want to read a book.

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  3. It’s a rare book review that reviews the book. Most reviews limit their scope to a book’s words — lost, floating words, of course, not words on a page. We review ideas from words — of words, at best. For our bearings we use a sky of genres: poetry, nonfiction, the novel. We can’t bear to watch ourselves read, and we dismiss the reader (ourselves) as a guide. We really write novel reviews, not book reviews.

    But how can we learn about a stone if we don’t watch its descent into the pond we send it skipping across? The kingdom of reading is submarine, from the pond’s surface to the mucked-up bottom our lights don’t reach. The stone of a book may get there, though. To push my metaphor: we don’t learn about the stone because we don’t want to get wet.

    You got a book review here. You got yourself a reader and a book with real pages and covers and words that go in and out of the reader. Beautiful scope and execution here on many levels. I’ve never read the book and may never. But I’m inspired to do some two-fisted reading this weekend.

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  4. The review marly mentions is here.

    Peter – Thanks for a great comment. You should read the book, though. Ponge is one of my favorite masters of the prose-poem. Lee Fahnstock also did a good job with his book-length poem, Prairie.

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  5. I’ve never seen a book review like this before, which finds the meaning of the work in the book’s physical form. I like it. And I like Peter’s distinction between the words and the book, which points to “book” not only as a physical object, but as an essence only partly expressed, pointed to, by its words.

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  6. Yes, there’s a kind of reverse Platonism going on here, I guess. It probably wouldn’t make sense to do this with too many other authors than Ponge, preoccupied as he was with objects.

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  7. The closest I’ve come to really discussing the physical book in a book review was one I wrote about Tom Montag’s The Big Book of Ben Zen. There were special circumstances, too: his Ben Zen poems make interesting uses of space, and the book’s margins accentuate that.

    Every book may not prompt the approach you use here, sure. I think that there are points your review suggests about the physical act of reading that are universal (to speak platonically) to any reading experience, though. So in that sense your approach works for every book.

    I like books that make me aware of myself reading. Tristram Shandy‘s dashes and that blank page, for instance. I love a good farce for about the same reason. And I guess poetry often asks for such an awareness.

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  8. The closest I’ve come to really discussing the physical book in a book review was one I wrote about Tom Montag’s The Big Book of Ben Zen. There were special circumstances, too: his Ben Zen poems make interesting uses of space, and the book’s margins accentuate that.

    Every book may not prompt the approach you use here, sure. I think that there are points your review suggests about the physical act of reading that are universal (to speak platonically) to any reading experience, though. So in that sense your approach works for every book.

    I like books that make me aware of myself reading. Tristram Shandy‘s dashes and that blank page, for instance. I love a good farce for about the same reason. And I guess poetry often asks for such awareness.

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  9. Sterne should have thought of pushing the “Submit Comment” button twice.

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  10. Great stuff. AS Byatt a couple of times remarks how writers have tried to convey all manner of pleasure and sensation but not that of reading itself, and of everything that happens when we read. She tries to do so, but I always found the way she did it somewhat up in the head and analytical and missing the mark, but this is really satisfying.
    I remember doing some school reading with a lad of about eight, he was reading from an old clothbound story-book. he was a perfectly competent reader but we launched off into a conversation about the different look and feel of the book, the paper, the print, printers’ flowers, which impressed me. It was altogether a holistic experience.
    The underclothes image is wonderfully lush and over the top!

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  11. Peter – Yes, Tom Montag’s books are wonderful. As a professional printer, he has the kind of experience that probably all of us who aspire to print publication should have as a regular part of our apprenticeship.

    Tristram Shandy is certainly a good example of a self-reflexive book. A little bit of that goes a long way, though, IMO.

    Lucy – I’m glad you liked this. I used to be more cerebral, but I began to bore myself and had to stop.

    Your anecdote about the eight-year-old is very apropos. Both as a writer and as a reader I aspire to the freshness and simplicity I had at the age of eight, when I first began reading longer books on my own. I can still remember how amazing that felt.

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  12. The review was a very enjoyable piece for all of the reasons mentioned by others. I also liked Lucy’s comment about the 8 year old reader. That made me think of how much I liked old books when I was young (well, I still do). We had some interesting old books — an old bird field guide with paintings, an early 20th C. edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (or however it was titled), a leather bound “Ralph Raymond’s Heir” with a boy on a pinto horse embossed and painted on the cover. All of those with yellowing pages and seeming somewhat other-worldly to me (almost typed other-wordly — which is perhaps true too). The first Jules Verne books that I read where huge tomes that seemed more like ships log books to me. I still respond to books on that level – the typography, page design, paper, cover. Hmmm… See how that piece you’ve written has spun off some interesting thoughts.

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  13. Yeah, those old books were much more the luxury items than today’s mass-marketed paperbacks. Though I have to say that the design quality of trade paperbacks has improved markedly in the last 15-20 years. (The book I “reviewed” here is very much the exception where poetry is concerned.)

    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you found some food for thought here.

    Reply

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