The 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.