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Le Chant | The Song 
poème | poem 
Guillevic 
translated from the French by Heather Woods

ISBN ​​​978-1-956005-97-4      170 pages        $20.00

pre-order, book ships when published

“This new collection by Guillevic may be the purest. Some one hundred and fifty poems struck like maxims but, contrary to maxims, open to the immensity of world and soul. Grouped into four movements, each poem speaks of the song, and often, seems replete with all that one can possibly say of the song. More than ever, Guillevic reduces the French language to the simplicity of its own genius, a language which has the art of enlightening. Here, we are told the essence of the close and elusive song, and its vicissitudes, and the song of trees, flowers, birds, insects, stones, stars, hours, sites and silence. Here everything is true without proof, tonic without eloquence, mysterious without veil.”           
     Le Chant/The Song, Collection Blanche, Gallimard, 1990        

“Song is, of course, a way of being. Living in poetry is living in song, and bringing the level of daily life, biological life, to a higher level. Therefore, this song that accompanies life, is also a way of penetrating into silence.”            
     ~ Guillevic, in an interview on Le Chant, From Living in Poetry (Dedalus Press), translated by Maureen Smith                 


The Song, a previously untranslated long-poem by Guillevic, and one of his final works, encompasses his abiding relationship with silence, penetrating that silence, which begets the song. It is made up of 150 koans, or “quanta” as Guillevic called them, which read like mantras to roll over the mind’s tongue, enlightening. Heather Woods’ careful attention to sound and the resounding emptiness of space around each koan-poem is a sacred art unto itself. In her hands, the Breton stone of his hard mist reawakens in a new language. She translates, with sacred skill, the ineffable.         

"Heather Woods has artfully transposed Guillevic's elusive aphorisms into a modern American idiom, infusing them with environmental, Zen, and embodied nuances that make them brilliantly at home in their new language."          
     ~ Hoyt Rogers, writer, scholar, translator              

“Brava, Heather! A great Guillevic. Guillevic would have been delighted to read this ‘Guillevic’ faithful translation.”          
     ~ Serge Gavronsky, poet, translator, and professor emeritus of French, Barnard College 

Heather Woods studied French at Kenyon College and the University of Grenoble. The author of Light Bearing (Spuyten Duyvil 2015) and the poet-artist collaboration: Still Shall Hear a Calling Bell, her most recent épopée is Bundling (Spuyten Duyvil 2022). Her work was also featured in the award-winning indie documentary, Poetry New York (2022), and included in the anthology Resist Much Obey Little, Inaugural Poems to the Resistance (Dispatches Editions, 2017). Woods edits books by dawn and teaches writing by day. A San Francisco Bay Area native, she currently dwells in the wild maritime jutting into the North Atlantic sea, just a sidereal stone’s throw away from Brittany.

Photo Jacques Robert © Editions Gallimard

One of the most celebrated French poets of the latter half of the 20th century, Guillevic (1907-1997) was born in Carnac, Brittany, where he learned to walk among the megalithic menhirs. Growing up in a working-poor peasant household, books were scarce, and family life brutal, but the wild landscape held ample charms. Rather than dreaming of escaping the cruelty of his childhood, Guillevic dreamt of writing, finding “salvation” there. At the age of eight, Guillevic began to write poems inspired by La Fontaine, as well as the liturgical music he sang in choir. In 1919, his family moved to Alsace, where he studied and discovered the French canon and German Romanticism. Despite his early reverence for French literature, Guillevic’s rapport with the French language was complex; he lived first in a Breton-speaking community where it was forbidden to learn or speak Breton in school, then later, at high school in Altkirch, proficient German and Alsatian were required. This outsider stance continued into adulthood. As a friend of Éluard, Valéry, and Aragon, and a contemporary of Surrealists, Guillevic eschewed any clique or literary school and throughout his life espoused an outrider poetics.   

After the publication of his first major book with Gallimard, Terraque (1942), Guillevic became known for his embrace of humble subjects. In a “lapidary” style, stripped of description, Guillevic carved poems, sculpting silence, condensing enigmas. Max Jacob noted how: “Guillevic was able to be lyrical and have his feet firmly on the ground, to be light and solid at one and the same time.” His poems revivified the landscape as Alive, primordial Presence. His ethos embodied bare-boned mysticism, scientific ardor, playful humor and equanimous empathy toward fellow beings. Jean Follain introduced Guillevic as the poet “who gives refuge to frightened creatures.”

Guillevic deftly balanced the solitary activity of writing with his fervent communal consciousness. In high school, he excelled in science and math and had hoped to take a degree in physics, chemistry, or attain a teaching credential, but he could not afford any higher education. Instead, he entered the workforce as a civil servant in the Treasury and quickly rose in the ranks due to his steadfast labor. In his off hours, he wrote and translated poetry, attended literary circles, and joined the clandestine Communist Party. He lived through WWII and France’s Occupation as a proud member of the Resistance and participated in the underground press. At this time, his poetry responded to the horrors of war, instructed by his own militant socialist activities. With the publication of Carnac (1961), his work returned to its essential form, marked by the influence of Cézanne and Jean Follain, whom he admired. During the 1968 strikes, Guillevic was a founding member of the Writers Union, which culminated in awarding new civil rights, ensuring writers received the same benefits as salaried workers. He revived the Mallarme Academy and presided over it for eighteen years. He also served as board member of the Société des gens des lettres, the National Writers Committee, Commander of the Legion of Honor, and Commander in the Order of Arts and Letters. Though he loathed being away from his home-anchor, Guillevic traveled extensively to engage in literary events. For his lifetime achievements, Guillevic was awarded many honors, including the Grand Prix de Poésie by the Académie Française (1976) and the Grand Prix National de Poésie (1984).   

More than 35 collections of his poetry were published during his lifetime; and thanks to the devoted diligence of his wife, Lucie Albertini Guillevic, new posthumous collections are perenially forthcoming in this century. Over 150 limited editions of his poetry have been illustrated by prominent artists, and many of his works have been set to musical compositions. His poetry has been translated into 50 languages and disseminated in 60 countries. Living in Poetry, a series of interviews with Guillevic which constitute a literary memoir, has been translated into English by Maureen Smith, at Denise Levertov’s request. Denise Levertov was the first poet to bring attention within the English-speaking world to Guillevic’s spartan, yet beneficent, lyricism. His koan-like work has proven challenging to translate (often averaging 20 years per project to complete), and thus many of his books remain mysteries unpublished in English. As Levertov wrote, “To enter his work is to enter a type of verbal Carnac, a gathering of sacred stones.” Though Guillevic settled in Paris for the last 60 years of his life, his enduring home, that consecrated inner landscape of his poetry, abides everlastingly in Brittany.