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French Women Poets of Nine Centuries: The Distaff & the Pen.

French Women Poets of Nine Centuries: The Distaff & the Pen. Selected and Translated by Norman R. Shapiro. Introductions by Roberta L. Kreuger, Catherine Lafarge & Catherine Perry. Foreword by Rosanna Warren. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Originally conceived, in the translator's words, as a "pleasant little volume," French Women Poets of Nine Centuries: The Distaff & the Pen evolved into a singularly monumental achievement in the literary rediscovery of female-authored poetry. Award-winning translator Norman R. Shapiro has selected and translated over 600 poems penned by 56 French-speaking women poets spanning the Middle Ages to the present, breathing new life into a diverse corpus of verse and making much of it accessible for the first time to Anglophone readers. Accompanied by Shapiro's own preface and his biographies, literary appreciations, notes, and source guides for each poet, this anthology also features a foreword by American poet Rosanna Warren, a selected bibliography, and three critical introductions by disciplinary specialists Roberta Kreuger, Catherine Lafarge, and Catherine Perry to each of its three main chronological subsections: the Middle Ages & Renaissance, the 17th & 18th Centuries, and the 19th & 20th Centuries. The volume thus provides the literary and sociohistorical background, as well as the linguistic supports, that make it well suited for scholarly and pedagogical contexts, as well as for pure enjoyment.

As Warren's foreword underlines, as fascinating as are the lives of many women authors, until very recently, "the lives have often stood in for the writing." And although the introductions and biographies provide ample discussion of the poets as historical figures, as well as of the challenges they faced in a social fabric and literary canon dominated by men, Shapiro's translations refocus the reader's attention squarely on their artistry. This refocusing emerges through Shapiro's approach to translation itself, which privileges a "fidelity" to communicating not only message, but tone, and to incorporating the rhythms, rhyme schemes, and poetic devices of the original works. His sustained capacity, from medieval to contemporary verse, to reproduce the integral voice of each poet is nothing short of remarkable.

As Kreuger's introduction points out, the works of Marie de France, the first known woman poet writing in French, establishes three key registers adopted in female medieval and Renaissance verse: the didactic (in the Fables), the courtly or lyric (in the Lais), and the devotional (in Saint Patrick's Purgatory). Shapiro conveys the earthy humor of her Fables, as in "The Peasant and the Beetle," where he hilariously describes the opening plight of the commoner protagonist: "A loutish lummox lay a-dozing,/Flat on his face, his arse exposing/ Unto the sun, with cheeks spread wide;/When lo! A beetle crawled inside." Although Christine de Pizan, France's first "professional" woman of letters, is best known for her inaugural role in the "Querelle des femmes," Shapiro's attention to her short courtly lyrics accentuates their startling compactness. Christine's following "Rondeau" suggests the haunting repetitive terseness of Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights": "My love, come yet again this night,/At that same hour I said before./ To frolic to our hearts' delight,/My love come yet again this night."

French Renaissance women's poetry has enjoyed a vibrant revival since the 1990's, with numerous modern and bilingual editions produced in large part thanks to the assiduous publishing of Droz Press in Geneva and "The Other Voice" series at the University of Chicago Press. Shapiro provides substantial examples from the key female Petrarchan and Neoplatonic poets of 16th-century Lyon, Pernette du Guillet and, most famously, Louise Labe, whose works currently enjoy a particular notoriety in a debate over their authorship. Although Shapiro translates fifteen of Labe's twenty-four sonnets, he interestingly opts not to include her most famous piece, Sonnet 18--"Baise m'encor, rebaise moy, et baise"--perhaps because of its many already existing translations. He does, however, capture an implicit element in the lesser-known Sonnet 19 that I have not found noted in any previous translation. Here, Diana, goddess of chastity and the hunt, encounters the dazed female narrator, who has been felled pierced by passion after a futile exchange of arrows with a male passerby. Whereas most readers see Diana as a sympathetic presence attesting to Labe's esteem for female solidarity, Shapiro uncovers the note of censure in the goddess's interrogation of the "quiverless" narrator by capturing the negative connotations of the adjective "estonnee" in the Middle French lexicon: "Brash Nymph! Why stray you, thus, impertinent,/far from Diana's side?" He likewise shows how Labe's revision of Petrarchan male passion can be placed at the service of the prolific female devotional poetry of the period, as when in her Sonnets spirituels Gabrielle de Coignard commits to Christ "My verse, my flesh, my soul, my everything." Finally, Shapiro's verse selection--as well as the book's subtitle--reveals that Renaissance devotional verse can take many forms, as when in her poem "To My Distaff Catherine des Roches declares her twin dedication to domesticity and writing: "My hand holds both the spindle and the pen."

If, as Lafarge notes, the 17th century is dominated by the dramatic verse of Racine and Corneille and the 18th century lacks the reputation as a period of accomplished poetry, the movement to Paris as the center of artistic activity, with its burgeoning literary salon life, nevertheless produced a broad array of female authored poems, including the light fare of preciosity, the ongoing didactic convention of fables and maxims, satiric and religious verse, and even drinking songs! As members of the "precieuse elite," 17th-century poets such as Madeleine de Scudery and Henriette de Coligny de la Suze specialized in amusing courtly songs. The translator here revels in clever word-play, as when in one of de Coligny's madrigals, he captures the lady's chastising of the male object's divided heart by inverting lines two and four of the original French such that the man's name, "Tirsis," is replaced by the assonant, if not fully rhyming term "Betwixt," which gives voice to the central "torn between two lovers" theme. Likewise, in Marie-Catherine Desjardins de Villedieu's humorous fable "Le Singe Cupidon" ("The Monkey Who Played Cupid"), Shapiro shows his flair for witty neologism, as the unlikely Archer literally "sets about cupidifying." The popularity of female-authored fables continued into the 18th century in the verse of poets such as Marie-Amable de La Ferandiere, whose tongue-in-cheek tone in "The Bumblebee and the Swallow" resounds through the translator's portrayal of the bee's flippant indifference toward his detractors: "'So? I bore you, coz?/Who cares? I'm happy, love, the more I buzz."' Another reputed fable-writer, Marie-Madeleine Joliveau de Segrais, demonstrated a gift for pithy morals that Shapiro hyperbolizes by eliding the definite articles and substituting a final gerund for the original compound verb in her two-line "Eagle and the Worm": "Eagle spied worm atop a tree and, calling,/'How did you climb so high?' he asked. 'By crawling.'"

Finally, Shapiro does not ignore the ongoing delicate position of the female writer, vulnerable to attacks from both men and women. Fanny de Beauharnais, a centerpiece of the 18th-century Paris salon scene who was harshly judged when she began writing herself in middle age, produced several satirical poems on gender mores, one of which, "To Women," features an extended portrait of the censure of women by other women. Shapiro dramatizes this judgment by switching active and passive voice verbs and fragmenting the rhythm of the original at key junctures: "... they say/I filch my verse ... Ah no, Chloe/Is not the author ... Heavier, she, / Duller of wit! ... And wings are not,/Alas, of aging years begot! ..."

This return to the precarious position of the female writer creates a fitting segue to the 19th-20th century portion of the volume, which not surprisingly showcases the work of more women poets (29) than the Medieval-Renaissance and 17th-18th century portions combined (27). What is surprising is how powerfully this precarious position persisted through the cultural challenges of these eras. Perry's introduction compellingly traces the sociopolitical forces that have heretofore left French women poets with only sparse representation in 19th-20th century poetry anthologies and prevented their actual poetic practice being studied seriously until the early 1970's. Moreover, the male poetic establishment largely devalorized female-authored poetry as being driven by an overabundance of sentiment, a morally reprehensible longing for freedom, and an emphasis on theme at the expense of form. A well-known illustration is Baudelaire's 1861 essay on the most reputed 19th-century woman poet, Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, in which despite praise for her lyric "inspiration," he cannot credit her with genuine artistic creativity.

It is precisely, once again, this often-unrecognized artistry that Shapiro demonstrates in his translations. In "The Bramble," a twelve-line love poem by Desbordes-Valmore herself, he takes up her taste for fragmented lines and enjambments that embody, as in the famed son-nets of American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, the visceral pain yet stoic resignation of the female speaker: "I bleed. Silent and tearless, I gaze on/Eyes that delight to see me woebegone,/Weeping." Similar staccato rhythmic effects appear in one of the few women sonneteers of the century, Louise Colet, whose prose writings on her liaisons with Flaubert and Musset have dwarfed the poetic dexterity that Shapiro reveals in "At the Home of Him who Left": "It's cold. You light the fire, and then/You dress ... You go. You leave me there/Alone. I hurry to your chair,/Nestle deep, and I take your pen." If in Colet's sonnet the will to write is eventually overcome by the urge to weep, Shapiro's selections show that in the 19th century, female writing and creativity are forcefully thematized, either in the face of grief, as in the final declaration of Marie Pape-Carpantier's poem "To Write"--"No! Write I shall!"--or in the face of time-worn love relations, as in Victoire Ba-bois's familial letter, where the translation's alliterative play insists on the longevity of female wit: "She cleaves to him and he to her,/Reveling in her wealth of wit; for such is/The power it wields that never does it wane."

When the long-lived poet Marie de Regnier (1875-1963) expresses her wish in "Epitaph" that the leaf shadows blowing over her tomb serve as "An epitaph in constant change, like me," that vision of self could also well speak to the continuing metamorphosis of French (and Belgian) women's poetry in the 20th century. Among the twenty poets of this period represented here, there are striking examples of varying inspirations: Parnassian, Symbolist, Surrealist, and free verse, among others. The reader will delight in the sensuousness of Marie Dauguet's "The Passion of Scents," with its Baudelairian touches of correspondence between nature and "the secret, deep, divine," and Shapiro's artful use of alliterations to emphasize the synesthetic interpenetrations between scent and taste: "How I would savor, unto death/Those wild scents misting round night-black/Cesspools that graze me with their breath:/Potions, strong, aphrodisiac." For the widely-studied poet Anna de Noailles, there is a broad variety of verse, from the minutely playful description of her cat--"[q]uivering warm, (...) she of the eye/Demonic!"--to the seductively terrifying evocation of pre-birth and post-death nothingness: "I slept, and for a moment joined that vast/Void ..." A similar to de Noaille's feline portrait, but with a sharper edge, emerges in the poems of Lise Deharme, who moved in Surrealist circles and adopted their taste for startling juxtapositions. In one of his tours de force, Shapiro communicates the lustful desire of Parisian workers for a young woman passerby with the perfect English idiom: "and when she's smiling/deliciously/workmen from Saint-Denis/lick their chops."

Shapiro concludes his volume with two poets of deeply contrasting lives and fortunes: the prolific, still living Franco-Belgian writer, Liliane Wouters, and the marginalized figure of Albertine Sarrazin, who wrote from prison and died at age forty. These two poets are fortuitously juxtaposed, however, in their sharing of a densely packed style combining mastery of traditional forms and free verse. Unsentimental but fiercely moving, their poems fuse stoic suffering in face of alienation and loss with a passionate determination to meet each new day. In Wouters's address to her own breath--"You are all I have I live/by your tepid in-and-out"--and in Sarrazin's struggle for survival within her prison cell--"The sun would bleed me nonstop no reprieve/ (...) But dawn will rise newborn I'll take my leave ... "--the translator's "surrender" to both poets' compelling disjointed syntax culminates his volume with a final admiring gesture to the labor of women across the centuries to define themselves and their worlds through their art. Throughout this anthology, Norman Shapiro has thus given his readers a double gift: he has brought many of these poets out of obscurity; and he has himself labored--indefatigably--to reveal and celebrate their luster.

Deborah Lesko Baker

Georgetown University
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Author:Baker, Deborah Lesko
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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