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Jacques Roubaud. Poesie: Paris. Seuil. 2000. 539 pages. 160 F. ISBN 2-02-038176-1.

"LE MONDE SOUFFRE d'une extinction de la voix interieure de poesie," proclaims Jacques Roubaud in Poesie:, the fourth "branch" of the project including Le Grand Incendie de Londres (1989), La Boucle (1993), and Mathematique: (1997). A colon usually precedes a definition or explanation, and the punctuation in the title here suggests that the text will respond to the question "What is poetry?" But Roubaud demonstrates, rather than defines, a notion of poetry. Throughout this "long treatise in prose," we see the author at work in the attempt to impose formal "constraints" on all types of information. The consciously created structures of poetic narrative order the chaos of experience, preserve memory, and create meaning.

The effects of the ordering process are apparent visually. The text is a patchwork of italics, boldface, underlining, multiple fonts, and varied font sizes, which map digressions and avenues of thought. The text is further divided and subdivided into numbered sections. Thus, following the author's example, one could cite 4.12.157, for instance, or branch 4, chapter 12, section 157, although more commonly one might refer to Poesie:, p. 416. This type of precision stems from Roubaud's interest in the influential group of mathematicians who in the late 1930s began publishing under the collective pseudonym Nicolas Bourbaki, and who used similar principles of organization and references in their treatises. (Roubaud also borrows from mathematical notation the trick of opening numerous parentheses (which then must be accurately closed or balanced (so that after a train of digressions the reader confronts a wall of four or five right parentheses (always perfectly correctly placed.))))

In Poesie: the erudite is never far from the whimsical. Instances of ludic forms include a "list-poem" of license-plate numbers seen in Paris, and a game-poem "QSSD" or "Qui se souvient de?" According to the principle "QSSD," Rou -- baud organizes apparently unrelated oddments such as the citation "Des p'tits trous' of Serge Gainsbourg fame, and the warning "E pericoloso sporgersi. Nicht hinauslehnen," familiar from European trains. Also appealing is the use of archaisms such as "muance" and of expressive neologisms such as "po&sie" (the ampersand often used in the names of companies alludes to the unfortunate influence of market forces on art). These word games recall Roubaud's association with the OuLiPo group, of which he is a founding member.

Ultimately, a temporal architecture built of autobiographical elements gives emotional depth to the narrative and suggests a possible explanation for the impulse to impose order where none is immediately perceptible. Roubaud's sixty-second birthday in December 1994 began "une annie climaterique" or year of reckoning; the adjective is fashioned from "climaterico," in a Gongora sonnet. This year marked the anniversary of Roubaud's brother's suicide thirty-three years earlier, a coincidence of numbers recalling the age-year of Christ's martyrdom. Happily, our author pulls through "without visible catastrophe," but in a tragic passage, Roubaud recalls his last conversation with his brother, who repeatedly asked, or remarked, "what's the use." In this context the unremitting effort to compose and to shape becomes comprehensible: "Il faut que le Projet de Poesie soit un isolant contre les insinuations de la douleur."
Julia Abramson
University of Oklahoma
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Abramson, Julia
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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