Edward J. Steichen: Woods Twilight
Link to poem, translated by Karen Volkman
To recap from my last post: Francis Ponge often described the “things” in his poems in terms related to writing, language, and even the physical materials of writing. As a result, when Ponge studies an object in his “laboratory of expression,” it serves not only as the subject matter, but also as a jumping off point for other writerly considerations. In some cases, the thing even suggests a template—or at least a provisional strategy—for the poem itself.
I’d argue that this is certainly the case in the opening lines of “The Trees Delete Themselves Inside a Fog-Sphere” where the trees’ “leaves are stripped—leaves defaced already by slow oxidation” (trans. Volkman). “Leaves [feuilles]” can also refer to sheets of paper, and this sense of the word is underscored by their defacement by “slow oxidation.” Leaves lose their green in the fall, not because of “oxidation,” but because of the lack of chlorophyll. Oxidation, however, is what turns paper yellow. Compare this reading with what Ponge says in an interview with translator Serge Gavronsky: “One could…consider the words that I am in the process of saying as falling leaves, leaves made to fall, and that if I wanted to describe the clearing of the forest, then leaves have got to fall.”
At this point, I suspect you’re braced for a wince-inducing allegorical reading: “If the leaves are pages of the book, then the trunk is…” But reducing this poem to simple symbolism would miss the point. Having clued us into the fact that this is a poem about the writing process, Ponge invites us to imagine that process in the most counterintuitive terms: not of making, but of undoing or releasing or—as translator Karen Volkman would have it—delet[ing], the word she chose to translate “défont” in the poem’s title. While perhaps not the most literal translation, Volkman argues that “delete” accurately reflects the “violence” that the poem describes in a ”detached, gently brutal tone.”
Volkman calls this poem an “inventory of destructions,” but in a general way, as the inevitable process of the tree’s decay. But deleting also describes the life-cycle of an author’s words. That erasing/deleting is essential to the writing process is a truism: “Erasure is as important as writing” (Quintilian), “Kill your darlings,” etc. The theoretically inclined could read these destructions in terms of Roland Barthes: the erasure/death of the author, as her text, already “a tissue of citations,” is detached from her authority and surrendered to the reader.
What I find most compelling, however, is how these destructions are embodied by the water and liquid that run throughout the poem, and what that possibly suggests about this poem as well as language in general: There’s the sap abandoning the leaves, hastening their fall. Then there’s the moisture running down the “vertical furrows,” disassociating itself from the “vital parts” of the tree. Then there’s the fog itself, water droplets suspended in the air.
In another poem, Ponge associates water with a kind of writing: “Water escapes me, escapes all definition, but leaves trace, shapeless marks, in my mind and on this piece of paper” (“Of Water” trans. C. K Williams). So—and I acknowledge this is at best an informed guess—the water in the poem becomes the vitality/meaning coursing through language, assuming and abandoning one form after another: from thing to author, author to language, language to reader, and ending in fog: evasive, in a perpetual state of detachment: authored by no one, illegible to all. The failure to dispel the opacity of the fog-shrouded tree might seem like failure on either Ponge’s or the reader’s part, but Ponge says this is the destiny of the artist: as soon as he thinks he has captured his object in words,
He stops looking, reaches his goal.
The object also reacts.
Truth takes off again, undamaged.
—from “The Object is Poetics,” trans. Gavronsky