The Double

 

In September, in a used bookshop in Marseille, I discovered a book of poetry by Jules Supervielle, a poet well-known in France but little known in America.

As I first flipped through the book, titled Poems: 1939-1945, Supervielle’s style reminded me a bit of Wallace Stevens, especially in the circular, giving way the poet’s subjects bleed into one another, leaving no firm truths or times, nothing definite to hang on to.

The physical book itself struck me as special. The printing date is stamped on the last page: December 20, 1945. Just a few months after the end of World War II. Made of delicate, browned, shaggy-edged paper and wrapped in an old wax paper protector, the book is remarkably preserved and cared for.

Written in graying ink—not on the cover’s inside flap, not on the title page, but on the upper right corner of the first page of poetry—is a woman’s name. Her first name is easy to make out: Monique. But her family name is unclear.

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Monique Ballat? Monique Balmat? The last name is underscored with one bold, confident line, as if Monique’s ownership of this text—and her identity—were firmly resolved.

But who was she, and how did she come into possession of this book? Did she read it as a young girl, or as an older woman, as mother, a grandmother? How did she take these poems, with the destruction of war still so present and reverberating?

And more: how long had this book waited in this dusty bookstore, waiting for a new reader? Monique and I: have we been the sole two owners of this book? What drew both of us to it: something about us—our likeness?

Later that afternoon, I rushed to Marseille’s main library, off the wide Canebiére that leads to the city’s extravagant port, and I translated one of the poems. It seemed to speak directly to me. I wonder if Monique read it, and if it spoke to her as well.

The Double

My double approaches. He looks at me.
He says: ¨Ah there he is! the one who dreams,
who imagines he’s alone (as I watch him
lower his eyes and plunge into misery.)
Dark, dark, darker: in this black night
he cannot hide; it’s bound now to my solitude.
I too am thrown to the depths of sleep. I rise
to seek him—not as a wolf, so gray-like, rude—
but rather as electric light, too soft
and weak to scare him off. I approach myself
in him; I study him there. I shine on the thing
that escapes his heart. I signal it to come to me.¨

Four Suns


 

…what spirit
Have I except it comes from the sun?

Wallace Stevens, from ¨Waving Adieu, Adieu, Adieu¨


 

 

There may be nothing so reliable as the sun.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESRabat, Morocco

 

Despite its turbulence, it is one of the few things we can count on;

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it is the closest thing we have to a fact.

SAM_0286Marseille, France

 

Thirty minutes north of Marseille, near a small Provencal town, an experimental synthetic star is under construction. The ITER Tokomak, which will take at least twenty years to complete, is designed to mimic the sun’s power and offer future generations an alternative, sustainable energy source.

Human-built, in process, hypothetical, it is an idea, and it throws everything known and enduring into question.

si-ITER2Photo credit: ITER Research Center

 

 

Gallery

Marseille: Construction

Piece by piece, Marseille is being ripped apart and rebuilt, just as it has been, time and again, for thousands of years.

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Construction workers do more than labor: they have a hand, practical and direct, in the creation and recreation of a place. In Marseille, they build upon the work of the city’s founders and leave their own for future change.

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It’s cosmic work, and it makes me think of this passage from Whitman’s Song of Myself:

 

I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am encloser of things to be.

My feet strike an apex of the apices of stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.

Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.

Long I was hugg’d close–long and long.

Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me.

 

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