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.
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.
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.¨