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Review of Pierre Martory's The Landscapist - Mark Ford, The Times Literary Supplement

13 March 2009
Pierre Martory (1920-98) was that rare thing, a poet who for most of his long and varied writing life seemed to have little or no interest in seeing his poetry appear in print. He began writing during his lycée years, spent in Bayonne, and continued until his death. He was well known in France as the author of a weekly column on music and drama for Paris-Match and had been hailed in 1953 as a promising young novelist when Phébus ou le beau mariage was issued by Denoël. Buoyed by this success, he wrote a second, but his editor at Denoël, Robert Kanters - though himself gay - rejected it on account of its homosexual subject matter. Martory composed and submitted a third, and this was accepted by Kanters on condition he change its ending; instead Martory withdrew it altogether, and decided henceforth to keep his distance from the literary world.

Those interested, however, in a certain strand of American poetry may be familiar with his name as the dedicatee of John Ashbery's The Tennis Court Oath of 1962. Martory and Ashbery met in Paris in March of 9156, soon after the latter's arrival in France on a Fulbright scholarship. They lived together for most of the next decade, and a couple of Martory's poems, the severely bilingual 'Tchat', and Ashbery's version of the long, hallucinatory 'Les Soirées de Rochefort', were published in the avant-garde magazine Locus Solus, edited by Ashbery, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and Harry Mathews, and named after a novel by Raymond Roussel, a writer revered by both Martory and Ashbery.

In his introduction to this elegantly-produced, dual-language selection of Martory's work, Ashbery suggests his friend's poetry can be 'located somewhere between Paris and New York'. New York locations such as Riverside Park or the Flatiron Building fleetingly appear, but the mid-Atlanticism of these poems resides more in their unstable layering of landscape and texture and sentiment, their restlessness, their inability not to see through or around the genres they inhabit, their delicate tonal fusion of the naive and the sceptical. Like the early Ashbery of poems such as 'They Dream Only of America', Martory enjoys riffing on clichés of escape to a paradisal new world: 'Un train de minuit pour Dieppe ou Le Havre / Et deux innocents rêvant l'Amérique'. Though an aficionado of American culture, in particular of its films and popular music, Martory 'mistrusted America and its political institutions', as Ashbery puts it in his introduction. Of his own country and countrymen he like to proclaim, 'I love France, but I hate ze French!'.

Aware that without some determined action on his part Martory's poetry would probably never become available to either French- or English-language readers, Ashbery began making versions of his friend's work in the late 1980s; this volume brings together Every Question But One (1990), The Landscape is Behind the Door (1994), and Oh, Lake (2008 - with drawings by Francis Wishart), plus some uncollected poems. It is adorned with a ravishing cover by Jane Freilicher that beautifully captures the openness of Martory's poetry to the co-existence of the lyrical and the mancing, the uncanny and the ridiculous: in the foreground on a grey, faintly funereal plinth rest a glass of peonies and a small version of Watteau's 'Pierrot gilles'; behind stretches a deserty landscape, ending in a yet more barren ridge of grey rock, while above looms a vast sky in which lurk rifts of white and somewhat threatening purple cloud.

'Was I looking for a fountain or was it oblivion?', Martory asks in what is perhaps my favourite of his poems, 'Toten Insel' ('The Isle of the Dead' - the title an allusion to the famous painting by Arnold Böcklin, in which a Charon-figure ferries a recently dead spirit across a lake to a rocky isle dominated by towering cypresses).

Les dos des livres parlait une langue indécise
Les bruits de la rue ne rapprochaient plus les charrois familiers.
Je prenais une main qui ne palpitait plus.
Je sifflais, et des voix frileuses emmitouflées
Ne répondaient pas à leur nom pourtant hurlé
Comme si elles étaient sourdes.
Ou mortes.

The spines of books spoke an imprecise language,
The sounds of the street no longer brought the familiar carts closer.
I pressed a hand that no longer palpitated.
I whistled, and chilly muffled voices
Didn't answer to their name, though it was shouted.
As though they were deaf,
Or dead.

Martory's characters and properties frequently appear in some kind of dialogue with their own absence, or gesturing towards vistas, or even a dimension of being, just beneath or beyond the apparent one. Ashbery tentatively posits the influence of 'fringe surrealists such as Pierre Reverdy and the chameleon-like Raymond Queneau, whose wicked, witty and wistful novels of French low life are the pefect antidote to Existentialism and must have affected Martory's own writing. The austerity of Pierre-Jean Jouve's poetry and the cloudy fantasy of Jules Supervielle's also come to mind'. Certainly at times Martory's imagination seems haunted by an awareness of a void, possibly a numinous one, underlying each action or moment - though he also on occasion allows himself a very unnuminous, indeed fairly frank eroticism; 'Lettre recommandée' ('Registered Letter'), for example, makes exuberant use of the surreal rather in the manner of, say, Frank O'Hara, as a code language for illicit pleasures: 'Je sais quels cris s'éetouffent aux moiteurs de la jungle / Et comment écorché tu gémis de plaisir plein la bouch / Et ce que cette tache sure ta lettre signifie'. ('I know what cries are choked n the clamminess of the jungle / And how when flayed you moaned your mouth full of pleasure / And what that stain on your last letter means'.)

There is as yet no edition of Martory's work on sale in his home country, which is odd given the reception his poetry received in America, where it appeared in magazines such as the New Yorker and Poetry (Chicago), and was widely and positively reviewed. It is to be hoped that, just as Edgar Allan Poe only became acceptable to Americans once endorsed by Baudelaire, the French will soon find themselves belatedly discovering one of their finest twentieth-century poets, and saluting him in the niche in the poetic pantheon prepared by his American admirers.
Previous review of 'The Landscapist'... To the Pierre Martory page... To the 'The Landscapist' page...
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