Pozzi and the Dream of Dissolution

Chloe Stopa-Hunt on Catherine Pozzi

Even her 'Ave' begins with extinction. The poem – the only one published during Pozzi's lifetime – is as much a meditation upon death as an address to the 'Très haut amour' [Very high love] invoked at both its opening and its end. Death is not yet the proximate, tender blackness ('noires attendues' [looked-for darkness]) of 'Nyx', written less than a month before Pozzi's own death from tuberculosis: this is a literally subjunctive quietus, mooted rather than expected. Yet it is still like an unsteady domino: lightly touched, death's image precipitates a cascade of unknowing. The speaker imagines dying 'Sans avoir su d'où je vous possédais' [Without having known whence I possessed you], and this is the first of many ignorances, since she also cannot know:

En quel soleil était votre demeure,
En quel passé votre temps, en quelle heure
Je vous aimais [...] 
[In what sun was your abode,
In what past your time, in what hour
I loved you (...)] 

Negation is a governing impulse in Pozzi's poems, and she often chooses the technique which this stanza illustrates. Rather than selecting an anaphoric rhetorical scheme dependent on 'no' and 'not', one clear instance of negation will colour, or set the scene for, the following clauses. Her negatives are complicated, expressed phrasally and through active processes. In the first verse of 'Scopolamine', the speaker travels 'A bord d'un cœur sans capitaine' [Aboard a heart without a captain], but within this existing scene of loss, 'l'oubli fond comme du miel' [forgetfulness melts like honey]. Forgetfulness and oblivion – 'l'oubli' – are already concepts involving relinquishment, and we can read an implicit double negative in the process Pozzi describes, as 'l'oubli' itself dissolves away. The result is not the re-appearance of memory, when forgetfulness is gone; on the contrary, one absence ('sans capitaine') becomes the scene of a yet deeper hollowness: the loss of loss.

Pozzi pursues this kenosis in a manner at once dogged – as she chases an ever-emptier image – and lyrically delicate, a paradox of style reflecting the divided impulses of her major poems. She deals, above all, in a rhetoric of placement. The bodies in her poems move through a cosmos, space and time wheeling round them: in 'Scopolamine', the speaker declares, 'je naviguerai le ciel' [I will sail the sky], commanding her heart to 'voyage vers le Soleil' [travel towards the Sun]. Sublime journeys also animate 'Maya' and 'Nyx'. In the former, history and physicality blur together when the speaker describes her quasi-mythic movement: 'Je descends les degrés de siècles et de sables... j'entre dans votre fable' [I descend the steps of centuries and sands... I enter your fable]; in the latter, the impulse is skywards and deathwards, as a 'vol permis outre les cieux fermés' [allowed flight beyond the closed skies] is invoked rather than described. Navigating the skies, or conjuring a heart which is part of that firmament – 'un astre apparu / Qui nage au divin nonpareil' [a visible star that swims in the sacred nonpareil] – Pozzi for a moment echoes the subservient Donnean universe, bowed to love's use and command. Yet the great skyscape which her poems inhabit is only intermittently benevolent, and her poetics of placement, movement, and cosmic action are always overlaid with the possibility of a grand fragmentation.

'Ave' presents a vision of the artist-lover, the maker-love retrieving a shattered being. Pozzi lingers over the moment when the self flies apart:

Quand je serai pour moi-même perdue
Et divisée à l'abîme infini,
Infiniment, quand je serai rompue 
[When I shall be lost to myself
And split to the infinite abyss,
Infinitely, when I shall be severed (...)] 

Reiterating the infinity of her dispersal, the speaker is about to be contradicted by the poem, as her 'mille corps' [thousand pieces] are re-formed into 'Un seul trésor' [A lone treasure]. Pozzi does not conclude on a note of straightforward recovery and affirmation, however. 'Vous referez' [You will remake] cannot expunge the image of shattering indelibly marked by the poem's iterative thousand pieces and thousand moments. How does the lover repair such consummate disintegration? Although the poem seems to end where it began, with an another appeal to its lodestar of 'Très haut amour' [Very high love], there is really no going back: what we end the poem with is something in-human, 'sans nom et sans visage' [nameless and faceless], salvaged from a chaotic spray of ash. For Pozzi, such breaking and re-making opens the way to a move beyond matter. Her 'Cœur de l'esprit, ô centre du mirage' [Heart of the spirit, O centre of the mirage] is a laical rewriting of Donne, who adumbrated 'a blessed nullification, a glorious annihilation of the heart' – the same transcendent vacuity defines each image, and a dissolution of the known is the only path by which such mystic intensity can be attained.

The opening of 'Scopolamine' sees another overpowered heart: 'Le vin qui coule dans ma veine / A noyé mon cœur et l'entraîne' [The wine that flows in my veins / Has drowned my heart and sweeps it away]. The exalted lover of 'Ave' recedes: although the poem depicts a similarly qualified recouping in the wake of destruction, the uncaptained heart is now at the centre of its own drama. A dense cluster of I-statements in the final stanza reinforces this impression. 'Je suis sauvé je suis perdu' [I am saved I am lost] hints at an intense emotional struggle, as though even a comma were too great a barrier for these two inextricable states of being. When there are vestiges of the dialogic form that shaped 'Ave', the speaker addresses only herself, conscious that anything she would save must be secured by her efforts alone. She speaks more intimately ('ton sommeil' [your sleep]) than in 'Ave', where the lover is notably 'vous'; this self-tenderness softens the poem's bleak conclusion, as the speaker searches 'dans l'inconnu' [in the unknown] for a freedom defined, once more, by negation: 'Un nom libre de la mémoire' [A name free of memory].

Pozzi inscribes a selfhood full of questing intentness, yet infinitely fragile. It is bound to the shifting significations of her cosmic canvas: the 'Astres longtemps liés à mon premier visage' [Stars long bound to my first face] are externalised mirrors of the delirious heart-star around which 'Scopolamine' composes itself, while all stars have the terrible, concurrent potential to become 'l'astre que je fuis' [the star that I flee] of 'Nova'. In 'Nyx', she draws a world inflected by the tumults which drove 'Ave' and 'Vale': the night is a thing of lover-like 'longs regards' [long looks] and 'secrets obstinés' [wilful secrets]. The universe itself has become that immeasurably responsive and fascinating other being, the shell which Pozzi again and again holds to the self's ear.

'Vale' imagines a 'paradis où l'angoisse est désir' [paradise where anguish is desire], and Pozzi's paradoxical or doubled structures often intensify her descriptions of loss and dissolution. In the exchange of gifts which 'Vale' relates, 'La grande amour que vous m'aviez donnée' [The great love that you had given me] is matched by its woeful twin, 'cette amour que je t'avais donnée / Pour la douleur' [this love that I had given you / For sorrow]. Yet the concluding lines of 'Nyx' are less definitely oriented towards loss:

Je ne sais pas de qui je suis la proie.
Je ne sais pas de qui je suis l'amour.
[I do not know whose prey I am.
I do not know whose love I am.]

These lines are not animated by the immense 'rage d'écrire' [writing madness] which Pozzi describes in her early journals. Instead, they are a last reformulation of the matched drives towards healing and destruction which shape her poems. This parallel phrasing restores an implicit certainty which the poem's speaker refuses, as the self-destructive unknowing of 'Ave' is replaced by a supra-rational negative capability. Suffering and love are, Pozzi suggests, at last in balance, and no longer warring.



Chloe Stopa-Hunt was educated at New College, Oxford, where she took a double first in English and served as president of the Oxford University Poetry Society. She has twice been a Foyle Young Poet of the Year, and her translation of Rimbaud was commended by the judges of the Stephen Spender Prize. Her work has been published in several magazines, including African Writing, Cherwell, and Oxford Poetry.



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