John Taylor on José-Flore Tappy

The Poetry of José-Flore Tappy

Born in Lausanne in 1954, the Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy has written five volumes of poetry that have drawn increasing critical attention to her work. Her first collection, Errer mortelle (Wandering Mortal), won the Ramuz Prize in 1983. Already encouraged at this stage by the poet Anne Perrier (who also deserves to be widely known in the English-speaking world), Tappy has slowly but surely produced four new collections since that auspicious début: Pierre à feu (Flint, 1987), Terre battue (Beaten Earth, 1995), Lunaires (Lunar Poems, 2001), and Hangars (2006). The latter volume won the Schiller prize for the best Swiss poetry collection of the year 2006. Because of the quality of her short, fragmentary, discretely lyrical, and haunting poems, Philippe Jaccottet recently included her as the youngest poet in his highly selective bilingual anthology of Swiss francophone poetry, Die Lyrik der Romandie (2008). In his commentary on her work, Jaccottet defines her particular kind of lyric expression as "possessing the force of stones, the dryness of bones, and an iron sharpness." He highlights the "necessity" underlying her inspiration. Tappy constantly sets her readers before this same necessity: that of a "struggle," to quote Jaccottet once again, "not to fall, not to sink." Tappy has not been prolific, but each sequence of poems—the formal arrangement that corresponds most readily to her sensibility—results from an essential creative act.

At first view, Tappy's poems can seem simple. Her diction is direct, concrete, down-to-earth. Her imagery and metaphors are based on ordinary things and the most rudimentary elements of nature, as in this poem from Hangars:

At our feet
our ankles
the light rises
with its reassuring
mild warmth

in obscurity
it raises
a framework
of fire

carries us
lifts us.
  Yet from "simple" only one step is needed to arrive at "elemental," to cite the title of the sequence Élémentaires (Elementals), which is included in Hangars. As adjectives qualifying both her poetics and the various realities to which she feels urged to respond poetically, "simple" and "elemental" are to be taken in their most philosophical senses. As a hint to what this might imply as far as poetry is concerned, think of the epigraph, in the form of a question raised by Plotinus, of the first issue of the review L'Éphémère, founded by André du Bouchet, Jacques Dupin, Yves Bonnefoy, Paul Celan, and others in 1966: "What discourse is possible with respect to what is absolutely simple?" Tappy engages with this fundamental question for poets in regard to their naked presence in the cosmos and their duty to face up to the rudimentary elements of being. Departing from her native Switzerland during the summer, she places herself before stark, barren, land- and seascapes located in Portugal, Spain, and the Balearic islands. Even if she rarely mentions specific place names, her imagery regularly suggests such localities, such as the "pumice" and "rock salt" used by "deft hands" to rub the "light" in one poem included in Hangars. And there are other elemental realities that confront her and that she in turn confronts with verse: the primordial emotions associated with amorous union and disunion, to which can be added those of a solitary "wanderer" who observes nature, vestiges of human presences, and misery:

You can barely still
make out
your own footsteps

by dint of following
the jagged edge
of the trail

soon nothing will be left
but a wisp of smoke
on the cold ground

The opening piece of her Poèmes de l'ombre (Shadow Poems) sequence, which is comprised in Terre battue, is characteristic of the emotional and intellectual richness that emanates from her poetics. She evokes a present that is not viewed as a fleeting, ungraspable moment—the standard analogy. Instead, the present is a "today" lasting long enough to be fully felt, at least in its "wobbliness." "Between yesterday / and tomorrow," she writes, "I walk / on a wobbly plank / raised by the light." Ever concrete in her imagery, she implies that this shaky plank represents existential uncertainty—a recurrent notion—yet she also maintains that it is raised by the light. Literally uplifting here, light is a soothing constant as well as a source of wonderment in her poetry. Can an unsettling yet also unimpeachable sensation of wobbliness—which reminds us, at the minimum, of the certainty of our physical presence in the world—thus also offer a glimmer of hope? Or brief consolation? And if so, what kind of hope or consolation? A fugacious metaphysical hope as is sometimes sensed by Jaccottet? This is less likely, for the varieties of doubt, disappointment, anxiety, and anguish—offset by empathy, open-minded observation, and resoluteness—that are perceptible in her work accommodate no yearnings for this transcendental horizon. Something even less definable is at stake. What it might be arises often, almost invisibly, especially at the end of sequences. There are no pat answers. The final lines of the aforementioned poem—"a fractured world / where memory shimmers // a skylight / in the black today"—alternate negative and positive symbols, but leave the emotion in abeyance. Tappy's oeuvre is full of such psychological intricacy.

This intricacy is incarnated in a compelling narrative "I" which might be autobiographical in inspiration yet which is, above all, universal. Some poems formulate a sense of loss, but its specific cause is left unstated. Images of ruin and abandonment, ranging from desert expanses to the neglected "hangars" that give a title to her most recent book, sometimes seemingly point to the end of love, but sometimes as well to poverty or to the ecological predicament of our times.

Actually, first-person-singular forms crop up rarely, especially in Errer mortelle but also in Lunaires. The frequency of the "I" increases in most of the other sequences, up through Gravier (Gravel), which is included in Hangars, but it is never flaunted. Instances of the first person plural and the second person singular also occur, but whatever grammatical vantage point is adopted, a consistent effect is produced: evocations of objects or natural phenomena often hint at an inner world as well; apparent objectivity at once conceals and discloses a subjectivity. In contrast to many French-writing poets sensitive to the particulars of nature and everyday life, Tappy does not reject the emotional suggestiveness of things; she is not seeking the "thing-in-itself"; the reader surmises, deduces, and extrapolates accordingly. English-language readers in particular will think of T. S. Eliot's notion of an "objective correlative," whereby emotion is expressed by means of "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." However different Tappy's poetry is from Eliot's in nearly every aspect, his critical definition gives an idea of how archetypal personal emotions emerge from verse that rarely names feelings and that offers no systematic focus on the personal. Yet this is not to forget that other poems seem to have sprung, not from personal sources whatsoever, but rather from the bold or troubling nudity of Tappy's beloved Mediterranean landscapes and from the moving lives of the people whom she observes there.

Click here to read six poems from José-Flore Tappy's Gravel, translated by John Taylor.

John Taylor has recently translated books by Jacques Dupin (Of Flies and Monkeys, Bitter Oleander Press), Philippe Jaccottet (And, Nonetheless, Chelsea), and Pierre-Albert Jourdan (The Straw Sandals, Chelsea). He is also the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature (Transaction), and Into the Heart of European Poetry (Transaction). Born in Des Moines in 1952, Taylor has lived in France since 1977.