Nicholas Manning Reviews Jean-Michel Espitallier

12 January 2007

seis_espit.jpgEspitallier's Theorem by Jean-Michel Espitallier, translated by Guy Bennet
Seismicity Editions, 2006

To begin with a tentative hypothesis: what is taken from mathematics, in its application to literature, is by definition never its “content”, its undeniable positivism, but rather its formal elements: patterns, figurations, configurations, molds, models, fractals. Mathematics, seen in poetic terms, is thus largely concerned with such questions as the same and the variable, the one and the multiple, the arbitrary and the contingent; and whereas for mathematicians such questions are mere means to achieve verifiable solutions, for poets, they become unique and autonomous ends.

Jean-Michel Espitallier's Espitallier's Theorem, in its superb English translation by Guy Bennet, is in many ways a brilliant demonstration of the way in which this purely formal aspect of the hard sciences can be (mis)used to form and generate raw poetic material. It is also, however, a book which in its attempts to satirize this often uneasy relationship, at times itself exhibits the very pitfalls of this project.

The collection begins with a hilarious faux-interview of a reclusive auteur whose propos, we are led to believe, make up the very volume we hold in our hands: propos which are appropriately both hermetic and extravagant:

In the end, the silence I observe had to make some noise. Why be a recluse
if no one is aware of it? Not saying that I am not saying would have lead in the long run to not making me say what I wished to say by saying nothing.

Already we glimpse a thread which will be crucial to the book as a whole: that of the negation of a negation, of the negative of a photograph, of the black on white (a point visually enhanced by Seismicity Edition's design choice of salient black and white). Even at this early stage, then, we detect a curious tone to this writing, a slight “making-fun” which underplays the apparent seriousness of this project. This ambivalent tone is prevalent throughout the collection, and is a difficult one to pin down. Our apparent auteur, for example, admits to the problematic nature of his/her work as early as this initial “interview”:

“But let's speak of your book. Rumor has it that it focuses essentially on mathematics.”

“And once more rumor is wrong. Mathematics, geometry, arithmetic, algebra, geometry . . . I am unable to use these tools correctly. In reality things are quite simple. You need only three figures which endlessly combine and recombine in infinite variations: the zero, the unity, and the multitude, or, put another way: nothing, something, everything. With that you can remake the world.”

We thus have a book “about” the harder sciences, by a master who does not master them, but who, by use of an abstract analogy, hopes to (re)create a complex theorem to explain both language and the world.

We already suspect, perhaps, that we are in for an interesting ride. Many of the poems, focusing on language's combinatory powers, are undeniably impressive. Take the first text we encounter in the book, strikingly reproduced in white on black:

Something rather than nothing
Everything rather than something
All nothing in each nothing
Nothing at all rather than nothing
All of everything in something
All of everything in each nothing
Something rather than everything
Nothing at all in something
Each nothing is the nothing of everything
A little nothing in each thing
In nothing something of everything
No everything without something
No everything without a little nothing

And so it goes on. No three words, so intricately interwoven, could, we may have thought, have had so much to say. Interestingly, such a poem not only demonstrates that this quasi ad infinitum linguistic combination is possible, but also that it leads to statements which are all, to a large extent, true, or at least arguable. “A little nothing in each thing” is thus as interesting and fruitful as “A little everything in each nothing”, its apparent contrary.

What is so triumphal is that Espitallier, though basing a poetic on these ones and zeros, these sounds and silences, these yeses and nos, does not do away with ambiguity, with connotation and with metaphor, to make of language a machine. Instead, his language seems enriched by these observations. An ideal example is perhaps such “number-poems” as Theater of Operations, where we see, arranged in a vertical column, the same very long number reproduced twice, mimicking stanzaic arrangements:



= 0

In this case, we are not dealing simply with a gimmicky replacement of words by numbers, but rather an evocative, dare one say beautiful, work of (conceptual) art. If nothing else, such a poem is strident proof of the fact that poetry need not be made of words; for as poetic objects, these texts have such structural precision, and such consequent formal beauty, that it is critically difficult to fault them.

There are, however, certain problems with the volume which do perhaps need to be addressed. Firstly – and it must be said bluntly – such intricate repetition, interweaving and interlacing, can simply end up being rather, let's say even overwhelmingly, boring. (Pages covered with the progression of 1108 sheep a-leaping, 1109 sheep a-leaping etc. do demand a certain reading strategy . . .). But perhaps this occasional ennui only eventuates if one decides, absurdly perhaps, to read the Theorem in the way one usually reads a book of poems; and whether or not this indeed is that object – “a book of poems” – is of course open to debate.

My second criticism is, I think, a more serious one, though at first it might not appear so, namely: why does the application of these no doubt interesting ideas to poetry- systems, models, mathematics – so often result in a sort of atrocious cornball “jokiness”? To give one groan-worthy example: we remark immediately that the many footnotes scattered throughout the Theorem, rather than being an attempt at true exegesis, inter-refer: one footnote refers to another footnote, then to another footnote, then to another footnote . . . and after four or five, perhaps more, one finds oneself back at the original page, the departure point, the glittering Omega.

Now, forgive me for being a comedy-club heckler, but did anyone not see this coming? During this particular joke I flicked, very bored, from page to page, waiting for the inevitable punch-line: “now you're back where you started!” One may object of course that “this is not simply a joke: it is a satire on bookish discourse, as well as a possible allusion to the fact that reference is sempiternally deferred . . .” Perhaps. But in contrast to most of Espitallier's gags, in this case the room simply coughs, and orders more drinks.

In spite of this, the project as a whole is undeniably fascinating. It is something rarely seen in current Anglo poetics (though admittedly more common on the Continent), namely, the “book-on-a-grand-scale”, the tome where every element contributes to a distinct and coherent vision. Jean-Michel Espitallier, perhaps best-known for his somewhat controversial anthology of contemporary French poetry (Pièces détachées : une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd’hui), is indeed a very different French contemporary poet. And appropriately, he needs to be considered in a different way. Some of the reservations I've just expressed are perhaps simply linked to readerly expectations with regard to a book like the Theorem, which, though carefully structured and conceived, does make of its readers certain unique, and often rather unforgiving, demands. And as for its occasional corniness: perhaps one can never ask, even of a seasoned comic, that all of the jokes come off.


Australian-born Nicholas Manning is currently an Assistant Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Strasbourg, France. He was nominated this year for a Pushcart Prize and maintains a weblog.

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