Stephen Watts reviews


by Hédi Kaddour

Translated from the French and introduced by Marilyn Hacker

Yale University Press, 2010 ISBN: 978-0300149586, 192pp, cloth, $26

Poet of Intimate Observation 

Hédi Kaddour – born in Tunis in 1945, but living mostly in Paris since the age of eight – is probably best regarded as a French poet in a direct line of descent from Baudelaire, Verlaine and Apollinaire, to Jacques Réda, Jacques Roubaud and on to more exact contemporaries such as Guy Goffette. His observational language, the urban ‘flaneur’ of his poetic tempo and his concern for twentieth-century European history, are not, for instance, close to other French-language Arab poets such as Vénus Khoury-Ghata or Amina Saïd, who’ve also lived in Paris for many years:
“… he spoke of memory to amnesiac/voyeurs and threw gold pieces in the sea”

And yet Kaddour’s is also an open poetry, a comparatist’s poetry of wide allegiance. French is his mother tongue, Paris his walking city, almost his observation post, but he has also drunk deeply from German poetry from Hölderlin through Trakl, Rilke, Célan and Bachmann to contemporaries such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger, or Durs Grünbein, whom he has translated. Moreover he has lucid ‘dialogues’ with a number of Russian poets, particularly Joseph Brodsky, to whom he seems close (“To those who wanted his jacket/ he left his coat”). And while living and teaching in Morocco for a number of years, he familiarised himself with literary and dialectal Arabic to the extent that he has deep insights to much in contemporary Arabic culture. But if there is an ‘otherness’ (a word I really don’t want to use with regard to his poetry) within his poet’s breath and language, at the same time contemporary French poetry is his word-pitch and his ‘home’. To quote again from the poem that he wrote in memory of Joseph Brodsky (“Far From Byzantium” , p. 36) :
“But one day he emptied his closets/ of suits which would have been all too/ becoming to the enemy, and he went off/ toward a wind from beyond those lands”

If Kaddour is talking of Brodsky here, he is equally talking of himself and of his readers.As in the poem “To Jean Follain” (p. 28): “A cabin for travelling, stationed at the edge of/ the necessary world; point of departure for strange lands/ and some never return …”. Or the poem “Recess” (p. 32): “… and there you are like a flautist/ doing endless breathing exercises in front of the cormorants/ and petrels …”. All the while the poet is observing close and intimate realities whilst coaxing happened or potential histories. Later in the book the lines: “… toward the thick fleece/ of stars in which sleep will topple down” or “… and not let them go/ before the last shudder then/ take them again on their backs tell them/ lovely lies” or, quite simply: “the inspector general of mines/ follows a badly played/ tennis match with his eyes.”
Kaddour’s is a poetry of intimate, even amazed, observation contoured by history.

He has published five books of poetry, in addition to two novels. Treason is a selection, arranged by theme rather than chronology, from three of them. It’s a fine book, a genuine introduction to a very important contemporary French voice in translations by one of the foremost poet-translators, Marilyn Hacker, who is clearly at ease with Kaddour’s voice and indeed is, appropriately, in dialogue with him. 

From Banipal 39 - Modern Tunisian Literature

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