Fine Lines: Jacques Réda’s Poetics of Place
Mon cahier s’est ouvert dans l’herbe, et le soleil couchant
Fait s’allonger ces ombres d’herbe en travers de la page :
De gauche à droite elles écrivent en tremblant
A peine, dix vers sans césure ni jambage,
Flammes sans feu ni cendre au cœur du papier blanc.
Jacques Réda, “L’herbe écrit
Réda’s écriture de terrain
1 Jacques Réda (b. 1929) is one of the most innovative practitioners of the literary practice that, especially in post-1980 French letters, has consisted of authors going out into the field to cull the material for their works. If such writing shares certain affinities with journalistic, ethnographic, or sociological registers of discourse, it nevertheless remains resolutely literary, for, as Dominique Viart puts it, it “abandon[s] any scientific goal” and “does not seek any conclusions”[1]. Rather than any such organized search for knowledge, in écritures de terrain, attention to the empirical world becomes a catalyst for invention on the page, in what I have elsewhere described as an “empiritextual” process whereby content is gleaned by the author in the course of an often ludic investigation into real everyday spaces[2]. In such works, the resulting literary text attempts to reflect the nature of those spaces, not just descriptively but by capturing their rhythms and their ambiance at the level of enunciation itself. Prominent contemporary French adepts of this art include Annie Ernaux, François Bon, Sophie Calle, Jean Rolin, Philippe Vasset, and Jacques Réda.
2 Amongst such authors, however, Jacques Réda stands out both for his pioneering of the practice—which we can trace in his work back to Les ruines de Paris (1977)—and also for the distinct sensitivity his background as a poet permits him to bring to his depictions of the empirical world. Indeed, if Réda’s œuvre since Les ruines de Paris has consisted largely of prose poems—described by Michael Sheringham as “forays or searches into what [he] calls elsewhere ‘la nébuleuse parisienne’[3]—such prose works nevertheless display the poet’s careful attention to rhythm and to enunciation at the level of the word and of the line (a feature that will be important in this study). Réda’s particular synthesis of poetry and prose is therefore perhaps singularly apt at expressing those rhythms of modern-day place that so many contemporary authors seem intent on capturing. Réda, “un écrivain peu soucieux des modes mais attiré par le réel qui l’entoure,[4] has garnered prizes such as the Prix Valery Larbaud (1983), the Grand Prix de l’Académie Française (1993) and the Goncourt de la Poésie (1999). In Réda’s “forays and searches”, the spirit of écriture de terrain is alive and well, as indicated by certain of his titles: Le Sens de la marche (Gallimard, 1990), La Liberté des rues (Gallimard, 1997), Le Méridien de Paris (Fata Morgana, 1997), Le vingtième me fatigue suivi de Supplément à un inventaire lacunaire des rues du XX arrondissement de Paris (Dogana, 2004), Des écarts experimentaux (Fata Morgana, 2015). In such works, as Réda puts it, “il s’est produit une sorte d’osmose entre écrire et circuler…. Je ne circulais pas pour écrire..., mais j’écrivais ensuite pour retrouver le mouvement de la route[5]. Sheringham describes Réda—citing the opening poem of Les ruines de Paris, “Les pieds furtifs de l’hérétique”,—as “an affective space” (ERW 153), tuned in to and imbricated within his surroundings, in the following manner:
ultimately the process at work here is not ascensional but lateral: the desire is for transmutation itself; and favouring one’s own transmutability is seen to be a way of responding to, or participating in, a dimension of experience that is not above or below but constituted via a particular way of processing what comes one’s way. (ERW 155)
3 The idea that Réda’s literary output should be not ascensional but lateral seems particularly appropriate considering that it is almost always the product of a movement through a chosen terrain, whether that of the arpenteur (walking), or of riding his solex, or, as in “Basse ambulante”—included in Les ruines de Paris—riding a train. As Fabienne Reymondet puts it, whereas Réda admires Baudelaire—and even chose the title Les ruines de Paris as a reference to Spleen de Paris—and whereas, like Baudelaire, he incorporates randomly encountered people and things into his writing, he does so not to sublimate but to conserve and present the heterogeneity of the everyday: “à l’alchimie, Réda préfère la synthèse de l’hétérogène”[6]. As Eric Prieto describes it, referring to Basse ambulante, Réda “seeks to ground all of his poetic choices in determinants that impose themselves on him intuitively”. This renders the seemingly paradoxical result that “the poetic subject is most fully himself when he is obeying outside forces”[7]. Réda constantly seeks and redefines this “rhythmic essence of the subject” in his prose poems[8], an endeavor he describes in the following passage from “Basse ambulante”:
peut-être que si je réussissais enfin à tout décrire, à l’instant même où le moindre brin d’herbe ou de fil de fer paraît, je comprendrais quel rôle ambulant je tiens moi dans ce rythme, dans cet ordre dont s’exerce la poigne extatique partout — des mouvements de cinq gamins en train de shooter une balle, à ce gui noir dans les peupliers établi comme une partition.[9]
4 In such a passage, Réda voices a poetic subjectivity that would be emmeshed with—indeed, even composed of—its surroundings. Réda explores his chosen terrain as a site where the flux and rhythms of existence can be felt, rhythms that make manifest that the poet, far from dominating the landscape from an exterior, Cartesian discursive position, is always bound up with his spatio-temporal surroundings. As such, he reveals space as “an extremely present organizing principle, thanks to the actions of component parts such as streets, trees, buildings, clouds, light, smells, sounds, and the air itself”[10].
5 I would like to posit that the most elementary of these “component parts”, in Réda’s écritures de terrain, is the line. That is, at the most basic level, Réda’s process of creation begins with paying attention to quasi-linear elements in the environments he passes through and results in the invention of lines on the page. For, as Réda notes in the above cited passage, it is only by beginning with “le moindre brin d’herbe ou de fil de fer” that the larger contours of a world, of its “rythme” and its “ordre” can be poetically deduced. Whether blades of grass, l’herbe of the embankments, or those whose growing shadows draw lines across the poet’s notebook—“le soleil couchant/ Fait s’allonger ces ombres d’herbe en travers de la page[11]—Réda often homes in on such existing quasi-linear elements in the landscapes he moves through to derive the movement—the bass lines (“Basse ambulante”)—of the lines of poetry or prose poetry he puts to the page.
6 Passing through environments as a rhythmic subjectivity, moreover, is also a matter of lines: as the linearity of city streets, country roads, bus lines, train tracks, and meridian lines ostensibly carry Réda through his chosen terrains. Thus, Réda poetically places immobile quasi-linear elements such as blades of grass, telephone wires, and trees (gui noir, peupliers, from the above cited passage) into movement via relativity of motion, by putting himself in movement with respect to them. From a moving train, in Les ruines de Paris or from his solex bicycle in L’herbe des talus (Gallimard, 1984), he circulates through the countryside and gets in touch with the way wires and grassy embankments appear and disappear, how they suggest structure and movement. In this paper, I will investigate the capacity of such quasi-linear elements to galvanize Réda’s attention and literary invention. I propose that the operative term to describe their role in his poetics is, to borrow a word Réda frequently uses, retenir: that is, they provide a structure—a fil—for Réda’s lyrical prose, which harnesses them to palpably convey the contours and the complexity of the places he passes through. And yet, as retenir implies, the lines Réda draws are also lines of flight that convey the precarity of the moment, of the spatial configuration, which is held together just barely and fleetingly. Ultimately, I will argue that Réda draws his supple, curving, dynamic lines in contradistinction to “le dogme de l’orthogonal” that he laments[12], the rigidity of “des lois dans l’écart inflexible des parallèles et la méchanceté abstraite de l’infini”[13]. Psychogeographer that he is, Réda laments this inflexibility in much urban planning, but such physical manifestations are but analogies for Réda’s true, underlying adversary: inflexible chronological time itself. Indeed, Réda often speaks of time, and, as Yves-Alain Favre affirms, “Cette présence fréquente du temps traduit une obsession: Réda éprouve intensément un sentiment d’impuissance devant le temps. L’instant présent s’anéantit et disparaît sans retour[14]. Favre cites Réda’s Retour au calme on this score, where the poet witnesses: “A chaque pas un peu du monde disparaître/ Un peu de soi glisser dans l’eau froide du temps[15]. Réda often contemplates the destructive march of time, and he harnesses his lines to counter its hegemony. In the passages I will examine in what follows, quasi-linear elements are brought into configurations allowing for fleeting moments of poetic triumph over chronological time, as time, too, is symbolically suspended, or retenu, within their configurations.
Walking the Heretical Line
7 In “Pernéty” (in Ponts flottants (Gallimard, 2006)), Réda laments that “à présent le clergé de l’architectonique à l’équerre triomphe(Pe 22). He elaborates:
Les formes ont sur nos âmes une influence immédiate, profonde sinon durable, mais du jour où le dogme de l’orthogonal équarrit chez les constructeurs toute intelligence de la vie, l’être mouvant se retrouve perpendicularisé jusqu’à l’os. (Pe 23)
8 No wonder Réda’s relationship to lines and linearity will be a heretical one—one in which, as Jean-François Rémy Duclos affirms, “L’exactitude géographique qu’encourage la science se trouve...mise à mal”[16]. As the title of the first prose poem of Les ruines de Paris, Le pied furtif de l’hérétique”, implies, the lines he walks or moves along (and writes) will not conform to the Western linear, quadrilinear, or Cartesian urban, cartographic, or epistemological paradigms upon which cities are built, maps are drawn, and knowledge is forged. And yet, as the self-awareness of being heretical necessitates, Réda will nevertheless constantly keep such linearity in view, will walk amongst and in contradistinction to its rigidity. In “Le pied furtif de l’hérétique”, walking through an overcast Paris at dusk, the heretic delivers the city’s monuments from the perfectly mastered forms they readily inhabit in the light of day, under the Parisian sun “qui reste le plus sensible de cette terre” (Pfh 10). He perceives in their shadowy incarnations “une sauvagerie élémentaire mais tendre” that subsists (Pfh 10), such that “des attelages de bronze vert s’envolent” (Pfh 10-11). If he notes how a geometrically impeccable public park occupies space “comme un coup de fanfare étrange de la Raison, fanatisant des lois dans l’écart inflexible des parallèles et la méchanceté abstraite de l’infini” (Pfh 11) it is not only his lyrical prose but also his walk that counter that inflexibility and meanness, as the poet refuses the tamed promenade the park’s planned parallels offer, quickly making his way to a less ordered and grassy space where “la terre ensuite heureusement recommence”, and where few, in the recent autumnal months, ever venture: where “D’assez vastes aires n’ont connu depuis des mois que le pied furtif de l’hérétique” (Pfh 11). As such, by keeping a certain underlying urban inflexibility in view while countering it, Réda renders an urban portrait that we might say gets at what Michel de Certeau calls the “mouvance opaque et aveugle de la ville habitée”, revealed as “une ville transhumante, ou métaphorique, [qui] s’insinue ainsi dans le texte clair de la ville planifiée et lisible” [17]. Thus, even in its most project-oriented manifestations, such as Le méridien de Paris, Réda’s works resemble other écritures de terrain in that they “underline the defects of any systematic logic and any chronology” [18]. If the movement in his works is lateral, it is therefore lateral vis-à-vis the practical and purposeful (and systematic) forward direction of things like urban planning.
9 This is perhaps made most manifest in Réda’s approach to that most paradigmatic of modernizing machines of rational, linear progress: the train, which is the locus of movement in another prose poem of Les ruines de Paris: “Basse ambulante”. Whereas Émile Zola, in La bête humaine, aligned the novel with the forward-moving, modernizing train imperative/perspective, Réda’s perspective is digressive and subjective as he gazes out the train window. The train window allows for the production of a text that resists not only a transcendental vertical paradigm (such as that of Baudelaire or the Surrealists, for example, mythologizing the everyday) but also the forward-moving syntagmatic nature of so much discourse: the novel, for example, which—as prone to digression as it may be—is nevertheless always underscored by the forward movement of a plot in need of resolution (and, more often than not, as with the roman à thèse, an idea in need of demonstration)[19]. For Réda, the train is emblematic of these modes of discourse; it is the antithesis of the poetic: “tout fanatiquement roule, hardi les trains, les tanks, l’indice des prix, les proclamations politiques, la prose des professeurs” (Ba 145). To this paradigm, Réda will be as heretical as to associate himself with “Lucifer”:
Je crois de plus en plus que sa faute n’a pas été l’orgueil mais la fatigue, l’ennui, voire une espèce d’humilité l’incitant à rechercher ainsi les coins d’orties, les bouts de trottoir, figé dans la pose d’un pauvre type inquiétant et dangereux. (Ba 144)
10And indeed, such insignificant loci, and the lines they project, are precisely what interests Réda most, as he gazes out the window. Thus, in “Basse ambulante” he takes note of the following quasi-linear elements: “remblais qui enserrent des tranchées” and “la mauvaise herbe” that grows there, “les volées de rails qui s’espacent” (Ba 133), “des voies à l’écart” and “les clôtures”, the “géomancie” of “Les rondes levées d’herbe et de tuf au-dessus des fossés” (Ba 135), “chemin[s]” (Ba 137), rectilinear windows in buildings “qui sans cesse se déplacent par bonds orthogonaux” (Ba 138), “ces canaux à vieux rebords de pierre” (Ba 141), and “un emmêlement algébrique de rails et de caténaires” (Ba 142). Indeed, in one instance, such naturally occurring lines in the landscape are the only elements visible, as at the very break of dawn, when everything else remains shrouded in darkness, it is only “un ruisseau” and “un sentier” that capture the sun’s first light (Ba 139). The real geomancy however takes place in the space of the prose poem, where such haphazard and quickly-disappearing quasi-linear elements are harnessed to produce a poignant sense of place. Or rather, of places: as Réda puts it: “autant de milieux autour de quoi le monde entier s’organise, et se propage en calmes tourbillons de centres s’équilibrant” (Ba 147).
Kairos and Chronos
11Sitting in the train, scribbling sentences about seemingly insignificant elements of the landscape, the heretic is certainly rebelling against the more pragmatic uses of travel time in which others around him engage, such as the:
increvable affreux jeune cadre moyen...[son] œil nickelé me révolvérisant entre deux pages de la presse de demi-gauche hebdomadaire qu’il expulse avec énergie, schlip, schlap.[20]
12However, approaching space and place in a heretical or subversive manner is not an end in itself for Réda (as it arguably is, for example, for psychogeographers in the tradition of the Situationists). Rather, it is a productive process whereby he brings place palpably to life on the page as those elements come together to hold together or retenir glimpsed worlds, or “milieux autour de quoi le monde entier s’organise(Ba 147). As opposed to so much of the postmodern poetics of place, Réda’s—as digressive as his prose may be—is not fragmented and disoriented but rather, in the fleeting moments when such configurations emerge, wholistic or harmonious: in such moments “chaque détail surgit inévitable, et cependant affranchi de contrainte dans cette fatalité” (Ba 147).
13In what follows, I will read several examples of such moments in Réda’s prose poetry in order to decipher what makes their details “inévitable”, and from what “constraints” they are in fact freed. As we have seen, Réda writes contrapuntally in relation to the rigidity of the systematic, the forward-moving, the inflexibly linear. He discovers manifestations of this paradigm in the empirical world around him (the park, the urban, the meridian line); however, these kinds of elements are inoffensive in and of themselves and Réda’s adversarial relationship to them is really a defiance, as I have suggested, of something else, something such physical forms resemble in their rigidity, something whose inexorable forward movement they seem to uphold: namely, time itself. The adversarial relationship takes concrete form in the poem “Les lions” (in Ponts flottants), in which Réda notes how the sunset seems to manage to suspend its movement: “comme éternellement suspendu[21]. This renders time “furieux”: “il supporte mal que le soleil, dont il est pourtant le maître comme du reste, prenne cette liberté de suspendre sa course, de le réfuter en somme” (Li 18). Of course, the suspended state doesn’t last; soon the clouds begin to thin and the orb sinks, or, in the terms of Réda’s “petite mythologie”, it is furious time, personified, who decides to “déchire[r] cette écharpe de soie et de flamme pour se venger” (Li 18).
14As Yves-Alain Favre affirms:
La poésie de Jacques Réda se trouve...profondément marquée par un sentiment tragique du temps. Le présent, le passé et l’avenir déçoivent toujours le poète et ne comblent pas son désir de plénitude. Il ressent la précarité de l’existence et la domination implacable du temps qui ronge et ruine l’existence.[22]
Therefore, the ultimate “contrainte” against which Réda writes is time, or rather quantitative, linear, chronological time: “Délibérément, Réda cherche à échapper à la linéarité du temps[23]. So what happens in those moments when Réda brings together a landscape description in which “chaque détail surgit inévitable, et cependant affranchi de contrainte dans cette fatalité(Ba 147) ? The Ancient Greeks conceived of time in two ways: chronos, quantitative time, and kairostiming, or a sense of the “right or opportune time to do something, or right measure in doing something”[24], and it seems to me the concept of kairos is particularly apt for understanding how Réda’s écritures de terrain oppose linear time. As Favre notes, Réda does at times triumph over chronos: “De rares moments privilégiés permettent de savourer un instant d’éternité[25], and in what follows, I will show how this is a matter of drawing “lines” with just the right timing (kairos) in landscape description. Again, in contradistinction to so many postmodern depictions of place, Réda’s instances of kairic triumph are brief but ecstatic moments in which the poet experiences something akin to that Proustian emotion Marcel discovers when, upon tasting the madeleine and recovering lost time, he suddenly feels that “plaisir délicieux” that has the power to instantly render “les vicissitudes de la vie indifférentes, ses désastres inoffensifs, sa brièveté illusoire[26]. Réda, in a moment of suspended time in the poem “Envièrges” (Ponts flottants) will cannily describe a similar joy resulting from momentary immunity to time: “Même l’astre demeure en suspens et il n’y a plus d’avenir dont les arrière-pensées me menacent[27].
15In classical rhetoric, kairos is described as the sense of timing that allows the orator, within a set of present circumstances, to know which rhetorical tool to deploy to be most effective in the moment. Kairic time, as opposed to chronic time, is therefore qualitative, a “subject-situational correlation”[28], that allows the orator to intervene within the flow of chronological time at just the right moment in order to make something “appropriately happen that cannot happen just ‘anytime’ ”, to seize upon an “opportunity that may not recur”[29]. Already we can see how the concept lends itself well to écritures de terrain such as Réda’s, which happen as though on the fly, in the moment and in movement—where the poet’s timing is on display. The concept of kairos becomes even more propitious for the case of Réda under Michel de Certeau’s reformulation of it in L’invention du quotidien, tome 1: arts de faire, where Certeau adapts the concept from rhetorical contexts to the experience of everyday life. Indeed, as I hope to show, Réda’s écriture de terrain performs a synthesis of both the rhetorical and the spatial forms of kairos.
16For Certeau, kairos is the space in which the everyday “arts de faire” are born, it is what allows the user of everyday space a margin of liberty (a liberté des rues[30], as it were), what gives rise to the artful tactiques that mean, according to Certeau’s theorization of the everyday, that space is not simply passively consumed or used according to its imposed logics (stratégie), but, rather, creatively negotiated and in fact created through the user’s agency. Kairos is therefore not the practice that results, but, rather, the intuition which provides a momentary certainty allowing for a particular practice to emerge as appropriate, as right, as—to use Réda’s term—“inevitable”. Analogous to the rhetorical case, kairos involves a grasping of an already existing ensemble (discursive, or spatio-temporal, for Certeau), or as he puts it “un lieu qui forme déjà un ensemble(AF 130). From this ensemble, the intuition of kairos is then “fournie par la conjoncture, c’est-à-dire par des circonstances” out of which “le bon coup d’œil sait reconnaître l’ensemble nouveau et favorable qu’elles constitueront moyennant un détail de plus. Une touche supplémentaire, et ce sera ‘bon’ ” (AF 130). A touch (a word, a rhetorical figure, a gesture, a practice), and the user creates a new configuration out of the already existing, in what Certeau describes as a “moment équilibriste” (AF 130). Certeau sums up kairos as follows:
c’est une mémoire, dont les connaissances sont indétachables des temps de leur acquisition et en égrènent les singularités. Instruite par une multitude d’événements où elle circule sans les posséder (chacun d’eux est passé, perte de lieu, mais éclat de temps), elle suppute et prévoit aussi ‘les voies multiples de l’avenir’ en combinant les particularités antécédentes ou possibles. (AF 125)
17In the case of an écriture de terrain such as Réda’s, kairos is both rhetorical and spatio-temporal: we follow the poet as he recounts his passage through spaces, through lieux that already form ensembles, and we are often privy to the poet’s pratique of these lieux (avoiding the park in “Le pied furtif de l’hérétique”, or, in “Basse ambulante”, cupping his hands against the window to still be able to see the landscape at night despite the light of the cabin). However, in the space of the écriture, in the kairic moment when attention to the empirical leads to the intuition of poetic invention, the ensembles he describes become his own, become, in Certeau’s parlance, ensembles nouveaux, that hold up as palpable places, which is to say they possess—again, with Certeau—a certain equilibrium. And often, with Réda, the touche supplémentaire that brings his configurations into shape, that makes them bon, is in fact one of the quasi-linear elements he discerns in the landscape, or, rather, the particular way Réda describes that element, fitting it into the overall description he poetically constructs. Here are two examples (the first from “Basse ambulante”, the second from “Envièrges”):
des hangars, des bois, des étangs, des talus, le coton rose fulminant soufflé par les fours de Thionville, ou ces tas de rondins divinement rangés au bout d’un quai. Mais je ne suis qu’un des points qui fuient à l’intersection des deux courbes, que dessinent en ogive les rails et le soleil qui décroît. (Ba 147)
Voici les tours, les dômes, les clochers émergeant d’un immense bassin gris-bleu où, rendus indistincts par la perspective, s’effacent les plus larges fossés qui sillonnent la masse aplanie: boulevards, avenues, le fleuve même qu’un rayon a cru déceler, mais ce n’est que la fuite d’une rangée de vitres.[31]
It seems to me that the effect of such passages is precisely that of an equilibrium, a configuration in which a plurality of “centres autour desquels le monde entier s’organise” form a harmonious ensemble. And of course that final supplementary touch that closes each passage is the quasi-linear element: first, the railroad track heading off over the horizon, and then the “flight” of a row of windows. In the kairic moment of invention, the railroad track becomes an “ogive” arch, which, in its Gothic manifestation probably most readily conjured by the French imaginary, is an overarching (containing) structure produced of curved architectural lines harmoniously converging. However, and this is key to the suspension of the kairic moment that defies the chronological—that railroad track, like that “flight” of windows, is also what keeps the configuration open to new possibility, to yet another “touche supplémentaire”, as Certeau puts it. This is the essence of Réda’s art of the line: he harnesses lines in order to at once provide structure for his landscapes but also to instill these with the trace of the kairos that can transform them indefinitely, or, to use Sheringham’s word, keep them, along with the poet, in perpetual “transmutation” (ERW 155). Lines are apt for producing this impression, because they are not only structuring but also destructuring. That is, when described as travelling off into the distance, or “fleeing”, they become “lignes de fuite” in the Deleuzoguattarian sense of being “points de déterritorialisation” by which “la signifiance et l’interprétation, la conscience et la passion” are able to “se prolonger”[32]. Such lines of flight are therefore agents of kairos in Réda, as they symbolically prolong the moment of creation and of signification. As we saw with the example of the railroad tracks that become an ogive structure, if it is a containing structure, it is also one that suggests its own surpassing or escape, as following these rail-lines of flight off into the horizon in imagination, we are already fantasmatically encountering new equilibriums, new “centres autour desquels le monde entier s’organise”. And this corresponds to the kairic moment of potentiality and suspension that precedes and brings into being any equilibrium. Réda therefore cannily inscribes the trace of kairos within the fleeting configurations he portrays. As such, as Certeau puts it:
les détails ne sont jamais ce qu’ils sont: ni objets, car ils échappent comme tels ; ni fragments, car ils donnent aussi l’ensemble qu’ils oublient ; ni totalités, puisqu’ils ne suffisent pas ; ni stables, puisque chaque rappel les altère. (AF 133)
By harnessing the paradoxical quality of lines that makes them rigid but also fluid, structure-providing and structure-eluding, Réda places his prose poetry in the space of kairos itself, where the things he describes tend to “participent pleinement au suspens désormais établi où j’évolue” (Li 15). And this suspended space is one of freedom, symbolic freedom from cruel, chronological time. For kairos is, for Certeau, “une pratique du temps” (AF 124), an “éclat du temps”, that constitutes a “défection” from ordinary or chronological space-time (AF 125). Writing under the aegis of this defection, Réda’s poetry of kairos wrests immunity from chronos.
18As Certeau notes, the faculty of kaiross’atrophie quand il y a autonomisation de lieux propres(AF 132). Thus, urban planning, with its systematic, increasingly non-place-esque, practical spatial logos, minimizes freedom, something we have already seen Réda lament, as he does again in “Pernéty”: “Dans le domaine de l’urbanisme, il y a des attentats qui devraient être sanctionnés durement” (Pe 22). However, the heretical Réda, with his clever use of linear elements, has found an effective tool for regaining that liberty. In such moments, as we have seen, “chaque détail surgit inévitable, et cependant affranchi de contrainte dans cette fatalité” (Ba 147), and we have seen how this sense of inevitability is produced, and from what constraints such configurations are freed. So what is the sensation or experience of this freedom? I would like to posit that it is vertigo. That is, Réda’s lines of flight not only inscribe the trace of potentiality (of invention, of kairos) into his descriptions, they also frequently (often explicitly) produce a sense of vertigo, which, according to our reading, would be something akin to a dizzying suspension of poetic kairos, or, in other words, a palpable excess of freedom from chronos. An example occurs in the prose poem “L’herbe des talus” (in L’herbe des talus), where the poet describes “hirondelles” on a telephone wire as “suspend[ant] une lessive de petits nuages le long des fils” (HT 186). In a vertiginous hyperbole, he declares: “et tout s’engloutirait si les trois fils télégraphiques, là-haut ne résistaient plus, où ces pinces à linge voltigeantes que sont les hirondelles retiennent le pan massif du bleu” (HT 187). We see here how wires hold together (retenir) just barely a world—one on the edge of falling apart, a territory prefiguring its own deterritorialization, along the lines of flight of the telephone wires. Riding his solex through the countryside, he accords a similar role to blades of field grass, describing them as “s’élançant” with their “trajectoire dorée” (HT 188) thus bestowing them with dynamism and movement, while at the same time celebrating their solidity—their structure-providing stability—as they are no less than “de très minces colonnes portant le chapiteau de l’étendue” with their “épis impondérables où se balance l’air” (HT 188). Réda is seeking the true sensation of “l’étendue”, or of sense of place, and this seems to come with vertigo, with the sense that place is only always momentarily retenu, whether by clothespin swallows, or, again, in “En Somme”, by elm trees that staple the landscape together: “[des] petits ormes morts très loin de l’autre côté de la Somme, pareils à de fines agrafes qui retiendraient le plateau de s’envoler” [33]. The poet of L’herbe des talus, inspired by this vertiginous sensation of place, refutes chronological time explicitly: “Je ne compte plus désormais la distance qui me sépare d’Orléans en kilomètres, mais—au risque de rater le dernier train pour Paris—en vers” (HT 189).
19At times, vertiginously perceiving the “fluidité de l’étendue[34], Réda glimpses even larger, cosmological configurations. Something like a sense of planet is deduced when cruising along in a locale he calls “N’importe-où-sur-Loire”, he experiences the “petit déclic” which:
nous permet… d’éprouver avec une force à en perdre les pédales que c’est la terre qui tourne. Et c’est une chance que je me sois trouvé seul à zigzaguer d’émotion sur l’asphalte quand soudain je l’ai sentie, elle, énorme, qui roulait, à quelle allure en sens inverse de ma progression d’insecte vers la Loire. (HT 181)
Indeed, it is precisely this vertiginous sense of place (as one might have peering high up into the ogive arches of a massive cathedral) that begins “Le pied furtif de l’hérétique”:
Vers six heures, l’hiver, volontiers je descends l’avenue à gauche, par les jardins, et je me cogne à des chaises, à des petits buissons, parce qu’un ciel incompréhensible comme l’amour qui s’approche aspire tous mes yeux. (Pfh 9)
20Réda scrutinizes these elements surrounding him as though they were Proustian signs. And while the resulting joy—of being “affranchie de toute contrainte”—is Proustian indeed, the signs are not, like the Proustian sign, triggers for accessing the unconscious depths of personal subjectivity. The interpretative arc of this sign is not so much centripetal as (vertiginously) centrifugal: it brings the self in touch with its outer limits, with the potentiality of its phenomenological dimensions within its given delimited territory (or “étendue”). This affirms Prieto’s assertion of Réda that “the poetic subject is most fully himself when he is obeying outside forces”[35]. “Obeying” becomes paradoxical here, because in obeying the poet finds liberty, for certainly Réda’s poet is “most himself” when he is most free.
21In the prose poem “Des lions”, in which the suspended state of the sunset seems to defy “le temps furieux”, Réda explicitly challenges chronos, precisely by harnessing line of flight and vertigo to destabilize time’s power. Contemplating the setting sun, he notes:
Elle s’immobilise alors au bord d’une plage de non-temps dans le flot réputé indiscontinu des secondes qui font des heures, des jours, des siècles, des millénaires, puis quoi?—le temps finit par se dissoudre aussi bien dans l’énormité de sa durée que la matière dans l’infinitésimal vibratile de son substrat. (Li 14)
Here Réda provides us with his own definition of that place of freedom his works produce, that space of kairos, that “plage de non-temps dans le flot réputé indiscontinu” of chronological time.
22To conclude, I submit Réda’s poem “Le vertige” from Moyens de transport, in which so many of the elements discussed so far converge:
Ah le vertige de l’horizontale dans une plaine sans fin,
une de ces plaines bien plates où l’on franchit des rideaux d’arbres,
des averses, des prés, des bois sans épaisseur
et où repassent les boucles d’une rivière peut-être toujours la même
(on ne sait pas).
C’est un vertige dont l’attirance n’est pas celle de la chute
mais d’une régulière et continuelle progression.
L’infini court au fil de l’herbe,
on arrivera
jamais au but.
Eh bien il n’y en a pas et ce n’est pas non plus ce qu’on désire
mais avancer ainsi dans la platitude extatique
sous le ciel bombé où s’appuient des échelles
de nuages sans barreaux.[36]
23As we have said, Réda’s aesthetics is one that eschews the vertical or ascensional paradigm of sublimation and poetic alchemy that would distill his terrains into final, transcendental forms. Rather, as Sheringham put it, it is a “lateral” approach to place, relating “a dimension of experience that is not above or below but constituted via a particular way of processing what comes one’s way” (ERW 155). We might add, in consideration of the role of kairos, that it is also a timely processing of what comes the poet’s way. It is, in sum, an aesthetics that dwells in the “platitude extatique” and the “vertige de l’horizontale”, as Réda puts it in this poem. Here, once again, we see the presence of many quasi-linear elements that are brought together into an equilibrium that gives a sense of place: “rideaux d’arbres”, “boucles d’une rivière”, the “fil de l’herbe”, but especially those “échelles de nuages sans barreaux”. These quasi-linear elements from the landscape end the poem just as the railroad tracks and the row of windows did in other pieces previously examined. In fact, what are ladders without steps if not, precisely, lines? Why think of these clouds as ladders at all? Perhaps because that analogy bestows them with movement, with flight, since a ladder is something you climb. Perhaps their steps have been removed to keep the poet grounded, to keep the poem horizontally-oriented, but the trace or potentiality of flight, of kairos, of transmutation, remains intact, instilling that sense of vertiginous freedom in the state of suspension, a state in which the fact that “on arrivera/jamais au but” is to be celebrated, not feared, in insolent defiance of furious time.
Joshua Armstrong
University of Wisconsin-Madison


[1] Dominique Viart, “Fieldwork in Contemporary French Literature”, trans. Adelaide M. Russo, in Contemporary French and Francophone Studies 20.4-5, 2016, p. 569-580, p. 574.

[2] Cf. Joshua Armstrong, “Empiritexts: Mapping Attention and Invention in Post-1980 French Literature”, in French Forum 40.1, Winter 2015, p. 93-108.

[3] Michael Sheringham, “Everyday Rhythms, Everyday Writing: Réda with Deleuze and Guattari”, in Rhythms: Essays in French Literature, Thought and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Lindley and Laura McMahon, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2008, p. 147-158, p. 152. Henceforth ERW.

[4] Aaron Prevots, “Entretien avec Jacques Réda”, in French Review 84:2, Dec. 2010, p. 358-69, p. 358.

[5] Ibid., p. 365.

[6] Fabienne Reymondet. “Jacques Réda: Cheminements dans l’hétérogène”, in French Forum 24.1, Jan. 1999, p. 57-66, p. 59.

[7] Eric Prieto, “Swung Subjectivity in Jacques Réda”, in Paragraph 33.2, July 2010, p.  230-45, p. 238.

[8] “[Réda] believes, like Lacoue-Labarthe, that there is such a thing as a rhythmic ‘essence of the subject’...and has devoted much of his career to exploring the interrelatedness of rhythm and subjectivity posited by Meschonnic” (Eric Prieto, “Swung Subjectivity in Jacques Réda”, op. cit., p. 234).

[9] Jacques Réda, “Basse ambulante”, in Les ruines de Paris, Paris, Gallimard, 1977, p.  133-151, p. 146-7. Hencefort Ba.

[10] Aaron Prevots, Jacques Réda: Being There, Almost, Amsterdam, Brill Rodopi, 2016, p. 25.

[11] Jacques Réda, “L’herbe écrit”, in Beauté suburbaine, Périgueux, Pierre Fanlac, 1985, p. 37.

[12] Jacques Réda, “Pernéty”, in Ponts flottants, Paris, Gallimard, 2006, p. 22-24, p. 23. Henceforth Pe.

[13] Jacques Réda, “Le pied furtif de l’hérétique”, in Les ruines de Paris, op. cit., p. 9-14, p. 11. Henceforth Pfh.

[14] Yves-Alain Favre, “Le temps dans la poésie de Jacques Réda”, in Approches de Jacques Réda, Pau, Publications de l’Université de Pau, 1994, p.  25-34, p. 26.

[15] Jacques Réda, Retour au calme, Paris, Gallimard, 1989, p. 122.

[16] Jean-François Rémy Duclos, “La revanche du flou: Jacques Réda à l’épreuve de la cartographie dans Le méridien de Paris”, in French Studies 68.1, Jan. 2014, p.  48-60, p. 56.

[17] Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien, tome 1: arts de faire, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, p. 142. Henceforth AF.

[18] Dominique Viart, op. cit., 574.

[19] In Le méridien de Paris, Réda muses that in order to have made his meridian story more interesting, “Il aurait fallu inventer à l’avance des personnages, des épisodes, tout un roman...”. However: “je n’ai jamais pu croire aux intrigues que j’imaginais” (Jacques Réda, Le méridien de Paris, Saint-Clément-de-Rivière, Fata Morgana, 1997, p. 36).

[20] Ba 143. In the prose poem “L’herbe des talus”, Réda receives another disapproving look, this time from a farmer driving a tractor who passes, seeing Réda in the process of writing by the roadside: “L’homme qui conduit voit bien que j’étais en train d’écrire, et c’est une chose qu’il n’approuve pas. Je vois cela, moi, à sa tête” (Jacques Réda, “L’herbe des talus”, in L’herbe des talus, Paris, Gallimard, 1984, p. 180-190, p. 191, henceforth HT).

[21] Jacques Réda, “Des lions”, in Ponts flottants, op. cit., p. 13-19, p. 17. Henceforth Li.

[22] Yves-Alain Favre, op. cit., p. 33.

[23] Ibid., p. 33.

[24] James L. Kinneavy and Catherine R. Eskin, “Kairos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric”, in Written Communication 17.3, July 2000, p. 432-444, p. 433.

[25] Yves-Alain Favre, op. cit., p. 33.

[26] Marcel Proust, Du côté de chez Swann, Paris, Gallimard, 1988, p. 44.

[27] Jacques Réda, “Envièrges”, in Ponts flottants, op. cit., p. 25-27, p. 26.

[28] James L. Kinneavy and Catherine R. Eskin, op. cit., p. 433.

[29] Ibid., p. 434.

[30] Cf. Jacques Réda, La liberté des rues, Paris, Gallimard, 1997.

[31] Jacques Réda, “Envièrges”, op. cit., p. 25.

[32] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mille plateaux, capitalisme et schizophrénie 2, Paris, Minuit, 1980, p. 180.

[33] Jacques Réda, “En Somme”, in HT 191-194, 192.

[34] Jacques Réda, Le sens de la marche, Paris, Gallimard, 1990, p. 11.

[35] Eric Prieto, op. cit., p. 238.

[36] Jacques Réda, “Le vertige”, in Moyens de transport, Saint-Clément-de-Rivière, Fata Morgana, 2000, p. 15.

2012 | Revue critique de fixxion française contemporaine |  (ISSN 2033-7019)  |  Habillage: Ivan Arickx |  Graphisme: Jeanne Monpeurt
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