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Exchanges on Light
By Jacques Roubaud
Translated by Eleni Sikelianos
La Presse, 2009
ISBN-13: 9781934200025

Exchanges on Light

It has an obscure and convoluted history, does light.

As the first form that God turned His Hand to – we all surely recall the injunction, ‘Let there be light’ – it is one of the building blocks, perhaps even the essential ingredient, of the physical universe.  And the human eye has been structured to make sense of light and its gradients; light has formed our nature and continues to create our experience.

In Jacques Roubaud’s exhilarating work, which is perhaps closer to one of Thomas Love Peacock’s novels rather than being a poem as such, six people discuss light over some six nights, and they pretty much go at it from all directions.  Some take the scientific route, while others are by turns poetic, theological, mystical, down to earth, cosmological… the drive swerves and the roads are many and varied.  Within each night these people’s voices are nested, as the end-words in a sestina are nested.  In other words, the last of the six to speak, will speak once more; just as, in a sestina, the end-word in the last line of a stanza will appear as the end-word in the first line of the following stanza, etc.  So there is some kind of sestina-like constraint going on, and a few other constraints as well, most likely.

What I love most about Roubaud’s book is the beauty of the language and its power to provoke thought and wonder.  Here is one short passage which does it for me:

These trees, this grass, these hills, like us, visible in the dying light, aren’t they all as elusive as the inaccessible light, of which lights are but a shadow?  (14)

Or how about another one, even shorter:

Let us not be poor in light, sunless. We are the Sun’s debtors.  (11)

On a certain point of fact I would take issue with one of Roubaud’s personages, mind, and that is the bloke who opines on the fourth night: ‘By nature, angels are not visible to humans, not even to those who try to see them.’  Now if this fellow had been familiar with Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena: Lightforms by Mark Fox, published in 2008, he’d realise that angels actually do appear to human beings, indeed to quite ordinary people, and more often than not they are clothed in light.  So there you go.

When a voice says: ‘Infinite light is, precisely, black’ – well, that leads us back towards another of Roubaud’s works, Some Thing Black, the series of poems written on the death of his wife.  Clearly Exchanges on Light, by its very nature a different kind of work, cannot touch any of those poems – above all, the great, sublime, heart-rending majesty of ‘Inside Me’ – when it comes to their power to move.  But Exchanges on Light is one with Some Thing Black in that they are both part of the same mosaic, the same body of work.

Let me say, straight out, that the translation by Eleni Sikelianos is excellent.  At first, I thought I’d spotted one (just one) small oversight.  Roubaud seems to have quoted in the text, and in his own translation, two poems by Edward Herbert (George Herbert’s older brother, as a matter of fact, and he also has another moniker: Lord Cherbury) and Sikelianos seems to have translated them from Roubaud’s French into English, rather than using the original English poems.  Compare the poems on pages 24 and 58 of this book with the two poems as they appear in Bifurcation 192 in The Great Fire of London

I’ve since learned that this is essentially what happened, but it was done consciously.  Eleni Sikelianos did know of the Edward Herbert poems, and she and Roubaud discussed at length whether to simply reprint them or whether she should retranslate them.  They decided for retranslation as giving a more homogeneous surface between the poems and the rest of Roubaud’s text.

Anyway, Exchanges on Light is a wonderful work: illuminating and inspiring, light-giving and life-giving.