Monday, July 12, 2021



By JEAN FOLLAIN (1903-1971}
Translated by translated by Heather McHugh
She was buying an elixir
in a city
of bygone times
yet we should think of her
now when shoulders are as white
and wrists as fine
flesh as sweet
Oh, vertiginous life!
An opposition between once in the past and now, in this poem by French poet Jean Follain, begins with a thought about a woman who buys an elixir in a city hundreds or thousands of years ago. She was buying an elixir / in a city / of bygone times—Follain tells a story of a woman of an era which has been almost entirely erased. She indulges a cure, a power, that might as well be magic.Yet we should think of her / now when shoulders are as white / and wrists as fine / flesh as sweet—from the woman long ago buying an elixir, the poem suddenly crashes into the present. Her buying an elixir does not sound half as creepy as our thought of white shoulders, fine wrists, sweet flesh. She bought an elixir and had an appetite; we seem to be nothing but appetite. 
Her “Buying” is ultimately about trying to get some kind of reputation or fame in this ephemeral life. One can surmise this sets her apart from her fellow citizens, but what does it have to do with us? The word "elixir" is important because it has magical connotations. What if she were buying apple? We don't know anything about this woman; we receive no image of her, and yet our awareness that she lived, existed, liberates in us a feeling of closeness to her, in her flesh. A woman who died long ago becomes like our contemporary women. The poem conveys a very complex set of feelings about the frailty and transience of the body, which is precisely what makes our life "vertiginous."
There is a sense of mystery, enigma, and a rare luminous quality in his poem and that is what him one of my favourite French poets. The ‘concrete details’ in Follain’s poems include bowls with cracks in which sauce congeals, and baskets and buttons. Listing the repertoire of physical objects in the poems might suggest they are vintage sepia postcards: white stones, inky desks, hooks, spades, scythes, hoes, a ‘gap-toothed’ rake, a dog’s footprints in damp sand. But always what snags attention is movement: a squirrel hopping, a child sucking at its mother’s breast, a boy stooping to tie a shoelace, a girl scrabbling for a slipper under a wardrobe, a woman sewing by a window ,another rolling down her stockings, a man turning a key in a lock, another slicing off two fingers to avoid military service, a pin dropping to a floor that ‘no one has waxed’, apples rolling out of a sack, a wasp buzzing in a curtain’s fold, a pan of milk seething on a stove. His poems are more like snatches of a film than postcards, a film both documentary and fictional, like memory, and invariably in the present tense, which is when remembering happens.
The poetry of Jean Follain ( is increasingly seen, by poets and critics in France and by his foreign admirers, as central to French poetry’s change of course after Surrealism. He speaks of things outside himself; he admired his freedom from rhetoric. Follain’s short, down-to-earth, subtle poems, many of which set out to preserve the lost rural world of his pre-war Norman childhood, have influenced a new generation of French poets.

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