behind the windowpanes
Yet even it
ends up famished
can be heard fidgeting,
shrinking to better flee,
over the roofs
Spare, essential in its spirit, the voice of Swiss poet José-Flore Tappy strikes a distinctive note from the first lines of “The Corridor,” the poem that opens Before the Night, the first part of her book Trás-os-Montes—a note that continues to rise off all the pages that follow. Born in Lausanne in 1954, Tappy is a highly respected writer, researcher and translator. The present collection of poetry, her seventh, was awarded the prestigious Swiss Prize for Literature in 2019 and is now available in a dual language French / English edition in John Taylor’s translation. (Her first six books were released in a single volume as Sheds / Hangars in 2014, again in Taylor’s translation, available from Bitter Oleander Press.)
In his Preface, Taylor provides an overview of the key poetic elements at play in the poems, linking them, where appropriate, to a continuation or development of approaches emerging in Tappy’s earlier poetry. His long association with the poet and her work allows him to contextualize the themes that arise, but a conversation between poet and translator recorded and published in translation in The Fortnightly Review, offers a valuable opportunity to hear Tappy discuss her poetic philosophy and this work in particular. In speaking about her own poetic evolution, she notes that Spanish and Latin American poets have had an abiding presence in her life and writing. Taylor wonders how this influence is reflected and she responds:
Surely natural elements in all their intensity: the Mediterranean, the arid lands, the most deserted landscapes, or the poorest landscapes. This is where my imagination goes and where I recover my roots. I have spent many moments of my life on one of the Balearic islands, and I came of age in the midst of an environment that was at once solar and maritime — and very harsh, where sunlight can be hostile, the vegetation overgrown and inhospitable, where the violence of nature demands a strong existential response from a human being. The southern European landscapes and their inhabitants, the harshness of their daily lives, have always accompanied me: Spain, but also Sicily, Greece, and Portugal.
This sensitivity to the human-natural interplay of intense landscapes is directly evident in Trás-os-Montes which is set in Portugal and Spain, along with an extended poetic epigram set in Greece. The first series of poems, Before the Night, feature a village woman, Maria, as she tends to the tasks of her daily life in “Trás-os-Montes” (which means “on the other side of the mountains”), an impoverished, isolated region of northern Portugal with an aging population clustered in small villages, almost forgotten by the rest of the country, bound to this austere lifestyle by deep ancestral roots.
Tiny and bent over
the sink, so far from us
in her blue apron, lost
in her rain boots, she’s sorting
the black cherries, setting the ripest
off to the side, separating them
from the rotten ones
She seems to be measuring
an old dream from a distance,
visiting it with her fingertips
behind the bare windowpane
We see her tending her garden, cleaning her home, straightening a fence, heading off to market, engaging in communal activities. But this is more than a quotidian cataloguing of chores or portrayal of a life shaped by the forces of nature and defined by time. The precise, economical language carries its own emotional and existential weight. Through the speaker’s observations of this woman who is at once a real person and someone who stands for a kind of “universal humanity,” Tappy is exercising a form of distanced depiction to ask questions about what life means. She says:
This book does not draw her portrait, nor address her (she will obviously never read me!). It’s actually the opposite that happens. . . Without her knowing so, this discreet hardworking woman holds out a mirror to me, and in this mirror I look at myself. This woman is a lamp for me. She illumines me and helps me to think, to think about myself.
This sequence of poems, then, lays the groundwork for those of the second section, The Blank Hour. Here the tone is more personal, while landscape—natural and man-made—becomes an even stronger feature, as trails and roads lead the speaker into an encounter with an intimate past. Although in neither section is a location explicitly stated, these poems are ostensibly set in the Balearic Islands of Spain where Tappy has spent much time during her life. The imagery is bleak and beautiful, coloured with an atmosphere of memory and loss that grows deeper as the sequence proceeds.
But for those who go afar
with neither lamp nor landmark
under a sky of black snow,
the earth with its lighthouses,
its bits of bone, its rockets,
the earth so noisy during the day,
every evening closes up
like a wooden chest
There is, again, a real person at the centre of The Blank Hour, someone Tappy once loved who has passed away. Her speaker, the lyric “I” which she understands as “an ‘augmented I,’ as it were, composed of personal experiences but also of projections of my imagination,” addresses this individual and encounters his absence in the places they once knew together. Her language, so evocative, illuminates the experience of sorrow and grief so perfectly. Our losses always seem magnified, not only by specific locations but by the vastness of the universe itself.
Today the tamarisks
covered with dust from the trucks,
pink stars become gray
that you’ll never see again,
and the enamel-bright houses
bunch together. In silence
they stand, staving off
A single fault line suffices, however,
and that look from the past returns,
slipping by mistake
into the heart, reopening
what had been locked up so well
a nearby star twinkling
In reading Trás-os-Montes, one has a sense of journeying alongside the speaker, yet at the end we are each, poet and reader alike, left alone to understand the destinations we have reached. Tappy’s poetic process is openly existential in a way that prescribes no specific conclusion. The story she is telling, she claims, is not her own but rather a means to self-understanding: “By writing, I get myself going on a path, towards a deeper, renewed self.” As such, the story we read, is, at least to some degree, our own, shaped and coloured by our lives and experiences. And that is the true beauty and power of poetry.
Trás-os-Montes by José-Flore Tappy is translated from the French by John Taylor and published by MadHat Press.