Memoir

Seedtime III: Notebooks 1995–1998


1995

 
February The hardening palm, bone turning to stone; like boulders surfacing in a gentle valley. We become more like rock; the bone begins to manifest itself, to reveal its power and the way it prevails in the end for a long time. Not forever. This is death gaining ground within us, not like a fruit as Rilke had dreamed: like a stone. As for the garment, it frays, unravels. These, at least, are certitudes you can build on; or, on the contrary, you can abandon building altogether.
 
November The feeling, ever more acute, of not having enough time, of haste. The sunlit leaves, increasingly rare—like furled sails. These last remaining leaves create a kind of fire in the rain, a fire that provides but little warmth. The creaking of branches, creaking of bones; like that of a ship’s bulkheads in the ocean’s cold, gray, menacing swells. How hostile these blind waters, stretching out endlessly, seemed to me by dint of their indifference! At least you can step on the swells of mountains. But there, I felt surrounded by graves ready to gape, to yawn, frigid, bottomless pits; shrouds tirelessly unfolded, refolded. Forever refusing the least candle, the least cross, the least flower. Colors of steel, of iron verdigris, of ice. The least bird astray over the water was like a small flame illuminating a cave. The sunlight hitting these waters became the clatter of ancient weapons, an ancient epic exhausting the eyes and the spirit.

 

*

 
After having seen a television documentary about Segalen with lovely material, I tried to reread Équipée,[1] once again without conviction. Wasn’t there in Segalen another kind of Parnassian as well, a calligrapher a little too rigid, haughty, solemn—too much the “artist”? One should reread Steles before condemning him too expeditiously. Yet no matter what page you read of Claudel on China, isn’t his writing vibrant and substantial in a different kind of way? In their exquisiteness, his manuscripts prefigure those of Saint-John Perse, in whom I nevertheless see greater depth and ingenuity.
 
What is more, it seems to me that with Segalen, you never escape that penchant for exoticism that also ruins Gauguin’s works. Did he not also succumb to the utopia of the “noble savage” corrupted by civilization?

 

*

 
. . . Singing the earth’s glory in order no longer to see it”: I remembered this line from Requiem, written almost fifty years ago, with the word “glory,” which, there is no doubt, came to me from Jouve (who, I’ll note in passing, wrote an afterword to my edition of Segalen, which is no coincidence—I distanced myself from the one as from the other for rather similar reasons).
 
Would I have the right, today, a half-century later, to rewrite the line, like this for example: “Attempting to say, to translate the light of this world to see more clearly,” to see beyond this world more clearly, to perceive better the totality of my experience? At least that’s what I’d like to believe in rare moments of confidence. There will, then, be no occasion, as the moment of departure nears, to strike a pose or make any arrangements. Better to hide, as animals are said to do.
 
December Proust: on rereading, I was disappointed, very slightly, by his well-known description of the hawthorn: a touch too much subtlety, which, with further refinement, saps some “freshness” from what it is celebrating. On the other hand, I still find him unparalleled in worldly comedy: the evening at the Verdurins, for example, where Forcheville appears for the first time and, in sparking Swann’s jealousy, immediately endows the social satire with a deeper and darker background. Applied to the human world, the refinement of Proust’s analyses had depth; applied to the natural world, not always, even though his observation of the one was no less keen than his observation of the other. It is also possible that he was more talented in apprehending the impure than the pure, whatever nostalgia he always harbored for the latter.

 

*

 
Days of fog and rain. Drops of rain hanging from the branches of the fig tree like extremely concentrated light, very pellucid small globes—more than the mistletoe seeds will be soon, for the new year—falling sometimes but only rarely; pearls, of course (and I remember the Rilke poem I recently reread about the necklace missing its clasp); musical notes, too, like those I am listening to at the same time, distinct, brilliant, of Haydn’s Piano Variations; most surprising is their intense luminosity in the greyness that surrounds them, the density of their cold, white radiance.
 
“The cold season”: these few pearls suspended from the fig tree’s leafless branches, no longer warmed by any throat, any neck around which they would have been carefully hung.
 
Because of this whiteness, I suddenly think of Christian S. as we had seen him one of the last times, this summer, bringing Anne-Marie a small bouquet of wildflowers he had picked on his way, dressed all in white linen (but surely without “candid probity”); tall and blond as he was, smiling, endowed with natural elegance, on that afternoon he seemed rather an apparition, a phantom, as if he were a messenger discreetly come from another space, a kind of Parsifal—although his had been the exact opposite of a chaste life, which may have led him to that state of despair, which his suicide revealed so brutally—because there is, after all, a kind of candor that can persist within these deviations and ultimately render them unbearable. Perhaps, as in the world of the elves, he would have had to find a tether that would have enabled him to stay in this world, those he had found for himself probably not being good ones.

 

*

 
What else I need to remember from Proust, in Jean Santeuil, which contains the seeds of several central pages of In Search of Lost Time.
 
First, on the apple orchards: “. . . And this infinite pleasure, through which we suddenly recognize, as we walk along an orchard, the white blossoms of the apple trees [. . .] The pleasure is a moral one [. . .] We sense that beneath the green varnish of the leaves and the white satin of the blossoms, some especial being, an individual we love [. . .] We sense [. . .] that there is something underneath, our pleasure seems profound . . . ,” etc.
 
Elsewhere, in “Memories of the Sea at the Sight of Lake Geneva”: “. . . These are beautiful hours in the life of the poet, hours in which chance places on his path a sensation that encompasses the past and allows his imagination to encounter the past it had not known . . .
 
. . . And this profound pleasure, in justifying us for giving priority to the imagination now that we understand that it is the organ which serves the eternal, perhaps raises us as well by showing us that we feel such happiness when we are freed from the present, as if our true nature were outside of time and made to savor eternity . . . ,” etc.

 

1996

 
March On this March afternoon, driving towards Montélimar, a great many almond trees in bloom, all the more moving for appearing as they did along a banal road under an overcast sky—like signs of friendship made to you, somewhat like the robin’s cautious company; yes, always very moving, as is the first light green in the fields, while the branches of other trees, still bare, reveal shoots that are barely pink. How many more times will I see this sign? A dozen, perhaps, or with “luck” a bit more: that isn’t many. It’s like a phrase that is short, inescapably short—or rather like having to cross a field and seeing the far edge distinctly—it’s not the far edge itself that is distinct, but the distance that separates you from it. Because the border is hidden, more or less mercifully, by the fog which is ignorance about “the day and the hour”; and the even denser one about the “last things.”

 

*

 
Once again, all around, a kind of stammering of the white flowers on the branches; which touches you even more mysteriously when in groups, in disorder, like something dispersed, thrown, squandered. As if someone inseparable were scattering a frail coinage worth more than any other.

 

*

 
April That moment in early spring when light still passes through the new-born leaves before throwing a shadow (in the fig tree, lifting all of its child hands). They turn the light into a shade of yellowish green; they catch fire like so many small candle flames in the frame, the scaffold, the monstrance of the tree. Very quickly they will become opaque, protective; for now, it’s like seeing a brief smile flit over someone’s face.
 
July At the break of dawn, with the very first glimmers, the very first bird calls: like small embers of a fire that will take, like its first cracklings.
 
During the night, very close to the house, I had heard in the trees a bird call that did not resemble any I knew: a very distinct chirping, on a single note, a small cry: “pee-ee,” to which another bird answered, the reply so faint that it must have come from quite far away. The bird, no doubt too small to be visible, moved quickly, then stayed in the same tree for a long time.

 

*

 
Around four or five o’clock in the morning, surprised once again by the violent radiance of Venus over the mountain. A cabochon like those you can see gleaming on the crown of a Gothic king.
 
September Late at night: the crescent of the waning moon, Orion already risen to herald the cold, to recall the old hunter who never takes his aim from us, Venus with a name more tender than her radiance, Sirius twinkling—the discharges from automated “rifles” to disperse the game for the imminent opening of the other hunt—and the dreams, their often insignificant oddity; astonishment at what we have “in our heads” and at what is under the vault of the night sky. Order and disorder.
 
November Iris leaves, elongated; seen from above, like large starfish abandoned by summer on a sandy shore. Beyond them, yellow bundles of vines. And towards the sun now set—it will soon be six o’clock in the evening—that green of a field, which is the same one that intrigued me a long time ago and which appeared in certain texts, namely in Le Travail du poète (The Poet’s Work) and somewhere in Obscurity; that dark, almost maternal green, that seems to hide—or nourish—individuals, to shelter them, to rescue them so they can return, silently, tenderly, to us.
 
As I write, everything has grown even darker, but not without a few moments when the admirable shade of yellow flares or continues to smoulder or without the ochre of the foliage, through which glimmer the headlights’ vivid stars.

 

*

 
Opening, always opening—or as long as we can.
 
What opens to the light of the sky: the flower low to the ground. Like some obscurity that would blossom along with the break of dawn. The morning glory: so many tidings of dawn scattered at our feet.

 

*

 
Violent wind churns the last remaining leaves, the way they leave the trees exactly similar to the flight of birds; and the first snowflakes fallen from high clouds are carried away to the south; without completely veiling the sun.

 

1997

 
JanuarySinging the earth’s glory in order to no longer see it,” could this line from Requiem regain meaning for me now? But I would no longer talk of “singing the glory” of anything or anyone whatso­ever; I would just greet in passing and, with my greeting thank, what borders a road reaching its end without wanting to think about it too much: half out of apprehension, half out of wisdom, perhaps.
 
The pink bindweed flowers, observed, greeted before I am no longer able to, before being confined with the more or less aggres­sive, more or less offensive devils of the final degradation.
 
There is no horror in the withering of flowers; does the horror come with the “soul”?
 
March The first bloom, the first blossoms of early spring, almost painful this year because their expression only reaches me from a distance (let’s put it this way); perhaps also because I cannot chase away the fear that I will not see many more; which casts on them a shadow similar to that of one of those clouds that, in this season, still can cross a softer sky.

 

*

 
Editing my notes on the trip to Israel leads me to reread Celan’s last poems and the commentary on them ventured by his Jewish friend whom he’d found again so belatedly in Jerusalem. As on each rereading, this approach oppresses me—making it more difficult to continue this work. Which words, measured against these words, would not appear too vague, too light, almost vain?
 
Despite it all, the garden: violets, both purple and white violets; flowering trees surrounded by nascent greenery, etc. Well! Despite it all, I must continue speaking. There is in Celan’s intransigence, in his genius, a haughty, abrupt power that impresses me but is not the only way. The error, the absurdity would simply be to believe one has the right to ascend all these steep summits—from which, by the way, he never spoke as a master, as I have reproached Char of doing.
 
Celan again:

 

truth,
you need
every stalk.

 

*

 
The light at the close of day, before dusk, in this early March resembles a wing beating in the trees, a dove. The trunks, the branches, still bare, reverberate and enroot the light. While the ephemeral murmurs seem to speak to me in veiled terms, in white and pink. Speech of the insignificant, of froth. The day when we tell ourselves: you’ll no longer hear such speech very often, even in the best case. And so the point sharpens, it rends and heals, irremediable. You must listen all the more closely, tune your ears to hear through the cries of hatred, the cracking of whips.

 

*

 
The almost yellow foliage of the poplars, almost orange on some; and the young pine cones, they too are almost orange. The very first oak leaves in pale shoots on trees covered with gray or silver lichen, chipped trees, half sere and hollow—too easy an image of our old bodies and their final “productions” or blossoming.

 

*

 
In the garden this morning, all the lanterns of the irises were lit in light blue, blue lamps in the blue light.
 
Lanterns of water.
 
August Around half past three in the morning or perhaps later: the shock, at the end of an overcast day, of discovering a bright sky with Orion completely visible; almost frightening. The moon is a very thin, recumbent crescent, its ashen light clearly visible through the telescope. About an hour later, Sirius appears, twinkling. The dog after the hunter. Later still, before dawn, clouds return. It’s now much cooler.
 
September These evenings again, seen from above, a light breeze in the leaves, some of which are beginning to rust, the knotgrass flowers lifting their slender, white clusters, as if effortlessly, the sound of boards, of tools here and there, a bird, barely like a living being, barely more than a leaf, hopping with an apparent sense of elation, the sky milky in the distance, the softness of the air: “Alles atmet und dankt,” “everything breathes and gives thanks,” as Rilke wrote.
 
The puff of wind, too weak for the ear to perceive it; the leaves’ trembling—moving like wings—in light that can only be described as golden.

 

*

 
The afternoon light hangs like drops from the leaves moving a bit more quickly than yesterday. Occasional distant sounds: cars, dogs.
 
OctoberMaria, gestirnte Mutter des Nichts”: all that remains of a dream. It was, strangely, a poem by some “Brechtian.” I forget how it came about, at the end of what story; but it’s not such a bad line of poetry: “Mary, starry Mother of Nothingness.”
 
November November moon, gleaming and frigid, and on the ground thick bundles of persimmon leaves.
 
Leopardi’s moon: “What are you doing, moon, there in the sky? tell me, / silent moon . . .” How I loved this opening of a poem, how delighted I am to hear it again tonight, opening paths more profound than those cleared in reality by the light of the actual heavenly body!

 

1998

 
January The moon visible in the sky in a nearly warm afternoon, a warmth dangerous in the month of January. Like a fingernail or a paper lantern. A nocturnal visitor astray in daytime. A cherry blossom petal before the season. Light inside light.

 

*

 
March weather in early winter. Through the window, as so many times before, perhaps better still because the trees in the hotel’s park have been trimmed, I see the trees’ shadows thrown delicately on the lawns and the linden trees’ shiny branches; this luminosity of the immobile branches since there is not a breath of wind, this frail luminescence, this kind of absolutely peaceful expectancy—as when someone sleeps in broad daylight: the trees’ siesta. There is this same luminescence on the summit of Mont Ventoux, the same in the wisps of clouds, the same—if I could see it—on the moon.

 

*

 
Evening: mountain or blossoming rose, open rose, and frozen.
 
 
February The full moon at the close of day: mostly paid for with this ivory coinage, the day’s work, a life’s long toil.

 

*

 
Scarves, shawls of mist in the gardens which a guest, an invisible passenger, could wrap herself in when the evening grows cool. A scarf draped over the shoulders of night or of the silence to come.

 

*

 
Violets: the surprise, their suddenness when moving a stack of wood that was hiding them. A pale color with a bit of white, very small, in groups. When finding them, a true joy, a bit like a child finding an Easter egg; but different because I wasn’t looking for anything at the time. And yet, how tiny they are, frail, wan, almost insignificant! Will I be able to do them justice one day? In the light, itself fragile as well, of early spring.
 
March A walk on Montagne des Ventes, above Comps. The first green of the fields between the hedges. The church is built of a stone scarcely less green; it looks like a barn or else like a squat lighthouse. Marking a center in the place of hills, a mean.
 
In the valley, the Lez’s sinuous waters shine in the polished rock like light that has already cleaved the rocks. The true path, coolest and without blemish.

 

*

 
The flowers: it’s as if, with the passage of time, I were moving from relatively prestigious flowers—peonies, primroses—to other, more and more humble flowers, blooming at ground level: like the bindweed in the fields. I sensed in advance that I’d never be able to express their hidden “truth,” that they defy poetry, and so on, knowing all too well what would be repeated about them yet again in a fated cycle.
 
September Looking at the trees, the other evening, completely black against the sunset sky, I remember a line from a poem probably written in 1943: “The birds flew down towards the earth’s heart”; first because some birds flew past, no doubt returning to their nests; and also because later in the poem are the lines: “The sky has lost its luster on the low house / And, under the slender trees fencing off the horizon . . .”; that is to say, I was touched by exactly the same thing, albeit with the rather significant difference that I had at the time associated it with a state of amorous melancholy I no longer feel today, fifty-five years later. What consoled me—for the passage of time—is that, after all, with age, up to a certain point at least, your powers of expression improve. You no longer say just anything, you are less enchanted with words; and with more modesty, you go further or become more profound. Writing of these birds that they “slide towards the soporific silence of love,” what nonsense, what vain, hollow music! Paris, friends from Paris, were a great help in my effort to shed these ready-made inflections and this dubious vagueness. Even if I was never entirely cured of that “melodiousness” which my most ardent admirations infused in me: Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine —even Claudel.
 
It is nevertheless true that these trees, suddenly turned black, could evoke a fence forged of a material more pliable than iron or dark lace against a sky the color of skin; but, as always, it was not so easy to transpose it. It was as if the night had invaded, infused these plants before all the rest, as if it had drawn in charcoal on a still luminous sky a moment before fusing with it. Drawing in charcoal, in coal, in lines of soot. And, indeed, familiar birds descend from the heavens where they had been enjoying themselves during the day, in a confident and oblique flight, behind these fences of a sort, towards their nests, and it’s like the trace of a phrase nearing its end, a felicitous, soothing conclusion to the day’s labors. All we would need to do is follow their example. Only a dormouse or two would be left, leaping with a kind of malice like acrobats just as black as their delicate springboards; and later, perhaps, the increasingly white mirror of the moon opposite, to reflect worry or pleasure.

 

*

 
Children playing knucklebones with their ancestors’ remains: “thoughts” between sleep and waking. More images of frail, hollow things. Dice or dominoes of death. Fetus. Bodies emptied of their substance. The refusal to think of it, think of what awaits you, the flight from it. Yet a kind of trembling that comes over you unexpectedly, a faint, discreet, vague, hidden fear, more in the legs than the head (we think).
 
Masses of greenery, masses of clouds; disorder in the sky, apparently, at least.

 

*

 
The effect of surprise is so important: I remember, this year in the spring, the first clumps of violets in the garden that dazzled me, but from which, a few days later, I’d already let the light escape. Why?

 

*

 
Interrogating a clump of violets discovered while moving wood. It’s as if a very hunched man were reading a book close to the ground. Apparitions. This is what nourishes poetry: first fruits. Because of them there is less repetition, even though poetry always says more or less the same thing.

 

*

 
Debussy sung by Maggie Teyte led me to reopen Tristan l’Hermite’s The Promenade of the Two Lovers, with titles so close to Couperin’s:

 

Would you, with sweet privilege
Place me above humankind?
Let me drink from your cupped hands
If the water does not melt their snow.

 

Here, too, we see preciousness brush up against the marvelous in places; and more often simply wittiness.

 

The dreams of slumbering water . . .

 

October All these dreams of getting lost: are they telling a truth, that is that deep inside, we are truly lost and not happy but anxious that we are? Most often, we experience an anxiety that does not stop growing until the dream is interrupted when we wake because time is passing and the chances that we will find the place or goal we seek—home, hotel, refuge—decrease accordingly. In a recent nightmare of this kind, I was calling Michel Rossier in a voice that certainly didn’t carry far enough and was growing hoarse; in others, it’s the telephone that is not answered or the line is cut. We call for help, we’re alone, night is falling. We see what this prefigures.

 

*

 
The wind, which has returned with the sun, chases the first yellow leaves through the transparent air; this reminds me of the thousands of fireflies in Tenuta di Ricavo the other summer or of a burst of sparks. Then, in an instant, everything is extinguished under a cloud.
 
Foliage as brilliant as the surface of a rippled lake in full sun. Rarely has Mont Ventoux looked so much like a dog lying on the threshold of a garden.

 

*

 
What creaks and stiffens more and more often in the body, the joints; the effort it takes to remain straight.

 

*

 
Hopkins (1844–1889). Again, I leaf through the precious book published in the 10/18 series. Carnets-journal-lettres (Notebooks-journal-letters). The quasi-scientific precision of his observations, especially of water, recalls Leonardo’s drawings: the stream: “Glazed water o’er a drowsy stone.”
 
On 18 May 1870, he writes: “One day when the bluebells were in bloom I wrote the following. I do not think I have ever seen anything more beautiful than the bluebell I have been looking at. I know the beauty of our Lord by it.
 
Later, returning to the bluebells, he emphasizes “the Greek rightness of their beauty,” the glare of the light that emanates from them.

 

*

 
“The flowers’ encounter.”
 
Fundamentally, it’s the same question I’ve been asking myself since my eyes were first opened to the outside world as “nature,” that is since I’ve been living here: the experience that a particular moment in the day, an element of nature, a river, rocks, an orchard—and more intensely in the past few years, a few flowers —is “one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.” What could this mean? Or is it without any meaning? Or perhaps beyond all meaning that we can grasp?
 
Such questions don’t seem to have occurred to me very often (but I may be mistaken out of pure ignorance). The Greeks didn’t discuss nature very much. A flower served merely to highlight a woman’s beauty, for example. And if Plato had observed one, it would very likely have been to see in it sparse, inferior forms of supreme Beauty, a stage one must pass through to reach Beauty. For a long time, flowers will be around to express something other than themselves; painters scatter them on the dresses of nymphs and goddesses. They are not wrong to pair up these two graces; but there’s something else, something the poets of haiku may have felt and suggested better than the others by not saying it. This intuition (in which idea, feeling, emotion, and memory are perhaps inextricably intertwined) has become an insistent one for me (not unlike a secret counselor constantly trying to instill something in my mind by whispering in my ear without my having managed to understand the point, if there is one); this intuition truly has become a central one. I have found a close equivalent only in Senancour (an illuminating one in the lines I quoted in Landscape with Absent Figures), though I’d also told myself that I’d have a greater chance of finding others in Novalis’ fragments or Joubert’s notebooks than elsewhere. These are rather kindred spirits, and not only by virtue of the period in which they lived.
 
It’s high time I clarified my thoughts on this and that I draw—who knows?—some kind of support.

 

*

 
The swiftness of these days, as if they truly were fleeing, escaping us. Nevertheless, it’s not the case that we get nothing out of them. Like horses escaping the coachman. It’s the first image that comes to mind, but it is false. This is not a case of recklessness, of brutality.
 
Birds and leaves carried off in the same direction by violent, relentless wind. As if they came from the same hearth. And like the days.
 
As if these were fleeing still more and more quickly. Like water draining from a bathtub, irresistibly drawn below. Does this impression come from what they lose of their reality, their flavor, as they dwindle? Perhaps. Then everything will end with a story of specters who retain nothing more in their hands than the shadows of things.
 
But this is still too beautiful. Because we are not, in the end, swept away as easily as leaves.

 

*

 
All the pinks, the roses of winter, clouds, foliage and smoke, blooming in the cold as the sun prepares to sink beneath the horizon. Burning relays handed on. A scepter passed from hand to hand, furtively, perhaps just a baton enflamed by the pink of evening. Do not let go of it too soon.

 

[Translated from the French by Tess Lewis]

 

Seeds Sown: Philippe Jaccottet’s Notebooks: Translator’s Note

 
Writers’ notebooks sometimes prove more revelatory than diaries or journaux intîmes. What at first appears a rag and bone shop of fleeting thoughts, ephemeral experiences, insights, hesitations, doubts, self-doubt, records of things seen, heard, read, dreamt, struggles to find the right words, false starts and final illuminations can coalesce into a labyrinthine map of the creative process. The Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet has faithfully kept notebooks for many decades, and the selections that make up the three Seedtime volumes have retained, despite the passage of time, a vividness of insight and discovery.
 
Jaccottet has described his notebooks as “a collection of delicate seeds with which I replant, I try to replant my ‘spiritual forest.’” Indeed, the entries consistently open windows onto new vistas, some familiar from his poems, others still moist with the dew of possibility. The natural world and particularly the landscape of Grignan has been an endless source of inspiration for his poetry. In an entry from October 1998, written forty-five years after his first collection of poems, L’Effraie (The Screech Owl), appeared, Jaccottet is still searching for l’expression juste that will capture the beauty of the world around him and trying to understand his aesthetic impulses.

 

Do not forget: these colors in the landscape seen on my return from the Val des Nymphes at the very end of the day; colors as are rarely seen, seeming transparent at first glance; colors like one more mystery on the horizon.
 
Like extremely thin layers, layers of glazing that let something luminous pass through from below; translucent without gleaming.
 
Glass slides, scales no doubt. But why, in the end, did it hold my gaze, touch a chord deep inside me?
 
I’ll have to come back to this one day, if the fear of excessive rumination doesn’t prevent me.

 

The notebooks bring enriching facets of context and back­ground to Jaccottet’s poetry. The entries place in sharp relief the gap between his intentions and final works. The animating force in Jaccottet’s writing is the drive to transcend the limitations of language and literary forms, an aspiration he has acknowledged as elusive, if not impossible. And so he returns to his starting points again and again, refining, refreshing, altering, erasing, creating, and re-creating. A clump of violets, drops of rain hanging from bare, wintery branches, irises gleaming like lanterns: such images recur throughout the years as if bearing hidden messages he must decipher through writing and reflec­tion. Jaccottet recalls in another entry from 1998 a line from one of his earliest poems. He judges it rather harshly, reformulates it, and concludes that despite or perhaps because of all the losses and failures suffered the previous decades, his powers of expression have improved along with his poetic modesty.

 

What consoled me—for the passage of time—is that, after all, with age, up to a certain point at least, your powers of expression improve. You no longer say just anything, you are less enchanted with words; and with more modesty, you go further or become more profound.

 

Indeed, what is most striking about these private reflections of the reserved and stringent writer Jaccottet, whose poetic credo could be taken from the concluding lines in one of his earliest poems—“L’éffacement soit ma façon de resplendir” (Let efface­ment be my way of shining)—is a modesty that enhances the profundity of his observations. This self-effacement, present in the very first entry of the Seedtime cycle and the only entry for 1954, doubles as an implicit exhortation to bring one’s utmost attention to the world.

 

Attachment to the self renders life more opaque. One moment of complete forgetting and all the screens, one behind the other, become transparent so that you can perceive clarity to its very depths, as far as the eye can see; and at the same time everything becomes weightless. Thus does the soul truly become a bird.

 

What the Seedtime volumes chart are the single steps, some­times forwards, sometimes back, taken in the course of a lifelong attempt to transcend the limits of art, to achieve meaning in and beyond art. The inconclusive nature of the notebook entries, their tentativeness and lack of resolution, occasionally renders them as intriguing and evocative as some of Jaccottet’s more finished, more crafted works.[2]

 

[1] An account of an imaginary expedition from Peking to Tibet. Translator’s note.
 
[2] With the exception of the final one, the excerpts above are taken from Seedtime III: 1995–1998, which will be published by Seagull Books in 2021. Earlier works by Philippe Jaccottet, translated by Tess Lewis and published by Seagull Books, include: Seedtime: Notebooks 1954–1979 (2013), excerpted in The Hudson Review, Vol. LXVI, No. 1 (Spring 2013), The Second Seedtime: 1980–1994 (2017), and Obscurity (2015).