Guy Jean’s Mourning Ploughs the Winter is more than your typical collection of poetry. Jean’s second English translation, littered with enveloping illustrations and ample amounts of white space between beautiful, brief prose poems, is truly a collaboration—a collaboration of not only art and poetry but also a collaboration of the French and English languages. As the translators Katie Farris and Ilya Kaminsky assert in their “Note on Translation” that precedes the poems, “this is not a work of literary translation but versions & imitations.” It is multiple minds, multiple languages, multiple cultures, multiple genres, and multiple aesthetics joining together to create the hauntingly beautiful work of Guy Jean afresh into English.
The collection opens with a series of “Se je naissais” (“If I Were Born”) poems that place a speculative speaker into the many cities he imagines inhabiting. Each line begins with an “I would” phrase and each city is separated by an illustration. These are not fancy or elaborate poems, nor are the illustrations winding or complex. Both are simple, painted clearly in black and white, avoiding the heavy hand while still managing to create emotional beauty to bring these cities to life and to leave the reader with a sense of longing that the speaker so clearly feels. And despite the vibrant details of the “ochre and green roofs […], the cream walls” of Prague, the Vespas and “country life where the breeze steals / the smell of fresh pasta and olive oil from trattorias” in Florence or the “French-fries-and-cheese stands” of Nice, it is what is said outside of the details that truly brings each city’s unique atmosphere to life: “I’d / give to pigeons all my moments, anonymously, as a calligrapher, binding / in leather useless and beloved texts” in Prague, “I’d pay a woman to paint a girl forgotten by God” in Florence, and “I’d stand, naked, hands / open to the sun, in Nice.” In no more than a few lines, Jean gives and invites his readers into a difficult and stunning interpretation of many major European cities.
In the last two sections, the book takes a turn for winter. The reader is no longer in the sights and smells of the cityscape but in a space “between earth and us, a paper of rice.” Here, danger lurks, as visible and invisible as the white spaces of the page: “A heart there—does it beat still? It beats.” And so too does Jean’s poetry, beating between the quiet space of the line as the reader watches tragedies born of passion: “three bullets in the head. A rope around the neck in a larder,” “fire [set] to [a] beloved’s apartment” and “mourning [to] plough the winter.”
Jean’s Mourning, tremendously translated by Farris and Kaminsky, is both generous and sparse in presenting his reader with a world that is vibrantly alive though said in very few words. His work is truly a multitude of dualities—inviting and harsh, French and English, written word and painted image. This work is more than a translation; it is a collaboration—a place where art meets on many levels and speaks in many tongues.
Get his book from Marick Press today.