For a period of several weeks or maybe months in the late 1970s I believed that the world around me was on a lease about to expire and the streets I walked along were a film set about to be struck. The story was over – no retakes, no director’s cut, no sequels – and it was already too late even for the previews because everyone was about to die. This was going to happen. I was living at the time in a shared house in Fulham and I was not clinically depressed – I had work and a roof over my head and I was in love – but to the me then there was no possibility of the me now, writing this.
I had internalised the blarney: Mutually Assured Destruction. Meanwhile, the landed gentry in Fulham, high on money but short on land, were gentrifying, building loft conversions with Velux windows. A neighbour picked out of a skip a pair of brass light fittings he’d installed in a house twenty years before, a house whose interior walls were now being knocked through. Property prices were starting to get silly. In the 1979 general election the sitting Labour MP in a traditionally Labour seat was ousted by a Tory.
Next door were an Irish woman and a Polish man who had bought their house in the 1940s for well under five hundred pounds and hadn’t updated since. Everything in the house, from curtains to cooker, was a museum piece but worked fine. A newspaper photo of the Polish Pope was sellotaped to the wallpaper. On Mondays the man collected his pension from the post office and I’d come home from work in the evening to find him slumped on the doorstep singing Polish drinking songs, locked out by his wife until he’d sobered up. The rest of the week he was the mildest and most gentle of men. From my window I watched him stroking the leaves of the plants in his back yard as if he knew every one of them by name, and what made them tremble or die. He had fought in 1944 at Monte Cassino, captured by the Allies at a cost of 55,000 casualties.
In August 1944 Samuel Beckett was a member of an Irish Red Cross team which arrived in the northern French town of Saint-Lô. He reported that ‘Saint-Lô was bombed out of existence in one night’. In the weeks following the Allied invasion of Normandy, almost all of the town had been destroyed by American airpower; after its capture by the American ground troops, what was left was pounded by German bombing raids. Beckett’s ‘The Capital of the Ruins’ was written to be broadcast on radio in Ireland. According to the editor of The Complete Short Prose, it ‘has been shrouded in mystery, confusion, and error ever since its discovery’, the condition to which all writing tends.
The French poet and magistrate Jean Follain was born in 1903 in the village of Canisy in Normandy and went to school in nearby Saint-Lô. Although Follain’s true concern, his translator W. S. Merwin insists, is ‘the mystery of the present – the mystery which gives the recalled concrete details their form, at once luminous and removed, when they are seen at last in their places’, all of his poetry commemorates the largely pre-industrial world of his provincial childhood, framed by wars past and to come. The poetry is analogous, perhaps, to the early photographic process of salt printing in which a negative is pressed against paper coated with light-sensitive substances (memory, imagination) and exposed to sunlight – today’s sunlight, the light that pours from the sky at the time that the writer writes (and the reader reads).
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 (‘nimbée à la couleur du jour’), 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. So the 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 eye’s quick attention to movement is surely evolution: to evade predators.
In one of Follain’s prose poems children pose ‘for a photographer from the postcard company’. A bell tolls: someone has died. A single branch of a rosebush is shaken by the slightest of breezes – it will be blurred in the photograph, while the features of the children themselves will be clear and sharp. ‘Their faces have a modest look, suspicious, already cruel, the town cynic might say.’
Two generations before Follain was born, Henri Le Secq (1818–82) was one of five photographers commissioned (by Prosper Mérimée) to compile a documentary record of French medieval architecture; Le Secq covered the north and east. His churches and ecclesiastical statuary are dutiful and dull. The water beneath his bridges is as solid as the stone of the arches. More interesting are his photographs of Paris buildings in the process of demolition in the early 1850s, making way for Baron Haussmann’s uniform avenues: the process of their destruction – exposed chimneys, broken columns, piles of rubble – appears as a form of deliberate architecture, the buildings and their ruination in complete harmony.
Then Le Secq wanders into the forest of Montmirail, to the east of Paris, and photographs Nature with its pants down: not sublime panoramas but clefts and fissures and mossy gulches and tumbled boulders; trees in summer with their doomed profusion of leaves and trees in winter, crazy scribbles of bare branches, and trees that are plain dead. A regular line of white-trunked trees parades down a slope but Le Secq crops them off because he’s more interested in the gash below them: broken ground, exposure, subsidence, the falling away. I think he gets nature, which has other things to do than being pretty. A photo of white laundry drying on low walls around a meadow should be picturesque but you can tell by the tangled sheets and the blur of the trees’ branches that it’s windy, and more than a third of the photo is foreground rubble.
Combined casualties at the Battle of Montmirail in 1814, in which Napoleon defeated allied Russian and Prussian forces, were around 6,000 killed and wounded, so beneath the topsoil there are bones galore.
After the end of the First World War, Jean Follain was sent to Leeds in England at the age of sixteen to learn a new language. Two figures on a street corner in Leeds in 1919, waiting to cross, looking both ways to avoid the trolleybus: Follain and my father, just two years younger. That was the year my father left school in Ilkley and started work in an iron foundry in Leeds.
Follain resisted the English language because to name ‘un arbre’ a tree, for example, or to call ‘pain’ bread was to change the things themselves. Of course, in the English versions of Follain’s poems that I’m reading, ‘arbres’ are trees, and ‘pain’ is bread, but I’m not worried by this because I suspect that the something that’s lost in translation is often offset by a something that’s gained, and I doubt that Follain himself would have been much exercised by the whole business of translation – which is just one of the wicked ways of the world and there are many worse, far worse. Follain served as a high court judge. Translation is not a criminal offence. His books other than poetry include a celebration of the potato and a dictionary of ecclesiastical slang. He liked food and he liked words, even words as things, untethered from meaning: aged seven, ‘I’d embark on interminable discourses taken word for word straight from the very books that made the least sense to me, old treatises on philosophy and theology bursting with strange vocables whose magic I longed to divine and whose rambling phrases wove a complicated filigree into the fabric of everyday life.’
My father – whose own father had married the boss’s daughter – eventually became managing director of the foundry where he’d started work in 1919. In the late 1940s he was a member of a delegation of British industrialists who went to Germany to record war damage and, presumably, come up with ‘recommendations’. He came back with reels and reels of film of bombed-out cities which I remember watching, once – or some of them: there were hours of the stuff – and then what happened to them? Nothing, I suppose, by which I mean they got lost, and their only existence now is as a form of dream documentary.
The postcard above (‘Passed by Censor’) of La rue du Verger in Ypres, 1915, is colourised – grey, a greeny brown, a Beaujolais red for a lot of the brickwork – to make it more ‘realistic’, I think, and therefore more sellable. Early colourised photographs were tinted by hand, as a child might fill in a colouring book, I imagine mostly by women – because it was poorly paid and hardly a career, and because they were good at it. This was delicate but humdrum work; embroidery, almost. These days, it would be done by unpaid interns. For the colours, the printers worked from notes made by the photographer on the spot; in the absence of any notes they guessed. In the 1880s a Swiss inventor developed a printing process he called Photochrom: multiple exposures of a negative were made on lithographic limestone tablets coated with a light-sensitive solvent (bitumen, benzene), one tablet for each colour, with solvents brushed on to adjust tones. The process was commercially licensed and by the early 1900s the Detroit Publishing Company was producing several million colourised postcards a year. Just two decades later this process was redundant, overtaken by new technology.
Follain spoke about writing poems in terms of making paintings: ‘I may say to myself, looking at a text: I need some red there, or some grey . . .’ Not a raspberry or a splash of wine or blood but rather ‘a pronoun or some syllable of a word which, for me, is a stroke of red’. He was kidding himself a little, as everyone does. The colour red was very important to him: red hair (both men’s and women’s), red earth, red hands, red apples, red eggshells, red flowers, a red rag on the branch of a tree.
At the edge of Paris, on the north-eastern outskirts, Le Secq photographed the bleak escarpments of quarries. In one of these photographs (above), three massive waves tumble forward; the buildings of the city are relegated to the upper left corner in a dusty haze. Le Secq’s photo is cousin to Roger Fenton’s ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death’, taken during the Crimean War in the same decade, in which a road strewn with cannonballs winds through a stony landscape.
For several centuries on the site photographed by Le Secq there was a gibbet on which the bodies of executed criminals were placed on public view. After 1760 the site became a dump for refuse and sewage, and a place for butchering horses. Limestone and gypsum from the quarries were exported to America. In the 1860s, after the 19th arrondissement was annexed to Paris, the area was transformed (gentrified) into a public park with terraces, a lake and a mock-Roman temple.
There are women aplenty in Follain’s poems. This may be in part because the era he’s recording is that of his childhood, when – before the boy reaches money-earning age and is sent out to make his way in the world – women were closer than men: their clothes, their scents, their voices. In his account of Canisy, the village where he grew up, Follain recalls his maternal grandmother’s servant, Florentine: ‘She used to carry me in her arms and let me scribble on the immaculate white peak of her cap with the lead from an old pencil.’ And Florentine’s mother, born in 1830: ‘On her I bestowed the quasi-Asiatic name of mother Yon-Yon. White cotton cap on her head, dressed in rough gray clothes, she always, when entering the mosaic vestibule, took care not to make any noise with her wooden shoes.’
Is nature female and buildings, cities, monuments – all erections – male? Silly question. But the impulse, born out of fear, to tame, master and control – and the other impulse: to protect – does cast nature in a traditionally female role. In the foreground of Giorgione’s The Tempest a woman shelters under a tree from a breaking storm; an infant feeds at her breast. A man holding a long pole, or spear, is watching the woman. Below the woman the ground falls away around a narrow cleft; above the cleft two broken-off stone pillars stand erect on a weathered base. Is the man standing guard over the women or waiting to assault her? Beware humble spear-carriers: they may have no lines to speak but they’re not dumb.
Abbas Kiarostami’s film Taste of Cherry – released in 1997, a decade after the Iran–Iraq war in which more than half a million died – follows a man driving around all day in the parched hinterland of Tehran, a landscape very similar to that photographed by Le Secq on the outskirts of Paris: again there are quarries and again, often in this film (above), the blurred outline of the city appears at the top of the frame. The man has slick black hair and high cheekbones and he drives a high-end Range Rover. He gets into conversation with strangers who are poorer than him and offers them money and they surely assume he wants to buy sex, but actually he’s asking them to bury him. He’s going to take a stack of pills and lie down in a hole beside a tree, and he needs someone to come at dawn and call his name and fill in the hole if he doesn’t reply. Good money for just twenty spadefuls of earth and getting up a little early, but the labourer threatens to smash his face in. The man foraging in a landfill site is more interested in plastic bags. The Kurdish soldier runs away: his job is to kill but ‘I’m not a gravedigger’. The Afghani seminary student listens but is bound by his religion to refuse. The Turkish man who works as a taxidermist at the natural history museum agrees to the man’s request but not before he has told the story of how once, when his marriage was on the rocks, he climbed a tree with a rope to hang himself but the mulberries were in season and they tasted delicious. And then – he’s a talker, this one – a joke about a visit to a doctor by a man with a broken finger. At the end of the film – no, I’m not saying.
Coleridge, Notebooks, 18 June 1801: ‘A hollow place in the rock like a coffin, a sycamore bush at the head, enough to give a shadow for my face, and just at the foot one tall foxglove. Exactly my own length. There I lay and slept; it was quite soft.’
Surprisingly, to me, there are not many animals in Follain’s poems. Perhaps in a pre-industrial world animals were just there, not eliciting any special attention. Many children and old people too, excluded from the period in human life that’s largely devoted to making one’s mark on the world, to getting and spending and competing, have an affinity with animals: as if the very young and the very old recognise in animals their own lack of agency.
There are also very few cars in the poems. In March 1971, after attending the dinner in Paris of a society dedicated to the study of paper ephemera (cheese labels, train tickets, etc.) – or, according to another source, a Touring Club dinner; my knowledge of the man derives almost entirely from glancing details in translators’ introductions, and this feels right: there are conflicting versions of most historical events, including family ones – Follain was knocked down and killed in the Place de la Concorde by a car.
Follain’s poems are short, surrounded by white space, and are barely pinned to the page: a capital letter at the start, a full stop at the end, very occasionally a comma or another full stop in between. They aspire to be bowls – chipped, because used bowls – and to be continual. Our belongings will outlast us (our pencils still usable, if not our laptops). The line endings can both clarify and disrupt. Modest except in their making a point of being unspectacular, Follain’s poems are quiet exhalations of resistance against the obliteration of a whole mode of experience by the shellfire and mass slaughter of the First World War. None of us stands a hope in hell and somewhere in that is the poems’ awkward pride.
On the cover of my paperback bilingual edition of W. S. Merwin’s translations of poems by Follain (Transparence of the World, Copper Canyon Press, 2003) there is a photo by Paul Strand of a woman with a hay-fork in a field in the countryside in France. The V&A has another version of this photograph, taken one afternoon in the 1950s from exactly the same spot but maybe half an hour later: the trees and the fields unchanged but the pile of hay gathered by the woman who wears a white head-cloth has increased and the cloud formation has changed.
A poem by Follain perhaps bears a similar relationship to time as does a still photograph, except that in the poems there is movement – a dish slips through a serving girl’s hands and shatters, a man throws a bone to a dog – so that as well as being frail ceremonies of remembrance they are tiny acts of resurrection. I’m reading the Merwin book on a summer afternoon in the park and a green insect crawls across the page, the page open to a poem titled ‘Signs’: ‘Has she not often seen / on the last page / of a book of modest learning / the word end printed / in ornate capitals?’ I turn down the corner of the page – another sign. Both the crawling insect and my act of turning down the corner of a page are folded into the poem.