A Different Tuning: Jean Follain

“I own one book I’d truly grieve losing, D’Après Tout by Jean Follain. My reasons are partly sentimental—I went to great trouble to get the book, and it found me when I felt lost in my writing life. Most of all though, the poems inside are ones I wish I’d written. Jean Follain (1903-1971) was a barrister and eventually a judge in Paris but came there as a student from Canisy in Normandy. Those facts mean little to me, but Heather McHugh, in her introduction to her translation of D’Après Tout makes much of Follian’s origins. The intimacy of his upbringing, she suggests, contributes to the size of his poems and their use of the commonplace to illuminate ‘the monumental.’ Because of his early, circumscribed conditions, his poems are ‘miniatures.’  Calling them miniatures, however, belies their echoing expansiveness. They are miniature in the sense that Sherwood Anderson’s stories in Winesburg, Ohio are incomplete or in the sense that James Joyce’s stories in Dubliners are inconclusive. They are whole, just not in a way readers immediately and consciously recognize. Little details subsume so much. To describe Follain, McHugh evokes what William Gass said of Faulkner, ‘Nothing was too mean for his imagination because he did not believe there was any insignificance on earth.’ Follain turns a reader’s attention to the rites of life. Minute ceremonies become tuning forks for the wider world. … The deliberately murky punctuation of Follain’s poetry can make them seem lists or collections—the clouds, the grass fire, the flowers in the ravines, the dying daylight, the boy and his “iron-gray smock,” the shoe. What seem separate, however, are truly tangled. The smoke is like the clouds, the rut in the road repeats the ravine, the color of the sweater matches the color of the clouds or smoke, the mass of clouds breaks up and dwindles to one boy on one road, the meditation on ‘half-heartedness,’ and ‘absence’ comes in half light, the flowers in the ravine foreshadow the boy’s vivid life amid others’ half-heartedness and absence. The poem becomes complete, at least in its own fashion, by creating a subconscious continuity, a homogenous atmosphere. …”
Signals to Attend

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