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White Decimal

Jean Daive


October 2017


translated by Norma Cole

Jean Daive’s book-length poem Décimale blanche (1967)—seen from its inception as a landmark in European post-World War II poetry—was initially championed and shepherded into publication by the renowned poets Paul Celan and André du Bouchet. Elliptical yet urgent, searching to invent artistic modalities capable of recovering and giving voice to the experience of historical trauma both individual and collective, Décimale blanche reimagines and extends lyric, surrealist experimental forms, casting them anew together with innovations that are the poet’s own. Starting with its virtuousic play of apparently objective, precise mathematical knowledge pressed critically against whited-out, blank, emptied and open landscape and time, Décimale blanche remakes poetic form until the poem itself becomes inseparable from—becomes a singular path into—its new moment of reckoning with recent history’s incalculable, barbaric violence. The great American modernist poet Lorine Niedecker wrote, the year before her 1970 death, that in Décimale blanche she’d found “the something else I know exists in poetry—that I’ve been wanting”: “for me this is it, ” “the height of poetry”; “nothing new matters,” Niedecker concluded, “after Daive.”

When Décimale blanche was first published in 1967, it was immediately recognized as a shift in France’s poetic sensibility and, therefore, its possibilities. Restrained, even austere, it nonetheless managed to evoke a primordial, almost mythic, sweep while also foregrounding a material precision not previously achieved. Cid Corman translated it soon after and published the translation in Origin13, where, half a world away in Wisconsin, Lorine Niedecker read it. “Nothing new matters after Daive,” she said, and sent Zukofsky a copy. Thus it’s not only a book with a key place in the development of late 20th-century French poetry, but also one that made a distinct contribution to the French-American conversation around experimental poetics that’s been underway since Baudelaire and Poe. And, as Keith Waldrop says, while poetry may be eternal, translations have to be redone every generation or so. Given that timeline, this one may be a little overdue, but it was well worth waiting for. Cole has captured all the spare force and all the uncanny grace of Daive’s ground-breaking poetry in phrasing that renders the whole both immediate and inevitable. And it is a whole—it’s a seamless piece that, while a translation of a classic, also stands in its own right as an important work of American poetry. White Decimal is a brand-new book, and an extremely beautiful one.

Cole Swensen, author of Noise That Stays Noise

About the Author

Jean Daive (1941) is a French poet and translator. He is the author of novels, collections of poetry and has translated work by Paul Celan and Robert Creeley among others. He has edited encyclopedias, worked as a radio journalist and producer with France Culture, and has edited four magazines: fragment (1970–73), fig. (1989–91), FIN (1999–2006) and K.O.S.H.K.O.N.O.N.G. (from 2013 to the present). Publishing since the 1960s, Daive is known as one of the important French avant-garde poets. Also a photographer, Daive chairs the Centre international de poésie de Marseille.

Norma Cole’s books of poetry include Win These Posters and Other Unrelated Prizes Inside, Where Shadows Will: Selected Poems 1988 – 2008, Spinoza in Her Youth and Natural Light, and most recently Actualities, her collaboration with painter Marina Adams. TO BE AT MUSIC: Essays & Talks made its appearance in 2010 from Omnidawn Press. Her translations from the French include Danielle Collobert’s It Then, Collobert’s Journals, Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France (edited and translated by Cole), and Jean Daive’s A Woman with Several Lives. She lives in San Francisco.

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I wandered
between refusal and insistence
looking on the ground

name unmakes form
the thaw the avalanche
                                                            remakes absence

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