The Curved Planks by Yves Bonnefoy
Reviewed by Brandon James Anderson


In recent years, my passion for literature has led me down a path wherein I have discovered European postmodernism. With Milan Kundera rapidly becoming one of my most beloved novelists, I have tried to assimilate myself with similar writers. By this, I mean those whose writing deals with existence, death, and the importance of the works they themselves write. My curiosity for such writing and for Kundera’s homeland has led me to discover Yves Bonnefoy – a French translator, essayist, and poet who won the city of Prague’s Franz Kafka Award this year. Similar to Kundera, Bonnefoy’s poetry encompasses the themes of death, existence and nature. These themes – and their interdependency upon one another – is evident in Bonnefoy’s most recent collection, The Curved Planks.

We granted each other the gift of innocence:

For years just our two bodies fed its flames.

Our steps wandered bare through trackless grass.

We were the illusion known as memory.

Since fire’s born of fire, why should we desire

To gather up its scattered ash.

On the appointed day we surrendered what we were

To a vaster blaze, the evening sky.

This poem, “Une Pierre,” is one of several in the collection baring the same title. Stones play an important role in the arc of the author’s work, as an afterword (presumably from the translator) explains: “The poetry of Yves Bonnefoy is founded on rock, and inscribed in stone: the primary rock of earth, the weathered stone that bears witness to the dead.” From this, it is easy to see why Bonnefoy places such importance on the stone and the sky of this world – they are, after all, the nonliving things that connect us as a species to our past and beginnings. Such an idea is seen in another of Bonnefoy’s “stones”:

No more paths for us, nothing but unscythed grass.

No more ford to cross, nothing but mud.

No more bed laid out, nothing but stones

And shadows embracing through us.

Still this night is bright,

As we desired our death might be.

It whitens the trees, they expand.

Their foliage: sand, then foam.

Day is breaking, even beyond time.

Though intimacy is another theme seen in the poet’s work, the “us” seen here should not be regarded as two people, but rather humanity itself. Desperation of the human spirit – in both life and death – is throughout the book and, as is the case in the proceeding citation, observed by nature rather than fellow man.

In shadow play, the sky’s hand reached for his.

The stone where you see his weathered name

Was opening, forming a word.

Though fluent in the English language (his translations of Shakespeare have made him notable in their own right), Bonnefoy’s collection has been translated from the French by Hoyt Rogers, a contemporary. In Curved, there is diversity in form (and subject to a lesser degree) as not all poems are dubbed “Une Pierre.” Rather, Bonnefoy’s stones are bookends for longer pieces that are share their own consistency with often no more than five words to a line and many of these pieces being divided into three parts. There are, however, some pieces that are longer in length and sectioning and it is here in one such poem, “Let the World Endure” that the reader finds poetry itself connected to nature and death:

Let the world endure,

And words not be one day

These graying bones

That birds will peck,

Screeching, squabbling,

Wheeling apart,

Birds that are our night

Within the light.

As mentioned, Bonnefoy is a writer who is aware of the significance of the written word, and the thought comes out several times in this collection. He (a man) or we (humanity) is seen tearing out pages in certain poems with the concept of the blank page haunting the consciousness. Bonnefoy allows for this concept to merge itself with that of the importance of the stone, the very thing the world’s first words were inscribed on, and the very things that allow those of tomorrow to know our name and dates of existence upon our death.

Bonnefoy’s subject matter is meaningful and heavy, of course, but that isn’t to say there is no variation. There are prose poems here, too. Some of them address Ceres, the Greek goddess of argicutlrue, whom Bonnefoy portrays as searching home after home for a child.

We must pity Ceres, not mock her—and so

Must meet at crossroads at deepest night

The title poem, for instance, marks not only a change in form but also voice as the piece tells the story of a young, fatherless boy whom approaches a ferry-conductor about becoming his own father. With only the river as his home, the man resists, his “weight” growing heavy with each inquisition until the ship begins to sink. It’s here that Bonnefoy takes narration and the prose poem form and blends it seamlessly into a sort of myth – the story of the man whose consciousness sank his boat.

Even when style and form changes, The Curved Planks is a book that is weighed down with its themes. And for good reasoning: Without Bonnefoy’s stones bearing weight on his words, the reader would be left without an understanding of those things that transcend our life spans. And such a lightness, I should think, would be unbearable.