Distributed in Space, Inside the Body, and on the Page

Martin Rock

                        Stéphane Mallarmé, A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance
                                        Translated from the French by Robert Bononno & Jeff Clark
                                                Wave Books, 2015. Hardcover, 66 pp, $25.00 

Stéphane Mallarmé, A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance 					Translated from the French by Robert Bononno & Jeff Clark Before I begin, dear reader, a confession: I am not a speaker of French. I invite you, however, to ignore this shortcoming in your judgment of my capacity as reviewer, for though fluency may be prerequisite to the act of translation, it could be said to obviate the necessity of the resulting object. Translation, after all, is more than the mere harvesting of “meaning” and placing its fruits into the basket of an alternate language (what then of the tree, the leaves, or the bridge?). No, a book of translation is an active object that permeates and is permeated by its environment—it is born, then, not only by its translators, but by the eye and touch and neurons of its readers, as well as by all objects with which it comes into contact (the table, say, or the internet, or the totality of human language).

This book in particular involves translation not only from English into French, but from Language into Design (and the other way around), and the result is not only aesthetically moving, but inventive, and infinitely pleasurable. But I digress. All translation, assuming it is noble (which I believe this book to be), will carry along the essence of the departing work, in this case evidenced not only by the choice of words but by their arrangement on the page, and by the lack of punctuation, and by the variations in font and style, and it is in this capacity as one who is deeply immersed in the gravitational pull of language, insofar as it is distributed in space, inside the body, and on the page, that I feel I might be worthy of the task of reviewing this book.

Another point before I begin: enough of French remains in English that even the monolingual can find pleasure in the relationship between the arriving (English) and departing (French) texts. In fact, the young child who stands at the precipice of language will undoubtedly benefit from the experience of this book, as it will remind her that language is not so certain and staid as she has been taught in grammar school, that it trembles and marches across the page and grows larger and smaller and contains ever more playfully intricate and serious pieces of itself: that it is in fact its own ecosystem, or economy, or jungle gym. And perhaps still an animal who is entirely without language is likely to take immense meaning from this book as a whole, from the feel of its paper to its considerable heft and balance and beautifully interspersed black and white images, and reader, I would go so far as to say that a fly, if it found itself, having landed on an open page, wandering amongst the words displayed before it like a two-dimensional staircase or a textual representation of the double-helixes that swirl and communicate within its very own body, might find itself both terrified and delighted by the contents of this book, as it would be sure to engage with its many-lensed eyes at least a few of the varied and variegated ontological realities and dappled things presented here, even taking into consideration the relative flatness of the page and monochromatic nature of ink.

It seems necessary as well, before I move on to review this book, to mention that the preface to the poem (necessarily) does not begin until a full thirty-two pages into the book itself, and it is equally necessary that the preface urges the reader not to read it, “or that, once perused, it be forgotten.” (Perhaps a similar warning should be included in this review.) I call it necessary because the poem, which occupies only twenty-three pages, including the preface, is as much about scale and time and space—in the sense of the quantum correlation between matter and emptiness as well as in the literary sense of “white spaces” or to use Mallarmé’s word, “blancs”—as it is about the text itself. “The [physical] paper,” writes Mallarmé through his translators:

intervenes whenever an image, of its own accord, stops or withdraws, accepting the others that follow, and since it is not a question, as always, of regular lines of sound or verse—but rather of prismatic subdivisions of the idea, the moment they appear and for the duration of their convergence, in some exact spiritual setting, it is in variable positions, near or far from the latent theme, through their verisimilitude, that the text establishes itself.

Quite soon, I assure you, we will begin to review the poem itself, but before we do, I fear we must acknowledge that the poem, insofar as one tends to think of a poem as an accumulation of ideas and images that marches forward through time in stanzas and lines and words, containing one predetermined order and understood vehicle, eventually arriving upon a place to rest, does not exist. Rather, it is Mallarmé’s phrase the “prismatic subdivisions of the idea,” that commands me, as one simple reader, to recognize that we must look upon the poem not as we look upon our own lives—which is to say one slice of time at a time—but as one looks contrapuntally and nonlocally upon a culture of organisms through a microscope, refocusing and reconfiguring the dials to find ever deeper valences of meaning and form and structure, or as one views a shipwreck, first from a great distance and through the gray haze of the sea as a single object, but then with a gradual coming into focus of its texture and failure and complex systems of life. A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance, then, carries its readers not only through (and into) time, but through (and into) space, and in fact the poem is an exploration (or an explosion) of the title of the poem as it expands and breathes and is explored and mined and weighed and balanced and given meaning both across the pages and, individually, within them. The poem, then, must be read infinitely and by infinite readers to find itself complete.

And now, as have I promised, I will present to you my review, without melodrama or philosophy, telling you only the facts: Read this book, reader, and step deeper into your life. Then, having taken that step, reopen the book, and begin anew.