Christophe Tarkos
Ma Langue est Poetique: Selected Work

Caroline Crumpacker


Christophe Tarkos: Ma Langue est Poetique — Selected Work (Roof Books, 2000, $12.95) is a collection of work from the prolific Christophe Tarkos, edited by Stacy Doris and Chet Wiener, and including translations from them as well as Geneva Chao, Norma Cole, Erin Moure, Jonathan Skinner and Fiona Templeton, as well as an interview conducted by Bertrand Verdier. As the focused, intelligent introduction by Chet Wiener points out, Tarkos' oeuvre includes "at least" twenty-five books all published since 1995. This copious body of work is extraordinarily various and has an accumulated momentum which makes Tarkos one of the most powerful poets of our time. The breadth of his work as a poet, an editor (he has worked on French magazines including Poezi Proleter and Quaderno with poets including Philippe Beck) and a performer (giving readings throughout France and Europe) is extraordinary particularly in France, where there are comparatively fewer poetry journals and where poetry readings are rare. Nonetheless, he has described himself as "lent, d'une grande lenteur" and "invalide, en invalidité."

Christian Prigent, however, describes him as "froidement maïeutique, dadaïste farfeluet moqueur, héritier lunaire de Fluxus (et) disciple ironiquement allégé de Gertrude Stein". This book shows us more of the Tarkos Prigent describes than the Tarkos Tarkos describes, with a selection of work that is performative and improvisatory as well as erudite, precise and widely referential. The references, the style, and the techniques vary greatly from piece to piece, but Tarkos' brilliance, his dedication to pushing the poem to its deepest self, his palpable desire for truth ("to tell the truth, uh oh, that'll cause the revolution"), is always discernable.

The selections in the book, and the discussion of Tarkos' work in the book's introduction, reflect a variety of experiments with style and technique. These include examples of sound poetry (particularly in his earlier work), and the so-called "poetry proletaire" (most loosely, a poetics that eschews bourgeois models of meaning or pleasure). More often, his work employs a post-Stenian use of repetition and variation to decorticate language. As in Sign=: "There are no words. Words mean nothing. Words have no meaning. There are no words because there is a meaning, meaning has emptied words of all signification, has emptied them completely, nothing remains to the words they're empty emptied sacks that have been emptied, meaning has taken all meaning, left nothing for words, empty shells, meaning debates by itself, doesn't need words, meaning wants everything, has its go, is related to nothing, words are related to nothing…." While still using repetition, Tarkos is most explicitly performative in hurt with its three voices and its narrator: "voice 2:/she houses hurt/hurt takes up the whole place/the place in the center…." And he explores the concrete elements of poetry and the space of the page in works such as Flour.

That the book contains such breadth makes the introduction and the Verdier interview essential, particularly to those who may not have read Tarkos before (he has not been widely translated). Wiener's contextualization of the selections, his careful, smart laying of the land, and Tarkos' own exposition with Verdier, allow the book to not only educate readers about Tarkos, but to introduce them to a vital poetic discourse in contemporary (particularly French) poetry. Tarkos, for example, discusses his belief, evident in the poetry, that truth often lies in the electric physical power of language, in "worddoh" (the dough which can be shaped and re-shaped continually), and he plays with worddoh incessantly throughout his work. This can give his poetry what Verdier describes as "a certain impression of distancing." It functions, it functions and maybe they won't stop unless it stops working or it can only evolve into irony." Tarkos responds that he is not ironic, that his work is more tender than this (I think so too). He states "…everything takes place in my mind at a level which is neither technical nor linguistic." Wiener suggests Tarkos' langue poetique "rides the energy of language, generating words and making them function objectively, subjectively, referentially and as 'truth' in the movement of the production of process."

Aside from illuminating Tarkos' work, the book functions, as the best volumes of translation do, as an investigation of the very process of translation. It's fascinating to see writers as various as Norma Cole, Fiona Templeton and Stacy Doris interpreting Tarkos. Each poet finds something different to work with, and each poet's translation reveals something of their own practice. Norma Cole brings out the theoretical precision in Tarkos' Flour while Doris works with the libidinal expressions in hurt. Wiener's translations of Give and Boxes seem the most clear examples of Tarkos using his "worddoh," with a great deal of disjunction and repetition. Finally, Jonathan Skinner's translation of Toto gives us an example of Tarkos' experiments with "poesie proletaire" and what Wiener calls "a compositional technique resembling minimalist music."

That such a range of poets and thinkers would gravitate to Tarkos, and that each of them would find common cause with his work, is testimony enough to his influence, his poetic and political relevance and the scope of his work. I'm glad that this book allows for such an intelligent and generous experience with his poetics and his poetry. Doris and Wiener are committed to his work, and the book is touching for revealing that, as well as being intellectually and poetically riveting.