Pièces détachées: Une anthologie de la poésie française aujourd'hui (Pocket, 2000)

Pièces détachées is doubtless an improvisation, and it is no coincidence that the number of writers it contains is the same as the number of RPMs on a long-playing record: thirty-three and a third voice, Jean-Michel Espitallier, who despite a principled editorial exclusion of his own poems, is nonetheless an irrepressible presence at the soundboard. There's no mistaking a collector, like there's no mistaking a drummer, and Espitallier is both. What he's collected here is a windy big band of free players and zigzag wanderers, and the conductor's emphasis is on sound and kinesis. One can't overstate the musical accent in a selection that opens with a quote from George Harrison and the busy interjections of the great uncle of French sound poetry Bernard Heidseick, only to conclude with the Adamic exclamations of Valère Novarina reciting the names of 113 herbs and grasses. This is an anthology that tends toward such lists and inventories, and tends to use them in the service of a trap-set counterpoint to breathless psychic emission: syncopated repetitions and abecedarian litanies seeking what Christophe Tarkos names "le texte expressif". From Joseph Gugliemi to Ghérasim Luca to Christian Prigent, the exclamation mark is the percussive rule, and when less visible, is still impressively felt in the choleric lyric of Philippe Beck and the equally questing didacticism of Cécile Mainardi…poetry that makes a dent!

Part of this compact insistence is due to the condensed nature of the collection itself, a pocket edition of some three hundred rather small and tight pages, where each author is given no more than nine to achieve a flashing statement: a format naturally not without its drawbacks. All anthologies are doomed and suffer under compression, but the compression here is severe, and at times the extracts feel whimsical and slight where the particular project is clearly a serious and developed one. Certain poets suffer unnecessarily; it's difficult to get a sense of Beck's work, or that of Olivier Cadiot, Dominique Fourcade or Pierre Alferi in such a constrained space. Of course it is arguable that these poets have gained a substantial hearing elsewhere. And if serious poets must abide the radio edit, at least it's in the interest of including such necessary voices as Katalin Molnár, Eugène Savitzkaya, and younger writers like Nathalie Quintane and Christophe Marchand-Kiss.

Others will suggest that the anthology features few surprises, as all of the poets have previously appeared in the magazine Java, which Espitallier edits with Vannina Maestri and Jacques Sivan (both represented here). This, and the collection's brevity, may be somewhat responsible for the uneven critical reception it has earned in the two years since its publication. There is a sense of coterie here, albeit a rather noisy and speculative one, that gives this selection something of the feeling of a private confidence — a feeling all the more surprising as texts from no less than twenty publishing houses are presented (though Al Dante, P.O.L. and Flammarion predictably contribute the lion's share). Throughout, Espitallier claims no pious rendering of Poetry as-it-is, and his lack of piety and program lends Pièces détachés both its freshness and its amateurish appeal. It is nothing greater or lesser than a personal mix-tape, with all the obsessive fussing and guileless invention that goes into such compilations. And like any good late-nite dj's mix of his favorite songs, it comes with a dedication: "pour Fiona".

The cost of casual connoisseurship is that of appearing merely celebratory, and there is a certainly a rather rambling enthusiasm here at points that risks offering up bright and random bits as sustainable conversations. The book's title translates as"spare parts" after all, and there's no denying a certain pawnshop chic in Marchand-Kiss' item-lists, in the syllabic assemblages of Sivan or Jean-Marc Bailleu, and most especially in the propositional pastiche of Cadiot. Espitallier evidences his own sympathies in comparing the book to a "multicolored Meccano under construction", though this is only one of countless metaphors he employs to suggest the "vitality" and "extraordinary wealth of poetic creation" happening in the present moment (the book itself horns in on the last fifteen years of poetry production in particular).

While the editor's introduction recommends analogies that are physical and cartographic in theme, as if Pièces détachées were a sort of alien baedeker or metro map to an invisible city (the essay uses "composition des trains" as its titular and figurative compass), the overall feel is not unlike that of a bureau dispatch or census report. There are detailed ephemera and elliptical citations without attribution. Pseudoscience is everywhere (Quintane, Fourcade, Jude Stéfan, Jean-Marie Gleize), sometimes to comic effect. Moreover, there is that antiquarian delight in miscellany that is the signature both of the 'pataphysician and the scholarly impulse prior to academic specialization, and here I think of Robert Burton's Anatomy, which must be the grandfather clock of mix-tapes itself. The book taken as a whole is a random-walk through lexical futurities and etymological perversions, a macaronic micro-opus of unlikely obsessions and splashy mentalism. More than anything, it points to the re-emergence of the principle of creative archiving as poetic impulse and strategy, where there is little difference between hunter and collector, and sampling becomes a form of Promethean theft. That this is a generous and generative approach is evidenced in a new emerging generation of poets, themselves uncollected, who pull on the detritus of pop formats and pulp effluvia to recompose an art of curious wit and unselfish rescue (witness the "trash talking" performances of Anne-James Chaton or the prose cartoons of Christophe Fiat, filled with rock stars and porn actresses as blank as Orphan Annie's eyes). Recycling is suddenly back in style: one editor's old rolodex is another editor's cyclotron; one fella's "spare part" is another fella's instrument.

—Andrew Maxwell