Chet Wiener's Devant l'abondance


by Sarah Riggs
Translated by Ladislas Karsenty and Oriane Monthéard

(cliquez ici pour la version française )

An American's First Book of French Poetry

The book appeared in Paris in June 2003 with the French publisher, P.O.L., a press known for its undercover elegance and author savvy for generating places of verbal risk. And what place is Devant l'abondance ? Not the place of the author's native tongue. But a place mentally developed and physically dwelled in (the author living off and on in France for more than a decade); a place where something is claimed for native, something so specific that it can be claimed, it would seem, only in this way. The poems are divided into three sections, " fixement" (fixedly), "grâce aux actions " (because of / thanks to action , also grace in action) , and " devant " ( before , in front of ). The writing abounds in displacement, and the reader feels in a verbal scene of construction that is fixedly, intently, and abstractly underway.

An abundance of idiomatic constructions, a highly advanced vocabulary, formal turns of phrase, and quotidian or technical nouns, all pivot on the strength of conjunctions like "si" (if), "que" (that), and "ou" (or). The rhetorical abundance emerges, cornucopia-like, from the shell of a foreign language. "On ouvre pour les mots ou les motos . . ."- One opens for the words or the motorcycles. The two are not joined, but parallel, sharing an equivalence of verbal weight. Indeed, many of the poems' words, which Chet Wiener read aloud on a Paris sidewalk at the book's publication, co-existed with the street traffic passing between him and the audience on the facing sidewalk of the Michèle Ignazi bookstore. The weight given to the outside world at the reading exposes the multiple co-present possibilities of words in a state of construction, etymological multiplicity, cultural operations, and chance events. The difference between "mots" and "motos" is that of one alphabetic letter. This kind of pivoting occurs frequently in the work, as in "Je l'ai revu. / Je l'ai rêvé" (I saw it again. / I dreamed it), and "la rouille vs/ La roue" ("rouille" as the garlicky Provençal fish-accompanying mayonnaise, also the adjective, rusty; "roue" the wheel, not "roué," meaning cunning or clever. The operating mechanisms of individual poems are internally constructed, facets of "devant," "fixement," and "grace aux actions," the titles for a trio of villanelle-like poems crucial to the book's construction, but left out of the book in its present form. As such they are embedded specters of the multiplicity, also control / loss of control, in composing poetry: action, determination, grace, as well as awe, in front of how language works.

Everywhere the poems are composed of vocabulary that would in another context evoke a specific referent. This is remarkable given that specificity is by convention, singular, and the effects of that specificity here are plural. A lateral slippage occurs as one jumps from word to word. But there is also an accumulation and reinforcing not of one meaning, but many. Syntactically, the lines circulate, shift, pivot, reverse.

Parfois on peut suivre.                                Sometimes one can follow.
Parfois la suite est un                                  Sometimes what follows is a
Revirement - l'éléphant,                            Reversal-the elephant,
L'enfant                                                               The infant

Reversal does not render the meanings, or events, absurd, only plural in their parallel existence. They constitute a mechanism of multiple interlocked gears that depends upon a precision of vocabulary released from function. This system nonetheless hinges-saving it from mere wordplay-precisely on the fact that the referents do apply. The book means to say elephant and infant, to produce insights yielded by syntactic complexity.

In addition to meaning "before" and "in front of," the "devant" of Devant l'abondance connotes the sense of passing in front of, or just outside, something. Abundance in this French phrase also carries the idiomatic sense of "parler d'abondance"-to improvise, to extemporize. It vacillates between a feeling of more than what is needed (French as an extra, bonus language) and needing to know more (making up for the deficiency of it not being a native tongue). This opens an alternate field of semantic possibility where the constraints are so numerous and demanding that in a strange way they may liberate.

For knowing the meaning of the words that appear is not the same as experiencing a meaning of them. This experience has an abstract quality, as if statement were a state to inhabit. The undercurrents of absurdity in the sound play recall Beckett-the obvious analogue for a non-French author writing in French-and there is a quality to the near puns and homonyms that conveys a self-reflexivity of wordplay, of words composing and recomposing themselves. The book evokes a feeling that there is something there, as if the words are falling into these places that are there, and that puns are crucial, if chance, gears for how words operate.

The work is more or less Chet Wiener's first book of poetry, which points to the significance of its composition not in English but in French. Even the chapbook that precedes it, Walk Dont Walk , with Potes & Poets Press, 1999, first appeared in French translation Marchez ne courez pas (Editions Créaphis and the Foundation Royaumont, collective translation directed by Anne Talvaz). Is the foreigner in some sense well-positioned to tackle the strange features of the adopted language? If there were a dictionary of common usage, the vocabulary Chet Wiener uses would be at the outer edges. A conversation between the publisher of Devant l'abondance and another native French speaker transpired over the meaning of the word "verboquet," from one of the poem titles, "Diriger le verboquet." "Verboquet" means, literally, a rigging that serves to guide and stabilize the load that one hoists (cordage qui sert à guider et stabilizer un fardeau que l'on hisse). To be a French speaker does not mean you will recognize the French that this book employs. Readers of French of whatever native language are asked to feel the massive formal nature of the project, to hear "verb bouquet" as an arrangement of verbs as well as a technical movement of construction.

The book's style formally echoes and extends French 16 h -Century writers Ronsard and Montaigne (the latter the subject of the author's doctoral work), and the rhetorical pivoting and elegant constructions are relatives, however distant, of the poetry of Maurice Scève. The sense of play with constraint and chance also draws from OuLiPo, the literary group founded in 1960 that to this day has sessions of humorous verbal ingenuity held to strict arbitrary limits. There are also resonances with the poet's contemporaries in France, such as the rhetorical positioning of questions, pauses, and statements one hears in Philippe Beck's Dernière mode familiale (Flammarion, 2000), or the momentum of repeating verbal constructions that elegantly subsumes the (anti)aesthetic power of proper names and referents in Pierre Alferi's Kub Or (P.O.L., 1994).


Chet Wiener is also a photographer, and his photographs taken of an immense construction site at Charles de Gaulle Airport, as well sites in Paris and elsewhere, are composed of highly detailed color-coded technical parts, workers, and steel-lifters. The series exposes machines of countless minute details of equalized importance. The views are angled from above, apart and yet partaking, of a zone-in the airport, the place of arrival and of departure. Devant l'abondance opens with an imperative, a possible line of departure, also of arrival: "Si c'est ca que tu fais, fais-le." If that is what you do, do it. Of course it is unusual that this is the thing you would be doing. But if it what you are doing, why not, there is abandon in that abundance: fais-le.