Partisan of Things by Francis Ponge
Translated by Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau
Kenning Editions, 2016; 61 pp
Reviewed by Zack Anderson
The poem “Vegetation,” from Francis Ponge’s Partisan of Things, opens with a line that Derrida might have written: “The rain is not the only hyphen linking earth and sky: there’s another kind, less intermittent and more thickly woven, so that even the strongest wind won’t blow away the fabric.” Ponge’s word for “woven”—“tramé”—signals both the sense of “to weave” and “to screen,” marking the vegetation as both a type of medium and a form of representation: a tapestry, a textile, a text. For Ponge, language is an interface, what he has called elsewhere the “copulation” between things and words.
Across its thirty-two prose poems, Partisan of Things turns its queer eye on the unremarkable objects of the world, such as oysters, moss, trees, and bread. Resisting the taxonomist’s critical gaze, the poems withhold a stable lyric speaker and present language as coextensive with its referents. Objects gaze back, speech emanates from the landscape itself: “only a brief word is entrusted to the pebbles and shells, which are quite moved by it, and the wave expires as it utters it; and all those that follow will likewise expire while saying much the same thing, though sometimes in a longer and slightly more emphatic sentence.”
The poems in this collection, composed in the years leading up to World War II, often disclose an uneasy awareness of language’s political valence. This anxiety becomes visible in the double entendre of “expression” in the poem “Orange”: “Like the sponge the orange wishes to regain its shape after it has endured expression. But where the sponge always succeeds, the orange never does: its cells have burst, its tissues have been torn.” Expression, in the physical sense, collapses form, wrings out a substance. Verbal expression does violence to things. The solution to this problem lies in the recognition that things can also alter language. “We must focus on the glorious color of the liquid that,” Ponge writes, “better than lemon juice, forces the larynx open wide enough to pronounce the word as well as for drinking it.”
It might be tempting to over-translate Ponge, to try to get to the bottom of his koan-like deferral of conventional meaning. Joshua Corey and Jean-Luc Garneau transmit Ponge’s peculiar charm, by turns absurd in turn of phrase and crystalline in imagistic commitment. Corey’s detailed introduction recontextualizes Ponge alongside the posthuman, Actor-Network Theory, “hyperobjects,” and the Anthropocene, lending a darker cast to lines “after the slow catastrophe of its cooling the story of this body can only be one of perpetual disintegration.” Partisan of Things delivers a compelling and necessary model for alternative ways of seeing and knowing the objects around us on nonhuman terms. After all, in Ponge’s world, we are on “vegetable time.”