Benjamin C. Dugdale's The Repoetic: After Saint-Pol-Roux
Reviewed by Jérôme Melançon
Among the opening words of The Repoetic: After Saint-Pol-Roux, we find: “uncooperative,” “clogged,” and “can’t start.” Benjamin C. Dugdale does not begin either. They situate their poems around the translation of the French symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux’s book La répoétique--or more precisely their non-translation experienced as moments when a book is not held, not read, not interpreted.
What we have in this volume, instead of a translation or reflection on the work, are poems that refuse immediate meanings but produce instead a series of puns taken to their extreme capacities, separations within words to isolate the intruders that found their way in, popular-cultural references, and even memes, with some Deleuze and Guattari thrown in:
“FemmeBoy broidery” is only an example of the heights of beauty Dugdale achieves by diverting language to create images and inserting pauses and forced stops within words while maintaining (though delayed) the sonority of words.
Reading this book, it is not entirely certain that something like The Repoetic exists. In fact, the first section of the book, “Mortar/Morte err umm” mentions The Repoetic (no italics) repeatedly, circling it, making it into something intangible, almost aspirational. Thus, the Repoetic becomes self-referential, as a goal, a hope, an impossible object, a mystery. It may be a place, a movement, a book, the book we are holding and reading.
There the Repoetic is: like a plummeting lover; bust; unrealized; washing up on jean cuffs; an unstable tornado; a lone cathedral cast-iron bell; something to be built on Crown land, that has (is?) an apartment complex; something in which there are spots to land; known elsewhere as Ratlantis; something that undoes itself—it ceases to be a book, it rejects aspirations, it remains crawling with life. It also rhymes with itself: “Winter in the Repoetic is no picnic.”
The title page for the fifth section of the book (“Tsundoku, or, Grubstake”) features two quotations, the first by Saint-Pol-Roux himself, the juxtaposition of which lets us glimpse between the future hoped by the poet and the affirmation that the future is now present. Dugdale’s Repoetic becomes something else here: a place, a movement, a coming together, a book, the book itself, a coming together of possible books.
Fittingly for a book that comes after Saint-Pol-Roux, The Repoetic defaces cultural references, happily reminding us that The Simpsons and Hooters exist in the same universe as classical works where Dido might have founded Carthage or sing on the pop charts, that the Pepsi challenge has a mouth feel, that everything (including Tinder-Poems and The Repoetic) exists at the same time, in a single present, in a single space, in experiences that do not allow for any pretension to purity or totality.
The main poetic work this book achieves is in its messing about: extremely precise impossibilities, dazzling and sweet and hilarious and down on themselves, as in this passage in prose:
“It lacks the strength of usual empire, weak like the light of the indehiscent glow-worm. It’s bonnuclabber, charnel Parnassian, hapax legomenon, claque turion grown wild from untended tontine, and we, the observ ant undead, are those who’ll collect on the forgotten wager.”
Of course, while The Repoetic might not exist other than in the form of Dugdale’s book—for the moment--La répoétique does exist, as does its author. The book was published posthumously in France, drawing on the French symbolist poet Saint-Pol-Roux’s papers—a miraculous event, since its author thought it, and most of his life’s work, to have been lost in a break-in. Leaving La répoétique to Dugdale, at least for now, we can look instead to what it repeats and what it brings forward.
Dugdale gives themself the task of translating The Repoetic, but ends up with something that stands in relation to the book as bp Nichol’s Translating Translating Apollinaire does to Apollinaire’s poem. There, within the book, refracted many times over, replaced within the experience of its translation, interpretation, reading, and holding onto, we could doubtlessly find something of Saint-Pol-Roux’s book.
Yet while Nichol built on Apollinaire because Apollinaire wrote what he did, returning to him and to the experience of reading him, Dugdale places themself today, after Saint-Pol-Roux. Theirs is not a direct relationship to the author or the book; it is a filling up of the space created by those who first came after him.
A symbolist poet and playwright, Saint-Pol-Roux himself came after the great waves of symbolist poets. In one anthology, he closes what Baudelaire opened. In online biographies, he comes after Mallarmé. Mallarmé the poet of the self-contained and circuitous Poésies and the exploding poem, the Coup de dés; the poet of the oeuvre ouverte, that open work that calls for a complete interpretation on the part of the reader. To come after Mallarmé, means to arrive after his recasting of poetry as experimentation, after the opening up of language and poetry (first in small packets no one could ever handle; then in a swirling explosion on the page). It means to arrive after symbolism had begun to disappear into the act of symbolizing, once there was only one possibility for something radically new.
So Dugdale does not repeat La répoétique by translating it. Instead, they repeat and recast what had followed Saint-Pol-Roux – that which had preceded and made possible André Breton’s and Louis Aragon’s writing. These two great figures of surrealism knew Saint-Pol-Roux had followed the consequences of Mallarmé’s gestures, and inscribed this lineage in their own work—Breton by a dedication to Clair de terre, Aragon by an article. But Saint-Pol-Roux did not create or open the way for surrealism; dada did. Dada, which was meant to mean everything and nothing at once, and take the need for a complete interpretation to its limit, the absence of interpretation. Dada, which lowered everything to the level of the mundane so that poetry could be found everywhere.
Dugdale’s own writing has strong dadaist characteristics. However, in repeating dada, it poses a gesture similar to the one dada undertook in its own time. Dada today must of course be queer, refuse the straightening of language and affirm it in its actions rather than in any form of discourse. Dudgale does this: there is a page fully made up of thwaps, and a whole section with big (capital!) Ds. There are constant returns to words like “whorl” and “whorld.” Language is not quite the same after reading this book, not because of any specific operation, but through the drug-like effect it creates. Dadaist books from its inaugural period can no longer quite have that same effect, given their lack of direct hold on the present and their aftereffects on current literature—which is why we always need more dada.
And Dugdale certainly provides the dadaist counterpoint to Saint-Pol-Roux’s oeuvre totale, or Mallarmé’s oeuvre ouverte, or indeed any contemporary work that places aesthetic perfection and grandeur at the heart of its approach. I could hardly think of a book as completely distant from Christian Bök’s Xenotext, for instance, or from his approach to ‘Pataphysics. Symbols are present, but turned away from their coded meanings, placed in unlikely company, uttered in breathless lines. The Repoetic delivers poems that are just as ambitious in their refusal of straight and delineated form and thought, acutely aware of their cultural gesture, and in ceaseless and manifaceted interaction with everything that envelops and engulfs the experience of poetry in daily life.
Jérôme Melançon writes and teaches and writes and lives in oskana kâ-asastêki / Regina, SK. His third chapbook, Bridges Under the Water, was published by above/ground press in August 2023. It follows Tomorrow’s Going to Be Bright (2022) and Coup (2020), as well as his most recent poetry collection, En d’sous d’la langue (Prise de parole, 2021). He has edited books and journal issues, and keeps publishing academic articles that have nothing to do with any of this. He’s on various social media, with handles resembling @lethejerome.