The Poetry of Jean Daive

by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei

It is not my intention to offer the following notes pertaining to one part of the series Narration d’équilibre [Narrative of equilibrium], written by the poet, translator, photographer, encyclopedist, and radio maker Jean Daive (1941), as a meticulous overview of the different themes, lines, and figures traversing such a voluminous oeuvre. Rather, they form a set of comments that found their way to the margins of the word processing document while translating the work. However, they depart from Wallace Stevens’s idea that if it is the case that philosophy represents the “official view of being,” poetry can be defined as its “unofficial view.”1 As Judith Balso argues in Affirmation de la poésie, poetry needs to penetrate the cracks and fissures of the metaphysical framework, beyond the authority and orders of philosophy, if only to undo Plato’s expulsion of poetry from the city.2 This unofficial being of poetry finds its materialization in “Sllt” (listen to slat, the suppressed ssst of the nocturnal visitor, but also the salut of poetry itself). Let me draw the framework of these annotations.

In his work On Interpretation, Aristotle elaborates on the different parts of human speech, and institutes a tripartite division between “affects in the soul” (ta en têi psukhêi pathêmata), “sonifications,” more commonly translated as “words” (ta en têi phônei), and “written things” (ta graphomena), all of which are linearly connected. Affects of the soul are symbolized by sonifications, which are in their turn symbolized by what is written down. Letters (grammata) and sounds (phônai) are not the same for everyone, contrary to the affects of the soul to which they refer, which they signify as signs (sêmeia). The same holds for the relation between words and things.3 In On Interpretation, Aristotle lays the foundation for the sign as linguistic unity, as well as for the idea, popularized by Ferdinand de Saussure, that whereas the form of words, letters, and sounds is arbitrary, the signification of a sign is stable: the famous interpretation of the sign as a fissured duality of signifier and signified.4 However, both philosophical and scientific developments have complicated the nature the Aristotelian “backside” and Saussurian “frontside” of linguistic production. Brain scans and electromyograms of the larynx and throat offer us an image of actual sound production and the underlying physical processes, and the work of Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, who both addressed the Saussurian sign, have shown that the unity of sign is not as stable as seems, both on the level of the signifier and signified.

It is within this framework that Jean Daive aims to formulate a poetical response to this crisis in the (analysis of) the production of language and signification. He nevertheless follows in the footsteps of Aristotle by forming an idea about the production of language and the production of signification. The first poem in the section “PANT THREAT” of “Sllt” immediately addresses the wide topographical range of the role of poetry.

‘Cause role, in—

dict say everything. “Maia, neurolinguistics, telepathy
India, dance, allometry. Why this transversal of the others

The chamber would it be under the tent.
Blockage. Aphasia. Brains wherein
a chemistry without page.

Line that


The role of poetry is introduced as a “cause,” a causa. Further on we read “case role,” car rôle—cas role, suggesting also casserole: “The flesh would it have a role in.” But we have to slow down. Poetry’s role is to say everything. However, this is not without “blockage” or “aphasia,” which is immediately figured by the interrupted, suppressed phrase in—// dit tout dire: the interdiction, interdit, is immediately smothered. What does it say? “Everything.” A stream of terms, from Maia, the eldest of the Pleiades and the mother of messenger and interpreter-translator Hermes (but also a name referring to an ancient form of hieroglyphic writing), to the latest developments in neurolinguistics, telepathic brain waves emitted from the skull, the origin of grammar and the dancing and syncopated rhythm of speech and language.

But “Why this transversal of the others like—”? First we have to return to our cranium, the “Brains wherein / a chemistry without page. // Line that // waves.” And further on: “I do not see more than you. Nothing but a wave. / That does not get holes.” In neurology there are no holes, but only wave forms, as yet unsymbolized electrical signals. On the allometric side there are different measurement units. The microseconds of EEGs are transformed into sluggish waves of air pressure, in “phonetic language.”

In between, “The hand of a simian” appears, a supplicating throat that does not only supplicate (supplie) but also supplements (supplée): “That in which it says,” in which neurology speaks, is always “later.” The simian climbs, transversing distances differing from (allo-métrie) the minute scales at which neurons fire at each other. This simian (singe) is what dwells in the spot previously occupied by the Aristotelian sign (signe), between the waving signposts of neurology (ta en têi psukhêi pathêmata) and phonetic language (ta en têi phonêi). It is the sign of the inherent aphasia of all speech, the mangling, interrupted signals, gaps, and non sequiturs. Whereas Stéphane Mallarmé imagined the sign as swan (cygne), caught on the white page, Daive focuses on the “unofficial,” mischievous character of the sign, its nearly being human. Here we have to remind ourselves that Saussure in his Course on General Linguistics illustrates the duplicity of the sign by means of a tree: the relation between the concept “tree” and the phonological sequence /t-r-i/ is arbitrary—arbre.5 Daive’s simian is climbing from one to the other, swinging between different branches. The border between signifier and signified, so strongly articulated by Saussure, is permeated through the simple displacement from signe to singe, from the Greek sêmeion to the English “simian,” thus providing an actualization of what Lacan described the moment that the signifier enters the signified.

Lacan does not consider the sign to be a structural or hermetically closed unity, as suggested by Saussure, but suggests that the signifier constantly insinuates itself in the signified: words and concepts penetrate each other in series. Lacan’s analysis of the sign is immediately related to the psychoanalytical work of Sigmund Freud concerning dreams and the unconscious: “everywhere [in Freud’s complete works] we see a dialectical apprehension of experience, linguistic analysis becoming still more prevalent the more directly the unconscious is involved [....] This linguistic structure that enables us to read dreams is at the crux of the ‘signifierness of dreams,’ at the crux of the Traumdeutung.”6 In his reading of the Traumdeutung Lacan points at three semantic mechanisms, Entstellung, Verschiebung, and Verdichtung. This last one is “the superimposed structure of signifiers in which metaphor finds its field; its name, condensing in itself the word Dichtung, shows the mechanism’s connaturality with poetry, to the extent that it envelops poetry’s own properly traditional function.”7 This metaphor producing superimposition of signs—“condensation”—functions as process largely during nocturnal dreams, but is also expressed within the work of poetry. This brings as back to the cranium, the chamber under the tent, tente—tenter, temptation or test. The brain as the test site of language.

What is the architecture in which the simian—image of the permeability of the sign, index to the interpretation of dreams, but also “pre-”conscious state of humanity—climbs around? The first poem of the section “Choir” states: “He concludes. He remains to resemble / and such. Chambers without table or wall.” This resemblance (ressembler) and re-sembling (re-sembler), being similar again—“Similar to the attention / like I say to him similar to / the identical”—is at the same time a reassambly (rassembler), a construction of “chambers with a sun / entirely.” However, this construction, which Daive relate to phrasing, is in the first place a nocturnal activity: “A slat through the nocturnal / series / heavier loaded / than lit. A day is built, sleeping,” and “A longer phrase. A longer night.” This is “neurology.”

A slat
in which this second
would remain.
Disowned that separates
is called I went to bed
and I am marching.
The practice of the mouth
already entered like a construction
in my sleep.

The slat (sommier) does not only refer to the nocturnal construction work of sleep (sommeil) and the support of the bed, but also contributes to the summation (sommer) of the phrases, series, and seconds—secundus— sequences and persecutions, marching and marking are separated and thus form names, words, albeit in a disowned way: aping. Such subconscious work on the construction of the phrase may also be interpreted as the construction of the sign itself, which for Sausurre is always split by a bar (barre). Lacan pertinently points out the arbre and barre are anagrammatically derivable from each other, something which, as I stated before, has its repercussions on the couple signe – singe. However, this bar is at the same time a blockade: “They block his memory / with a slat.” Again we find a confirmation that chamber and blockade, speaking and aphasia, are intimately connected and mutually imply each other. Daive speaks of a “dismemberment” of words, a “subordination complex”—a subordination, subjugation, which is a “ringing” (sommier also refers to the bell cage) and clinking—“putting down the money / knowing / that a comma displaces itself / according to / the time that.” This phrase reminds us of the Saussurian metaphor of the sign as coin, and Gertrude Stein’s description of writing sentences as coin in a loan—coining alone.8 The ringing, pealing, appeal of this word forging may be subdivided in several chemical alarms, electric signals in the brains, firing neurons, “these accumulations of sleep.” But then, sunrise: “A lightness compensates / for the linen / that strangles you. But I will untie you / with one or two lapses.”

As soon as the sun lights up the chamber, we are closing in on speech, “The practice of the mouth / already entered like a construction / in my sleep.” Also the flesh enters the scene of articulation—“Pieces of flesh push left of the sun”—the place of the vocalization of language: “Vocalization or your menace / the language will modulate the sounds / associated to the unwinding of a sequence.” Here we are concerned with the notation and intonation of the length—longueurlangue-er, languageness of language and enter the domain of the celestial sounds and music as carreau, tile, foundation, and basis of poetry: carreau le—K rôle—carol, “the angel will hide himself in a sonority / but before / a simian will have / transformed / into audition.” The production of sound, speaking, is already first hearing ourselves speak, to “play our personage / vocally / with our laryngeal sacks.” The simian (singe) and the angel (ange), the sign of the sound, collaborate, engage in conversation, “Speaking / in the sense that they currently give / to this word.”

Speaking, fluently, currently (courrament), running (courant) early, is a scale. A spectrum of sounds penetrates—pénètrefénêtre—the manner of speaking, the air pressure from the diaphragm (read also chambre—camera, the throat as opening of the chamber): “Along a manner / the place of the effort / a pressure of air, this response / that takes the consonance.” So according to Daive, both ends of language production are affected by interruptions, penetrations, commas; both inside the room and outside. There is always too much “baggage / a simian’s overloaded back.” The sign is always overloaded, also more ambiguous and polyvalent than the speaker’s intension. Language is constantly excessive.

A condition is placed like
a plank.
It is a balance. I weigh
an umbrella, three saws
a tire.
Not to name this package
pointer plows.

Just like the slat, the plank is part of the chamber’s construction, which is gradually built up. From “Plank I: Everything / is / lacuna” until “Thanks for the planking. It finishes / everything.” This space, built from planks, is provisional, conditional. “A condition is placed like / a plank. / It is a balance.” Here we arrive at one of the possible readings of the title of the series, Narration d’équilibre: a narrative of equilibrium, a balance, or, as Werner Hamacher suggests, “This […] equilibrium would hold the balance between speaking and halting, mere saying and conscious thematization, between sudden thought and coherent story, interruption and the flow of speech, between the impossibility to speak and its beginning.”9 Or elsewhere, “Comparable to a deafness”—surdité—sur-dité, an over-saying and blockade at the same time. This oscillation between speech and lacuna, between umbrella—parapluie—oui, three saws—scies—si10—and a tire—pneu—pneuma—a breath of air, forms a “package,” an affirmation and a halting voice. “In the chamber. / A package hangs from the ceiling / thickening. Day after day.”

FOND VII/2, Joseph Beuys, 1967/84

This package, slowly expanding inside the chamber, is in itself already charged, both inflated, “pneumatic,” and in the shape of “several layers of felt.” Elsewhere Daive speaks of a “battery.” It is difficult not to interpret this as a reference to the formal language of the German artist Joseph Beuys, in which natural materials like felt, rubber, and metal form a balance in stacked “batteries”—“Tree or heating / which you cited.”—and thus imply a relation between natural materials and immaterial “energy”—the charge of concrete streams of air flowing from my mouth. This is a relation that can be traced to an early point in the history of Western poetry, the Old-Irish poetical treatise Auraicept na n-Éces, which equates the construction materials for the tower of Babel—clay, water, wool, blood, wood, glue, flax, acacias, bitumen—to the different types of words.11 We are thus faced with an alchemical transformation of a chemical process into language. Daive suggests sorcery: “I will be you sorceress.” Sorceress—sorcière—source, source but also incantation and literally singing-into. The nocturnal construction is ready, the accumulations of sleep have been completed, the alarm resounds, the poet awakens.

“The repeater of the revolution / transforms himself into pure logarithm / of stellar speeds.” This is nothing but an image of this poet, the repeater—“If candles evoke anew / several sequences, this idea / of repetition. We studied the filth / or what it spaces.” but also re-peater, the one who reaches anew for a turnover, a revolution, a transvaluation which transforms, like a battery or through incantation, into pure logarithm, a logos-rhythmos—a rhythm, a spacing of words and speech, the incarnate comma of stellar speeds—the progression of candle to sun, from night to day, the sleepy acceleration, running early, to “Chambers with a sun / entirely”—but also a Stellen, the Aristotelian thesthai—testing of language. Every poetic statement is a test, a risk, ventures a leap. Each stroke of the pen is monkey business.

Read some of Jean Daive’s poetry here

Piece originally published at Continent | Creative Commons License


1. Wallace Stevens. “The Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet.” in Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America. 1997.p. 667.

2. Judith Balso. Affirmation de la poésie. Paris: Nous. 2011. p. 25.

3. Aristotle. On Interpretation. 16a3-8.

4. Ferdinand de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics. Trans. Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1966. p. 67.

5. Ibid. p. 67.

6. Jacques Lacan. “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” in Écrits. trans. Bruce Fink. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 2006. p. 424.

7. Ibid. p. 425.

8. Gertrude Stein. How To Write. Mineola, NY: Dover, p. 116. The metaphor of the coin is however much older: “Customary use, though, is the most steady teacher of speaking, and speech must be like a coin: it must bear a public stamp.” (Quintilian, Institutio oratoria 1.6.1-3, quoted from Erik Gunderson. Nox Philologiae: Aulus Gellius and the Fantasy of the Roman Library. [Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press. 2009], p. 56).

9. Werner Hamacher. “Anataxis. Komma. Balance,” in Jean Daive. Erzählung des Gleichgewichts 4: W. trans. Werner Hamacher. Basel: Urs Engeler. 2006. p. 134.

10. In Stéphane Mallarmé’s celebrated poem Un Coup de dés, there are precisely three instances of the word si. For an analysis of this word (which also opens the si-nge) see Quentin Meillassoux’s recently published analysis of the work, The Number and the Sirene: A Decipherment of Mallarmé’s Coup de Dés. trans. Robin Mackay. New York: Sequence Press. 2012.

11. George Calder (ed.) Auraicept na n-Éces: The Scholars’ Primer. Edinburgh: John Grant. 1917. p. 23.