A Poet in Passing: Pierre-Albert Jourdan


Eric Huybrechts: Mont Ventoux, 2008 (CC)

by Douglas Penick

We cannot imagine any kind of life without development, evolution, change, forward motion. We cannot imagine our own lives without some sense that we are moving forward in time. Our forward motion is intrinsic to our being.

And our forwardness, our continuing, is marked, continually, by our relationship to repetitions, variations, caesuras, new beginnings and the patterns that link them. From childhood, we are discovering patterns, and as adults imposing them as well. In old age, when we face our end, the end of moving and doing, when a great translucent luminous wall of uncertainty looms before us, again we look for patterns in this strange unfolding which we can call ourselves but is about not to be. As the patterns that have shaped us fall away, still we feel the intimacy of a patternless awareness continuing.

I never knew Pierre-Albert Jourdan, but he was the first person to ever publish my work. This was in 1969 when a mutual friend, Nicolas Calas, sent him some poems I had written. Pierre-Albert arranged for superb translations and a year later they appeared in his wonderful journal, Porte des Singes. I was young and callow, living in N.Y. and did not make the effort I wish I had to be in touch with Pierre-Albert who lived in Paris. Only last week, more than 50 years later, did my friend and neighbour, Suranjan Ganguly, give me a volume of Jourdan’s work. Now, it is with a kind of rueful admiration that I can return to this remarkable artist who was so long ago so very kind to me. What an extraordinary and courageous man he was.

In the following, written in the countryside during the last days of his life, as mind and body suffered in the final stages of lung cancer, Pierre-Albert’s perspective shifted in and out; he sometimes calls himself ‘you’.


Hide in a landscape, vanish behind foliage, burrow into a hill… [1]


The eye can roam freely. It feels no pain when pausing to contemplate these faded blues. It does not experience that inner trigger mechanism that locks you up…” [2]


Last night, the north wind cooled off the heat and cleared the horizon, At present, it is playing the game you know well: shaping clouds with the aid of Mt. Ventoux. There they are, as if caught in a trap, unable to pass over the ridge and coming apart like immense soft spinning top. I don’t wish to push the similarities any further.

I cannot truly distinguish my own suffering, at least at this bearable stage… from that of, for example, these trees assailed by the violence of a wind gone mad, from their own struggle; and from that of animals who are tortured, poisoned, stalked, and hunted down and who are yet, each of them, our sustenance. I refuse to pay the slightest attention to those, their ego bleating at the slightest warning, are surprised to discover that they have not remained at the centre of the world. Suffering extends so far beyond our understanding… [3]


We are settling into a new life (we’ll have to find another word), one in which we are so completely uprooted…that it could make us weep. And this, moreover, happens often. Everything is perfectly regulated in all ways, nothing to say about that. But you are excluded. Those maple trees outside, that sky no longer belong to you. What is this “new life”? It is separation.[4]


It is true that we incessantly roam just outside this spaceless space that we never enter, alive. Sometimes it even seems to constitute us. Yet we have this regrettable habit of approaching it from the wrong side: this fear it inspires is perhaps only the fear of being alive….

The gentleness of twilight has no name. [5]


How I understand this!

Through great rifts in the landscape? [6]


Pierre-Albert Jourdan wrote this last question on the eve of his death.

Jules Ducept: Ventoux, 2018 (CC)

About the Author

Douglas Penick’s work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, New England Review, Parabola, Chicago Quarterly, Publishers Weekly Agni, Kyoto Journal, Berfrois, 3AM, The Utne Reader and Consequences, among others. He has written texts for operas (Munich Biennale, Santa Fe Opera), and, on a grant from the Witter Bynner Foundation, three separate episodes from the Gesar of Ling epic. His novel, Following The North Star was published by Publerati. Wakefield Press published his and Charles Ré’s translation of Pascal Quignard’s A Terrace In Rome. His book of essays , The Age of Waiting which engages the atmospheres of ecological collapse, was published in 2021 by Arrowsmith Press.


[1] Pierre-Albert Jourdan –The Straw Sandals: Selected Prose and Peotry– edited, introduced and translated by John Taylor- Chelsea Editions 2011, p.233

[2] Jourdan ibid .p,281

[3] Jourdan ibid p.285

[4] Jourdan ibid. p.297

[5] Jourdan ibid p.313

[6] Jourdan ibid. p.319

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