On Jacqueline Risset

Jacqueline Risset, poet, scholar, translator, professor of French literature and literary critic, died in Rome on September 3, 2014. She was 78 years old.

A Statement by Risset on the Specificity of the Poetic Art

Originally printed in the 1995 book edited by Martin Sorrell titled Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of French Poetry by Women (University of Exeter Press)

La poésie se lie pour moi à une sorte d’expérience mystique—au sens de rupture radicale—dans son sens étymologique: silence. Le paradoxe, et le défi, étant celui d’écrire ce qui ne peut être écrit, ce qui sort de la sphère que Musil appelait ‘ratioïde’. Et, de la même façon que ce type d’expérience interrompt le flux normal du temps, il brise aussi l’identité du sujet qui la vit. En ce sens l’identité dite «féminine», que comporte déjà en elle une forme d’ironie, devient <désidentité>, l’ironie s’étend à l’infini.

L’apparition de l’instant—comme fragment arraché à la trame—et l’épiphanie—comme vision or énigme minimale—sont les deux modalités principales de cette écriture. Les mots portent l’expérience, ils portent à la fois sa trace, sa force inexplicable, et la tension, qui lui est essentielle, vers l’acte, vers le déchiffrement.

English translation (by Martin Sorrell)

Poetry for me is linked to a kind of mystical experience—in the sense of fundamental break—in its etymological meaning of silence. The paradox, and the challenge, is to write that which cannot be written, that which sets itself free from the world which Musil labeled ‘ratioid.’ But, in the same way that this type of experience interrupts the normal flow of time, it also destroys the identity of the subject who lives it. In that sense, so-called ‘female’ identity, which already contains a form of irony, becomes ‘dis-identity,’ and irony multiplies to infinity.

The moment revealed—fragment torn from the weave—and epiphany—vision or enigma in its minimal form—are the two principal modalities of this writing. Words are the bearers of experience, of its mark also, its inexplicable force, and its necessary tension, which they carry on its journey towards expression and understanding.



Translated By, a blog radio show with Shaindel Beers, in which I discuss translating Risset’s Sleep’s Powers

Risset on Leonard Schwartz’s radio show Cross Cultural Poetics (Episode 213 March 4, 2010) reading and discussing Sleep’s Powers (in English and French)

Risset on Leonard Schwartz’s radio show Cross Cultural Poetics (Episode 216 April 11, 2010) reading and discussing her poems translated by Serge Gavronsky (in English and French)

My reminiscence of reading with Risset was included in I Pensieri Dell’Istante: Scritti per Jacqueline Risset, a Festschrift for her published in Rome by Editori Internazionali Riuniti in 2012. The photograph I write about can be seen at the top of my Translation page.


I have a photograph Emmanuel Hocquard took of Jacqueline Risset reading from her 1976 book La Traduction Commence at an American university during the mid-nineteen nineties. Risset, as always, looks elegant. She is dressed in black. Her signature bright blond hair reflects the light of the chandelier. She stands behind a wooden podium. Beside her, maybe two feet away, stands a younger woman in a light-colored dress looking solemnly down upon some stapled pages of 8.5 x 11 paper. That woman is me. The pages I am nervously holding are drafts of my English translation of Risset’s beautiful fragmentary book of poems, The Translation Begins. As Risset reads I follow in English, fearful my understanding will forsake me, though I have spent many hours carefully combing through her text, unlocking its mysteries (though not all of them). I know the text by heart, as though I myself had written it, yet I worry it will look back at me from across the divide that separates Risset’s world from mine. She is an accomplished poet, intellectual, scholar, and translator; I am an unknown poet who has not even published my first book.

Behind and between us there is a large mirror, hung over an ornate mantelpiece. In the mirror there is the reflection of a painting. In the painting there is a woman. While Risset and I are cut off, she from the chest down, me from the knees, the woman in the painting is complete. Her entire seated form seems to be crouching under the chandelier, as if to fit into the frame. Risset and I, poet and translator, intent on our texts, do not notice her. Our heads are turned slightly away from each other, as if we do not want to presume any connection between our different tongues. As if her French resists the nasal echo of my English, and my English longs to strike out on its own. It will, soon enough, when published in Rosmarie Waldrop’s Série d’Ecriture—without the original French en face. Yet for this one evening Risset and I are just that, en face. We are the verso and recto of an open book. The spine is the woman in the mirror. She is the wraith between us.

In Traduction et mémoire poétique, Risset writes that poetic language establishes a non-consecutive temporality, and that we can “read poets through the half-light half-dark, half-declared half-implicit presence of the works that haunt them.” How similar then, is a mirror, to poetic language? And what about the translation of poetic language? I think of Jean Cocteau’s “Les miroirs feraient bien de réfléchir un peu plus avant de renvoyer les images.” All translators feel that they could “reflechir un peu plus” before “mirroring” their source texts. When I look back at my English version of La Traduction Commence, I want to start over again, for only now do I feel prepared to begin the work.

As I look at this photograph its temporality seems to fluctuate. The woman in the mirror is ever present, she comes from the past yet predicts the future. She is like Risset’s half-light half-dark, half-declared half-implicit presence in my poetic life. A ghost that began haunting me in the summer of 1995.

This is when Rosmarie Waldrop gave me a copy of La Traduction Commence, a book that introduced me to a cosmopolitan mind that lived in a thought-world I could scarcely imagine. Risset’s poems deftly interwove the personal and the literary, memory and text. They also proposed an erudition I was not prepared for. I spent evenings at the library seeking out old issues of Orange, Export, Ltd. and Tel Quel, trying to piece together the story of this cryptic little volume. Suddenly the stakes of what it meant to follow a vocation—whether poet, translator, or both—were raised.

About a year after this photograph was taken my English version of La Traduction Commence was published, at approximately the same time as my first book of poems. Two works whose advent both determined and changed my life. How lucky I was to have my first book come into the world alongside Risset’s. Her literary presence acted as guide, tempering my self-satisfaction and whispering in my ear: there’s still work to be done!

I listened. In the sixteen years since that moment, I have come into my own as a poet. Yet Risset, ever productive, continues to trouble and provoke my limits. She has never slowed down or abandoned the work. With each passing year, she becomes more astonishing.

The woman in the mirror returned to haunt me when I read her stunning book of meditative essays, Puissances du sommeil. It called me back to the task of the translator. The work was so pleasurable and inspiring that after I finished tracing out the English I began my own book of meditative essays. My essays are not about sleep, but things. Little objects that we hold dear as presences in our lives. The Seuil edition of Puissances du sommeil is one such object: crisp and white, pocket sized, with black and red cover ink. An adorable little volume filled with meditations of an elegant mind. What makes Sleep’s Powers (as I called Risset’s book in English) so brilliant is the effortless way Risset blends the universal and the particular. We feel as we read that she is writing about our experience of sleep. Though many of the details, drawn from her life, are different, her evocation of the way our senses register knowledge and move it into language makes her writing feel like a mirror in which we see ourselves. It is a rare reflection, one I am passionately grateful to have been haunted by all these years. ­

—Jennifer Moxley

Risset at Tel Quel in 1966 (photo by Denis Roche)
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