In the summer of 1935, the young Elizabeth Bishop, only recently graduated from Vassar College, set out on one of her many voyages. This was a trip to France. After a homesick crossing by ship, she spent a month in the small port of Douarnenez, on the western tip of Brittany, while waiting for her friend Louise Crane. Douarnenez was a curious choice. It was, and still is, a hardworking fishing town, not a resort. The French poet Max Jacob often spent weeks at a time there, writing and painting, though he was absent that summer. Holed up in her hotel room and curious about the origins of surrealism, Bishop read and translated Rimbaud. That fall and winter, in Paris, she deepened her reading of the French surrealist poets, and it must have been then that she discovered the work of Jacob, the mystical Jewish-Catholic poet whose experiments with the unconscious had inspired André Breton and his friends.
As her notebooks make clear, Bishop was drawn to surrealism but also wary of it; the sense of “the mind being broken down” struck her as dangerous. But she was evolving her own homegrown, personal sort of surrealism in poems with skewed perspectives, sudden shifts in scale, and miraculous oddity. So it makes sense that she found herself in tune with Jacob, the whimsical, ironic, and at times agonized poet who never joined a school or aesthetic club. In fact, the surrealists he had initiated came to reject him cruelly.
Bishop clearly knew Jacob’s work, though as she wrote Katharine White at The New Yorker, she was not enamored of it. She chose to translate poems from several of his books: the radical prose poems of Le Cornet à dés (The Dice Cup) of 1917; the treasury of idiosyncratic modernist lyrics, Le Laboratoire central (The Central Laboratory) of 1921; the religious prose poems inspired by the fear of hell, Visions infernales (Infernal Visions) of 1924; and the bittersweet verse of Les Pénitents en maillots roses (The Penitents in Pink Tights) of 1925. She published a handful of these translations in Poetryin 1950, but the others have, until now, remained tucked away in her papers in the archives at Vassar.
Born in 1876, Jacob was marginal to the central French culture of his day in three respects: as a Jew, as a provincial Breton, and as a homosexual. After brilliant studies at the lycée in his hometown of Quimper, in Brittany, he went to Paris to enroll in the École Coloniale, the school for colonial administration, and also took a law degree. But he rapidly gravitated toward the arts. He lived hand to mouth by odd jobs, spent a year as an art critic, painted, had visions, conversed with angels and demons, and began writing discordant, astonishingly inventive poems in prose and verse.
In 1901, he met Picasso when the painter, at age nineteen, had his first show in Paris. Almost immediately, the two became brothers in art, and when Picasso returned to Paris in late 1902, penniless and unable to sell his work, Jacob invited him to share his room and supported them both on his meager salary as a store clerk. When Picasso returned a third time in 1904 and established himself in Montmartre in his ramshackle studio at Le Bateau Lavoir, he and Jacob formed the nucleus of what would become the “central laboratory” of modern art, soon joined by Apollinaire, Braque, Juan Gris, Pierre Reverdy, and the others who formed la bande à Picasso, or Picasso’s gang.
In 1909, Jacob experienced the apparition, as he called it, of Christ on the wall of his shabby room on rue Ravignan in Montmartre. In 1915, he formally converted to Roman Catholicism, with Picasso as his godfather. From 1921 to 1928, and again from 1936 until his death in 1944, he lived as a lay associate of the (almost) unused Benedictine monastery and Romanesque basilica of Saint-Benoît-sur-Loire, trying thus to discipline his unruly passions. He was arrested by the Gestapo in February 1944 and thrown into the Nazi camp at Drancy, just outside of Paris. There he died of pneumonia on March 5, two days before the transport that was scheduled to take him to Auschwitz, where his sister and brother had already perished.
What did Elizabeth Bishop find in Jacob? In the verse poem “Rain” (“La Pluie”), from Les Pénitents en maillots roses, Jacob’s colloquial, deadpan lines—all ending in “parapluie” (umbrella) except the line ending in “pluie” (rain)—create the effect of “the surrealism of everyday life” that Bishop later told Anne Stevenson she was seeking. The repetitions in the poem build up to a delicious illogic. The name “Yousouf” adds a frisson: it’s a name foreign to French, both Arabic and Hebrew for Joseph, hinting at strangeness, unknowability, and contradiction. The other verse poem, “Purgatory” (“Purgatoire”), from Visions infernales, sets quite a different tone. Here Jacob is in his anguished mode. Bishop’s translation of “Du noir! du noir! / Un homme qu’on pousse” as “Black! Black! / A driven man” distorts the sense, especially for an American ear. There is no racial suggestion in the French; a more accurate translation would be “Dark! Dark!” The darkness in this poem belongs to Jacob’s fear of hell and hope of absolution through penitence: “A man who prays.”
But Jacob is best known for his prose poems. He turned the nineteenth-century prose poems of Aloysius Bertrand, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and even Rimbaud into a different art. No longer picturesque, anecdotal, or apparently emotional, Jacob’s prose poems offer cool abstraction, elliptical construction, lucid manipulation of the absurd, and a metapoetical send-up of sentimental conventions in fiction and poetry. Bishop translated three of these revolutionary pieces from Jacob’s collection Le Cornet à dés. “Ravignan Street” (”La rue Ravignan”), one of his most celebrated, has often been translated. It first appeared in English in 1915 in The New Age, in London, in the version by Modigliani’s lover, the South African writer Beatrice Hastings (under the pseudonym Alice Morning). Hastings essentially rewrote the poem, adding mythological figures and introducing paragraph breaks. Bishop’s version is far more respectful and gives a good sense of Jacob’s magical work, turning his sordid street in Montmartre into a scene of classical nobility.
In “Urgency” (“La Presse”—also the French term for “journalism”), Jacob dramatizes the encounter of a young writer with sclerotic tradition. Abel Hermant was an academic, representative of an official literature “already losing its feathers” (the ostrich), and pretentiously classicized as a bronze bird on a cheap stucco pedestal. Writers of any era might recognize the humiliating transaction of the young author with the establishment: Who is to pay whom the pathetic “hundred sous”? Are the hundred sous to be exchanged for obeisance and toadying? In a further debasement, Hermant is characterized as “my future spiritual director,” religious values traded for careerist mediocrity. But in a typical Jacobian flourish, the aspirant declares freedom, even if still in the compromised terms dictated by the system: “It’s free! It’s a free deposit!” And as so often in Jacob’s work, cultural power is backed up by force: “The ostrich put on his policeman’s helmet.”
Like Jacob a homosexual, and marginal in her own way, Bishop was well equipped to understand the humor and the nightmare in his work. In Jacob, she found a fellow artist who was a master of both.