Bayart by Pascalle Monnier--some reading notes

by Cole Swensen

What's going on here is, I think, interesting from a couple of angles--one is on the level of narrative. Bayart was an actual person, a knight in France in the early sixteenth century. Over the centuries, the details of his life have mixed with the details of a few other lives and have been enriched with sheer legend until the tale recounted now is a composite life, a personified era.

One question underlying this book is that of storytelling itself--how much play is there in the ways in which a story can be told? Especially a story that has been told so many times before--how can it live (active) rather than be told (passive). One way Monnier injects life in this case is by fracturing the time limits, by slipping in details from contemporary scenes and concerns, allusions to the occupation of Vietnam, reference to twentieth century objects. This invitation to recognize parallels between the late medieval and the late twentieth century worlds posits the reader as outside both, reinforcing the still understated fact that it's a woman's point of view on an historically male world.

For it is a man's tale--an old-fashioned tale of gallantry and heroism, with the female characters occupying their traditional places--back home receiving letters, or dead. The woman and woman's world is revealed through perspective, sometimes presented as peripheral characters, elements normally perceived as mere background, such as the trees that play a central role here. She also uses the now-famous series of unicorn tapestries as a principal character in the work, their vividness and their delicacy contrasting with their immobility--theirs is a static world while the male world outside is composed of violent activity.

However, the real twist that this story receives in its treatment here all happens through language--the story's structure, detail, perspective, pacing and phrasing alter the tale tremendously. Monnier's use of sound, in particular, threatens the narrative line; she is fascinated by sound, and in turn uses it in a fascinating--as in hypnotic--way. The reader is lulled away from the story as a series of events and pulled into a space in which sound creates an imminent field.

She uses repetition to a similar end, repeating words and phrases until they lose much of their referential power, step out from their service to the story per se and emerge as objects in their own rights.

Language here is used for the dissolution of the tale as much as for its construction, and these two operations, because they're in direct opposition, create a tension and a continual movement, so that the text has a seething surface and a cyclical path. It remains in a state of active equilibrium--which is a familiar state for accounts of history, for the historical tale--always reconstructed for the given moment, but remaining essentially unchanged and unchangeable over centuries. Can history be translated into each arriving epoch? This is one question that this piece explores. At what point will the narrative break down, and when it does, will it necessarily be meaningless, or will it begin to operate along different principles and in a different key?

excerpts from Bayart

from 2

And you could say too that there was a certain scent
a damp scent, of damp stone, perhaps.
Of damp stone behind the stone pond
and, in the pond (which wasn't really a pond,
maybe hidden by a tree,                       yet, and no doubt:
the leaves of the tree fell lightly on the tepid water.
The leaves there smelled of decay.
So there were several smells:
the smell of magnolias
the smell of damp stone, always smelling a little of the tomb
the smell of water and leaves (the decay of leaves on tepid water).

If you look constantly at a tree: the tree remains eternally a tree
but stone crumbles, stone is different.
At first glance, trees                      and stone seem
alike but you must add: at first glance only.
Then trees and stone become distinct:
the trees resemble stone;
while stone resembles the stone of an earlier age.

In the first place: walls                      walls surrounding a garden,
surrounding a mansion, surrounding a hanger, surrounding the stables
walls surrounding an estate.
Later: walls surrounding a garden, surrounding
a mansion, surrounding a barn, surrounding a woodshed,
surrounding pasture, but not surrounding the river.

The river edging the fields, but not protecting the walls.

On the river, barges, grasses, boats
and the smell of decay (of decaying leaves).

One smell is sort of like another smell. Sort of.
Decaying leaves give off a smell a little like the smell of
decaying leaves give off a smell like,
leaves, a smell,                      a warmth, a soft, warm smell,
and the leaves behind the rocks
(behind the pond, behind the tree)
and the other leaves, the ones that fall on the river,
give off the same odor.
But they aren't the same leaves
and it's not the same time,
it's not the same garden, same mansion, though you thought:
perhaps the mansion is the same, and the park, and it's the same place.

And if at times you thought that, or think
you may, from time to time, have thought it, yet
it's not the same place, not the same time
though so close at first glance
(the park, the trees, their names, their fruit and all the people about)
and above all, the flowers so well placed.

The hardest part was leaving the house
--hard too to leave behind the trees,
which have since grown differently
while you were away, have grown
though you weren't there to watch;
the hardest part was not to go back
--though there were trees at the other house too,
as well as paths, statues, ponds.

When you see the flowers, you see the trees
and then you think of this house and then of the other house,
little difference. But you know all the trees
(all the trees you see) look a little alike
although all trees are not the same--in specific detail--
and just as flowers (flower: zinnia, dahlia or rose)
all look a little alike, and each one is close
(close to the one you saw first),
all trees look a little like the first one you saw.

Who cares if it's a cigarette tree
(the one whose name you don't know, that you call a cigarette tree),
who cares if it's a linden                      or a chestnut
or a tree having yet                               another name,
because you've retained the image of a tree
and since then to you all trees look a little alike
(like all flowers look a little the same).

Again, smelled ashes in the upper room,
imbedded in chairs, walls,
hangings, everywhere around:
sounds, smells, recognized, known
scent, cigarettes and the smell of cigarettes, two pass, there,
and the light grows, transfixed         the light is less white.

There, again the scent and lift of air--
on the blue and green because the sky is blue
and sound moves                             barely, quickly, the air
light today--that which occurs, reflects, deftly moves;
a leaf trembles--the air shifts--a sound.

You'll never arrive:
no more weight        extremely light
it all floats:
air, clouds, sound scent, stone,
and then is simply clear not the least obscure,
even the silence, utterly still
other than this, slow and precise, of this leaf
and lighter still of this branch, of this light
that changes, less white, lighter still,
  the other branch--the touch of the flower--the color--more odor,
sounds, and changing light--             the sounds that shift
like this branch--the sounds shift like this
they slip.


I find that I                                                         must
put him in the house
of a prince
or lord
so he'll learn to hold
himself well and when
older will take up arms
and thus of you I ask
as far as I can ask
each in his own
way to let me know
on his behalf
the best place
to best place him

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