Yves Bonnefoy: Rue Traversière

Yves Bonnefoy’s Recits en rêve are marked by a fascination with the elasticity of experience and its capacity for metamorphosis.[1] As their name suggests, the ability of phenomenological, lived experience to reorganise itself into narrative and (or in the process) deform itself into the world of the dream becomes the very source of the poetic. As such, Bonnefoy’s prose poems often explore experience as a kind of unfolding into any number of parallel universes, in which similar events find themselves replayed and subtly distorted in the realm of memory or fantasy, or in the acts of analysis that promise, but do not necessarily deliver, the gilding of meaning. Rue Traversière, the titular poem of the collection shows itself to be concerned, in exemplary fashion, with the kind of intriguing confusion that clings to the most intense and significant experiences. It seeks to explore the impossible, unverifiable dimensions of a place that has been of uncanny importance, for its coordinates have become as much emotional and psychic as they are spatial. And it inhabits the split perspective of the adult redeploying the viewpoint of the child, in which reality becomes infinitely more flexible and fantastic, more alive to an alternative realm of rich possibility than in the quotidian rationality that restricts later life. Fundamentally, it is a poem about the profound and unexpected relationship between an individual and the genius loci and the way that inhuman geographical spaces come to impinge in a meaningful manner on our sense of self.

‘Quand j’étais enfant je m’inquiétais beaucoup d’une certaine rue Traversière,’ Bonnefoy’s confiding, autobiographical voice tells us. ‘Car à une de ses entrées, pas trop loin de notre maison et de l’école, c’était le monde ordinaire, tandis qu’à l’autre, là-bas…’ (RT, 67) As his voice trails off, so his perspective opens up, and the simple passageway, a connecting street between the comfortably familiar infant’s kingdom of school and home and an unknown, unspeakable world of otherness, becomes a route into the twilight zone.  In fact, the street discharges him into the botanic gardens but not before moving him through a different kind of dimension, one that leaves him disorientated and suspicious, fatigued as if enchanted, in which the information of his sight is insufficient to inform him of his real situation. ‘Est-ce ici, m’étais-je dit à plusieurs moments, que là-bas commence? Ici, dans cette maison dont les volets sont fermés?’ The difference between ‘here’ and ‘là-bas’ with its rather demonic, chilling connotations might well be understood as a perpetual problem for the child, whose nascent object relations leave him stitched into his context, unable always to locate stable boundaries and helplessly porous to all external influences, but Bonnefoy’s haunting evocations of the house with closed shutters and the child stretching out ‘des doigts de ténèbre’ seem to indicate a more extreme disjunction between vibrant vitality and a stealing deathliness, a menacing supernatural underside. But just as the far side of rue Traversière is never properly reached, so the characteristics of its fantastic regions are never fully explored. The power of the street’s exotic otherness resides in thoughts and sensations that are ‘contradictoires, fuyantes’, and its threat is wholly without clear location, subsumed into the ordinary indistinguishableness of its houses and ‘le surcroît de torpeur des banlieues’. The charm, the thrill and the terror of rue Traversière are all bound up in the paradox of space it represents; the ability for one place to be many different places at once, without any visible change occurring.

As such the poem ‘Rue Traversière’ fits neatly, if unwittingly, into the concept of psychogeography, as defined by Guy Debord for the Situationist Movement.[2] In his ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, written in 1955, Debord proposed that: ‘Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings’.[3] For all that he describes a fairly nebulous interaction between identity and environment, Debord had something wholly practical and scientific in mind: a new way of understanding and mapping the city that would pay specific attention to ‘The sudden change of ambience in the street within the space of a few meters; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contours of the ground); the appealing or repelling character of certain places – all this seems to be neglected.’[4] In fact it would continue to be neglected, as notoriously few psychogeographical accounts of the city followed out of Debord’s prescriptive theories. This despite the fact that he had adopted a method of experiencing the city known as la dérive, a method that had in earlier times resulted in some of the finest experimental French writing. The dérive is a kind of aimless wandering, ‘a technique of transient passage’[5] involving ‘playful-constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects; which completely distinguishes it from the classical notions of the journey and the stroll.’[6] At first sight it is hard to know how to distinguish the dérive from the citywide meanderings of the Baudelairean flâneur, or the erotically driven urban escapades of Breton and Aragon.  But there is a basic knowingness and purpose to the dérive, for all that it is supposed to be without destination. It is undertaken with the specific intention of open receptiveness to the cityscape, as a scientific experiment whose results must be meticulously noted in order to produce a new kind of emotional cartography.

Bonnefoy’s ‘Rue Traversière’ provides an intriguing variation on the theme of the dérive. His is undoubtedly a transient passage through varied ambiances but the wandering takes place in the realm of memory rather than in the physical world. Bonnefoy’s imaginative travels here aim to accurately re-map a section of the city in terms of its emotional and psychic resonance for him, but they do so across an unboundaried stretch of time that works to problematise ever further the already uncertain points de repère of here and there.  Debord intended the dérive to be a politically subversive gesture, ‘a reconnaissance for the day when the city would be seized for real.’[7] As Merlin Coverley describes it, ‘The dérive takes the wanderer out of the realm of the disinterested spectator or artistic practitioner and places him in a subversive position as a revolutionary following a political agenda. The dériveur is the foot soldier sent out to observe enemy territory’.[8] Bonnefoy’s psychogeographical wanderings up and down the rue Traversière are certainly free of any military agenda, but they remain playfully and powerfully subversive; not subversive politically, but subversive existentially, for the way they locate the ‘enemy’ of solid, palpable, stable reality as always already within and barely visible. Yet the otherness that infuses rue Traversière and fascinates Bonnefoy is far from negative. There is a sense of shuddering delight that accompanies the infant poet’s journeys down this street, a delicious kind of fear that heightens his sensory experience and transforms his passage into one of wide-eyed engagement with the unknown and introduces him to a superimposed world of indistinct, intransigent, unarticulated meaning that will later become the poetic realm. But for now rue Traversière becomes a psychogeographer’s dream – or possibly nightmare – in its concentration of intense and conflicting ambiances within a space that is at once distinct but almost entirely without location. ‘Ah que ce qui importe a peu de visage!’ (RT, 68) the poet exclaims. For in the complex interaction of space and subjectivity, how are we to plot the coordinates of those dramatic alterations in ambiance? In which elements of the landscape, geographical, architectural, or corporeal, do they reside?

‘[W]hen a memory comes to mind it exposes a desire or impulse, it has designs on us; when we choose to remember, we act on the past’s residues, altering their configurations by the kind of pressure we exert.’[9] The poet’s cherished memory is explored for the designs it has on him in the first half of this poem, for the simultaneously pressing but featureless power of rue Traversière’s internal difference from itself. The street becomes the figure of inexplicable transition itself, of the lack of geographical location of significant change. When Bonnefoy returns to the street as an adult, he finds it, inevitably, both similar and different. His visit coincides with his mother’s illness and so the deathliness of rue Traversière is subsumed elsewhere; on this occasion the surreality of the street remains uppermost of its shape-shifting qualities. What catches his eye this time is the coded presence of the fantastic in ‘ces vieilles qui cousent l’infini dans des linges décolorés’ or in ‘ces paons byzantins affrontés dans la broderie des rideaux de salle à manger, dont l’un parfois bouge’. Whereas for the child the impression overwhelmed the details, now as an adult the details point to the presence of the street’s excessive strangeness that is literally embroidered into its textile landscape. It is a strange and faintly unexpected trick of the rue Traversière to remain constant in its uncanny passage from the familiar to the fantastic, despite the poet’s own transition from childhood to maturity, and yet if this place does not reveal the poet’s otherness to himself, as the return to spaces incubated in memory so often does, then it reveals instead the sophistication of otherness as the adult is now capable of experiencing it. The culmination of his experience that ends this poem is the paradoxical acknowledgment that ‘ici, où j’étais, et là, où j’allais, c’était tout ensemble ce qu’autrefois je ne situais qu’aux confins, dans l’invisible.’ (RT, 68) What the rue Traversière has to tell the poet is that the marginal and the invisible are inevitably central, that in the manner of Rome, all roads lead to them. What might seem to hover on the very edges of existence, what might seem to be defined by its status on the boundary can deploy the ability of space to fold in on itself, to produce a tuck which brings the corners of the known universe together.

This unusual attribute of space is more readily encountered in the dream world, where all constraints of space and time are rewritten. Indeed, the dream is the place where we might also expect to find the most exotic and intriguing of mental dérives. The space of the dream, with its startling associative meanderings, and its comfortable embrace of the most bizarre and outlandish locations, is a journey of impossible leaps and bounds, interspersed with the experience of symbolic cul-de-sacs. Bonnefoy’s remembered street appeals to the dream in its open-ended significance, in its magical, unarticulated power, in its vivid fragmentariness, and in its unmoored, floating location in the mind. The notion of the dérive as part of the dream is expounded by Barthes, who suggests that ‘Le rêve serait… un texte aux guillemets incertains, aux parenthèses flottantes (ne jamais fermer la parenthèse, c’est très exactement: dériver)’.[10] This image of the brackets that never close around the dream sentence functions as an intriguing analogy to Bonnefoy’s dream narrative that never quite manages to locate the beginning and the end of his significant passageway. But Barthes’s drifting text also shows how the writing of the dream offers analogies to the writing of the poem, in which meaning insists without achieving any kind of lucid articulation. The poetic representation of the street is frayed at the edges, uncertain and drifting; the notions of ‘here’ and ‘there’ float over the visual image of the street without attaching themselves to distinct locations, just as the peacocks in the curtains retain the fundamental mobility to shift backwards and forwards across their curtains. On both literal and figurative levels, the elements of the poet’s street waver and oscillate, drifting on the tide of memory images. This instability affects the signifying level of the prose poem, which travels towards meaning without ever quite making it there, without ever quite finding definitive, bracketing end points that would allow for meaning to be ascertained. Without any proper points de repères we cannot in all certainty say what this street means for the poet, or what the fantastic experience of the street means per se.

We might make a useful return at this point to the figure of the dérive as it appears across Barthes’s criticism, and in so doing, plot the drifting significance of Bonnefoy’s street from the psychogeographical to the experimental and poetic. For what begins as the plotting of subjective experience is rapidly overlaid with an enigmatic interrogation of the location of meaning. Andrew Brown, in his brilliant analysis of the Barthesian figure of the dérive points to the fundamental instability of the sign in what Barthes terms writing, writing for Barthes indicating the kind of text that was more alive to the open-ended play of signification. The Lacanian ideogram of the Signifier over the signified is developed by Barthes ‘in somewhat fluid ways, to construe signifiers as being able to free themselves from their signifieds: to float away from one meaning, to remain in a state of suspense – and then, perhaps inevitably, to be attracted down again to form an equally unstable liaison with a new signified.’.[11] Bonnefoy’s signifier, ‘Rue Traversière’, performs a similar poetic function, floating in a state of suspense in the poet’s representation, tied briefly to his early childhood memories and then again to the later, adult ones, although without gaining any sense of definition from these engagements. What Bonnefoy refers to, in his complex, ambiguous and perpetually disorientated descriptions of rue Traversière, is never wholly clear. This drift from the evocative geographical to the richly subversive psychogeographical is subject to a further act of radical destabilization. The wandering dérive of Bonnefoy’s poetry returns to this placeless location once again in another poem, ‘Seconde rue Traversière’, in which it turns out that the street Bonnefoy remembers so clearly has now become unlocatable on a map and appears not to exist at all.

In this poem, a chance conversation with an interlocutor who had read Bonnefoy’s description and recognised the street concerned, indicates that Bonnefoy has been mistaken in his location of the street. When he returns home he gets out his map and sees that his interlocutor is correct; the rue Traversière is in the rich quarters in the east of the city, an area which he knew well as an adolescent, but not the district where he thought that the original rue Traversière of memory was to be found. And indeed no street on the map seems to correspond to that original memory, even though only a few years have passed since he last walked down it. Bonnefoy is deeply perplexed: are there two rue Traversières or none at all? The psychological has become so deeply enmeshed in the geographical here, that Bonnefoy’s obligatory shuffle of the cards of memory threatens to undermine his unified sense of subjectivity. Who was he, when he walked down a street that seems to have vanished? It is entirely in keeping with the spirit of these prose poems that Bonnefoy leaves his questions as rhetorical ones and locates the heart of his poetry in the enigma itself:

‘Quelle carte faut-il placer sur quelle autre, quelle sans figure, et d’une seule couleur, pourpre gris, aveugle, ai-je déjà posée sur quelle trop signifiante, à moins qu’elle ne remonte du jeu remué comme, irresistible, dernière, non l’annulation du sens, mais le sens? J’ai beaucoup de souvenirs uncertains, ouverts, à déchiffer encore, je le vois bien. Toute une rue Traversière à porter loin parmi mes premiers hazards, mes premiers lieux mal compris, mes affections mal vécues, jusqu’à l’origine à la fois absolue et indifférente’. (RT, 73)

This beautiful passage illustrates both the significance of the psychogeographical for Bonnefoy and also the writing of the dérive that helps him achieve his poetic effects. Bonnefoy drifts from the image of his shifting superimposed maps to the play of meaning, the labyrinthine structures of the city miscegenated with the neurological patternings of the mind; from there he glides to the analysis of his dream-like memory fragments; and from this unboundaried arena he floats into the old slippage of the signifier rue Traversière over its new potential field of significance, as metaphor for the journey of self-discovery bound up in the retrospective tracing of his old steps through the shifting scenery of experience. The destination of this journey is ultimately that of certainty – the absolute place of the real, but it is no surprise that it should be described as indifferent, when it is wholly eluded in the space of poetry. Poetic meaning lies not in the absolute, but in the unexpected shifts and drifts of significance that veil it. Andrew Brown suggests that for Barthes the use of la dérive in his language produced a series of ‘narratives of emergence’,[12] in which the properly subjective and the properly subversive unfold delicately and subtly out of the refusal to allow meaning to fix and stagnate. Bonnefoy’s poetic rites of passage through an elusive street equally create a narrative of emergence, in which the psychogeography of his soul is repeatedly troubled by the addition of new layers of uncertainty. Whilst the absolute that lies at the end of the road recedes ever further into the distance, so the poetry of the very impossibility of cohering the self across time and space is intensified. Bonnefoy’s dérive through lost but evocative states of being is a masterful example of why it is always better to travel than to arrive.


[1] Yves Bonnefoy, Rue Traversière et autres récits en rêve (Editions Gallimard: Paris, 1992). In all subsequent page references it will be abbreviated to RT.
[2] The Situationist International (1957-72) was a small group of international political and artistic agitators influenced by Marxism and the early European avant-garde. Its journal was edited by Guy Débord who some saw as giving the movement necessary definition and clarity, and by others as exerting dictatorial control. The group was fraught with divisions from its earliest days and split into a number of different groups in the 60s before disbanding for good in 1972.
[3] Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ in Ken Knabb (ed) Situationist International Anthology, (Berkeley CA: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.
[4] ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ in Knabb, 1981, p. 6.
[5] From International Situationniste # 1 in Knabb, 1981, p. 45.
[6] Guy Debord, ‘Theory of the Dérive’ in Knabb, 1981, p. 50.
[7] Simon Sadler, The Situationist City, (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1982), p. 81.
[8] Mervin Coverley, Psychogeographies (Harpenden: Pocket Essentials, 2006), p. 97.
[9] Michael Sheringham, French Autobiography; Devices and Desires
[10] Roland Barthes par lui-même, (Paris: Seuil, 1975), p. 110.
[11] Andrew Brown, Roland Barthes. The Figures of Writing (Osford: Oxford Unversity Press, 1992), p. 14.
[12] Brown, Roland Barthes, p. 7.

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