Out and about

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 07.08.2020

Poet, essayist, translator… Pierre Joris’s writing career ranges fluidly between genres. And 2020 marks his return onto the Luxembourg literary scene in two ways. First, he was recently crowned as the winner of this year’s Batty Weber Prize and now Black Fountain Press have published Fox-trails, -tales & -trots, a quirky little volume of eleven ‘proses and poems’. A rag bag of ideas and types of writing: partly academic in the opening section, later veering towards the autobiographical. Four of the texts are published here for the first time, and they are the ones that I am going to concentrate on.

Born in 1946, Joris was raised in Ettelbruck, where his father was a surgeon, both ‘a healer & a hunter’, as the son puts it. The latter left Luxembourg at 19 to study medicine in Paris, but then turned to poetry and has never looked back. You will discover his passion for Michel Rodange’s Renert as well as for the different fox epics that inspired our national version. ‘The fox has been my totem animal since childhood’, he explains. There is also his fascination with etymology and his love of translation. Though they are but mentioned in passing, Joris’s translations of Celan have long become legend.

As he comments: ‘Poet, translator: même combat!’ Hunting for the right word, for the most fitting expression, can be as challenging and exciting as the fishing expeditions his father would take him on. And, certainly, more solitary...

As a Luxembourg reader, you are bound to be drawn to the Pierre Joris’s family connections – his ancestor Jean Joris published the first edition of Renert and his grandfather Leo believed that the Grand-Duchy was the only country in the world worth living in. The five shortish proses evoke life in post-World-War-II Luxembourg: there was the suffering and the occasionally uneasy self-perception of people; there were the myths spun around Nazi occupation. Joris gives you a clear sense of what growing up was like in small-town Ettelbruck, where everyone knew the surgeon’s son and where anti-Semitism was still rife in the 1950s schoolyard. To the adolescent Luxembourg-city swiftly came to represent freedom, with the Place d’Armes acting as a magnet for what felt like illicit pleasures. You are invited to follow in his footsteps along what he calls ‘rue Neuve’, to which Luxembourgers had, of course, given the much grander name of ‘avenue de la Porte-Neuve’!

Looking back through his eyes, you realise that an innate restlessness and the lure of the unknown have kept Joris away for over 50 years. New York has long turned into his home, the place he identifies with. Still, he comes back once a year at least. And his love of Kachkéis leaves no doubt: he remains more of a Luxembourger than his uncle Pierre could ever have been!

The volume ends on two poems. One a moving homage to Edward Steichen, entitled Letter to Steichen’s Ed, while the other, which is a hymn to the daily bustle of New York, turns out to be revelatory in a rather unexpected way. It is entitled E Gedicht op Lëtzebuergesch iwwer New York and is followed by its English-language version A poem in Luxembourgish about New York. The second text works much better. In my eyes at least, it proves that English has definitely become Joris’s literary language.

The touch is lighter, the rituals of everyday urban modernity sparer, more concise and direct. Some of the lines do recall Ted Hughes’ animal poems, others echo Whitman’s all-American exuberance and energy. Meanwhile, a few words in the Luxembourg version are quaint and slightly antiquated. Is this what is bound to happen if you stay away for so long? Because, after all, even in sleepy Luxembourg nothing stands still. Foxes are invading cityscapes here just like elsewhere. And nowadays a hotdog is a hotdog also in Luxembourgish – guaranteed to taste better in spite of all the sugar and starch!

Let me end with one of my favourite sentences. In Moien, one of the prose texts, Joris responds to his wife’s reservations about his tongue-in-cheek reference to our national Bauere-sense with: ‘But I say I am a writer and not the syndicat d’initiative’. Of course, in the capital the latter has long metamorphosed into the city tourist office. Sleek and modern, following the cultural zeitgeist, which has moved away from the French dominance traditionally supported by the local bourgeoisie, for whom culture used to equate French literature and Parisian flair. Tempi passati. Nation branding, here we come!

Pierre Joris, Fox-trails, -tales & -trots, Black Fountain Press, 2020 (ISBN 978-99959-998-5-8).

Janine Goedert
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