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Our Spring 2017 IssueEnlarged view of image

Pierre Voélin (b. 1949) was born in Courgenay and then raised in the nearby small town of Porrentruy, both of which are located in the hilly Jura region of Switzerland. He is one of the most important figures in contemporary French and francophone poetry and his work is featured, notably, in Philippe Jaccottet’s highly selective bilingual anthology, Die Lyrik der Romandie (Nagel & Kimche, 2008). He has written twelve volumes of poetry and two collections of essays. In 2016, he won the Prix Louise-Labé for his most recent poetry collection, Des voix dans l’autre langue (La Dogana, 2015), which is entirely translated here.

This first English-language translation of his work offers a vast representative selection of his poetry, ranging from his early volumes On Brief Death and The Calmed Woods to recent books such as Y. and the aforementioned Voices in the Other Language. These four decades of creativity reveal the poet's recurrent themes of amorous exaltation (and loss), an individual's relationship to nature (and especially to a rural environment), the possibilities of a spiritual quest in the contemporary world, as well as the writer’s role (or vulnerability) with respect to political iniquity or persecution.

The following is an excerpt from Pierre Voélin's interview with TBO's editor:
translated from the French by John Taylor

The Bitter Oleander: The mention of your grandfather, who served with the French resistance during the Second World War, prompts me to ask if you would share the experience of accompanying him to Dachau as a young boy and what that meant to your own work as a poet and someone who continues working to eradicate persecution of all kinds?

Pierre Voélin: I remember the silence at the gates of Dachau, once we had parked our car, and the hushed conversation between my parents and my grandfather who wondered whether I would be able to accompany them or not. But could a child be left alone during their visit?

This marked the beginning of my encounter with Silence. And I have never come back from Silence, spawned in me that very day during the hour and a half that it took us to walk around the camp. There were no explanations, or only a few, but rather whispers and a solemnity that I had never previously perceived in adult conversations—adults who had suddenly become almost speechless. I have spoken of those long baker’s peels, those warped iron tools next to the ovens, those black mouths of the annihilation. This is the only imagery that I have retained from that visit. I lost my childhood laughter there. I was torn from my childhood.

As if Heaven had invented a wall along which I would thereafter have to walk while keeping my balance, a wall top with just enough width for me to put one foot in front of the other, cautiously, a sort of absolute obligation of seriousness and gravity.

Our Spring 2017 Issue Features Pierre Voélin
Photograph by Mario Camelo

A SELECTION FROM HIS WORK FEATURED IN THIS ISSUE (translated from the French by John Taylor)

from Only Snow is Missing

I sing with the thumbs of the cold
and the branches and the black of the bark

with the father’s handed-down voice

I sing and through my song invite
with flames at bay
to the table of snow

those alike unalike and the brother
the sister the husband and the wife

In the fields the crows are exulting
yanking at their fastened caws

scissors hovering high in the air

Memory—and this craving for whiteness
dazzled memory whenever the pine needles
rain down

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