The Cahiers Series is swiftly becoming my favorite place to look for small explorations. At its center, the series is set up to explore translation, but, as publisher Ornan Rotem said (here), “[translation] understood in very broad terms; that is to say, not only as the transition from one natural language to another, but also the shift between media and forms of expression.” Number 20, Shades of the Other Shore (2013), puts together poems and ruminations by Jeffrey Greene and beautiful water colors by Ralph Petty to explore (and translate) the ghosts and landscape of rural France.
If you haven’t had the chance to pick up and flip through one of these books, I must recommend you correct that as soon as possible. These books are beautifully produced, a delight to hold and read. Moving away from the generalities of the series, though, might I recommend this particular cahier as a great place to start?
Both Jeffrey Greene and Ralph Petty were born in rural America and now find themselves living in rural France (Greene in Burgundy and Petty in Ardèche). While Greene explores the ghosts of his region, the ghosts of his past, the fact that he will someday be a ghost, Petty tracks his journey to the source of a river. Each, on its own, is worthwhile. However, combined (particularly in this production), these pieces add up to much more.
Greene’s exploration those ghosts takes the form of prose sketches and poems depicting thoughts he has throughout the seasons. Here is the first one. It beautifully brings in the season — winter — and the local flavor of Burgundy, while it introduces us to the ghosts Greene will be considering throughout the year. Here, the ghosts is his still-living mother, on her way to the hospital:
There must be a principle of physics that makes frost love glass, the night air imprinting car windows with crystal patterns. But in Burgundy, there are whole days when a freezing mist appears, turns everything pure white: the trees, grasses, stone walls, roof tiles, and roads. The effect is very different from snow, as objects retain their form, but are unified by the thin white coating and given an equal weight, held in a cold fog. One feels that the world has been narrowed to the moment, no difference between morning and noon; no sky, no distance, no history.
Looking for a scraper, I open the trunk to rummage through my mother’s various emergency supplies: flares, tools, tire inflator, jumper cables, medical kit. None of these provisions help her with this sort of travel, a trip for a morning admission to the hospital.
My mother is already seated in the car, engine running with the defroster blowing, and as I scrape away the hoarfrost, her face and figure emerge from under the glass, looking out as if I were exhuming her from the next world into this one.
Greene’s writing continues to explore the region and its ghosts (and his mother’s health): Joan of Arc drank from the local river; a married couple committed suicide nearby a beautiful, decrepit mill; why, Greene himself at a younger age haunts Greene’s thoughts as he’s turning sixty.
This cahier checks off a lot of boxes for me. Its focus on region, nature, memory, ghosts, seasons reminds me of, though it’s quite different from, some of my absolute favorites: J.A. Baker’s The Peregrine (my thoughts here) and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (my thoughts here). It’s great to make this a trio of beloved books that performs what Greene calls a “deep mapping of place.”