Sylvia by Antoine Wauters

-Reviewed by Morgane Remy


How do you mourn when you haven’t had the chance to properly say goodbye to a loved one? This sore question has no unique answer but plenty. And among them, the one given by Antoine Wauters is to create beauty out of sorrow… with the precious help of the iconic Sylvia Plath!

To call on a dead poet to survive this period may seems counter-intuitive but Antoine Wauters proves it can be a glorious idea in his book Sylvia,  published this year in the Collection Grands Fonds by Cheyne éditeurs, an over thirty years old French editing company dedicated to poetry. He used her words to recall the last years and then the absence of his grandfathers, whose lives ended few months apart in 2010.

He appeals to her as one might ghosts or gods or another version of self (words in italics are references to the American poet’s work).  This book as a whole is more an exploration of how he survived his pain, by using both his and her words:

Maintenant je ne peux toujours pas bouger, ni le bras,  qui nous a ainsi démembré ? dis-tu. Nous nous touchons comme des estropiés. J’ignore, Sylvia, d’où tu me parles, si c’est depuis Ariel ou de La Traversée ou des Arbres d’hiver, ou si c’est ma voix même qui est à ce point charriée par un vent tien, renversée jusqu’à me faire penser que tes mots sont de moi, petite bise salvatrice quand ma famille rentre sous terre, le café après l’office du feu. Souffle-feu.

[Translation: Now I still can’t move, neither the arm, who has dismembered us? You said. We touch like cripples. I don’t know, Sylvia, where you are speaking to me from, is it from Ariel or Crossing the water or Winter Trees, or is it my own voice who is so much dragged by your wind, knocked over until I start to think you words are mine, a little redemptive kiss when my family is buried, a coffee after the agency of fire. Fire-blowing]

This collection of short poems is less an epitaph than a gathering of all he can remember about them, as suggests the quote of Sylvia Plath as an introduction: “I am lame in the memory”. At the same time, I have the feeling he is the first writer to successfully write about Alzheimer’s with so much restraint and strength at the same time:

Ce que tu auras pourtant achevé, tu penseras ne pas l’avoir entamé, et l’entameras donc – couper du pain. Ce que tu n’auras pas entamé encore, tu penseras l’avoir achevé déjà, et ne l’entameras pas – couper du pain. Et ainsi peu à peu, comme un fruit pourrit ou comme une chose lentement arrive – la nuit après le jour, l’ennui, la maladie -, tu oublieras tout. Et tout en toi se mélangera. S’oubliera.

[Translation: What you will have already completed, you will think un-started, and you will begin that task – cut some bread. What you will not have already started, you will think accomplished, and you will not begin – cut some bread. And thus, little by little, as a rotting fruit or like something slowly coming – the night after the day, the boredom, the sickness-, you will forget everything. And everything in you will be mixed all together. And forget itself.]

If I have to summarize this book in a few words, I would say that this work is not only an honor to the memory of  Antoine Wauter’s family but also an homage to Sylvia Plath. A few printed words to lend  dignify to the struggle of those who are left behind.