Reviewed by Ross Kightly, Peter Jarvis and Helena Nelson
Nice straightforward title. And the pamphlet does what it says on the tin: it contains fourteen sonnets which celebrate and attempt in an overall sense to define the beauty and talent of the French actress and to outline the extent of the poet's devotion to her.
In addition there are ten sonnets based specifically on her appearance in three specific films: two on ‘The Double Life of Véronique’ four on ‘US Marshalls’ and another four on ‘The Inner Life of Martin Frost’.
Though the poet does struggle at times to avoid the pitfalls of archaism and awkwardness that sometimes result from attempts to use a strict traditional form, there is no doubting the sincerity of his admiration for his Muse whom we can well believe is
filling me with a desire
To write this poetry that you inspire.
This is old-fashioned verse in many ways but if a revisiting of the “high idealization of the lover/muse” theme appeals, this may well be the chapbook for you.
To fire off, in 2013, a sonnet sequence in adoration of a beautiful, distant, unattainable beloved is a bold venture, to say the least. But here Paul Bussan fearlessly, and without compunction, enters the lists against poetry giants.
Irene Jacob is the Swiss-French film actress renowned for her roles in Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique and the Three Colours trilogy, her introverted forte being facial expressiveness with minimal speech. And this very quality is what Bussan is trying to capture in his study of her. His task daunts him: “I cannot say just what it is / That you have got [. . .] I’ll try to give a rough / Description of it in this poetry” (I). A key challenge is whether he can heighten his language into a style more appropriate to loving admiration and rise above this very flat vernacular voice.
Contrary to tradition, with Bussan there is no abasement of admirer before admired. Lady and poet here are equals: both are artists practising their art and exploring themselves in the process (III). The qualities Bussan sees in Jacob are her humanity, her courage and, oddly, her healthiness, which he finds curative for the pains he suffers “in limbs or joints” as well as “in my brain” (XIV). More significantly, she is the muse of his poetry (III).
In XI there is further dissection of her qualities. (Bussan frequently confuses the role the actress is playing with the woman herself.) She is “beautiful”, not vain; “sexual”, not seductive; “intelligent”, not naïve. This is blunt analysis and these attributes never go beyond abstractions. She does have a face that reveals “heartfelt emotions” (IX); otherwise, of her physicality we only encounter “eyeballs full of meaning” and her “slightly crooked tooth [ . . . ] that you have never fixed.” (XII)
Bussan discloses that Jacob has already been the recipient of these sonnets and his hope is they will “bring her nearer” and make her smile. He rates Jacob’s smile supremely: it is “not for show like Julie Robert’s [sic] grin”. What she may see in him is for us to guess. Should she be wary? In one of three codas to the sequence Bussan fantasises getting as close to her as “this bedroom door”. As a trade-off for their becoming “that more intimate” he volunteers a year of celibacy, a year of not even looking at images of her.
Thus Bussan makes his big sacrificial gesture. Should both her life and his poetry ever be in mortal danger, then he would choose to burn his poems so the bright fire resulting would warm her heart, ensuring her survival.
The language of the sequence never does lift off. There are grammatical howlers. But what glimmers among the words and the poet’s amour propre is a bizarre and nevertheless endearing eccentricity.
In his opening poem, Paul Bussan expresses the hope that his description of Irene Jacob will be enough to make those watching her films see her more clearly and those who have never seen her before, feel they “can’t wait . . . because their appetite / For it’s not satisfied”. In this respect he succeeded. I read the sonnets and went to look for Irene Jacob – not a name I knew, though I think I should have done. She’s a Swiss film actress, and I think I ought to have seen The Double Life of Véronique (1991), though I haven’t.
So . . . she is fabulous. You can see a clip of her talking here in English http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pg0Aj5PmN1c (or at least you could when I inserted the link). This is one beautiful woman. She has the ‘it’ factor, as they used to call it. Success number one for this poetry pamphlet. I’m hooked.
But what about the poetry? On the back cover, there’s a blurb from the redoubtable X J Kennedy: “The finest of Paul Bussan’s sonnets are in a class by themselves: pointed, incisive, richly musical and well wrought.” This brings me to the phrasing that critics often choose when trying to be tactful: “at his best. . . . .”
At their best these sonnets have good bits, and then other bits that fail. There are painful slips (in the first line of V “I wouldn’t ever say that your divine”; in line 6 of VIII “No matter how large it’s capacity”). The endings frequently aim for a climax but achieve a collapse. In VII, for example, Bussan takes a single sentence through the entire poem, building from “With just one look you can show more emotion/ Than other actresses” though many aspects in which, to him, Jacob excels. He nearly reaches his highpoint in “and that is why/ Those other actresses don’t ever move, / Nor ever will, no matter that they cry/ A river –”. And then the sense fractures. Instead of everything falling into place in the final couplet, it falls apart. Here are the last three lines:
Nor ever will, no matter that they cry
A river, or laugh out loud, me, like you
With one look have, and will continue to.
It is not difficult to write a formal sonnet: the art can be learned. It’s hard to write a good one. These poems are noble forays: somewhat repetitive, doggedly iambic, with awkward inversions here and there. And yet they are a tribute to Irene Jacob, who is remarkable. I’m glad of them for that.