Aesthetique du Mal

A review of To Speak, To Tell You, Sabine Sicaud 1913-1928
by Odile Ayral-Clause

Natives of poverty, children of malheur,
The gaiety of language is our seigneur.

Wallace Stevens

Odile Ayral-Clause is an emissary from the land of beauty in anguish.  With a voice both urgent and composed, she leads the reader to the lives and works of individuals who have extruded art from tragedy and pain. In her previous book, Camille Claudel, (Abrams 1990) Ayral-Clause delivered a definitive biographical and critical study of the person famous as the pupil and mistress of Auguste Rodin, but less known as a brilliant sculptor herself, one whose free spirit and talent were crushed by the ravages of mental illness and forcible incarceration in an insane asylum for thirty years by members of her own family.

In a new book, To speak, To Tell You, Ayral-Clause introduces Sabine Sicaud, a child-poet recognized during her own brief lifetime from1913-28 but largely forgotten since.  While Claudel lived to age 89 having spent many decades in joyless and unproductive isolation, Sicaud died at the age of 15 after a year of excruciating suffering brought on by a rare untreatable disease under the care of loving parents who fostered her creativity but couldn’t alleviate her torment.

To Speak, To Tell You? includes 50 of Sabine’s poems, in the original French and in face-en-face English  translation by Norman R. Shapiro, a distinguished scholar and translator, along with a 40 page introduction, explanatory notes, and annotated bibliography by Ayral-Clause.  The volume also contains numerous antique photographs of Sabine and of the family estate, La Solitude, that many of her poems make familiar.

The title Ayral-Clause chose for the book is part of a first line which concludes, “No I cant.” The line exemplifies the oscillations between extreme emotions shaping each poem and the collection as a whole. The poet reaches out to the reader to establish a connection, to beg for rescue, then senses the inexpressibility of her pain and takes some comfort from resentment and self-pity, which is itself undermined by self-irony, leading to another kind of relief in humor, detachment and equanimity.  On the way she shifts her appeal to a bird on a branch and a leaf on a tree, finding in the mute existence of other living beings some companionship and promise.

A poem chronicling an even more unbearable moment begins with a sequence of animal cries leading to petulant satisfaction in the discomfort they will cause those who hear:

Ah let me scream, scream, scream¦Let me
Scream till my throat bursts, scream my agony
Like a beast when its throat is being slit¦
Again¦Shriek, what if my
Screaming upsets and frightens people? I
Have to scream to the scream’s farthermost reach!

Then she details elements of her suffering others will never understand. First isolation:

People? Ah! You have no idea how far
Others can be when torment racks you! Each
And every one! Here in this world you are
Alone, imprisoned in your suffering.

Second, self estrangement

¦I cant even recollect
If that was me, that creature who
Shrieked like a soul condemned the whole night through

Third, surprise and betrayal

Dear God! If you knew
How it came creeping, creeping, stealthily,
And no one saw, not even you

Next she goes on the attack against the imagined personification of her former health

Smug health of mine, my turncoat enemy!
It’s you I scream to¦
If you can hear, how can you bear to be

Contrasting her present disease to her past lost health sharpens her pain.  Then with a bitter turn of wit, she makes mock sense of it as punishment for previous ingratitude

Or is it true
You take your revenge, good health, to make me see
How wrong I was never to think of you?

Ayral-Clause’s book highlights the disjunctive alternations between Innocence and Experience, “Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,” with its introductory story of Sabine’s life and its grouping of her early poems under the title “La Solitude”:

It means green! Green! Deep greens, greens bright or bland
Plane-tree greens, calycanthus, linden greens¦
Green word, green silence, green the hands of trees,
Tall leaning¦Bushes’ finger curlicues”
Rosebushes, laurels, and bamboos”
Entwined¦Old cedars’feet, where devotees”
Ladybugs!”congregate, betwixt, between,
Where dragonflies flit, skim the skaters green.

Even here, in a poem already published before she was stricken, Sabine acknowledges the fragility and isolation of her Edenic pastoral retreat:

A green word¦Who can tell the infinite
Colors of sap, and source, and air in it,
Bathing your house, that timeless go-between
Shielding you from the universe?

And at the end, before her voice is silenced, there is a short period of remission in the disease during which she expresses the ecstatic appreciation of life and health that illness can release:

And then, forgotten, done¦
Am I really the one, wo thought such things?
There you are dear, dear sun
Playing on sticky buds and blossomings.
Miracle all about
Miracle that I can forget¦Ah! See
How bright! How gay each sprout all velvety!
How pleasant it is out¦

Though never stated explicitly, what Sabine embodies is the power of poetry itself to come to terms with the overwhelming states of joy and agony that filled her short life.  Whether Songs of Innocence or of  Experience, at the end of each, there is a sense of triumph shared by author and reader.  Euphonious, coherent and durable form has been wrought from jarring, inchoate, and fleeting moments.  She has spoken, we have heard.

Odile Ayral-Clause provides just enough information in the introduction, the notes and the pictures to enable connection with the poet in her vividly evoked setting. Here is her description of Sabine’s father:

Gaston Sicaud¦was a lawyer and a member of the City council in Montauban, a nearby city¦nicknamed “Lama-pere” for his love of Buddhism, he had a generous heart and an unquenchable passion for politics. A staunch socialist, he kept a regular correspondence with his long-time friend Jean-Jaures, the important socialist leader¦His friendly booming voice could sometimes be overheard as he hiked through the countryside outside of Villeneuve.  Returning home famished after an hour of two of exertion, he eagerly traded walking stick and political reflection for a hearty bowl of soup, often surrounded by friends who would join the family for dinner.

Shapiro’s translation captures many of the sound and rhythmic effects of the original.  But even for those with the most rudimentary French, the translation channels the unique original sound of Sabine’s voice:

Le miracle est partout.
Le miracle est en moi qui ne me souviens plus.
Il fait clair, il fait gai sur les bourgeons velus;
If fait beau”voila tout.

This fifteen-year-old  child’s expostulations on illness and health seem particularly poignant to an aging reader witnessing the inevitable descent of parents and relatives into pain, incapacity, isolation and depression.  Despite all that, her words affirm “Il fait beau”voila tout.”

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