[Note: The six poems in French with an English translation in rhymed verse are to be found in an earlier post, The Six Poems. Here, the translations of excerpts I give are as literal as I can make them.]
During her lifetime Catherine Pozzi only published under her own name one or two articles in the Figaro and La Nouvelle Revue Française. The first, Le Problème de la beauté musicale et la science du m0uvement intelligent, concerned the aesthetic theories of her piano teacher, Marie Jaëll, a one time pupil of Liszt who had a great influence on her. Catherine Pozzi’s later articles were pieces of scientific vulgarisation and probably of no great interest (though I have not read them).
In 1927, when she was in her forties, Karin (as I shall permit myself to call her from now on) brought out Agnès, a fictionalized account of her own adolescent religious and amorous crises, but only under the name “C.K.” The book was attributed to Valéry, also to Marie Régnier, though Anna de Noailles eventually guessed the author was Catherine Pozzi.
Of the ‘Six Poems’ only one, AVE, was published during Karin’s lifetime and even in this case she intended it to be anonymous, and was annoyed that her wishes were not respected. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that Karin intended the ‘Six Poems’ to appear eventually since she wrote in her Journal on 6 November 1934,
“J’ai écrit VALE, AVE, MAYA, NOVA, SCOPOLAMINE, NYX. Je voudrais qu’on en fasse une plaquette.”
They duly appeared in La Nouvelle Revue Française but, regrettably, in a different order with AVE first, presumably because AVE means ‘Hail’ in Latin. In the current NRF Gallimard edition they appear in the order, AVE, VALE, SCOPOLAMINE, NOVA, MAYA, NYX. While reflecting on these poems and preparing to write about them, my instinct told me that this order was quite wrong and that the proper order was VALE, AVE, NOVA, MAYA, SCOPOLAMINE, NYX. I imagined myself having to argue here that the NRF ‘traditional’ order was perhaps the order in which Karin composed the poems, but that she must have had ‘my’ order at the back of her mind all along. I was thus delighted to find subsequently that ‘my’ order was the order she stipulated in her Journal, except that she puts MAYA before NOVA — and I had hesitated myself for a long time concerning this. Certainly VALE must come first and NYX (Greek for ‘nothing’) last while MAYA and NOVA must come in the middle since they concern the recollection of a past life and the anticipation of a future one. (After some heart searching, I have come to the conclusion that ‘my’ order is preferable since it gives the sextet a crescendo at the end of NOVA : I have thus retained this order in my commentary and hope Karin will forgive me for departing from her stated order.)
The poems remind one of the ‘Stations of the Cross’ : they are stages in an agonising spiritual journey, or again resting points on a pathway that candidates for initiation followed at Eleusis and other sites in the Ancient world. The basic idea is clearly that of ‘dying to be born again’, and being born as a better and more complete person — ‘eadem mutata resurgo’ (‘Though changed I shall arise the same’) as the great Swiss mathematician Bernoulli had inscribed on his tomb alongside a drawing of the Logarithmic Spiral that he studied and especially admired because it exemplified the principle (note (1)).
The Six Poems can also be viewed as photographs of a substance undergoing a change of state, this substance being, as it happens, a human individual — and Karin, preoccupied as she was with the relation between science and religion, would have approved of this analogy. Remember that when a substance changes from the solid to the liquid state, or the liquid to the gaseous, matter is not actually created or destroyed : the molecules simply change their relations to each other and their environment, but this relation proves to be very far-reaching, indeeed crucial. Similarly, in Karin’s ‘chemistry of the soul’, the essential elements of her current personality have, so she believes, already existed before in previous reincarnations (‘MAYA’), will somehow persist after death even when momentarily dissociated from each other (‘AVE’) and will eventually come together again in the future (‘NOVA’), a future that is already in the process of formation.
VALE (‘Farewell’) shows the pilgrim looking back at the old life she is now leaving for ever, and highlighting the experience that functioned as an anticipation of the present metamorphosis. This experience is love, human passion, “cette sensation quasi magique quie relie deux êtres humains par-delà l’espace et le temps” (Anne Malaprade, Catherine Pozzi, Architecte d’un Univers, p. 126).
That it was specifically her love affair with Valéry that Karin had in mind is shown by a reference at the end of fourth verse to a famous poem of Valéry’s, Le Vin Perdu. I am seemingly almost alone in this opinion, but I consider Valéry to be a tedious, if reasonably competent, poet and as a human being he strikes me as quite contemptible : a cold fish if ever there was one. Catherine Pozzi could hardly have made a worse choice, especially since Valéry was married and wanted above all to keep the relation secret, which Karin resented.
Lawrence Joseph has suggested that VALE was “un acte de revanche litteraire” (‘an act of literary revenge’) but, if so, it was an entirely ‘positive’ sort of revenge. Karin starts by regretting the end of this high-flown affair and her lover’s subsequent indifference not just to her but to what they lived together, but concludes by claiming that she has integrated the high points of the experience so all has not been lost after all:
“Il [cet amour] est mon corps et sera mon partage
(‘It is [in] my body and will be part of me when I die’)
What is worth remembering will thus remain with her for ever — “Je revivrai notre grande journée” (‘I will live again those wonderful days’) — and there is even the hint that her ex-partner will not, since he lacks her spiritual dimension — une revanche indeed.
AVE begins the sequence proper, VALE having served only as a foretaste, now superseded. AVE is a passionate invocation not to a real person but to a higher being, somewhere between Eros and Christ — one can imagine Psyche writing such a poem between visits from the god, while the tone similarly recalls Saint Theresa of Avila addressing Christ. The author’s uncertainty as to quite how to situate the being is stated in the first verse, since the author says she does not know “en quel soleil était votre demeure” (‘under what sun was your dwelling-place’). At the same time she claims to have known him despite him being, like Eros, on another plane of reality — “sans avoir su où je vous possédais” (‘without knowing where I possessed you’), and this and the final line “je vous aimais” suggests that the rapport was not entirely ‘spiritual’.
This being is at once beloved, guide and controller of her destiny : he will be responsible for her rebirth even though she is to be broken entirely to pieces
“Vous referez mon nom et mon image
De mille corps emportés par le jour”
(‘You will remake my name and image out of the thousand bodies dispersed by time’).
The author seems to suggest that, for a while, she will cease to exist as an individual, will be “sans nom et sans visage” (‘nameless and faceless’), but will be given a new ‘name and face’ which is yet the same, since underlying these transformations is a “vive unité” (‘living unity’).
One is reminded of the initiatory experience of shamans when, allegedly, under the influence of drugs such as ayahuasca, they undergo an experience of total dismemberment before being reassembled as the ‘same’ person but with extra powers. (It has even been suggested that ‘baptism by water’ originally included holding candidates under water long enough until such experiences were provoked.) On a more scientific note, one thinks of the extraordinary powers of regeneration of sponges which can be literally ‘dismembered’ by being passed through a sieve and which nonetheless reform themselves.
The tone of this poem, perhaps the most remarkable of the entire set, is rapt, ecstatic, and it ends with the enigmatic penultimate line “Cœur de l’esprit, O centre du mirage“. The ‘très haut amour’ thus unites mind and heart, or rather is actually the ‘heart of [the] mind’ — a goal that Karin envisaged but, by her own admission, failed to achieve in her present life. ‘Mirage‘ is surely a reference to Buddhism which teaches that the whole of life is ‘maya’, illusion. But the ‘centre’ of the mirage is not illusion : for Buddhism it is a state not a person, Nirvana, but for Hinduism it is a living being, Brahman.
I am tempted to identify the being that the author addresses in AVE with the ‘Higher Self’ of the Upanishads and contemporary New Age philosophies. For, according to the ‘atman = Brahman’ theory, the being one finally confronts at the end of the spiritual journey turns out to be one’s own true self. Michael, a supposed ‘recombined entity’ made up of a thousand ‘old soul’ elements, channeled by Jessica Lansing in California states, “The correct source is within you, in the soul that is eternal. This is the only source of assistance you will receive in the physical plane or any other” (Yarbro, Messages from Michael).
After AVE, NOVA comes as something of a shock. Instead of greeting with rapture a being from another realm, this time the spiritual traveller/initiate recoils with horror from a being that in some mysterious fashion the present-day speaker is bringing to birth in another world. She tells him not to be born :
“Ne sois pas défais-toi dissipe toi délie
Dénonce le désir que je n’ai pas choisi”
(‘Do not be! Unmake yourself! Dissipate! Let go! Condemn the desire that was not chosen by me!’)
The situation is extremely complicated, since this future being, who is at once admired and feared, is “ma splendeur, mon malheur” (‘my glory, my ruin’), is someone not yet fully born and yet “ma survie” (‘my survival’) and is apparently being formed canniballistically by sucking the speaker’s present vitality. His or its birth is the present speaker’s death “Mon plus terrestre bien perdu pour l’infini” (‘My most terrestrial possession lost for infinity’). The confused situation is matched by the desperation and confusion of tone and attitude. The speaker rebels against the entire process since it inevitably means her current extinction : “N’accomplis pas mon jour, âme de ma folie” (‘Do not bring my days to an end, soul of my madness’). Emotionally, the last lines of NOVA are a hysterical climax : from now on everything will begin to fall into place.
MAYA, which follows (in my ordering), is the most composed and tranquil of all the poems in the set. Rather than anticipating the future, the speaker returns to a previous idyllic reincarnation amongst the Mayans. She views this recapitulation of a previous incarnation as, precisely, on the cosmic scheme, a return to childhood, a recovery of the “happy days that may not come again” (Housman)
“Je revins sur mes pas vers l’abime enfantin”
(‘I retrace my steps into childhood’s abyss’).
Nonetheless, the voyager still hesitates with respect to what lies in front of her : she wishes the process to stop here, in this lost paradise refound,
“Que s’arrete le temps, que s’affaisse la trame” (‘If only time would stand still and the weft [of destiny] grow slack’).
The surprising last line : “Singulier soleil de calme couronne” (‘Unique sun crowned with possession lost for infinity’) indicates that the speaker has succeeded, has indeed frozen time — but only for a moment.
After anticipations of the future and a reliving of the past, SCOPOLAMINE and NYX return us to the present. (Scopolamine is incidentally a drug originally prescribed to Karin but of which she abused : interestingly, it is not so much a hallucinatory drug as a ‘truth drug’ and was used as such on prisoners during World War II.) This time there is no holding back : on the contrary SCOPOLAMINE has a rapid forward movement and the spritual voyage is imaged as the launching of a spacecraft with (what we would call) an astronaut aboard it. Whatever it is that survives physical decomposition is already detaching itself from its earthly frame “Adieu Forme je ne sens plus” (‘Farewell Form I feel nothing any more’) and the speaker, no longer locked into the past, looks ahead towards the unknown searching for “un nom libre de la meéoire” (‘a name free of memory’).
NYX was written on Karin’s deathbed and brings us even closer to the moment of metamorphis : in fact we live it through this poem. The tone is a mixture of awe, regret, rapture and incomprehension with the latter having the final word, “Je ne sais pas de qui je suis la proie/Je ne sais pas de qui je suis l’amour” (‘I do not know whose prey I am, I do not know of whom I am the love’). The transitions mirror very closely the last lines of the strange poem with which the mysterious Comte de Saint-Germain (whom Karin would have known) ended his auto-portrait “Il appelle mon ame: Je mourrai, j’adorai, je ne savais plus rien” (‘He called my soul: I died, I adored, I knew nothing more’).
Note (1) This was Bernoulli’s express wish but, sadly, the stone mason, who, understandably did not know the difference, engraved an Archimidean Spiral instead.