Chantal Carleton

Maksim Hanukai

Nidesh Lawtoo

Elisabeth Lore

Michael A. Mikita III

Giovanna Montenegro

Benjamin Morris and Ari Messer

Wendy Salters

Laurel Seely

Olga Zilberbourg


Flying Through Spaces:
Robert Sabatier's Les feuilles volantes

Email this article

Chantal Carleton
Indiana University


Adieu mon livre, adieu ma page écrite,
Se détachant de moi comme une feuille,
Me laissant nu comme un cliché d'automne.

Je vous dédie une arche de parole
Pour naviguer, mes amis, naviguer
Dans ma mémoire où se taisent les loups.

Vole ma feuille au-dessus de la ville,
Franchis le fleuve et détruis la frontière.
Amour, amour, ô ma géographie!

Et si tu cours au fil de l’onde, un songe
Recueillera mes images mouillées
Que dans un pré le soleil séchera.

Poète ici, poète comme un arbre
Offrant sa feuille à la terre gourmande
Et dans l’humus herbe ressuscitant.

Un autre livre, une parole neuve,
Les mêmes mots dans d’autres mariages
Et toujours l’homme et son tapis volant.


Farewell my book, farewell my written page,
Detaching itself from me like a leaf,
Leaving me naked like a cliché of autumn.

I dedicate to you an ark of speech
To navigate, my friends, navigate
My memory where the wolves grow silent.

Fly my leaf over the city,
Cross the river and destroy the boundary.
Love, love, o my geography!

And if you follow the rhythm of the water, a dream
Will collect my sodden images
Which in a field the sun will dry.

Poet, here, poet like a tree
Offering his leaf to the hungry earth
And in the compost, the grass resuscitating.

Another book, a new speech,
The same words in other marriages
And always man and his flying carpet.


Most people read poetry listening for echoes because the echoes are familiar to them. They wade through it the way a boy wades through water, feeling with his toes for the bottom. The echoes are the bottom.
-Wallace Stevens

The definition of a text, within the rubric of textuality, is something that inhabits and is inhabited by language: "No text lies outside the endless play of language, and no text is complete; each text exhibits traces or 'sediments' of some other text."1 This poem, Robert Sabatier's Les feuilles volantes, is a good example of that 'endless play of language' because it is so rich with allusive echoes and reverberations of alternate meanings. This richness of ambiguity, these echoes of different meanings, decenter and defamiliarize us. Without a transcendent referent, how can we come to understand this poem's project of memory? How is something as textured as memory conveyed through written words? And how is that written memory communicated through the form, the incantation that is poetry?

Throughout this poem, alternate meanings of words are playfully hinted at, alluded to, suggested. The word "feuille" can mean a leaf, as well as a sheet of paper or of metal.2 It can also mean a feuille de chou, a newspaper or rag; as well as suggest a monetary transaction in the sense of a feuille d'impôts or a feuille de maladie, a tax or insurance form. This word has been imbued with allusion since Homer's simile in Glaucus's speech to Diomedes:

High-hearted son of Tydeus, why ask of my generation?/ As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity./ The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber/ burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning./ So one generation of men will grow while another/ dies.
Calling upon the use of this word will inevitably sound the reverberations of this simile, creating an expectation of echoes, alternate possibilities, which will be fulfilled throughout the course of this poem. Writing inevitably becomes a work of memory, each word being a palimpsest through which its history can be remembered.

Just as feuille can be the material leaf or the representation of the poet's artistic project, there are other words in the poem that also entertain the idea of indeterminate meaning, such as recueillir and mouiller. In the fourth stanza, "recueillir" can mean to collect and gather, to take in and record, as well as to engage in private prayer (with the reflexive se).3 Mouiller can mean both to get wet and to anchor.4 These alternate meanings open up spaces within the poem where different possibilities can flourish. This ambiguity among meanings is where the work of poetry can be done.

Within the spaces that these ambiguities open within the poem, an opposition is created. This poem illustrates an opposition between writing ("ma page écrite") and speech ("une arche de parole"). The privileged position of writing through the use of repetition betrays, perhaps, a Derridean emphasis on l'écriture (writing) over la lecture (speech). The poem contains eight references to the written word, either explicitly or through metaphor, and only two references to speech. This emphasis reveals the poet's choice of the written word as his act of memory. This choice is complicated by poetry's heavy history of oral tradition. The written document subsuming the orality of poetry contravenes the etymology of the word poetry itself. The Latin word carmen means song or poem, as well as a magic formula, an incantation, charm.5 But an incantation is effective only when uttered - the magic of performative language.

This opposition between writing and speech is made less clear when one wades through the reverberations of the alternate meanings of the poem's words. The word livre can combine the valences of both the oral and written traditions: the sacred books of the Old Testament contain "la parole de Dieu," the written word of God. Another possibility for ambiguity comes with the use of the phrase "une arche de parole" [an ark of speech]. While it does have an easy reliance on the biblical image of an ark, arche can also be calling upon the Greek word for "beginning," further muddying the primacy of writing over speech. And despite the greater repetition of écriture, the poem concludes with an ambiguous statement with the image of a tapis, a word whose fourth possible meaning is shuttlecock.6 The poem leaves us with the possibility of traveling back and forth between these two possibilities of meaning-making: écriture or parole. The irresolution, the open-endedness, suggests a flying between ambiguities.

In terms of form, the situation is more clear-cut. Each of the poem's six tercets is a block, a solid unit. While each stanza is end-stopped before moving to the next, the progression of the first two lines in each tercet varies. The crescendo to the emotional appeal of the apostrophe at the end of the third stanza is prepared by the enjambment of the first two lines in the second stanza. This pattern of enjambment is continued in the fourth and fifth stanzas, as if unwilling to release the frenetic energy engendered by the apostrophe too quickly. This crescendo to the apostrophe is also prepared by an acceleration of presentation: the third stanza is the only one which includes two sentences, instead of only one.

The momentum of the third stanza is also created by the insistent, incantatory repetition of "Amour, amour." The previous occurrences of repetition (stanza one: "Adieu, mon livre, adieu;" stanza two: "Pour naviguer, mes amis, naviguer") have been carefully separated by a catalogue of personal possessions: "mon livre, mes amis." But in the third stanza, this caution is thrown to the wind: the appeal to amour will not be encumbered by separation.

This quickening of the third stanza marks the movement from the urban setting of the third stanza ("ville," "frontière") to the pastoral setting of the remainder of the poem ("pré," "terre gourmande"). In this stanza, we encounter the "fleuve," the stream of memory that combines the images of the 'arche (de parole)' which can navigate the 'fleuve,' as well as the 'feuille,' which is flying over it. This movement from the urban to the pastoral is tempered by the first and only appearance of the future tense in the fourth stanza ('recueillera,' 'séchera'): there is a movement outwards, but it is yet to come. The tenses surrounding these future, visionary acts are firmly grounded in the present tense ('Je vous dédie,' 'tu cours'), present participles ('détachant,' 'laissant,' 'offrant,' 'ressuscitant') and imperatives ('vole').

This future tense of the fourth stanza is significant because it is also within this stanza that we encounter the word 'songe.' The visionary presence (implying the future) of this word calls into question the nature and function of creativity. Is a poem a prophetic dream, an utterance, a revelation sent by the gods? Or is a poem a contemplative act of garnering, of collecting images through travel in space, through ambiguities?

This movement to the future tense in the fourth stanza is held in even greater relief by the immediacy and urgency of the fifth stanza's declaration of identity, space, and time. This time the repetition of 'poète' is slowed by the rhythmic blow, an almost-fermata, of 'ici.' This word, clearly delineating a sense of place, can be entangled and paired with the first stanza. The first stanza, containing the word 'adieu' (an enunciation of departure), lands at this place of arrival with the word 'ici.' The first apparition of the metaphor of writing ('page écrite)' as 'feuille' in the first stanza has journeyed to this point of regeneration in the fifth stanza. The recycling of this 'feuille' into written memory exemplifies the transformative, metamorphic impulse of poetry:

Poète ici, poète comme un arbre
Offrant sa feuille à la terre gourmande
Et dans l'humus herbe ressuscitant.

The Ovidian echoes, this impulse of transformation of 'poet as tree,' can be contextualized with the title of the collection from which this poem was taken: Icare et autres poèmes. The reverse animistic impulse of poet as tree gives the poem a sense of catharsis. The poet as still, as here, transforming himself into a tree, recalls the myth of Baucis and Philemon. This permeability of associations is due to the echoes of language, the defamiliarization of travel through memory. Sabatier's project of memory is a voyage through layers of words. As we read through these divagations of history, we travel back and forth through memory, resuscitated by the view that this voyage gives us.


1 The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, s.v. "Textuality."
2 Harper Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. "Feuille.
3 Harper Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. "Recueiller."
5 Harper Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. "Mouiller."
5 Chambers Murray Latin-English Dictionary, s.v. "Carmen."
6 Harper Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. "Tapis."

Works Cited

Sabatier, Robert. 'Les feuilles volantes.' Anthologie de la poésie française du XXe         siècle. Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2000. 231.

Back to top







home | back issues | blog | store | links | submissions | about | contact

© 2005 Comparative Literature Student Association at San Francisco State University
design: landisdesigns.com