Even in the sparest poetry, the words rather than the whiteness on the page are our focus; large spaces between phrases, lines, or stanzas create pause and generate the rhythm by which we read the language before us. The page is whittled away by the poet, revealing precious words in sculpted white space. But Chantal Neveu’s book-length poem This Radiant Life, newly translated by Erín Moure (210 pages; Book*hug Press), has a different and radical relationship to space. On many of the pages is just a single line of poetry centered in and surrounded by white. The page is no longer the background: the emptiness is often louder than language and becomes just as important as it, too. For This Radiant Life, indeed “all is economy.”
This emptiness—each instance representing a vast expanse of unworked material—allows Neveu to expand her scope and reach both what is most minuscule and most grand in the universe. This Radiant Life draws its inspiration from many aspects of human knowledge and experience, ranging from periodic elements to Vermeer and John Cage, from quarks to world news. In Neveu’s eyes, nothing is superfluous; even “our gangues” of everyday life are worthy material for poetry, regardless of how worthless or common they may seem to be. Single words or phrases like “flash,” “vast night,” “bare-handed,” “war,” and “mountain” occupy literally the same amount of space on the page. By placing all her poetic elements in the same empty planes, Neveu does more than reach great heights and depths: she equalizes.
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As we read This Radiant Life, Neveu also asks us whether words, surrounded by these blank expanses, can still mean what they are supposed to mean at all. Near the middle of the book, she writes:
solstice daisies peonies
facades rising over polyhedrons
walls smooth silvery
the effect on speed
Many sections of This Radiant Life display this almost haunting effect of imagistic abstraction. Neveu blends language from different colloquial and scientific lexicons to create a text that blurs in and out of focus. As the epigraph by Paul-Marie Lapointe notes, words presented in this way become “words as such,” losing hierarchy of meaning and value. They are “freed from their gangues, from imposed uses, known meaning, accepted paths.” Words are reduced to atoms, individual units which ricochet through space and against each other. And in this perpetual, unstable motion they create new relationships of meaning.
But it is not only words that are in motion in this book. People are, too. In quantum physics, the term “superradiance” is used to refer to a phenomenon that occurs when a group of excited atoms interact together, collectively and coherently, to create a sudden emission of light. In some definitions of this phenomenon, the group of atoms is called an “ensemble”: items or people existing as a unity, in harmony. Can people be superradiant, too, when they move together in a collective? “Is this light? // what we form // together”? Neveu thinks so, ending her book inspring: “we go on // collaborating … primavera.” Her poesy seems to possess a wonderment at life that has the power to restore the reader’s own:
of the stars
are they tubes?
is this life?
In a book which is as much about physics as it is about the pressing conflicts of our current age, This Radiant Life seeks to find the light that emerges not just from the collisions of particles but also the actions and interactions of people. That wonderful line—“is this life?”—asks if each and every thing could really be life: is this life, is that? It expresses an awe at the minute. But it also marvels at everything that life is. On the following page is a single word, “radiant,” affirming both questions.