June 15, 2011

Review by Joshua Armstrong

LAMOTHE-CADILLAC: SA JEUNESSE EN FRANCE,
bilingual collection of prose poems
by Beverly Matherne

Centenary College of Louisiana Press
Editions Tintamarre
ISBN 978-0982055823
2009, 118 pp.,$13.50
www.centenary.edu

Antoine de Lamothe-Cadillac (1658-1730) was a French explorer of the New World. He would go down in history books (and here I’m paraphrasing the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online) as seigneur of Acadia, commandant of Michilimackinac, founder of Detroit, governor of Louisiana, knight of the order of Saint-Louis, and governor of Castelsarrasin in France. However, he actually began his life rather humbly and only became these glorious things through incredible resourcefulness and not a little supercherie (hoax or deception). Before arriving in the New World and cleverly forging his new and noble identity, he was just Antoine Laumet, son of a simple lawyer in the Gascony region of France. The Dictionary also points out that if some historians have called him one of the “great early heroes in North American history,” they’ve also deemed him “one of the worst scoundrels ever to set foot in New France.”

And yet historians know next to nothing about this enigmatic figure before he arrives in the New World. Before crossing the ocean, before his rise to prominence, what would his youth have been like?

In her latest collection of poems, Lamothe-Cadillac: Sa Jeunesse en France, Beverly Matherne ambitiously sets herself the task of incarnating the young Antoine. Through a chronologically-driven series of prose poems, Matherne presents us with a disarmingly vivid, present-tense experience of the young Antoine’s life in 17th century France. While writing her poems, Matherne took up residence in Antoine’s homeland of Gascony, where much of the architecture, language, and customs still remain, and where the same flora, fauna, rivers, and countrysides pursue their eternal cycles. And Matherne’s fieldwork clearly afforded her an effective muse. She achieves a consistent and masterful poetic voice that manages to place the reader—in the shoes of Antoine—in a palpable world of sights, sounds and smells from centuries ago. Antoine’s world is deeply human: it reminds us of the communal practices—both familial and religious—that gave form to everyday life in a time so different from our own. As Dyane Léger puts it: “Quel plaisir de plonger au cœur d’une page d’Histoire qui respire la vie et la bonne chair au lieu de la poussière et du renfermé…. Rares sont les écrivains qui ont su ainsi donner à l’Histoire un présent—vibrant et lumineux.” (“ What joy to plunge into a page of history that exudes life and the fruits of the earth instead of dust and enclosedness…. Rare are the writers who have been able to furnish a vibrant and luminous present to history.”)

Through anecdote and image—and present tense prose—Matherne lucidly and concisely renders history present. While gradually developing Antoine as a character, Matherne’s poems simultaneously construct an increasingly rich depiction of everyday life in 17th century Gascony. Matherne has done her homework, but the fascinating cultural and historical background she imparts never comes off as academic or forced; rather, it is simply, and naturally, present in every anecdote. For example, the reader will observe Antoine’s budding resourcefulness while simultaneously learning how alose were once fished in the Garonne. The French substantives are earthy and mesmerizing: “Il met une grosse mouche au bout du fil de chanvre accroché à sa branche de noisetier” (“He ties a large fly at the end of his hemp line attached to a walnut branch”). And the same river carries a foreshadowing of his own future: “Non loin du garçon, une gabarre chargée d’eau-de-vie et de cadis destinés au Nouveau Monde, glisse vers Bordeaux” (“Not far from Antoine, a flat boat, heavy with eau-de-vie and wool from Montauban, glides toward Bordeaux, destined for the New World”). How tantalizing to imagine what the New World must have represented for the young Antoine. At the time, it was a largely uncharted and unexplored continent, the discovery of which was already beginning to shake the foundations of European intellectual thought. To the young Antoine it would have been a mystery; he couldn’t have known, fishing there on the Garonne, that he himself would fatefully share the same destination as all that eau-de-vie and wool.

In another poem, “L’Espièglerie d’Antoine/Antoine’s Mischief,” we see that Antoine can be uncontrollable and impulsive while being privy to some 17th century name-calling: “Dans la cour, il nargue un garçon en lui arrachant son béret et en le lançant en l’air, ou bien encore, il écrase son poing sur le visage d’un autre en l’appelant pesco-luno/On the playground, he snatches the beret of a boy and throws it in the air to taunt him. Better yet, he punches the nose of another, calling him a pesco-luno.” In the next poem, “Un pesco-luno/Fishing for the Moon,” we see that Antoine is inquisitive and precise: he wants to make sure pesco-luno was the right name to call his schoolyard adversary. Antoine’s father answers him by telling the story of how the expression came to be. As he transmits to his children this bit of folklore we become privy to the kind of common knowledge that would have circulated in the families of Antoine’s time. It’s a story about a group of gypsies camped out by a moat at night. The moon is reflected in the moat, so several of the gypsies decide to try to fish for the moon. Then, just as their donkey takes a drink, a cloud covers the moon and they decide the donkey has drunk it. They slice open the donkey to retrieve it, but then the cloud moves and the moon reappears in the water, revealing their error. Since then, when speaking of a simple-minded person, one says, in Occitan, “Es un pesco-luno,” explains the father. “Alors, j’ai bien choisi mes mots, dit Antoine. C’est vraiment lui tout craché/Then I chose the right words, said Antoine. That’s him exactly.”

In sum, Matherne’s collection transmits to us just as naturally and purposefully the culture and the wisdom of 17th century Gascony as Antoine’s father does the origin of the term pesco-luno—through well-crafted and engaging story-telling.

Lamothe-Cadillac, a bilingual, parallel-text book, will have a variety of possible readers. Because both versions are composed by Matherne—an American born in a French-speaking household in Cajun Louisiana—both English and French versions are masterfully nuanced and evocative. It is not necessary for the reader to know French to appreciate the book. The English version is not subservient or inferior to the French. Moreover, those seeking to improve their French will benefit greatly from reading Lamothe-Cadillac. Parallel-text books are excellent tools for language learning, and the plain-stated voice of these prose poems further recommends Matherne’s collection for this purpose. Of course, the bilingual reader will enjoy the greatest degree of access and will find Lamothe-Cadillac especially delightful, moving freely as he or she will between languages, choosing to read the French version of one poem and then the English of another, or reading comparatively line-by-line, which reveals the convergences and divergences of the two languages, and deepens the mystery of the image being conveyed through repetition and variation.

____________

Joshua Armstrong is a PhD candidate in French at the University of Virginia, and is also a fiction writer. He published a short story in Quiddity International Literary Review, and he has a story forthcoming in The Hook, which took second place in a contest judged by John Grisham. He has published book reviews in VQR and The French Review (the latter is forthcoming). He is also the author of the blog fictiblog.com.