Summer is ending in Paris. A hodgepodge of students from the Sorbonne, American expatriates, poets, diplomats and literati have gathered across the canal from Notre Dame, on a small street, in front of a grandiose yet dilapidated building.
Shakespeare and Company affectionately called the "Tumbleweed Hotel" by its many patrons, has an illustrious history, attracting from far and wide young itinerants with pack sacks, literary dreamers, even luminaries. Over the years, the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and even King Vidor have made their way into its sanctuary.
Writers from Anais Nin to Lawrence Durrell and Langston Hughes have found refuge there - come for tea, to read, and stay in the writer's studio to commune with the Muse. (In a previous incarnation the bookshop was home to James Joyce's "Ulysses").
This night one of Canada's finest poets is about to read from two new collections, at this, his European launch. George Whitman (proprietor and self-proclaimed progeny of the great America bard) introduces Jeff Bien: "Walt Whitman was a precursor of the poet reading here tonight."
By the end of the evening hundreds of people have arrived to hear Mr. Bien read his poetry from America and other poems and Prosody at the cafe du coin, described enthusiastically the next day by a number of the staff as one of the most successful readings in years.
Since returning home, Bien's schedule has been non-stop with multi-city launches and readings across the country, performances and recording of a soon-to-be released CD of his poetry; and a reading at the Polish consulate in Montreal, where he was asked to select translations of Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska's poetry as well as read from his own work.
"It has been a curious act of faith to watch the poems be requited, belatedly taking on a new life... for so many years I lived outside any community, writing from the basement and some unlikely corners of the world," says the poet, glad to be back at home, for the moment.
In fact, what Bien doesn't mention is that his work, which has been published or translated in more than a dozen countries, has been quietly gathering recognition for years - a Leacock award, a Canadian Author's Association Award, and a National Magazine Nomination from Descant, one of Canada's premiere literary journals. The title poem of "Prosody" was selected by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes for the distinguished Arvon anthology in Great Britain.
Most recently, Alyscamps Press, a highly-respected expatriate publisher in Paris, has announced it will translate the Prosody collection into French, and Robert Cordier who translated the standard version of Ginsberg's "Howl", Eugene O'Neill and others, is working on "America". Translations into Russian and Spanish are also underway.
His work has been called "potent and persuasive" (City Lights, San Francisco); "beautiful, precise in word and image" (Nora Noreira, Instituto Pedagogic Carlos Varona, Havana); and "a ruthless truth telling poet... a tour de force" (John Millet, editor, Poetry Australia), a sentiment echoed by Dejan Ilic, the editor of Rec, a prominent literary journal in Belgrade where Bien's work has appeared in translation.
In a review of his poetry appearing in their "Contemporary Poetics" issue, Canadian Literature, has drawn parallels to his work with Shelly's unacknowledged legislators of the world, and the Hebrew prophets. "Bien casts his net wide, encompassing the horror and despair of the twentieth century, one of whose manifestations is contemporary America, 'Goliath of the third world,' with Cuba defying it... [his] poetry crackles with prophetic energy.
The reviews in Canada have been predictably mixed, the voices of the two books being almost diametrically opposed, one primal and colloquial, the other formal and lyrical. The Prosody collection being a polyphonous, more traditional voice concerning itself with redemption and what Bien calls the "the ordinary occasion of grace." America - rapturous, iconoclastic, and prosaic - addresses the realpolitik of the last days of the twentieth century.
Lines as diverse as "The flag mocks the wind for its delirium / Each century carries its palanquin of song" ('Interregnum') to the apocalyptic, "America who buried Shelley in New Jersey, who in its mad rush to defend its deity, replaced Alfred Lord Tennyson with Ralph Waldo Emerson before the tree of knowledge was cut down" or the stridency of "America, who is screwing all the prostitutes? Who is lusting in their hearts? America, who is behind the news?"
It is this deftness of language and vision that so distinguishes Bien from the usual crop of poets. "A new voice is being heard here," writes Poetry Canada. "One hesitates to use such a word as greatness in the current critical climate, but like it or not there is greatness in Mr. Bien's work. A major voice has emerged."
Such reviews are not uncommon: "the kind of poem which should not have been able to have been written" (Gary Geddes); "a master poet eloquent and erudite" (CBC); "another Ginsberg... Whitman has taken root in Canada" (Shakespeare and Company). The simultaneous release of two very different books has, however, raised a few eyebrows.
For example, in Quill and Quire, the reviewer who lauds Bien's precise language and metrics says 'Christ and other small prayers'" packs a wallop in every word," while George Elliott Clarke writing in the Chronicle Herald cites the same poem as being guilty of pleonastic excess. On the other hand, Clark calls 'When the walls came down' (America) "a splendid savaging of our post-Soviet amorality" and Bien "an astonishing lyricist", but struggles vainly with the more formal lyric of Prosody.
A reviewer for the Georgia Strait in Vancouver acclaims the flashes of brilliance in Prosody but is less certain of the primacy of America.
"Poets must get drunk, must lose their minds, the cognitive, what Emerson called the 'whirling cogos'," says Bien. "There is no moniker for grace, no monolithic code... light falls and we are blinded.
"In a time when lovers call each other partners, and new technology is held up as a candle for a dearth of spirituality, we are in trouble. We must find our way back to the sacred and to gratitude, the revelry of death and of beauty," he proclaims. "Poetry is about revelation and redemption in one form or another. It is for this reason poets are seen as heretical, feared or ignominiously ignored."
Bien has since been back to Paris for readings sponsored by the Canadian Embassy and Abbey Bookshop, and a stay in London which included an evening of poetry with the Canadian High Commission in conjunction with Compendium Books, one of the city's oldest bookstores. He has just returned from Cuba, and readings at the University of Havana, where his work is being translated towards the publication of a bilingual volume of his poetry.
A mural featuring a rendition of the cover of "America" has been commissioned by Celico Press for the spring of 2000. The site, a heritage age building at 382 College Street, adjacent to the University of Toronto, is expected to become a landmark in the Canadian artistic community.
In the meantime, Mr. Bien is completing a new collection of poetry and recordings of his work. He has also been invited to read and perform in Prague, San Francisco and Belgrade, after which he will, one supposes, return to the sanctity of his small town, and his calling.
- reprinted from Cafe Monthly Magazine