Felix Cassiel on

Francis Combes

tr. Alan Dent

If The Symptoms Persist

Smokestack Books, 2018

353 pages

French With Tears

Combes cover
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‘Terror’, said Arthur Rimbaud, in 1873, ‘is not French.’ And while certain events before and since may lend the line a peculiar cuteness, in this work, by Francis Combes, terror is less a historic curiosity than it is a physical presence; a sword wielded, and never unsuccessfully, in the attainment of specific goals, and at the expense of the majority. Terror, in any form, is a tool; to think we exist outside the scope of its utility, advises Combes, is a fool’s paradise.

Terror, indeed, is in the west, and western man is at bay. For against the sociopolitical onslaught, devised by unidentifiable heads - of states, of schools - what may compete? In this realm of hopelessness, angst and ire, man, poet, and man-as-poet are at odds, at sea, at wits’ end.

Yet, for all that is absent from this world of men, of power and ideas, something remains; an urbanity, perhaps, or a delicacy of touch, that presents an image of the Medusa veiled - she whose repugnance is, by the play of light on the corrupted fabric, made terrifyingly conspicuous.

We begin in the city. Our guide leads us off the high street, and into the alleys, where, trudging through the colon of civilisation, we are introduced to a miscellany of wretches, who, besides being homeless, are voiceless, and nameless, except for the voices and names lent them by our poet-guide, as he tells of a man on on his knees, murmuring 

pleas, and who

‘...isn’t praying to God

but humanity....’

A reasonable endeavour, we might assume, yet only

‘A few people give him something

not many

(just enough to keep him going).

But most of those he appeals to

do as God

they pay him no attention.’

The poet laments not that the man is ignored, however, rather that the act of ignoring is in some way a virtue; for in this arena, wholly animalistic and political, where a man may prostrate himself before the thoroughfare, at the mercy of foot-traffic, and receive nothing but that which will make his prostration worthwhile, nature has written and cast a play in which the majority, though bullied by the director, are nourished by the sight of an underling; this actor, the runt of the company, by his presence nurtures the vanity of his colleagues. The role he fulfils is definite, one-dimensional, and to the group, indispensable.

In this way Combes proceeds, giving clear indication that we are in the soft hands of a humanitarian. He is more than that, however: in the ‘Beggar and the a Great Power’, for example, the poet displays a verve, a wit honed as if in the loquacious coffee-houses of Paris, or in the competitive atmospheres of her salons. By this epigrammatic style we are arrested; the reward is instant. The poem itself, lest we skip idly by, is shaped, physically, as a beggar begging. The humour of a Combes is rarely distant.

Likewise in attendance, however, is vitriol. In a poem of two parts, ‘Willy 1’ and ‘Willy 2’, Combes begins hopefully, hinting at the mysteries of the human machine, in expressing that

‘Everyone has within him

possible chasms and summits.’

Yet in the interim separating the two, a change has occurred; the blood has blackened. In ‘Willy 2’, we see that humanitarians, like the rest of us, have breaking points:

‘We brought you home

collarless dog.

You betrayed us and tricked us

as not even a dog would.’

The weaponisation of words, embittered yet potent, reminds us of Celine; and as with Celine, we find ourselves with the sense of dealing not with a devotee, but with an empath tormented.

With an appreciation of where our guide is coming from, we encounter, in ‘Sililoquy’, another man of few means, ‘talking to himself and making expansive gestures’. Here, we’re advised, is a gladiator in training, whose inscrutable programme inspires wonder in its witnesses

‘Perhaps he’s rehearsing

a great speech

in which he will throw

his essential truths

in the face of the world’

Though the object of our attention is ‘an old Algerian’, we are encouraged to the belief that this man, against the world - unspecific though that enemy might be - will prove a formidable opponent. Yet the world, astute as it is, and, having read Sun Tzu, ‘for the moment’, alas,

‘prefers to avoid him.

It doesn’t want to meet him

and turns its back on him.’

Our hero’s training is for nought. He’s made to wait,

‘But then

he is used

to waiting.’

In war, of course, patience is a virtue. However, against this opponent, whose reserve is universal, and whose army is omnipresent, he made to wait risks waiting forever.

Similarly terse is an offering titled ‘The Age of Gathering’. In thirteen short lines this piece paints a portrait, in documentary fashion, of destitution in the modern age. Using as its model the proto-societies of our ancestors, it speaks of men and women who

‘are reduced to walking for hours

in the streets

their hands outstretched

in search of food.’

The primary asset of the poem is its emotionlessness; by relating banal observations and making a loose association, this miniature stimulates a series of small but palpable sensations in the mind of the reader; we are led to ponder the trajectory of man’s evolution, his changing relationship with nature, and his cognitive development. By bringing to mind the age of the hunter gatherer, with its dark and occult terror, we nevertheless find ourselves longing for the simplicity, the accord we imagine was theirs; to those early societies, the fruits of the world were available; all that was required was diligence, determination, and, perhaps, a touch of ingenuity.

Yet for modern gatherers, the field of play is different. These bipeds, emerging from forgotten alleyways, venture forth as if by ritual; the cosmopolis is laden with sensory treasures, teems with the culinary vapours of the globe, yet the participants in our little documentary remain unnourished, and return to the innards of the city ritualistically, a little hungrier, and no wiser. In this steel and plate-glass arboretum, even the greenery, strategically planted at the behest of a local governmental committee, provides no succour:

‘(But even the trees

do not appear to see them.)’

As is common among postmodernists, Combes has a penchant for shock. His ability to lull a reader, utilising rather pedestrian imagery delivered in the cadence of a tour-guide, sets us up for a jolt, and, occasionally, sends us roaring, outraged, back to the ticket-seller.

For example, in ‘Intimacy’, we are shown, ‘a few feet from the Arc de Triomphe’:

‘a woman, standing next to her igloo tent

on the pavement,

her little knickers around her ankles’

As she

‘carries out with a bit of rag

her intimate


The slow-moving serpent of cars is transfixed, its occupants, we imagine, given to disgust, some to horror, a few to helpless voyeurism; while others may stare straight ahead, endeavouring at all costs to forget. But sometimes to forget is impossible; an image may burrow, like a parasite, into our memories, and there feed on our endorphins; notions of security, identity, strategy, may find themselves troubled, undermined by one peculiar, and peculiarly potent, representation.

In this way, Combes indicates, the dispossessed have a role, though it is not a role they, or anyone, would have wanted. A homeless individual is necessary, in this conception; their utility is psychological, they are as the street-lights or park-benches; they provide succour. By their hunched postures and dripping vestments they affect in passers-by a sense of order, of good fortune; by their ability to shock and disturb we are spurred onward; for darkness, we are reminded, is real, and only by the light of our industriousness, of our hubris and lack of self-reflection, can we keep the night in its place.

There are times when the poet takes an image and stretches it. Musicality is rarely prevalent in this tome, yet there are occasions when Combes sees fit to indulge. In these instances, the reader enjoys a sense of relief, for he has by this time learned to expect the sucker-punch. ‘At the Palais Royal’ offers such relief

‘Coming out of an appointment with the solicitor

I leant against the railings of the Palais Royal station

to listen to my messages

so I was telephoning

when a young fairy with a face as round as the moon

(of the type of an Italian tourist, or blond gypsy,

obviously stone-broke)

took me by the sleeve.’

Though it is not exactly reminiscent of Joachim du Bellay, nevertheless we are not in the company of an avowed song-maker, pedalling love lyrics in country taverns; rather, our raconteur is Bukowskian, one who turns a bitter and impassioned inward-gazing eye outward.

To that which we have encountered thus far, ‘Troubadour of the Shops’ is a somewhat different animal.

‘Now I have to sing of the difficult subject

Now I have to approach an ungrateful and intractable theme

In truth I’ve been thinking about it for months

And always putting it back to another time.

‘Others before me have sung and others will sing

The beauty of Mother Nature, the ever renewed surprise

Of a rainbow, the renewal of love in the spring

Or the bloody disaster of a sunset.’

Du Bellay re-emerges in our consciousness; like that late-Renaissance humanist, our poet delivers in unadorned language a visceral declaration, in this case against consumer culture: calumny attenuated only by a resurgent ennui licking at the feet of the metre.

‘Others still have known how to speak of the beauties of the town

The nostalgia for stations, the streamlined power of the TGV

The troubling music of the cosmos

Or the insolvable mystery of the black holes of the ego

‘But who will sing of the charms of shopping areas

Who will praise this new beauty never sung in poems?

Who will eulogise the high aesthetic achievements of capital?

It falls to me today to approach this theme.

‘Perhaps anyone will say that of all people I’m the worst prepared

In their eyes, my baggage of an out-of-the-way militant

Sets me up badly for the role of commercial poet...

Because the task is demanding and the position sought after.’

It is a measure of the poet’s drollerie that perhaps the most rhythmically pleasing verse in the poem is composed primarily of brand-names:

‘Then, pell-mell, the banners and hoarding

For Saint-Maclou, and Saint Frusquin... Gifi, Renault,

Leroy Merlin, Bricorama, Total, Esso,

Kiabi, Jardiland, Lapeyre, Babou, Gemo...’

Combes picks up, albeit wryly, the tradition of the chanson de geste.  Cultivated from the 11th to 14th centuries, these songs were made to vaunt the deeds of aristocrats; reaping this harvest of talent and intelligence were the Carolingian overlords, who enjoyed the public promotion afforded by these epic songs, in which their heroic adventures, factual or otherwise, were rendered in the most noble light.

‘The count Rollant sees the Archbishop lie dead,

Sees the bowels of his body shed,

And sees the brains that surge from his forehead;

Between his two arm-pits, upon his great

Crossways he folds those hands so white and fair.’

This, written in the latter half of the 11th century, is a verse from what is perhaps the most famous example of the chanson de geste, ‘The Song of Roland’; a work of indeterminate authorship. We are given a taste in these few lines of the tenor of the age, an age stained crimson, certainly, but one with veneration at its heart, an ideality that seemed to float above the troughs of war, filth and poverty.

And from this tradition of tragic reverence, our current balladeer strays. Inversion, however, is not his goal; here is violence, but it is invisible; here is reverence, but it is implicit. Unlike those older chansons, made to amuse the egos of warring elites, Combes’s poem flatters the masses, appeals to our sense of injustice; effects which, adequate or not, represent a quick win for the poet; for this emotion, harboured so near the base of the throat, is easy to rouse, being apparently innate, and is surely as old as class itself.

Under the gaze of our minstrel comes no deed or action, no character, nothing lofty or enviable; it moves not on horseback, charges no enemy. In this vale of tears, digitised and self-drying, innocent blood is not shed but sucked; as the host is transfixed by the circuitry of billboards, his essence is stolen through channels uncorporeal.

‘At each side of the road the great publicity hoardings

With their square shoulders lined up in ranks

Like soldiers prepared for battle

Ready to launch themselves into the conquest of the Earth.

‘In the reddening evening their escutcheons shine

They carry at their waists their masters’ weapons

Coloured and loud, facing the sky they brandish their coats of arms

Like a glove cast at the world they are going to subdue

‘Here it is the new epic of the time of peace

The machine gun of the cash till

For which we can always if necessary by the pen and the sword

Launch into new wars.’

In this ‘epic of the time of peace’ there are no conflicts, no stalemates, no need for treaties or pacts; the aggressor, our hero, will face no opposition.

‘And yet they grow and proliferate

Like life, like a cancer

This beautiful carnivorous disorder

Devours everything, changing all it touches to gold.’

Neither sword unsheathed nor galloping hoof embroiders the scene; this creature of appetite, insane with greed, embodied not by sanguine warlords but by brand names, by logos, that hover, that seem to exist of their own accord, whose entreaties, seeping subliminally into the minds of the young - those delicate and burgeoning ecosystems of idea and will - reaps gold from earth, secures for itself the twin supplies of vanity: the new and the returning customer.

Its ends are met not through physical tyranny but by sheer ubiquity. ‘The Demi-gods are on the move...’ the poet warns us, but be not afeard: these new kings, cloaked in electricity, wish only to ‘introduce order where disorder reigns’.

And hitherto, on the earth, disorder has surely reigned; for confirmation, consult the history books. Subjected to diseases, disasters, and have-a-go demagogues, this derelict race has built castles, cathedrals, monasteries and even pyramids, for sanctuary, for solace. Yet in these times, of what use are such buildings? From what, exactly, need we seek sanctuary? There is on earth but peace and equanimity; and don’t we (most of us) have a little walking-around money, right here in our pockets? The trajectory of the history of human struggle has culminated at a point at which we, children of ease, can finally treat ourselves.

And dare not be ungrateful, for if we look at the matter too closely

‘The anguish of the void seizes us and makes us quiet.’

No volume of French verse would be complete without a few attempts to seduce the female readership. Of this campaign, the most successful manoeuvre, in terms poetical and otherwise, is Homo Erectus’s Wife:

‘Often, my dear,

I see you battling with things:

an electric plug,

a meter,

a sewing machine,

a computer,

a car engine,


You look at them, you feel them

you turn them over, you take them apart

manipulate them, you get a bit annoyed

and, finally, you are right.

Watching what you do

I think of homo faber,

homo sapiens sapiens

or rather his wife

who, without letting herself be beaten,

(while the man, proud of himself, was coming back from the hunt) rubbed two bits of wood together

in her cave

until the flame appeared.

Yes, you are her descendant..

It’s through people like you

the species makes progress...

As for me

who am no more than homo erectus

as I watch you

to console myself

for my uselessness

I take a fermented drink

and admire you.’

Nor would we feel quite at home in the absence of a sociopolitical crie de couer; this wish, if not already met a hundred times over, is met in burlesque fashion in ‘Tract’.

‘You the tomatoes that have never seen the earth

You the fish that have never seen the sea

You the lettuces which grow in water and fibreglass

You the salmon that have never swum up river

And have never known the joy of sparkling in spume and light

You battery-raised hens who have never known the open air

Never seen the sun, never run in the grass

You the bananas, you the avocados, you the melons

Prematurely torn from your family and left to mature far from home

In hangars beneath displays

You the shrimps who have never been in the depths

And know only tap water

All of you, conditioned products of large-scale distribution


Parodying the style of long-dead revolutionaries, this cannonade of spleen unloads on a series of unlikely targets: farms, factories, laboratories - centres of testing, breeding and culling - the vertebrae of the industry of genetic modification.

‘Down with modern slavery!’ chants the rabble-rouser, storming up and down the supermarket aisles. We are put in mind of Marat, that importunate celebrity of the Terror, vaunted and hunted, and those many lesser pamphleteers, politicking in the shadows of the icons, whose words, which once clung so well to the esprit du temps, were ground underfoot, in the pell-mell disbursement of anguished Parisians.

Poet to man, man to poet; perhaps their diseases are non-communicable. Before a silent audience, composed of humans, sheep and grapes, each modified for optimum edibility, a poet must consider his position.

As he looks further inward, Combes’s canvas broadens. For example, in ‘Image of Western Man’:

‘But the most numerous are those who have nothing.

According to his image, western man is a conqueror

but, in life itself, most men from here

are beaten...

The image of western man is always right

it is universal and covers the Earth

while he is quite rare

and altogether in a minority on Earth.’

And in 'The Seven Wonders of the World':

‘The sixth wonder I name, is our imperfection, our power to never

be satisfied, to always search, desire, to go further, to imagine and

to invent, to compose songs, build cities and not renounce the

future where we would be a little less imperfect.’

We see the poet bringing to bear upon his mentation the themes universality, identity, desire, and later utilising the specimens of history and mythology, to add texture and polyphony to his crystalline conception.

What Pound said of Whistler, that he ‘tested and pried and worked in many fashions’, we could say of Combes; throughout the latter half of this volume he chases and is chased by his muse, as he diligently tries ‘to wrench her impulse into art’. He darts hither and thither, absorbing formats where he can; the result is a loose series of poems written in the miscellaneous forms of rap, living wills, manuals, and recipes.

In ‘The Poem’ Combes revisits the question of his role, and concludes that a poem is something like a

‘a plane tree leaf, yellow

wide as a splayed hand

falls gently


this afternoon’s autumn


By which

... ‘ the world

(but it doesn’t know it)

is slightly changed.’

The poem becomes a natural manifestation, an automatic event in the world of cause and effect. The poet, likewise, is but a link in this eternal chain of happening.

The section titled ‘Moral Poems’ is perhaps the most musical in the collection. Here, Combes gives himself room to play, to take in the joys of lyricism, meditating lightly on the complexity of nature, and the necessity of transformation.

For example, in 'Carnation':

‘Patricia picked it just before we left.

In the folds of her skirt

blood-red cutting

it hides a scent I’d forgotten

a light scent, free and peppered,

an Andalousian, Amazonian and Brigantine scent

which cultivated flowers never have.’

In 'Of Unity & Diversity':

‘To see them close at hand

(once the gardener has pulled them from the ground)

anyone can recognise

that asparagus

every asparagus on earth

is different from every other

and at the same time similar

unique and identical’

And in 'The Bean Plant':

‘in the company of your brothers

hung along your covering

by the skin of your back.

the light of day

comes to you filtered through the closed eyelid

of your maternal envelope.’

The songster in Combes is capable also of the pseudo-nursery rhyme:

‘The rose and the apple

the plum and the pear

and the cherry

in spite of their differences

are all part

of the large family

of rosaceae.’

Scattered throughout the next few pieces are some memorable lines, in ‘Parliament of Birds’ and ‘I and the Other’ particularly; yet in the next section, ‘Political Poems’, the tenor changes quite dramatically.

‘It’s had its head cut off several times

but, as for the Hydra of Lerna, it grew back.

(In fact, its body was still intact.)

However, it isn’t invincible

and sooner or later it will be killed

because our survival

depends on its elimination.’

The ‘it’ is Capitalism, his personal bane, the harrower of his muse. Yet in this poem, titled ‘Capitalism: Wanted Dead or Alive’, Combes again betrays a belief in life, in the primacy of the human above the situation; man to Combes is sacred, ever on the ascendency. Capitalism, and its little sister consumerism, are but twin blips on the horoscope. Yet Combes does not venture to offer anything against this opponent; presumably, because humans are inherently good, just, and righteous (though perhaps a little easily-swayed), it is a matter of course that we will simply pull the plug on this system which no longer serves, and wind up the extension cord. The poet’s view is unhelpfully romantic, and is elaborated in Etiology of the Parasites

‘There are on earth all kinds of parasites

which cling to their hosts

to draw their sap,

their blood, their chlorophyll

or their money...

Parasites are numerous and dangerous

but they are a minority.’

Parasitism, to be sure, is rife; the body of the public represents a rich meal. Yet one of the laws of nature is reciprocity; we give, but every one of us takes. Nature favours the most powerful; he who can give less than he takes will find himself with an advantage; a position of power, and each of us, regardless of status, take all the power we can get.

Aristocrats, financiers and policemen are listed in Combes’s parasite index; can any of us name a time when those in charge of land, money and law were not generators of ressentiment in the public breast?

In 'Epitaph for the Twentieth Century', the poet again frames the powerful as lesser beings, calling out the ‘cockroaches who give orders’, the ‘badly identified bacteria’ - the psychopaths, to whose act, after all these centuries of terror, cruelty and depravity, we should surely by now have grown wise. For Combes, it appears the 99% cannot be elevated without the reduction of the 1%, in terms economic, political, spiritual or otherwise; to venerate the powerless is to disparage the powerful, and the former, it would seem, can not attain any self-respect without the expulsion of the latter.

In ‘Mythological News’, subtitled ‘after Heine’, we are favoured by an appealing conflation of a Greek myth; that of Io, who was transformed by Zeus into a white cow, and of Europe, who was seduced by Zeus in bull form.

‘Io, Io, my sister,

that the ancient Romans also named Europe

how can you be forgiven?

We know about Leda’s misadventure

that she allowed herself to be seduced by a swan,

is perhaps a little unnatural

but hardly surprising...

And Semele who succumbed

to a shower of gold...

Of course, it’s not brilliant

but the times are hard...’

In 'Gods In Exile', his famous essay from 1854, Heinrich Heine imagined the flight of the pagan gods from Mount Olympus, at the onset of Christianity; driven first to Egypt, then to Europe, where a few of them took up poorly-paid jobs in the central lowlands, in the farming towns of Germany and Austria.

These gods - testy, petulant, myopic, found themselves ousted by a singular deity, one who took their wanton violence and made it part of a programme; who erected on the earth the infrastructure of his worship, and filled the gaps with whatever he thought worth taking from that earlier religion; had it refashioned, and outlawed the original. The pagan gods, wearied by the strain of their excess, stood not a chance against the emergent sovereign, whose scheme crossed borders and kingdoms, whose seed germinated in the bellies of the starved and envious.

How unfortunate, then, for us, that Europe allowed herself an indiscretion with a bull; a mad bull, no less, on the wane and in denial.

‘You must know that you run a great peril in climbing on the back

of such a beast

brutal, jealous, lustful,

who dominated the world and took himself for a god.’

Combes knows, of course, that the world’s throne is fickle; power is supreme, but no power lasts. And our Europe, impregnated, is taken to Crete; there, she brings forth Minos, the future king of the island, and the preeminent sovereign in European myth.

His mother, our sister, so careless in her choice, so short-sighted - the willing vessel of the spirit of a continent, a continent ruled by terror, by Caesars and Charlemagnes, Napoleons and Hitlers; masters of violence, legislators of cruelty; Europe, the progenitor, who knew not what she did: the poet asks, and we ask, how may we forgive her?

Felix Cassiel © 2020