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This poem is taken from PN Review 167, Volume 32 Number 3, January - February 2006.

Twelve Poems (translated and introduced by David Kinloch) Jean Sénac


When, in 1999, the French publisher Actes Sud courageously published Jean Sénac's Œuvres poétiques, there should have been a collective intake of breath. It is what the French call 'un pave', a door-stopper of a book running to just over 780 pages of verse. Since his murder in 1973, Sénac's work has received some respectable academic attention but it remains far from being well known.

In his eloquent and useful preface to this volume, René de Cecatty implies that this state of affairs is part of a continuing scandal of neglect to which Sénac was subject for much of his life. He evokes the figure of Pasolini who - like Sénac - was assassinated during the 1970s, offering a comparison of poets who nailed their political and sexual colours to the mast and paid for it with their lives. If it is doubtful, even on the evidence of this book, that Sénac is in the same league as Pasolini, he was and remains a fascinating figure, the author of deeply uneven and engaging verse that repays study and translation.

Born in 1926 in Beni Saf (Algeria) to a French-speaking mother of Spanish origin and an unknown, possibly gypsy, father, Sénac met his end in extreme poverty on 29/30 August 1973 in the cellar of 2 rue Elisee-Reclus, Algiers. He was knifed five times. His body was laid out in the form of a cross. Whether this was an ironic act of retribution on the part of his killer(s) for the sin of homosexuality or whether Sénac managed in his dying moments to embrace the martyrdom some of his later poetry hints at, is not clear.

Whatever the case, religion - latterly an eroticised mysticism - and homosexuality remain among the defining factors of his career. The other main concern was politics and his struggle to reconcile his pied-noir origins with increasing sympathy for the cause of the native Arab and Berber peoples in their fight for independence. Although Albert Camus gave Sénac his first real break as a poet in 1954, the two men found themselves on opposing sides of the political divide by 1956. Sénac's clandestine journalistic activity on behalf of the FLN in Paris led Camus to describe him as 'the little cut-throat'.

Nevertheless, Sénac's relationship with the freedom fighters and then, subsequently, the fledgling independent socialist democracy, remained fraught with contradictions and the 'citizens of beauty' whom he hymned in significant circumstantial verse of the mid-1950s became, ultimately, 'citizens of ugliness'. For a short time immediately after independence Sénac was celebrated and his political verse taught in Algerian primary schools but mutual disenchantment followed quickly and he devoted himself increasingly to the more intimate love poetry that had always been part of his output.

Looking back at his work as a whole, it seems clear that much of the political verse he wrote in the 19 50s was of its time and, while it helped him develop his voice, the really interesting work dates from the mid-sixties. At this point he increasingly mixes archaism, word-play, neologism and dictionary trawling in the elaboration of what he came to call his 'corpoèmes', frankly erotic celebrations and lamentations that name the parts of the human body in very precise detail. In some of this poetry the accents of Whitman, Lorca and the Beat Poets are quite clear but Sénac manages to distil a personal vision from this mixture, offering a rhapsodic style often bordering on hysteria along with much more tightly controlled love lyrics where the influence of Arab masters will be apparent to aficionados. Among these experts is Hamid Nacer-Khodja, who provides an invaluable 'postface' to the Oeuvres poetique s on which I have drawn for many of the facts provided in this introduction.

'The Myth of the Sperm-Mediterranean', part of which is translated below, was written mostly in June 1967 when Sénac was much agitated by the Six Days War and by difficult events in his personal life.

It is not difficult to understand, then, why Sénac remains a marginal literary figure in France and virtually unknown in Algeria. His best work offers a poetry of the body that could not have had much impact on the highly cerebral French poetry in vogue for many years - although it should be more acceptable now. His fortunes in Algeria continue to await a better day.

Second Poem of the Hip Bone*


A Rainbow Wrasse a little shade and the promise of glances
Here our halt
In a savage stretch of sun.
From one rock to another, from one dune
To a corner of the harbour wall
Syllables pursue each other, words assemble, the book

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