Brittany’s Eco Warrior:
The Environmental Poetry of Anjela Duval (1/2)

Anjela Duval
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The Environmental Poetry of Anjela Duval
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Brittany’s Eco Warrior:

Brittany’s Eco Warrior:

The Environmental Poetry of Anjela Duval


Lenora A. Timm *

 

 

Introduction

In his recent overview of North American environmental literature—The Environmental Imagination (1995)—Thoreauvian scholar and literary critic Lawrence Buell suggested four criteria by which to identify what he calls “ an environmentally oriented work, ” which may be applied equally to prose or poetry. In brief, these are:

 

1. The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history.

2. The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest.

3. Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation.

4. Some sense of the environment as a process rather than a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.[1]

 

While the environment or, more commonly, “ nature, ” in some sense has been a common theme in poetry and other literary creations since time immemorial, many writers have found it difficult, or perhaps unimaginable, to write about nature or the environment from anything but a homocentric perspective. The “ green movement ” in Euro-American literature of recent decades (notably since the 1970s) has self-consciously endeavored to be more ecocentric in its themes and expressive genres. Indeed, environmental literature has emerged as a distinct specialization for younger cohorts of literary scholars, in both creative and critical dimensions, and there are both acknowledged leaders and admired precursors within this branch of the literary enterprise, eloquently discussed—for the American case—in Buell’s work, cited above.[2]

 

As one familiar with the poetic œuvre of Anjela Duval (1905-1981), I have long been struck with her love of nature and with environmental issues, and in contemplating Buell’s defining characteristics of environmental writing, I realized that by these criteria Duval clearly merits inclusion in any honor roll of “ green poets, ” though I would guess that, given her life circumstances on a relatively isolated farm in pays tregorrois, she had little awareness of the environmental movement in literature that was gaining momentum elsewhere.

 

While Duvalian scholars have certainly been appreciative of this poet’s sensitivity to nature, more attention has been paid to her as a nationalist poet and as an inspiration for several generations of Breton activists who have sought greater political and economic autonomy and a cultural/linguistic renewal for Brittany. Only recently has she been characterized as an ecological poet before her time.[3] I believe this is fundamentally correct, and her understanding of the importance of preserving healthy ecosystems (though she did not employ such language) is manifested in a number of her poems that, in an earlier work of mine, I categorized as “ social criticism ”—which it was.[4] However, it has become even more evident in the most recent collection of Duval’s poetry[5]—much of it previously unpublished—that eco-environmental themes were very prominent in Duval’s thinking and ultimately in her poetic expression. She rightly deserves a place among other 20 thc. writers who have modeled an environmental critique in their poetry.

 

Brittany’s Eco-Muse

in Comparative Perspective

What I will do in this essay is to highlight the environmental and nature dimensions of Duval’s poetry, drawing occasional parallels to three prominent North American poets who are admired for their compelling handling of ecological/environmental themes, and human-nature interactions—Robinson Jeffers, Mary Oliver, and Wendell Berry.[6]

 

Of course, Duval was also a “ nature poet ” in the more traditional sense of one who paid attention to, and honored, nonhuman creatures, natural forces, and landscapes, and some of her most exquisite poems in my opinion fall under this rubric. Like the New England poet, Mary Oliver, Duval also had a genius for “ bringing nature into focus through painted particulars, ” as one critic has written of Oliver’s work.[7] The pertinence of this remark is evident in Oliver’s “ Goldenrod ”: “ on roadsides,/ in fall fields,/ in rumpy bunches,/ saffron and orange and pale gold,/ in little towers/ soft as mash,/ sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,/ full of bees and yellow beads and perfect flowerlets… ” Similarly, Duval’s “ An Delioù Kentañ ” (“ First Leaves ”) offers a verbal water-color of the subtle hues in early spring foliage to be discerned by the careful observer:

 

Sunday they were still gray

And their branches naked,

The row of poplar trees

So tall and so thin

On the edge of the meadow,

Contemplating their image,

In the dark water of the Leger.

—Today they’ve changed color.

They’re neither pink nor yellow,

Nor are they at all green,

It’s a subtle shade, known only

To the Great Painter…

Tender, delicate and fragile,

Like an idea germinating

in the mind of a child [8]

 

In “ Dibreder ” (“ Carefree ”) Duval paints a “ rural tableau ” that deftly depicts the lush countryside near her farm and also captures the subtle but characteristic behavior of dairy cows at rest:

 

A border of flowering broom

A golden sea gently undulating

Carefree in the shade of an oak tree

Three cows stretched out on the grass

Ruminating greens and dreams

Now and again an ear is raised

         Just like a fan

To flick away a fly

sucking rheum in the corner of their eyes. [9]

 

Within the plant kingdom, trees reigned supreme for Duval. She knew, as deeply rooted peoples do, all the plant species in her territory, but she particularly delighted in writing about trees. She ends one poem that wonders how she came to love trees so much from early childhood—“ When I caressed their bark/ With my babyish hand./ When I glued my ear against them/ To listen to the rustling of their leaves ”—with the speculation that “ Perhaps I was a tree/ at the beginning of time… ”[10]

 

In another poem, “ Er C’hoad ” (“ In the Forest ”) she revels in reciting the “ magical names ” of the trees to be found there, which seem to cast a sort of spell over her: “ White-oak. Forest-aspen/Maple. Hornbeam/ Black-alder. Willow. White Birch./ /My thousand mute friends. ”[11]

Duval’s affection for all creatures, animal or plant, certainly motivated many of her poems, but this poet was also driven by a powerful sense of the destructive forces of the technologies and global economic expansions of the 20thc., not only in terms of their potential for devastation of traditional ways of human life—including the rural existence she had known as a small farmer—but also for their effect on wildlife and landscapes. Some of her environmental poetry is anything but pastoral, manifesting instead a horror at the discontinuity she saw unfolding between humans and nature, as people became increasingly detached from their rural roots and traditions. In a tone akin to that of a number of Robinson Jeffers’ poems, Duval not infrequently blasted away at the rottenness of cities, viewed not only as pits of decadence but as destroyers of the natural countryside. Jeffers, who lived in the mountains above the central California coast was disgusted by the incursion of suburbs into once remote countryside, along with the sprawl of cities. In “ Carmel Point ” he sighs,

 

The extraordinary patience of things!

This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban

         houses—

 

How beautiful when we first beheld it,

Unbroken field of poppy and lupine walled with clean

         cliffs;

 

No intrusion but two or three horses pasturing,

Or a few milch cows rubbing their flanks on the outcrop

         rockheads—

 

Now the spoiler has come: does it care?

Not faintly.[12]

 

In Part V of a longer poem, “ The Broken Balance ”, Jeffers mourns “ …the broken balance, the hopeless prostration of the/earth/Under men’s hands and their minds,/The beautiful places killed like rabbits to make a city/The spreading fungus, the slime-threads/And spores; my own coast’s obscene future… ”[13]

 

Duval’s “ spreading fungus ” was Paris. For example, in the dissonant closing lines of an otherwise nostalgic and pastoral poem, “ Lec’h Va C’havell” (“My Cradle’s Place ”), this most famous of French cities is metaphorized as an anthropophagic monster:

 

My cradle’s spot is my little kingdom

I was born one day

When the narcissus bloomed

I was born in the countryside

Born on a farm

On a property in my mother’s line

In Tregor in Brittany

Born in the springtime

At the time of down-filled nests

In the shelter of ivy and moss

At the time of foals and new lambs

Gamboling in the pasture

 

My pleasant green valley

Crossed by the black Leger

Bordered by the hills Runavin

Keravel Kerouel and Keriel.

in which echo so prettily

The tinkling bells of Tregrom’s tower…

And the heavy feet of the Black Horse

Crossing day and night

People from Brest to Paris

Paris-Sodom the voracious abyss

That only throws up its prey at the time of the potato beetle

To regorge its vomit each year at the

“ Rentrée ”[14]

 

It must be added here for readers not familiar with the history of Brittany that for many Bretons Paris represents the seat of centralized authority that has limited the region’s possibilities for economic self-regulation and cultural development; and has also been the destination for many generations of Breton émigrés seeking work, for want of opportunity in their native region. This siphoning off of the younger cohorts of Bretons over the years further contributed, historically, to the stagnation of the Breton economy and of Brittany’s distinctive cultural and linguistic heritage.

For Duval, it was cities, too, that sent out the hordes of tourists who, especially in the summertime, would overrun and disrupt her beautiful countryside, showing little or no respect for its inhabitants, human and nonhuman alike. Her poems “ Korriganed ” (“ Elves ”) and “ An Douristed ” (“ The Tourists ”) speak to this theme (portions of each poem follow):

 

Elves

A people of elves

A degenerate people

A genocidal people

Drowned in red wine

Drowned in French pom-pom

And in political slogans

A people resembling Elves

Playfully amusing themselves

In the abandoned heaths

Dancing among the megaliths

To the sound of the toads

To the mysterious music

Of the wind and the sea

The lament of the streams

The rustling of the woods [15]

 

The Tourists

 

They make me laugh

—when they don’t infuriate me—

They are seeking, they say, tranquility

To rest from the noise of the cities.

Yet I no longer hear throughout the day

My winged companions

Nor deep in his crevice

My friend the cricket

In each corner of the village: a clamor

The racket of stinking cars

The din of transistor radios [16]

 

Duval’s utter contempt for mindless tourists is transparent; yet she was not (unlike Jeffers most of the time) convinced of the baseness of humanity. Rather, as a devout Catholic, she believed in the possibility of redemption, and used her poetic voice, in part, to encourage, or, more often, to admonish others to pay attention to what was going on around them and to engage in more positive interaction with the environment, just as she attempted in many of her poems to rouse Bretons from their political apathy. Indeed, the two themes are almost inextricably intertwined, for she understood the “ dismantling of Brittany ” as an ecosystem to be, in large measure, the result of her compatriots’ submissive assimilation to French culture and language.

 

The ecosystem she sees disappearing and in favor of which she writes so passionately is one in which human beings are deeply embedded. Hers is not the vision of a primal wilderness, but of a caring and knowledgeable interaction between human and nonhuman on a beloved territory. That is, her ecological vision is of a small farmer living in harmony with the denizens of a humanized landscape. This is her ideal, but she sees it slipping away year by year as the young leave Brittany, especially its rural sectors, as outsiders settle in, and as construction of new roads and houses moves implacably forward. In a particularly stirring poem published in the most recent anthology of her work, Duval creates an unforgettable image of the destruction of one of the hallmarks of the Breton landscape—its bocages,[17] embankments covered with a thick growth of trees, shrubs, and vines that separate fields, that serve as habitat for dozens of animal species, and that may self-regenerate indefinitely.

 

The Bocage

 

—“ A shiver runs

Down my thorny back

Stiffening on my head

My hair of tangled brambles

My last hour has sounded

All over my miseries of this World

The earth shakes. The trees tremble

But what do I see? It isn’t Ankou! [18]

But a huge devil with claws

Coming to tear me apart, to behead me

The red Bulldozer with its giant step

To bury me in the ditch. ”

—“ Ah! may the steel of your claws be

[marked

With the pure blood of my roots;

Like the hand of an executioner

With the blood of a martyr!

While my soul will fly lightly

In the mantel of my dust:

A cloud carried by the breeze

High high above the hillside,

Toward… a Paradise:

Paradise of old bocages… [19]

 

This theme recurs in her poems, for she understands, as she says in one of them, that the bocages are important not only in Brittany, but serve as “ the framework of the Celtic Countries. ”[20]

 




(2/2)

* (Department of Linguistics, University of California, Davis)


[1] Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge, Mass. : Belknap/Harvard University Press), pp. 7-8.

 

[2] Buell’s work is but one of a large and growing number of such studies of environmentally oriented writing. However, l do not wish to imply that there was no environmental writing in earlier decades and centuries-Buell demonstrates that there was. Still, interest in ecological and environmental themes in the humanities has accelerated in the past 30 years; and, as noted in the text, a distinctive scholarly specialization in environmental literature has emerged, evident in such anthologies as Being in the World: An Environmental Reader for Writers, ed. Scott H. Slovic & Terrell F. Dixon (New York: Macmillan, 1993); in Praise of Nature, ed. Stephanie Mills (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990); and in the monumental Encompassing Nature: A Sourcebook. Nature and Culture from Ancient Times to the Modem World, ed. Robert M. Torrance (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998).

 

[3] Ronan Le Coadic so characterizes her in his essay about her life in Anjela Duval: Stourm a ran war bep tachenn [Anjela Duval: I do Battle on Every Front] (Sant-Brieg: Mignoned Anjela, 1998), p. 152.

 

[4] Lenora A. Timm, A Modem Breton Political Poet: Anjela Duval (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990).

 

[5] This is the collection cited in note 3. Le Coadic and others have done a great service in finding and compiling a hundred additional poems; a number had been published years ago in now hard-to-find Breton literary journals; but many had not been published and were selected from archival materials that had been gathered on Duval after her death.

 

[6] There are of course many other fine poets who delve into this territory poetically, but these happen to be three whom I enjoy reading and whose poetry strikes me as sometimes closely related in theme and style to Duval’s environmental poetry.

 

[7] John Elder, Imagining the Earth. Poetry and the Vision of Nature (Athens: University of Georgia Press), p. 219.

 

[8] Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest: Al Liamm, 1982), p. 77. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 188. This and all other translations of Duval’s poems into English are my own.

 

[9] Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest: Al Liamm, 1982), p. 107. Translated in L.Timm, op.cit., p. 160.

 

[10] From “ Santad Bugel ” (‘A Child’s Feeling’) in Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour (Brest : Al Liamm, 1982), p. 68. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 62.

 

[11] Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest: Al Liamm, 1982), p. 122. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 168. The tree names are arguably “ more magical ” in Breton: Derv-gwenn. Koad-kren/Skav-gwrac’h. Fav-put/Evor. Aozilh. Bezv Gwenn.

 

[12] Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poems,

p. 102. © 1963, 1965 by Donnan Jeffers and Garth Jeffers (New York: Random House).

 

[13] Robinson Jeffers, The Selected Poetry of Robinson Jeffers, p. 260. © 1938 by Robinson Jeffers (New York: Random House).

 

[14] Anjela Duval, Stourm a ran war bep tachenn (Sant-Brieg: Mignoned Anjela, 1998), p. 129.

 

[15] Anjela Duval, Traoñ an Dour (Brest: Al Liamm, 1982), p. 114. Translated in L. Timm, op. cit., p. 238. The French word, “ Rentrée, ” at the poem’s end refers to the return each September 1st of summer vacationers to Paris (and other cities).

 

[16] Anjela Duval, Kan an Douar (Brest: Al Liamm, 1982), p. 113. Translated in L.Timm, op.cit., p. 252.

 

[17] The term is French, and is found in more comprehensive English dictionaries; there is no suitable English equivalent, though “ hedge ” is sometimes used as a less than fully adequate translation.

 

[18] Ankou is the traditional Breton symbol of (impending) death, typically personified as a skeleton carrying a scythe and travelling in a creaky, horse-drawn cart.

 

[19] Anjela Duval, Stourm a ran war bep tachenn (Sant-Brieg: Mignoned Anjela, 1998), p. 15.

 

[20] This line is in her poem “ Dismantroù Breizh ” (“ The Dismantling of Brittany ”) in Traoñ an Dour (Brest: Al Liamm, 1982), pp. 117-118. Translated in L.Timm, op.cit., p.250.

 



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