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Trophies by Jean Arno: A Tonic for Our Times
By M. Tzvertoia
Contemporary poetry has largely turned away from the ecstatic, revelatory impulses that informed the work of poets from Orpheus down to the Symbolists who revolutionized 19th-century French verse. In his new book, Paris-born Jean Arno reclaims that heritage, delivering a rousing, illuminating volume whose substantial intellectual weight is presented with a remarkably deft touch.
“The greatest truths are conquered,” Arno has written elsewhere, and the best of these poems invite us to awaken to a new appreciation of our own beauty and creative powers. Arno often strikes the same note as Baudelaire’s “I am fair, O mortals! like a dream carved in stone,” but with a more triumphant timber: “ I sculpted in the asphalt of a divine masterpiece,
falling tears of basalt adorned with destinies!”
Arno’s themes of individual triumph and self-mastery naturally recall another 19th-century iconoclast, Friedrich Nietzsche. But while Nietzsche took a philologist’s millennia-long view in his celebration of “human beings who are new, unique, incomparable, who give themselves laws, who create themselves,” Arno’s poems are far more firmly of their time. If Nietzsche spoke prophetically through Zarathustra that “man is something to be overcome,” Arno strikes a more cautionary note, imploring us to resist the atmospheric presumption that our art and our lives have value to the extent that they find commercial markets. In this, Arno agrees with thinkers as diverse as HL Mencken and Dwight MacDonald, who in “Masscult & Midcult” noted, “so far our Renaissance, unlike the original one, has been passive, a matter of consuming rather than creating.”
Creating, becoming, discovering: these are at once the aims of Arno’s art and the preconditions of a life worthy of being considered such. Persevering against the forces of conformity, passivity, and death, Arno finds transcendent value in the struggle toward self-overcoming, not just in its attainment. “Every soul that darkness stirs up digs the world with such a stubbornness that chasms blossom with stars of unknown splendor.” He savors that struggle, at times in a voluptuary’s voice: “In our reasons murmur, mysteriously, the eloquent speeches of our obscure passions”. Indeed, many of the poems in this remarkable volume suggest that our earthier instincts may be the keys to freeing ourselves of their more limiting consequences: “In her eyes of sapphire, full of light and clarity, desires lose themselves, in avid immensity.” A tonic for our times, Trophies is a magnificent debut by an author who has staked an audacious claim on our future attention.
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