It Then

Danielle Collobert
Translated by Norma Cole

1989 • 125 pp. • $12.00
ISBN: 9781882022021

Purchase from Small Press Distribution

The first English translation of this French poet, now an influence on many young American poets, who died at the age of 37 in 1978. Beverly Dahlen comments: “Collobert’s dash is a materialization of the gap within speech and the rush to close even as one discloses it… the page bears the record of these bursts of language …Collobert insists on ‘being without a subject,’ as if being were radically different from, absolutely divided from its subject. And like an archeologist she preserves the fragments of this ruined subject against time, ‘to reproduce the duration’ …appalling in the intensity of their imagination of the literal body transmuted into writing.” Michael Palmer comments: “She enunciates the words for desire and for loss the other words with harrowing intensity. It Then explores the limits of the phenomenal body and of speech by the agency of a prose which defies category.”



It – flows – it bangs itself – slammed into walls – it picks itself up – stamps feet – it doesn’t go far – four steps to the left – new wall – it extends its arms – leans – leans hard – rubs its head – again – harder – forehead – there – the forehead – hurts – rubs harder – becomes inflamed – not the forehead – from within – cries

good start for the pain – head between arms – forehead against wall – and rubbing – skin breaks open a little – not enough – ooh the pain – there it is – feet kicking the wall down low – go on – with the toes – striking hard – thrashing – nothing to be done – doesn’t subside – never will subside – the rage – the pain – cries – hits with flat hands – dull noise – a cry – here a cry – no gasp – a little above a gasp – in shrillness – here it comes – collects at the back of the throat – what’s going to come out – still below the pain – not enough

sobs shaken – saliva at lips’ edge – bitter taste – slides a little towards the corner – nose smashing – lips – the lips twisted sideways – pulled back to the gums – moistening the wall – eyes closed – stomach and chest flattened – unsticks – comes back harder – sharp impact of shoulders – unsticks – comes back again with elbows with knees – bangs fists – fists’ backs – to the bone – starts over – skin reddens – rips at last – it falls – doubled up – dragging arms stretched along the wall – kept vertical by ends of fingernails – it collapses – impact of back – head rings on wooden floor – it pushes up onto its elbow – drags along the wall – reaches hung-up coat – hangs onto – hoists itself – buries its head in the wool – grabs the arms – holds the end of the sleeves tight – overlaps them around neck – expecting softness – but no – squeezes hard – chokes – coughs into tears – chokes – lets go – hangs onto cloth – pulls hard to rip – rips with all its strength – tears pieces with its teeth – spits – chokes – arms fall back down – sinks down – slips onto the ground

a body there – practicing pain – as if it hadn’t had enough of this suffering – at each moment – in floods – in vast wave – trying pathetically to practice it

body striking – disfiguring its limbs with the too full pain – which body sudden empty – which violence against – about empty – pain congealed at last – wanting to reach it to set it once and for all – to keep it there motionless – or set it down in front of it – itself – to make it really visible – in its infinitely numerous images – unceasingly

a body there – no – that body there – the one banging its face against the wall – maybe – no

walls fictive also – unnecessary walls – no – only to see from the place of the present invisible – here – facing the stripped body – arms motionless yet sweeping around in space without meeting anything to lean on – temporary connection – just for an instant – to slow the breathing down – slow down the beating – to quiet down – this body seeking the place – the hollow in which to melt back down again – heat ruptured – and cold of the world around – its place or position unsure to inscribe against the lack – the shocks of the day


Danielle Collobert

Danielle Collobert killed herself on July 23, 1978 in a hotel room on the rue Dauphine in Paris. Among her personal belongings, a black file containing a large green school notebook, a little scratch pad bought in Peru, loose sheets and also a spiral bound notebook bought in New York: all of it, arranged chronologically, constitutes this journal that a brief good-bye note entrusted to the exclusive care of a friend. The text we publish here was established with no editorial cuts and respects insofar as is possible the writing and spacing in the manuscript. We publish it because it is the journal of a writer who notes, in July of 1978, “twenty years of writing” as one would announce a verdict, now and forever settled. Those twenty years of friendship linking me to her do not leave me in the best condition to speak about this. I would rather have restricted myself to the simple revision, ridiculous and trivial, of punctuation and spelling. But at least some context needs to be provided. I met her in a cafe on the boulevard Saint-Germain in March or April 1958, at which time she was not yet eighteen. We immediately spoke of the essentials: writing, death. These two things – or is it one single thing – seemed to occupy her exclusively and with such rigor that one felt from the outset she would proceed in this single and unique direction, that no one could divert her or deceive her as to its end. At most, out of love for her, one could hope, idiotically of course, that sooner or later she would lose track, that her resolve would weaken. At that time, she had just left her studies, was writing very short poems, strangely haiku-like. Of course she was reading a great deal, but beyond everything she had discovered her own utter nakedness: that owned by nights of relentless attention to the other, or reflected in mirrors of all-night cafes where you can look, listen or simply wait, attending the blank page, from which the lassitude of daybreak will rescue you, overwhelm you. When she spoke of her Breton childhood, of her family, it sounded both clear and distant: news from another planet or a dead star but communicating the smells and sounds from a real landscape (the one in the texts of Meurtre1). This setting constructed of unnamed spots was profoundly placed, located. Her parents belonged to the Communist Party, one of her aunts was in the Resistance and had been deported. And we were in the middle of police surveillance of Algerians and other dark-skinned people. There was no mistaking whose side you would take. At first, she worked at some little jobs, research, babysitting, then later found a position in a gallery that exhibited painting, in the rue Hautefeuille, where, surrounded by white walls and geometric works (the style featured there) she began slowly to compose the texts that would become Meurtre. One change of scene: her stay in Tunisia during the spring of 1960. In April of the following year, she published a collection of first poems, titled Chant de guerres. This chapbook published at her expense by P.J. Oswald consists of twenty short poems, and is, to my knowledge, quite unavailable, since Danielle had, a few years later, retrieved the whole run, more or less, and destroyed it, just like that. For several months she had belonged to a group supporting the F.L.N.2 From time to time, she disappeared in order to carry out missions she never spoke to me about. What I do know is that for over a year, absorbed in her clandestine daily life, she stopped writing but came out of this period apparently unchanged, as though nothing real could reach her apart from writing. The Algerian experience wound up of necessity with a sort of enforced stay in Italy (between May and August 1962 she was in Rome, then in Venice) that would permit her to reconnect with her writing and complete the composition of Meurtre. First she offered the manuscript to Minuit, who refused it. Then, represented enthusiastically by Raymond Queneau at Gallimard, Meurtre was finally accepted and came out in April 1964. Meanwhile she had joined the staff of “Révolution Africaine,” an Algerian magazine begun after the war but which would disappear, I believe, soon after Ben Bella. The years between ’64 and ’67 are somewhat fuzzy in my memory. I have the impression that our lives were static, as if in suspension: the Algerian war was over, her first book was out. You’re published, you write, and then what? That her writing could receive praise – her book had received some very positive response – was, according to her, only the result of some misunderstanding. When she presented her second manuscript, Parler seul (which became Dire I) to Gallimard, it was rejected. The following year, she composed a new text, Film, originally conceived as a screenplay, whose stripped-down narrative, no doubt an outcome of writing the visual, represents a major step in her formal evolution. It was also then that her desire to travel asserted itself, little by little becoming a kind of aggravated impulse to wander, an almost perpetual motion in which contradictory motives fused: the need to escape, the attraction of distant, “exotic” countries as bearers of nameless signs guaranteeing silence, solitude; and simultaneously a sort of proof by geographic exhaustion that she would not be content anywhere, that places were but names, and that, wherever she went, she would “not [be] going towards anything”(cf. p. 60). This, however, did not stop her from being, at times, very present in the world: in May ’68 she joined the Writers’ Union, and a few months later she turned up in Czekhoslovakia as Soviet tanks rolled across the country. Finally in 1970 she could undertake her first major voyage: Indonesia, Bali, Borneo, etc. During this period she wrote Dire II, took notes for other projects, collaborated on a radio play, Bataille (broadcast in Germany in 1971), and participated in translating an Italian novel. Meanwhile she had met Jean-Pierre Faye3, who would spare no effort seeing her work into print. Dire I-II appeared in 1972 from Collection Change (Seghers-Laffont). The following year she rewrote Film into a radio play, Polyphonie, broadcast by France Culture. And she traveled. Between ’74 and ’75 she visited, in turn, Italy, South America, Mexico, the United States, Greece. She also worked on a new book and collaborated on another radio play, Discours (broadcast in Germany in 1976). And then she traveled. Again to the United States, to Crete, Formentera, Italy, Egypt. Il donc4 appeared in October 1976 from Change. Her trips abroad proliferated, continuous: Egypt again, Africa, New York, and Crete. When she returned from the island I caught up with her again in Paris, at the end of March or beginning of April 1978. She had just completed a short text, Survie5, wanted to see it published as quickly as possible and wanted it translated into Italian and English. A strange and uncharacteristic sense of urgency. I translated it into Italian. Survie came out at the end of April, a chapbook in an edition of 60 copies, from Orange Export Ltd.6 One night she came to say good-bye to me, she was leaving the next day for New York. I left Paris at the end of the month. By mid-July she was back in Paris. She chose to die on her birthday: she had been born in Rostrenen (Cotes-du-Nord) 24 July 1940.7

—Uccio Esposito-Torrigiani

1 One of the untitled texts from Meurtre, translated by N.C., appears in Série d’écriture 4 (Providence RI, 1990).

2 Front de libération nationale [National Liberation Front, Algeria].

3 Director of “Collection Change” series, published by Seghers/Laffont.

4 It Then, N.C.’s translation, was published by O Books, Oakland, 1989.

5 “Survival,” N.C.’s translation, appears in Tyuonyi (Santa Fe, NM 1991).

6 Orange Export Ltd., an important independent small press, active from 1969 to 1986, edited by writer Emmanuel Hocquard and painter Raquel.

7 Note that Uccio Esposito-Torrigiani begins this Postface with the words, “Danielle Collobert killed herself on July 23, 1978…” and concludes by stating “She chose to die on her birthday,” July 24.


Norma Cole is a poet, painter and translator. Her most recent poetry publications are a little a & a (Seeing Eye Books) and Spinoza in Her Youth (Omnidawn Press SCOUT, a text/image work, is forthcoming from Krupskaya Editions in CD-ROM format. Among her poetry books are MARSMOIRA and Contrafact. Current translation work includes Danielle Collobert’s Journals, Anne Portugal’s Nude and Crosscut Universe: Writing on Writing from France. Her translation of Fouad Gabriel Naffah’s Mind-God and the Properties of Nitrogen is forthcoming from Post-Apollo Press. Cole has been the recipient of a Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation Award, Gertrude Stein Awards, as well as awards from The Fund for Poetry. “Poetics of Vertigo,” Cole’s George Oppen Memorial Lecture, won the Robert D. Richardson Non-Fiction Award. She teaches in the Bay area and is on the faculty of the MFA program at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. Canadian by birth, Cole migrated via France to San Francisco where she has lived since 1977.