Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan.—Francois Villon

Why do I call him Rodefer? A habit I inherited. There weren’t that many Stephens around to make it confusing, but nonetheless, Rodefer it is. Perhaps because he was half living and half legend, using his surname placed him in an historical index or obituary list, even as he held forth over a table of bottles, the life and soul of the party. The poems, bursting with the affects of the living, always had their half glance over the shoulder into Hades, like any follower of Orpheus.

The man I shall mostly leave to other people’s stories. Famously generous, a mooch, irascible, seductive, crass, subtle, childish, erudite, contemptuous of bourgeois manners, and yet at times a snob; from money, but almost a tramp at times, he was soft company, and he was hard company. He caused trouble and he made peace. The odd few times I spent with him we filled the glass with sadness and with hilarity. Poetry hung round his neck like his flamboyant scarfs, history around the room like the odour of last night’s party. The last time he was already a long way off. No glass in hand, hand uselessly in hand like an atheist at a prayer meeting, hunched like a deposed King, or a mortally wounded lion, almost indifferent to the inevitable.

Old age you fierce pig!

why do you have to do me in so soon?

I don’t have anything left—

I wish I were dead, and why not

put a fiery end to everything?

(Ha Vieillesse! p.22)

I come to Rodefer via Villon. And Villon via Rodefer. His pseudonymous Jean Callais version. A masque of a masque of a masque. Rodefer’s masterpiece is probably Four Lectures. But fuck masterpieces. His Villon was Rodefer all the way down. In a way it was blithe Frank O’Hara sexed through with old time European lit-noir. A dangerously intoxicating mixture of bloated braggadocio and spine-sharp wit, the self-aggrandized in a pit of squalor, we get to see in Villon the hopeless glamour of poetry, the last retreat. Like O’Hara, there is the assumption of a fraternal acceptance; the use of “we” invites one to bask in the company, but here the invitation is to the poet’s funeral more often than not:

Here lies and sleeps

Still musing in his grave

One leveled by

The irony of love—

(Cy Gist p.50)

The poem is a grave where the corpse of life is basted for the feast. Villon senses that the virtuoso posturing of self in his lyrics is the flourish of the condemned. The grasp for life is slapped away by death, just as the grasp for love is mocked by infidelity:

If the woman who I used to love

constantly and unconstantly

but who only wronged and hurt me

finally fucking me over completely,

had only leveled with me from the start…

(Se Celle p.30)

But he knew. He knew himself to be constant and unconstant bothly, necessarily. Somehow the rudeness of using un instead of in marks the contrast as deliberate, not as degree. One feels here that the constancy is not merely dislodged by inconstancy, but runs parallel to the deeds of unconstancy, so that the poet, the lover, does not abandon love, even in the arms of another. Inconstancy would be a lessening of the constancy of love, but here it is just the awful truth of being constant at the same time as defying such constancy. One loves and one fails to abide by the rules of love. Just as one is loved and failed. Over and again. One is never outside the grip of suffering paradox with Villon or Rodefer. The hope of constancy births the spectre of its necessary counterpart, just as much as conscious life lifts up death in her mother arms. If Villon’s (Rodefer’s) vituperative rants are hilarious, the anger is mixed with the bitterest pill of loss, or damaged hope. His hope for another life away from being fucked over is ironic as much as it is true. He knows that he is a creature as flawed as she. In their human frailties these poems are precise documents of the drama of mutability:

Item: to my love,

To my dear rose

I leave neither

My heart nor my liver.

(Ma Chiere Rose p.33)

It is a fool’s game to love. We are all fools. If love forces us to drink we will drink to love. For Villon (and Rodefer) the poem is a contract with Death, a deal waved in the executioner’s face, where Villon offers the poem as a last minute reprieve. The only issue being that the poem is itself a toe dipped into one’s own past already. If he manages to get the last word, it is still his last word! The poem is sent off into posterity, the grandest of gestures even as the poet sits in his death cell waiting for the gallows (literally the case for Villon). Or in his hovel, poor in life but rich in rage:

When I start to feel

useless and miserable,

my heart usually

tells me to cool it

and not be feeling

so sorry for myself…

….better to be

poor and live under

a writing table,

than rich and rot

behind nine tons of granite.

(De Povreté p.16)

The granite is a palace, but it’s a tomb as much. As with Shelley’s Ozymandias, we get to laugh at the monumental vanity of the wealthy and powerful, but unlike Shelley’s Adonais we don’t escape our own inevitable death. Rather than struggle against our demise, or run from the grave, Rodefer’s dancing Villon lives hard by it. That’s the poem, never quite having your cake nor eating it. A sketch of beauty even as it fades. That’s living though, that’s being conscious. The thing we love we lose as we love it. We cannot shore up against this loss. It is a hard lesson, and unless we are devout or saintly we struggle against it until the struggle is over. Rodefer’s poems wriggle with paradox, not just rhetorically, but with rollicking fury and desperate joy. They are ecstatic. They point backwards to the living and forwards to the dead, or is it the other way round?

So all you rich and wonderful

people out there, listen

to what Villon did just

before he left:

he took one last gulp of dark red wine

and ducked out the door forever.

(Icy Se Clost Le Testament p.53)

I should leave the last word to Villon, or Rodefer, but I want to notice how subtle this final stanza of his book is. The jolly iambics of the first line, tetrameter pure and simple, comes slap bang up against the trochaic people of the next line. Blam. We start again, carried over by the pure idiot momentum of carrying on we shuffle into three trochees, (or maybe a trochee, a spondee, a trochee), whatever it is, the ineluctable march continues, but we have been spun around, iamb to trochee, on y va. This is a drunken dance at his own wake. Next line houses the same number of beats, but seems to relent into iambs again, around the middle of the line, as if “Villon” itself were the turning point: “listen” we are asked, to what the name and the poet just did. He turned us over, rolled us in his grave as it were, and now with Rodefer, in the guise of Villon we get to feel him leave the room, the stanza. The penultimate line is a mixture of rhythms: possibly a spondee, then anapest followed by dactyl, the “of” unstressed, but its rhythm is so fluid even in its unconventional notation it has us waltzing out the door of the stanza with him. It is a tossed off tour-de-force. We “duck” an inauspicious exit, but it is the only way to leave a hovel, a ramshackled stanza that we only entered to get drunk in and leave. The poem, like the dance of life is full of makeshift rhythms, playful makedos: a slapdash fare, but with that it is still a glory. The final line has the inevitability, and the crassness, of a limerick, but the alliteration of “ducked” with “door” continues our jig, and the assonance of “door” and “for” has us teeter on the very brink, until we have stepped, quite jubiliantly and breathlessly, and unselfconsciously into forever.


self water colour

Martin Corless-Smith was born and raised in Worcestershire, England. His latest books are Bitter Green (Fence Books) and This Fatal Looking Glass (SplitLevel Texts).