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poetry jean-luc godard stephen scobie at the limit of breath
Stephen Scobie, At the limit of breath: Poems on the films of Jean-Luc Godard
Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2013.

Stephen Scobie’s newest collection is a chronological, poetic study of the films of French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. And like the work of the man about whom Scobie writes, the book is pleasingly esoteric and sharply focussed.

Claustrophobia is a feature of Godard’s films, in which there is often an extended scene within a tight, domestic sphere. Even when the setting encompasses many rooms, the tension between the two people in the film narrows the viewer’s focus, and heightens the already taut suspense.

Scobie’s first poem is a stark, seven-stanza précis of Godard’s first film. In “A bout de souffle: Breathless 1960,” the poet writes:

At the edge, at the limit of breath,
time for a new sensation —
the gun abrupt and clumsy in his hands.

Thumb tracing the line of his lip.

The film’s main character is drawn in a few deft words, and the claustrophobia so dominant in the film makes this piece the near-perfect blend of form and content.

In “Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (Alphaville: A?Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution 1965),” Scobie’s short stanzas and left justification mirror the bleak, black-and-white noir feeling of this almost unwatchable film. Much of the narration comes from a man who speaks through a voice box due to a ruined larynx, and it becomes so unnerving, one feels the need to turn the sound off and simply read the subtitles. Scobie writes:

There is the straight line to be walked
out of the circle. There is something you must say,
you must say it yourself, I can’t
say it for you, something you must say
or else you will remain
lost
among the dead of Alphaville.

Here, the repetition of “you must say” echoes the spiral, inescapable atmosphere in Alphaville, a futuristic city in which human emotion has been outlawed, no roads seem to leave the town, and characters hurl themselves down seemingly endless corridors. Scobie’s choppy sentences and abrupt line breaks work seamlessly to keep the reader off balance, the eye constantly darting down the page as the characters in the film cling to walls in an attempt to stabilize themselves.

While I’ve responded to the pieces about some of the films I had seen, I found myself drawn more toward the poems based on those I hadn’t. Scobie’s skill is in the drawing of an absolutely clear picture in a breathtaking economy of words. In “For Ever Mozart 1996,” for instance,

Some lines
of porno dialogue, and a windswept beach.

A woman in a red gown outside a window,
her words lost in the howling storm.

The reader needn’t have seen the film to allow this image to burn into her retinas.

The book ends with a fifteen-page “Notes” section, which I studied closely before reading the book, so as to avoid the potentially annoying necessity of flipping from poem to notes on nearly every page. Here, Scobie doesn’t allow his reader to meet him halfway, and instead gives us every trinket of information and intertextual reference he thinks we might need.

That quibble aside, this book studies and examines Godard in a sharp and thrilling way, and Scobie invites his reader to further explore the world of the great filmmaker. Scobie’s knowledge of Godard is vast, to be sure, but his poetics—and his love for the films—are what truly shine here.

* “—JLG, Scénario du film Passion, 1982.

Kimmy Beach‘s fifth book, The Last Temptation of Bond (The University of Alberta Press) was named as one of the top five poetry Books of the Year for 2013 in Quill & Quire‘s Readers’ Poll.

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