A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance/Un coup de Dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard (2015)
A Roll of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance (2015)
Robert Bononno and Jeff Clark
Hardback, H280 x W192 mm, 96 pages, illustrations.
Jeff Clark has designed this book for a dramatic entrance: eleven double-page spreads presenting in large type the English title (interrupted with a full-bleed double-page spread of random-light burst-mode photographs of black-and-white laserprints) followed by Mallarmé’s name in equally large type. The words in all caps Helvetica type bounce across the pages like dice, or rise and fall like waves.
Three more double-page spreads of an ominously darkening sea display the translator’s and designer’s names and the copyright page printed in reverse.
And then the poem begins. Both the English and French versions of the preface and poem occur without interruption by images (as Mallarmé would have wished) and in the layout implied by Mallarmé’s mark up of proofs before his death. Their relatively plain sailing, contrasted with the book’s dramatic opening, actually draws attention to the disruptive and groundbreaking nature of the poem’s intended layout and variations in typography.
The dramatic opening of double-page spreads returns at the end of the English version. Four spreads of undulating photographs of the seabed separate it from the French version. The spreads begin with a blow-up shot of seaweed or coracle and encrusted wreckage, then back off to a slightly longer shot in the next two spreads and return to a blow-up in the fourth spread. Although these are stills, their manipulation over the pages conveys a sense of underwater movement.
Four more double-page spreads conclude the book with photographs so blown-up and darkening that they leave the reader/viewer wondering if the phosphorescent underwater world has metamorphosed into a constellation.
The design work is carefully considered and meaningful. In choice of type, the English version’s sans serif type, Helvetica, contrasts with and complements the French version’s serif type, Didot, Mallarmé’s preferred font. Although in the Helvetica family the roman font does not contrast with its italic font as much as those fonts contrast in the Didot family, the Helvetica “places” Bononno’s and Clark’s work as a contemporary translation that complements its original.
The handling of the images is deeply subtle — not merely in their thematic affinity with the imagery and thrust of the poem, but also in their technique. They are random-light, burst-mode photographs of laser-printed photographs, a meta-technique that echoes the poem’s metaphysical struggle with meaning’s and thought’s being at a chance-driven remove from language. In commenting on Raffaella della Olga‘s phosphorescent light installation of the poem, the critic Raimundas Malašauskas makes a comment that is also apropos of these photographic images and technique:
Conversations about light often end up in conversations about time because light is far from ageless. Two reasons compliment [sic] each other: first, the emission of photons starts at one point in time and finishes at another one. Second, the scope of light brings an unforeseen scale of time if one has chosen to read this evocation under the light of stars. Just imagine it (when hopefully no one sees you.)
Malašauskas’ comments should be read in full to appreciate how important the theme of temporal perspective is for della Olga’s work. In his poem, Mallarmé evokes a temporal perspective through numerous images, not least of which is the constellation, and links that perspective to chance and the space (gap or abyss) between word (mark or utterance) and meaning. Likewise, in the privacy of this book, the chance-driven burst-mode images of images shift perspective from surface to depth to the microscopic — and out to the stars — placing the viewer in that solitary place where “no one sees you” to imagine macro- and micro-scopic vastness and relate them to this poem that proclaims across its last two double-page spreads:
WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE
BUT THE PLACE
Glazier, Jeremy. “Un Coup d’idées: A New Translation of Mallarmé’s ‘A Roll of the Dice’“, Los Angeles Review of Books, 1 June 2015.
Malašauskas, Raimundas. “Coup de dés“, Raffaella della Olga website, 2010. Accessed 15 April 2020.
N.A. “Translators Jeff Clark and Robert Bononno on Stéphane Mallarmé’s ‘A Roll of the Dice’“, Poetry Society of America, N.D. Accessed 20 October 2020.
Ross, Alex. “Encrypted: Translators confront the enigma of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry“, The New Yorker, 4 April 2016.
Stark, Trevor. Total Expansion of the Letter (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2020). Reviewed here. For a clear exploration of Mallarmé’s themes of chance, temporal perspective, thought and language.