Canadian literature is a multilingual territory, and I will admit that my first introduction to the work and life of French-Canadian poet Marie Uguay comes with the recent publication of her journals in translation. As an Anglo-Canadian, I came to learn of the esteem in which she is held in Quebec as a poet and feminist – despite her short career – through this autobiographical work.
Of Uguay’s three collections of poetry, Signe et rumeur (Sign and Rumour), L’Outre-Vie (The Life Beyond), and Marie Uguay: autoportraits (Self-Portaits), two were published posthumously, as was a volume of her selected poems, the only collection to be translated into English. Journal is the record of her intimate thoughts following a bone cancer diagnosis that led to the amputation of her right leg. Ultimately the cancer metastasized and she died in 1981, at the age of 26. Journal was published by her long-suffering partner Stéphan Kovacs in French in 2015, and has now been translated by Jennifer Moxley.
The introductions by Kovacs and Moxley promise “a piercing cri du coeur,” written “under the influence of an intoxicating desire and the threat of unthinkable loss.” The publication of the journal is, of course, an invasion into the most intimate thoughts of a woman on the precipice of mortality – there is a poet’s passion, youthful romanticism, struggles with meaning, and grief for one’s own loss of time and potential. Kovacs writes, “Once her body was threatened … two opposing poles began their pull on her: the one, against her will, toward death; the other, her inclination, towards poetry, desire and life (three things that were synonymous for Uguay).” Indeed, a romanticized vision of life and poetry sits at the heart of Uguay’s personality.
And, by the way, she falls in love with and has an affair with her oncologist, who is 30 years her senior and married, all the while still living with Kovacs.
Both Moxley and Kovacs claim the poet’s passion is the pillar of her importance. Indeed, Uguay’s attentiveness to the physical world is clear and her descriptions are vivid, imagistic, and romantically expressed. She feels a frisson for sudden and arresting moments in her environment that lead to poems. She also obsesses over Paul, “the doctor,” “the enigma,” the father figure. For Uguay, this latter passion seems to be the essential meaning of life and her raison d’être, despite the obviously ill-fated outcome. While this may have been her life’s purpose, it might have served both Uguay and the reader better if her journals had been further edited to about half the length. The very personal, repetitive, often clichéd writing about Paul becomes tedious: “The love that makes our hands gush / can no longer be enacted or spoken of.”
A more compact book would have allowed Uguay’s other interesting ideas to shine more brightly; for example, she has very specific thoughts about feminist ideals, Quebec as an independent state, and poetics as craft. These elements are found late in Journal, following the remission and then recurrence of her cancer, as Uguay’s thoughts on poetry become more urgent. The sections where she considers her craft contain her best writing and most cogently show the loss of Uguay’s potential as a thinker and artist: “Between the textual biases of the two different sorts of readers: those who beg to be told a story, and those who read to discover the infinite, there is no significant difference. Mysticism of speech, mystification of the word. The power to say is equal to prayer.”