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Periplum #5


Periplum #5: Jean-Pierre Colleu

David G. Lanoue

Jean-Pierre Colleu is a young French poet who lives in the city of Rennes. His two books to-date, Une manière d’extase (“A Way of Ecstasy” – 2006) and Le passage intérieur (“The Interior Passage” -2008), might be described as haibun mixed with philosophical essay. Both books portray the poet as a wanderer in the world of Brittany or, as the French know it, Bretagne. This is haibun on the move; I picture Colleu walking along, noticing something that strikes an inner spark, then stopping, taking out pen and pad from his pocket, and, on the scene—part of the scene—writing the reflections, vignettes and haiku that fill his books. I met him in Rennes last year. He’s a studious, quiet person with an intense gaze and depths of humor that bubble to the surface as the beer and conversation flow. I’m honored to present a sampling of his writing here, in the original French and in English translation, for the first time on the Web. When I asked Jean-Pierre, in my fumbling French, for his e-mail address, he replied that he had none—adding to my overall image of him as someone from an earlier time: a seeker, an itinerant priest, a Cloud-Water Wanderer: unsui (雲水), as the Japanese say. Breton haiku poet Alain Kervern, my cousin, provides the preface for Colleu’s first book, Une manière d’extase, finding precedents for his “poetic rambling” (la randonnée poetique) in the work of that “walking poet” (le poète-marcheur) William Wordsworth, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire (“Reveries of a Solitary Walker”), in the automatic writing of André Breton and his surrealist cohorts, in the poetry of Ozaki Hōsai, whom Colleu cites, and, of course, in the time-honored tradition of Japanese haibun (7-9).

I should interject here that Alain Kervern, as a cousin, is quite distant: my Lanoue ancestors left Bretagne for Acadia in the 1690s, but I was tickled when Alain addressed me, nevertheless, as “cousin.” By that measure, then, I’m also Jean-Pierre Colleu’s cousin, and proud of it.

I’ve chosen three of his haibun: the first two from his first book and the third from his second. I present them here in French followed by my far less mellifluous English translations and reflections.


(Quelques rues, quelques friches avant le cours de la Vilaine)

Sur le trottoir un coquelicot

pour rendre grâce

aux mauvaises herbes


Nous avons sursauté

Le chien errant et moi

Sur le chemin, il s’agit de mettre une pensée, une lumière orientée, dans les gestes les plus simples, les plus courtes entrevues ; marcher sans bruit, observer la paix, le cotôiement des êtres, l’arbre qui lorgne, immobile, la faille souterraine ou le coin du ciel ; suivre l’échappée d’un oiseau dans une touffe d’ombres. Traversant ainsi l’espace et l’instant, je sais parfois ce que j’ai pu faire vivre dans mes yeux : la perte pure d’une présence, de toute présence.

(Une manière d’extase 33)



(Some streets, some fallow land by the banks of the Vilaine)

On the sidewalk a red poppy

to grace

the weeds

we startle

each other

the stray dog and I

On the road, it’s a question of seizing a thought, a guiding light, in the simplest of gestures, the briefest of encounters; to walk soundlessly, adhering to peace, to existential encounters, to the tree that casts a sidelong glance, motionless, to the subterranean fault or a patch of sky, to follow a bird’s flight into a cluster of shadows. Traversing in this way space and the moment, I come to know, now and then, what I’m able to make live in my eyes: the pure loss of a presence, of all presence.


Here and often, Colleu starts with haiku and then expands to prose, inverting the traditional organization of Japanese haibun. Instead of serving as the end punctuation, the crystallizing punch line of the piece, the haiku—in this case, two haiku—come first, triggering the poet’s meditation in prose. Both haiku are records of, as Colleu describes them, “the briefest of encounters” (les plus courtes entrevues): with a red poppy, with a stray dog. The second encounter evokes subtle humor, establishing an equality of wandering dog and wandering poet that is reminiscent of Issa. Colleu, however, struggles to put into words something that Issa never attempted: a description of “ecstasy,” of satori found in the ordinary moment when he grasps, fleetingly, “the pure loss of a presence, of all presence” (la perte pure d’une présence, de toute presence). To describe a mystical experience, he resorts to the language of paradox (as mystics have always done). He senses a loss of presence; an annihilation of self, other and universe; a flash of enlightenment on the banks of the Vilaine. Siddhartha, too, we recall, woke up by a river.


Moguériec (Finistère nord)

Je découvre un petit port à marée basse. Sur les quais traînent des kilos d’amarres, un goéland boîteux, des odeurs d’huile et de poisson. Je regarde sous la coque ventrue des chalutiers :

Même morts

au fond du port les crabes

usinent encore la vase

(Une manière d’extase 42)


Moguériec (North Finistère)

I find a little harbor at low tide. Over the piers that spill out miles of moorings, one lame sea-gull, the smell of oil, of fish. I peek under the bulging hull of a trawler:

Even in death

at the harbor’s bottom, crabs

still make ooze


This time Colleu follows the traditional structure of haibun, starting with prose that builds to the revelation of the haiku. His trek has taken him to the misty shores of North Finistère, the austere and windswept edge of a continent. From a wide-angle description he zooms in to focus on dead crabs under a trawler’s hull, still making ooze. Life and death in the haiku appear not as discrete states but as a single continuum. Living crabs excrete and contribute to the marine slime exposed at low tide, but here, dead crabs do the same. This ooze calls to mind the primordial soup from which life emerged, as scientists say, and the wet clay with which God fashioned Adam in the Book of Genesis—or Khnum, the ancient Egyptian god, who similarly formed the first human from mud. Colleu’s haiku, too, is a creation story, but in his case the story describes a continual creation of life flowing to death, flowing to life.


Marché des Lices

Un bouquet dans chaque main

Silencieuse à midi,

La fleuriste aux cheveux gris

Debout derrière son étal (modeste : des fleurs mais aussi quelques légumes), elle reste immobile, comme saisie par un rêve ou une fatigue, tandis que le corps, machinalement, tend aux passants les produits à vendre, pour vivre.

(Le passage intérieur 62)


Lices Market

A bouquet in each hand

Silent at noon

Gray-haired florist

Standing behind her stand (a modest one—of flowers and some vegetables), she’s motionless, as if rapt in a dream or numb with fatigue, while her body, machine-like, holds out to passers-by her goods for sale, to live.


In his second book, Colleu continues his poetic stroll through Bretagne. This particular vignette takes place in his home city of Rennes at the Market of Lices. This time, his “existential encounter” (cotôiement des êtres) involves a human being: an old woman-turned-automaton who sells bouquets and vegetables at her little market stand. Colleu’s gaze is not voyeuristic. His sympathy for the woman is clear in his concluding phrase: she sells these simple, garden-grown things “to live” (pour vivre). An ordinary moment on an ordinary day, yet this woman’s gesture of holding out her flowers is a matter of life or death.

Works Cited

Colleu, Jean-Pierre. Une manière d’extase. Rennes: Éditions La Part Commune, 2006; and Le passage intérieur. Rennes: Editions La Part Commune, 2008. English translations by David G. Lanoue.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Rêveries d’un promeneur solitaire. Paris: Le Livre du Poche, 2001.

Periplum is a section that is devoted to 20th and 21st century haiku from around the world. Periplum is overseen by David G. Lanoue. For an introduction to this section, see Periplum.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. My initial feeling about the term, when I read it, was a state of being that transforms naturally, as say, from clouds to water, as change is the natural state of being and allows being to be comprehended in it’s natural state.
    In Gabi’s post, I note that it may represent a postulent becoming a monk as well as a wandering monk…
    It certainly is an interesting term, and makes me look for more natural occurances that depict transformation…

  2. What a pleasure this selection is… To me it points up the need for less competitive haiku and more haiku that wander through our perceptions, taking time to be curious about simply being.
    David, would you give a little more information about “cloud-water wanderer (unsui) ?

  3. This is an excellent installment of the Periplum section. Thank you David. Although I am unable to read the original French, your translations are still very inviting and, presuming they are good enough to form opinion of the original text on, I think the work has a real flash of inspiration to it.

    This writer really does seem to have a wonderful ability to marry the prose and the haiku, while exploring (at least some of) the annals of philosophy. It delights me to see this connection with philosophy being made as, to me, haiku is quintessentially philosophical (besides being poetic) and doesn’t just make the reader a poet, but a philosopher too (in so far as poet and philosopher can be distinguished).

    Here it seems that the implicit philosophical side of haiku is teased out and explored in the prose, as when it is written “I come to know, now and then, what I’m able to make live in my eyes: the pure loss of a presence, of all presence”.

    It was this which most captured my attention, and provided me with a great deal to enjoy. The haiku written are married to wonderful prose with a philosophical bent expressed beautifully.

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