Soap, by Francis Ponge
Translated by Lane Dunlop

Taken piece by piece, in other words, examining each section of this book on its own, proves to be a disappointing experience. This is due in large part to the fact that the most enjoyable part of the book is the introduction, which is translated from German (which, in turn, was translated from French). Upon further investigation, perhaps the most impressive sentence in the entire text (“…these passages always striking his eyes as nebulosities cursively slanting toward the right (or, shall we say, since we are still circling on a path of Babel: in italics).”) is on the page preceding the introduction.

But taken as a whole, as a stone, it is impressive solely for its form. Jarring at first, once the reader reaches the middle of the book and discovers the eighteen-page poem/essay that has been the culmination of the fifty pages previous, which all contained the author’s carefully crafted and manipulated notes, it all begins to make sense.

While Ponge does warn the reader early on that there will be much repetition in this book, there is, perhaps, more repetitionof certain words and phrases than would normally be advisable in a text not xplicitly labeled as “poetry.” But when the true heart of the book is reached, everything unwanted is filtered out, washed off, and only the truest, most expressive words from Ponge’s voluminous dossier are used. The poem at the center of the book, which is comprised entirely of phrases from the first fifty pages of text, is at the same time familiar and fresh, representing the perfected form of all that has come before.

If nothing else, this book proves how much work truly goes into writing a good poem. A far cry from the method employed by many young poets of writing whatever sounds good at the time, Ponge’s process, at least on this project, took close to thirty years of research, writing and fine-tuning until he finally created the piece (of soap) representing everything he had compiled on the subject.

The book reads like it has been washed with soap, like it is a bar of soap. Like Ponge took his massive dossier and cleaned it in a small basin of soapy water, carefully scrubbing at the words with his foamy hands, until the clean, clear heart of the text revealed itself. He rinsed it off, dried it, and presented the piece, Soap.

I still liked the writing in the introduction (and the other German interruptions of the main text) better than the bulk of the book, but because of the form and way in which Ponge leads the reader, systematically and logically, to his end result, I appreciate what an extraordinary process was involved in writing this book and I can truly feel the years of work that went into it.