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Poet Against the War

Dashing French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin (literally, “Dominick from Pine-Tree Town”) is to publish an 800-page book in France this week titled Éloge des Voleurs de Feu (“In Praise of Those Who Stole the Fire”). According to London’s Daily Telegraph, the opus will contain examples of de Villepin’s poetry, as well as criticism and essays on the bad-boy bards he loves: Arthur Rimbaud, Gérard de Nerval, Antonin Artaud, Stéphane Mallarmé and Pablo Neruda, among others. A group suggesting that the foreign minister’s taste in verse is more or less identical to Patti Smith’s.

Nothing wrong with that, of course. It simply proves that for the 49-year-old diplomatic heartthrob, the fires of adolescence and romance still burn brightly. In this he is akin to former French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who dreamed of making love to every woman in France, and the former President François Mitterand, who is rumored to have actually done so. Still, given the foreign minister’s influence over world events — he was a principal architect of French opposition to the war in Iraq — some might wish that a few calmer heads, such as Boris Pasternak or Louis MacNeice, were included in his literary hit parade of suicides, madmen and seers.

With Vaclav Havel gone, de Villepin is not only the most glamorous politician of the age; given the competition, he’s probably the most erudite too. When he refers to poetry at all, Britain’s foreign secretary, Jack Straw, quotes old faithfuls like Rudyard Kipling (“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same”), while Donald Rumsfeld, who doesn’t quote poetry though he speaks a strangely lyrical form of Pentagonese, puts one in mind of late Dylan Thomas (“Old age should burn and rave at close of day”).

But de Villepin grooves to poets who were the forerunners of rock & roll casualties like Jim Morrison and Ian Curtis. The boy genius Rimbaud, who gave up poetry at 19 to run guns in Africa; de Nerval, who walked his pet lobster through the streets of Paris; and Neruda, who wrote odes to Stalin and, in his great poem “Walking Around,” described his ideal afternoon stroll in terms Sid Vicious would have understood:

Still, it would be lovely
to wave a cut lily and panic a notary,
or finish a nun with a jab to the ear.
It would be nice
just to walk down the street with a green switchblade handy,
whooping it up till I die of the shivers.

By the time he was 40, grumpy W.H. Auden was already “at the stage/When one starts to resent the young,” but de Villepin still soars on wings of rhetoric like a word-drunk adolescent (or, if you prefer, like a pretentious French intellectual). His prose, judging from extracts printed in the Daily Telegraph, is as purple as an aubergine. In the introduction to his book, he writes of wanting “to listen to the seed of the terrible voice which cleaves our consciences and feeds our imagination,” and states that he intends to weave his intellectual analysis “along the most diverse paths, along the scarlet crest of the sun, to the darkest underground seam.” Maybe something was lost in translation.

Éloge des Voleurs de Feu is not de Villepin’s first published work. He is the author of four well-received collections of poetry, as well as an account of Napoleon’s return from Elba (The 100 Days) and a political tract condemning the lethargy of contemporary France (The Cry of the Gargoyle). He is known to carry drafts of his poems in his black leather Gucci diplomatic briefcase, and to dash off the odd quatrain at the U.N., or while jetting around the world in a feverish attempt to foil U.S. foreign policy and annoy Colin Powell.

Such a display of dazzling Renaissance-man activity brings to mind W.B. Yeats’ famous lines from “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”:

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly.

Powell, on the other hand, might want to make a few adjustments:

Poet, statesman, weasel, he,
And all he did made mock of me.

Satirical squibs are unlikely to bother de Villepin, however. Nor will bad reviews of his book, should they come. He recently told a reporter from The New York Times that “All criticism is justified, all praise is unjustified. You grow with criticism; you are diminished with praise.”

To which one can only say: Deep, Dominique.

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