Clinical Poetics

Clinical Poetics: A review of Chantal Maillard’s Killing Plato, trans. Yvette Siegert

by Anushka Sen

There is no dense accumulation of theoretical terms here. Maillard’s unnamed first-person speaker is striking for their use of precise detail, their clean staging of scenes through syntactically stable but forceful lines.

Killing Plato by Chantal Maillard, translated from the Spanish by Yvette Siegert, New Directions Publishing, 64 pages, 2019, $11.95, ISBN: 9780811228992

Philosophers have been trying to kill Plato for centuries now, with little apparent success. In that light, one might wonder how seriously to take Killing Plato, Chantal Maillard’s slender volume of poems which flaunts a picture of Plato’s head with a target aimed at it. The casual militancy of the book’s aesthetic is in a sense disarming. It seems that Maillard is playfully aware of her outsize claim—could it be any other way when Plato is concerned? The original work, Matar a Platón, was published 15 years before Yvette Siegert’s English translation, but also winks at its prospective readers: the minimalist black and bronze cover bears the line drawing of a dog standing placidly under the confrontational title.

The poems themselves are lean and wry. With varying line lengths that only occasionally display a surprising enjambment or indentation, they are not overly sculpted but through sheer phrasing, land deft jabs at genteel sensibilities. The first one (in English) opens with: “A man gets run over. / At this very moment. / Right now. A man gets run over” (6). Later, in Poem 18, a musician appears at the scene, “sidles up to your ear and whispers / something you don’t understand” (24). Maillard’s speaker is withering about his unasked commentary and sombre expression: “Seriousness is a variation on forgetting: / it helps us become somebody else, / to establish distances, to believe / in skin as a limit.” Seriousness—self-seriousness especially—is a shield against “the breath of a man who is dying.”

Maillard might be against the stultifying effects of seriousness, but she is also far from glib in engaging with a long philosophical genealogy catalyzed by Platonism. Her epigraph is an excerpt from Gilles Deleuze’s Logic of Sense, a text which explicitly tries to “reverse Platonism” (LS 253). If Plato is concerned with pure ideas and ways they may or may not be accurately measured, Deleuze is invested in pure action that always evades measurement or conceptualization. The Logic of Sense hinges its philosophy on the event, which surfaces in Maillard’s epigraph: “The event is not what occurs (an accident), it is rather inside what occurs, the purely expressed. It signals and awaits us” (KP 5, LS 149). The poems start, ostensibly with an accident, but the epigraph asks us to read it as an event in the Deleuzian sense.

One could walk into these poems without answering that call and lose little in terms of aesthetic enjoyment, but intellectually, that would be a sidestep. So we must ask—what does it mean to move from accident to event? What in fact is the event? Any occurrence could be an event if it shakes up the order of things. In The Logic of Sense, Deleuze writes that all events are wars and wounds of a kind, even if they are not literally so, for they slice through the present and all its expectations. The event occupies an instant—is the instant. In keeping with that urgency, Killing Plato is insistently present tense, even when it considers other timelines:

If this had happened at dawn,
I would’ve mentioned summer
in the lower country and how the air grows
thick with the scent of wild chamomile.
But it isn’t dawn now
and this village is really almost a city— (Poem 12, p. 17)

When Deleuze writes that the event is “inside what occurs” [emphasis added], the preposition is potentially misleading in its associations with depth. The event is not some moment of greater significance or meaning buried within the superficial chaos of the accident. Rather, the event is the potential suffusing any occurrence. As potential, it takes up negligible space. It seems to be a sense, a whiff of something, waiting to be activated. Maillard plays with this scale, compressing the initial scene of a village or a city, down to

a street—or, rather, a street corner—
smelling like shoe soles hot from the pavement.
It smells like thirsty asphalt
                                                       and also like tires. (Poem 12, pp. 17-18)

Despite its ephemerality, the event, in its full scope, can endlessly accommodate different stories. The event is powerful to Deleuze because instead of creating an aftermath, it expresses the truth all at once, in its awful and chaotic splendour.

The Translator’s Afterword fully embraces the philosophical framework of its project: Siegert clarifies that Killing Plato “does not describe or represent the accident; rather, it interprets and makes sense of the occurrence and releases the Event, ex-presses it” (63). The text does not resolve its divergences through the formal ploy of an interlocking narrative, neither does it reach beyond itself through a transcendental impulse. Instead, it conceives of its poems as tremors born of the accident—each one communicating its own register of experience. A second narrative runs through the bottom of each page. This narrative, termed “original subtitles,” tells the story of a man writing a book called Killing Plato about a woman knocked over by the force of sound. This writer turns out to be the man killed in the road accident. The respective worlds of the poems and of the subtitles convey different paths and possibilities, forced into an “internal resonance” as Deleuze puts it, by the event (LS 261).

Unlike reading Deleuze, which feels to me like flailing in a subterranean maze with occasional bursts of illumination, encountering Maillard’s poetry was like inhaling sharp winter air. There is no dense accumulation of theoretical terms here. Maillard’s unnamed first-person speaker is striking for their use of precise detail, their clean staging of scenes through syntactically stable but forceful lines.

The man’s body has been fractured at the waist
and he looks like an actor bowing at this curtain call.
No one was there for the opening act, but no matter:
what is important is the now,
this very moment,
and the chipped, whitewashed wall
strewing the scene with confetti. (p. 6)

The surgical tone of this scene resonates with Siegert’s deliberate choice to identify a “clinical ludicity” in Maillard’s style. Siegert refuses to conflate it with coldness (a more direct translation of the Spanish “fríamente”), opting instead for the semantic legacy of the Greek “klinikē,” which means “bedside” but also leads to “incline.” The impersonal grace of a doctor’s “bedside manner,” as Siegert puts it, seemed truer to Maillard’s aesthetic than the indifference of coldness (68-69). (It is probably no coincidence that Deleuze’s final publication, primarily comprising literary criticism, is titled Essays Critical and Clinical.) Maillard’s poems have an eye for compassionate angles as much as for lines that go askew, inflicting cuts.

The clinical, in this capacious sense, enables the imaginative textures of Maillard’s poems. In the same poem quoted above, Maillard’s speaker describes the newly dead body with unblinking attention, highlighting the strange interplay of matter in a collision.

“There is flesh burst open, there are guts—
liquids oozing from truck and body,
machines mingling their essence
with asphalt: a strange conjunction
of metal and tissue, an ideogram
of hardness and its opposite.”

Hardness and softness are not cleanly separated into the domains of machines and organisms, inorganic and organic. All these categories comingle. Yet there is nothing incoherent about the speaker’s vision, and every texture can be traced to its appropriate element—the body is blood and sinew, just as the machine has its fluids and tensile parts. We are left with the feeling that matter itself is innocently and compulsively diverse, but its diversity becomes noticeable under shocking circumstances. The language is free from squeamishness, from sentimental recoil or catharsis, but allows the indecency of a road accident to speak through the sensory world.

Aesthetics and concepts work hand in hand. Siegert understands this book as Maillard’s attempt to work through the Platonic friction between philosophy and poetry. A philosophical poetry is both clinical and full of life—even, or especially, when it is full of death. The world of Killing Plato boasts of colour, motion, and sound in addition to texture. To call it cinematic would not be a stretch—we might recall the term “original subtitles.” Each poem is so sharply conceived that it communicates at once something entirely singular and movingly recognizable. In Poem 13, we encounter a dog “the color of cinnamon, like / all the other local dogs” (19). He is not unique, though his cinnamon shade sticks in the memory. His actions have a nervous intensity that is familiar, comical, and yet seems to defy the logic of space and time: “When he approaches, it’s like he is retreating, / and he hunches his back as if bracing / for the force and frequency of storms.” By the end of the poem, he has achieved an agility that collapses different spheres of existence: with “a clean pounce,” he disappears from “the scene, the line, the poem.” The dog is very much a dog, and more than a dog—almost as if the wind wailing “after the colliding door / like a feral dog” in Poem 2 has come to life, no less visceral for being a thought experiment (7).

For all the impersonality of the event, Siegert views Maillard’s project as a character-driven one. She writes in the Afterword, “the characters in these poems are all responding in different ways to something in that occurrence that wills itself to be understood and grappled with… Maillard’s speaker recognizes the other in the occurrence, she recognizes that everything exists in it, and then she sets it free” (63). Siegert’s emphasis on “poetic empathy” may be more humanistic and social than Deleuze’s language but it imbues her translation with a deeply affecting quality.

I was lucky enough to have heard Siegert talk about her relationship to this text at the Bread Load Translators’ Conference this summer. When I went to the bookstore at Bread Loaf, I was hoping to find Siegert’s translations of the poet Alejandra Pizarnik. The few that I’d heard her read had been breathtaking in their energy and lyricism, and everyone around me was abuzz with excitement at the prospect of reading more. By the time I reached the store, all copies of the Pizarnik were sold out. I did see a few copies of Killing Plato, its slender yellow spine and arresting cover rendered tame in the moment by virtue of not being the thing we were looking for. “I think this is philosophy,” someone said under their breath. I left the store. The next day I heard Siegert deliver her lecture and the lines she discussed from Maillard left me with a bottomless feeling in my stomach.

You can reject the event

You can refuse to see yourself in the other.
For that, all you need to do is approach
everything with earbuds inserted into your body,

But the most common thing is to go around
with your soul sewn up in its special lining—
the way we stitch up the pockets of a brand-new suit
so it can’t be deformed
by the weight of things. (Poem 23, p. 30)

These lines utilize metaphors at their most incisive. Figurative language here is inseparable from clear analytical statements but achieves a distinctly poetic effect of unease by creating indelible images of moral and ethical cowardice. The metaphors-as-accusation move from strategic evasion (the use of earbuds) to an everyday sterility of the spirit, a silky preciousness about one’s surroundings, that is even more damning. I recognized in them the quality I most despised in myself and others. Those of us who grew up in a protected class-caste bubble in India were always taught to avert our eyes from anything that might make our existence unjustifiable. Becoming an adult and a political being has been a slow process of learning not to look away, of letting the brand-new suit get creased by reality so there’s no choice but to act upon it. The pandemic years have been hostile to that goal—it was easy to tell myself that my fatigue was human, that it was okay for me to stop worrying about ethical commitments and to prioritize my anxieties as a student stuck in a foreign country and facing bleak career prospects. The quote from Maillard, which Siegert read with a profound awareness of its severity, came to me as a vital shake-up. It had been a while since literature had that galvanizing effect on me.

I appreciate Siegert’s vision of empathy here because it brings out what’s at stake in multiplicity—a term which often gets paraded as a self-validating concept. Contemporary theory has a tendency to talk of networks, interactions, rhizomes and assemblages (many of these terms are Deleuzian) as though pointing out the presence of such phenomena is inherently an achievement. Killing Plato does not seem to revel in such descriptive gestures. Even as Maillard’s text lists the minutiae of a lively world and weaves an overabundance of narrative strands, it keeps interrogating its characters’ (and the reader) with variations on a question: are you willing to respond to an emergency? Moreover, this responsiveness is not so much about identifying with the victim, or even being convinced by their cause, but being brave enough to confront the insensibility of others’ suffering. One might argue that this obfuscates different categories of suffering—a car accident is not the same as a break-up or an act of police brutality or the everyday plight of the unhoused. Nonetheless, Maillard’s poems suggest that we cannot effectively predetermine what is worth our unsettlement. We have to move through life ready for the shock of feeling the other in ourselves, of “waking up in another, or for another… to scream from that strange flesh” (13). In fact, Deleuze argues that this is how we move away from the Platonic habit of selecting the worthy from the unworthy, the real from the pretender.

I am unsure what it means to prioritize this vast, unstratified openness over an ethical practice centered on virtue or organized action. Besides, the more I engage with Plato, the more slippery I find him—it is difficult to deduce from Deleuze or Maillard alone what exactly they write against. Is the Platonic quest for authenticity clearly more harmful or idealistic than Deleuze’s search for the perfect articulation of the event? Nonetheless, one of Deleuze’s utterances drawn from the Stoics gives me a fleeting insight into his vision of taking life on its own terms, wounds and all. He writes that the point of ethics, if any, is “not to be unworthy of what happens to us” (LS 149). One must live one’s events without simmering in self-pity or smarting in wounded humiliation. Crucially, he sees passive resignation as another form of ressentiment. To become worthy of one’s life entails far more than a retroactive justification of the wrongs one has suffered. There is no such teleology here, but rather an acknowledgement of the fact that events happen whether we want them to or not. In Poem 28 (the final poem in the book’s first half), Maillard herself writes that “maybe Plato is / not responsible for this history.” Events work with a preternatural force that no systemic analysis can entirely encompass even when it is accurate. Events do not need individual acknowledgment and will find their medium at any cost. The individual can, however, decide to acknowledge the forces sweeping through their lives, straining at their boundaries, and pulling in everyone else implicated in the event.

For Maillard and her translator, becoming worthy of the event, measuring up to the immeasurable, also necessitates a reckoning with writing. Siegert’s lecture, I might add, was on what the text knows about the translator—an embrace of the notorious serendipity that often moves the translator to find, remember, be possessed by a text and even to misremember them in generative ways (this sounds superstitious but rigorous translators everywhere speak of this phenomenon; Joyce scholarship is rife with commentary on happy accidents in translating his cacophonic texts). It follows that the second segment of Maillard’s book is a meditative poem titled “Writing.”

Siegert is well equipped to bring out the restrained vulnerability of lines such as “writing / like someone dis-pairing, / to cauterize / to take the measure of fear / to conjure / to take life’s bait again / to not give in” and the playfulness of “writing / with small words / ordinary words / eyewords / animal words / cattonguewords” (41). This long lyric, is, as Siegert mentions, a standalone piece with enough variations of its own. Nonetheless, I found this meditation less stirring or original compared to the eponymous series of poems that generated Killing Plato. The scene of the accident, split into its several movements, is best suited to Maillard’s expressive philosophy. Those movements communicate the charge of Deleuze’s convictions without the tension between abstract and concrete that sometimes clots his prose. The self-reflexivity of “Writing” seemed relatively unnecessary as a follow-up experience. Killing Plato works best when it is not about something, but when it propels something unsettling into motion: when it invites the neighbourhood dog into a poem, has him sniff the blood and death in the air, and sends him leaping from the page into—somewhere. Siegert’s translation conjures this elusive somewhere through chiselled lucidity.


Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense, trans. Mark Lester. The Athlone Press, 1990.

Maillard, Chantal. Killing Plato, trans. Yvette Siegert. New Directions Publishing, 2019.

Anushka Sen is on the verge of completing her PhD in modernist literature, space, and animal presence at the English department of Indiana University, Bloomington. She translates poetry and fiction from Bengali to English but is interested in translated works worldwide. She was a Peter K. Jansen Memorial Fellow at the ALTA conference in 2021, and attended the Bread Loaf Translator’s conference in the summer of 2022. Anushka’s own poems and nonfiction have been published in magazines and journals such as Popula, Eunoia Review, and The Dalhousie Review.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 4, 2022

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