Upon opening ''A toute epreuve,'' and after adjusting one's eyes to a dazzle of color and shape, one notes that the poetry is in French. It has not been ''Englished.'' Publisher George Braziller may have lost some sleep over his decision to do a strict facsimile edition. It could limit sales to those who know French. As I shall try to explain, this would have been too bad, for Braziller's decision was undoubtedly the right one.
''A toute epreuve'' is for everybody who loves books.
In her long introduction, which comes in a beautifully printed booklet included in the box, Anne Hyde Greet mentions the cult of the book, the cult that preoccupied the French poet Stephane Mallarme and his followers, including Paul Eluard, the author of ''A toute epreuve.''
For Mallarme, though, the book is a symbol of the poem, and the poem of the word: the symbols seem to be interchangeable.
Anyone who opens ''A toute epreuve,'' on the other hand, is struck not by the word but by color and line. Lines of verse are themselves part of the visual field.
The relationship between the meaning of the words and the figures, created with such ingenuity and meticulous care by Miro, is open. The art is illustrative in the etymological sense - it illuminates the meanings, and in a punning sense - it is light, playful, though never frivolous.
''A toute epreuve'' was the brainchild of printer Gerald Cramer. It took 11 years for Cramer to realize his dream, a collaborative effort between artist Miro and poet Eluard, which, combining the poetic and graphic arts, would itself emerge as a third art, the art of the book.
Cramer set about creating this book in 1947. For the text he chose a series of poems Eluard had published in 1930. Spring of 1948 found him in Majorca with Joan Miro. In the summer of that year Miro was in Paris working with Eluard and Cramer.
Preparation of the wood blocks consumed much time. Years passed. Eluard died in November 1952, with only one-third of the work completed.
Miro had been collecting hundreds of pieces of wood for the woodcuts, studying them, discarding some. He employed an assistant to saw and whittle.
Iron wire, which produced a softer impression than wood, was added to the mix of materials Miro used. Papers varying in texture and pieces of aluminum turned out to be of use.
You get the basic idea - the project was forcing Miro to improvise.
But you won't get what Cramer called ''l'idee du livre'' until you spend an evening alone with ''A toute epreuve.'' It is a work of art; it is also a book (something intimate). The love and fury lavished on it by Eluard, Cramer, Miro, the printer - and George Braziller - awaken in us a response at once joyous and full of awe.
There is much to understand. Greet's booklet helps not only the French reader but also the English-only reader to realize how subtle the artists were. Her explanations, necessarily complex, avoid pedantry for the most part. She has too much to do. She must account not only for the poems and the images but the interplay between them.
And she does. Then when one turns from the booklet to the book, one is struck again by the incredible vivacity of the pages.
Indeed, as Marcel Raymond once wrote, it is hard to follow Paul Eluard in his night. Miro acts as a kind of guide, using all the arts of color (what extraordinary colors!) and line, keeping up a constant, often whimsical visual chatter that is endlessly apropos and never distracting.
Braziller's facsimile edition of ''A toute epreuve'' reminds us that the ''idea of the book,'' as these artists and their publisher entertained it, was not mere fantasy. The gnomic surrealism of Eluard embraces, finally, ''all that I know and all that I'm not aware of,'' while Miro secures for this embrace the privileged space of his glorious pages.