Apollinaire died from the Spanish flu on November 8, 1918. I’ve been meaning to do a series on Apollinaire’s Paris. In the meantime, a translation of Tree from Calligrammes.
to Frederic Boutet
You sing with the others while the gramophone plays
Where are the blind men where have the blind men gone
I plucked a single leaf It turned into a deck of mirages
Don’t leave me here alone among the women in the marketplace
Isfahan exudes a blue tile sky
And I hitchhike with you to the outskirts of Lyon
I’m not going to forget the coco man ringing his little bell
I can already hear the future vocal fry of his voice
From the dude who roadtrips with you in Europe
While never leaving America
A skinned calf hanging from a hook
And this sandy suburb around this central Asian ville
A border guard stands like an angel
At the gates of this miserable paradise
And the epileptic traveler in the first class waiting area foams.
Ariane the Hooker
We bought tickets for two night cars on the transsiberian
The jewelry salesman and me took turns sleeping
But the guy who stayed awake let everyone see his loaded revolver
You went around Leipzig with that skinny, cross dressing woman
Intelligent she was the very model of an intelligent woman
And we musn’t forget the legends
The Queen of Fairies at a tram stop lost among midnight deserted streets
I saw a hunt while I was going up
The elevator stopped at every floor
Between the stones
Between the colorful threads in the shop windows
Between the hot charcoals in the chestnut sellers pot
Between two Norwegian freighters anchored at Rouen
It spreads like a weed in the forests of Finland
That beautiful steel negro
The greatest sadness
Is when you got that postcard from La Coruna
The breeze starts up at sunset
The metal of the carob tree
Everything is sadder than before
The earth gods have grown old on the shore
The universe moans with your voice
While new beings crawl out from the hold below
Three by three.
This poem is from the Calligrammes collection. The best crib for these poems is provided by Willard Bohn, an Apollinaire expert. Like many of Apollinaire’s poems, the lines often seem so sunk into a private experience as to be unsalvageable for the reader; yet, like some undersea wreck, dim with the life that has colonized it, there is something too mysterious, too inviting about it to simply leave it at that. Eliot, who was writing at the same time (one could draw an ESP topographic map showing these poets, Eliot, Pound, Apollinaire, George, Mayakovski, all discovering the same marvels, taking the same parataxis taxis to the poetry front), finally gave us his notes for the Wasteland.
But Apollinaire was never so edifying. Tree is in the group entitled “Waves” in the book. As so often in Apollinaire, everything is a road movie. The personal of the poet shifts around in the poem – who is it who hears the vocal fry (as I am misprisioning son aigre de cette voix) and remembers the ringing bell of the coco man? (vide Bohn, coco was a popular popular drink at the turn of the century)/ There is a thread of sold objects in this poem: there’s the women in the market, the chocolate vender, the voyageur en bijouterie, and the metal of carob which is evidently stacked on a ship and being sent to a market. There are also remote city snapshots, where the exotic and the supernatural intrude on the banal and the ordinary: the Queen of Fairies (Dame-Abonde) waiting at the streetcar stop, the travelers (who I’ve made hitchhikers) going to the outskirts of Lyon, the bummel in Leipzig with a cross-dresser. Apollinaire entrusts a lot of the power of the poem to the association of these separate pieces, which are connected, at most, by simple conjunctions or juxtapositions. The tree, here, might as well be the trees within – the nervous system, the blood system.
Bohn quotes a sentence of Apollinaire’s that refers to some other poems in the period he was writing the Calligrammes: “We are giving you here some poems where that simultaneity existed in the mind and in the letter as well since it is impossible to read them without immediately conceiving the simultaneity that they express, poem- conversations where the poet at the center of life enregisters in some way the ambient lyricism.” I should say that Bohn doesn’t see this ambient lyricism in Arbre, which he calls one of Apollinaire’s more difficult poems. Myself, I don’t know what is more lyrical than remembering street vendors, those revenants from the archaic period of the transition to capitalism. The poet, in other words, as the telephone operator plugging in the wires, presaging the poet as the junky of modern life, mainlining the dirty urban scene, the inexhaustible strange days.