Alcools.  Poems By Guillaume Apollinaire

Translated by Donald Revell
Wesleyan University Press, 1995.  $30.00 (c), $15.95 (p).

Reviewed by Marjorie Perloff

published in The Boston Review 21, no. 1 (FEB/MARCH 1996): 33-34.


At last:  a first-rate, lively, and imaginative translation of Apollinaire’s Alcools (1913) to set side by side with Ron Padgett’s Complete Poems of Blaise Cendrars (California, 1992).  I say at last because both these great French avant-garde poets have been poorly served by their  U.S. translators and publishers.   Until recently, the only large-scale English translation of Cendrars available was the New Directions selection, edited and translated by Walter Albert, just as the only Apollinaire available was the New Directions Selected Writings by Roger Shattuck.  Both were at least thirty years out of date.  Shattuck is, a great Apollinaire scholar, but the Selected Writings includes only about a third of Alcools and the formal language and syntax of the translations accord with the New Critical norms for poetry prevalent in the late forties when the book was first published.  The same holds true for Anne Hyde Greet’s 1965 translation of Alcools (California).  Like Shattuck’s, hers is a literal translation designed to help the reader who knows at least a little French.  Greet has good notes on the individual poems, but her Alcools (long out of print) was not exactly calculated to win Apollinaire a new readership, any more than was Albert’s translation of Cendrars.

There is a further paradox.  From Samuel Beckett, who was commissioned to translate “Zone,” to Paul Blackburn and W. S. Merwin, a good number of poets have tried their hand at translating Apollinaire, even as other poets like Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg have claimed this “father of Dada” (O’Hara’s epithet) as their master.  Yet, just as Padgett was the first poet to take on Cendrars in anything like systematic fashion, Revell is the first poet to give us a full-scale Apollinaire–an Apollinaire, moreover, who is very much our contemporary.

“I chose,” Revell explains in his preface, “to translate many passages in Alcools as ‘incorrect’ mixes of high and low diction, of latinate and slang, of abstracted concretes and concretized abstractions, because it is just such mixes that have made Apollinaire so enabling to our contemporary poets.”  And again, “I have tried, in translating Apollinaire to the end of his century, to present him a new suit of grammars, a suit cut after his own audacious style.”  Such updating is necessary, Revell posits, today when “an exaggerated sense of ‘now’ suppresses the more genuine, more useful sense of “for now” inscribed within the etymology of ‘modern.’” (p. xi).

Let’s see what this means in practice.  Here is a passage  roughly halfway through the volume’s opening poem “Zone” (1912). It is the moment when the exuberance of the poet’s stroll through the noisy Paris streets begins to give way to something darker:

Maintenant tu marches dans Paris tout seul parmi la foule
Des troupeaux d’autobus mugissant près de toi roulent
L’angoisse de l’amour te serre le gosier
Comme si tu ne devais jamais plus être aimé
Si tu vivais dans l’ancien temps tu entrerais dans un monastère
Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière
Tu te moques de toi et comme le feu de l’Enfer ton rire pétille
Les etincelles de ton rire dorent le fond de ta vie
C’est un tableau pendu dans un sombre musée
Et quelque fois tu vas le regarder de près

Aujourd’hui tu marches dans Paris les femmes sont ensanglantées
C’était et je voudrais ne pas m’en souvenir c’était au déclin de la beauté
(ll. 71-82)

Anne Hyde Greet renders this as follows:

Now you stride alone through the Paris crowds
Busses in bellowing herds roll by
Anguish clutches your throat
As if you would never again be loved
In the old days you would have turned monk
With shame you catch yourself praying
And jeer     your laughter crackles like hellfire
Its sparks gild the depths of your life
Which like a painting in a dark museum
You approach sometimes to peer at closely

Today in Paris the women are bloodstained
It was as I would rather forget it was during beauty’s decline  (Alcools, p.7)

Compare Revell:

You are walking in Paris alone inside a crowd
Herds of buses bellow and come too close
Love-anguish clutches your throat
You must never again be loved
In the Dark Ages you would have entered a monastery
You are ashamed to overhear yourself praying
You laugh at yourself and the laughter crackles like hellfire
The sparks gild the ground and background of your life
Your life is a painting in a dark museum
And sometimes you examine it closely

You are walking in Paris the women are bloodsoaked
It was and I have no wish to remember it was the end of beauty

Greet’s translation is the more accurate of the two:   “Des troupeaux d’autobus mugissants” literally means “bellowing herds of buses,” “dans l’ancien temps” means “the old days,” not quite Revell’s “the Dark Ages,” and in line 82, the reference is, as Greet translates it, to “beauty’s decline,” not to its “end.”  But the great feat Revell has brought off is to render Apollinaire’s racy, nervous, colloquial French in comparable paratactic clauses, specifically in simple subject-verb-object units that render the sense of presence and simultaneity central to Apollinaire’s montage.   “You are walking in Paris alone inside a crowd”:  given the cataloguing of images in the stanza, the reference to “Now” (“Maintenant”) is gratuitous, “are walking” is much more effective than “you stride,” and “alone inside the crowd” emphasizes the poet’s growing alienation much more fully than “you stride alone through the Paris crowds.”  In the next line–and here is a favorite Revell device–the modifying participle becomes an active verb: “Herds of buses bellow and come too close,” the latter construction signifying the underlying meaning of “près de toi roulent.”

Throughout the stanza, the “as if”s and “which” constructions, constructions that rationalize the fluidity of Apollinaire’s unpunctuated verse, are replaced by a collaging of equally weighted fragments.  In lines 79-80, for example, Revell dispenses with Greet’s cumbersome simile (“your life / Which like a painting” and lets the observation stand alone: “Your life is a painting in a dark museum / And sometimes you examine it closely.”  The covert reference here is to the painful scandal in which Apollinaire was accused of having stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and had to spend a few days in jail before being cleared.  It was the sort of incident that made the poet, himself an exile, “examine” (Revell’s rendition of “regarder”) himself in a rare moment of introspection–a moment that leads to the vision of Paris as a city of “femmes ensanglantées,” followed by the famous line in which the second-person self- address (whether “tu” or “vous”) abruptly switches to “je” echoing Rimbaud’s “Je est un autre.”  The dissolution of self is prefaced by “C’était,” the verb left hanging with no predicate.   It was . . . what?   Greet rationalizes this famous line by turning the “et” into an “as”–”as I would rather forget it was during beauty’s decline.”  Revell restores the ambiguity and again proceeds paratactically: “and I have no wish to remember it was the end of beauty,” which is more matter-of-fact, less posturing than “during beauty’s decline.”

Revell thus gives us an Apollinaire who is, in David Antin’s words about Charles Olson, “a man on his feet, talking.”  “You are ashamed to overhear yourself praying,” for example, has the note of actual conversation–a note absent from Greet’s  “With shame you catch yourself praying,”   And so this remarkable poet of the avant guerre, an urban poet whose proto-Dada, proto-Surrealist, comic-fantastic inflections look straight ahead to O’Hara’s “I do this, I do that” poems, to Ginsberg’s manic catalogues, and to John Ashbery’s journeys to mysterious places that turn out to be right in the poet’s own backyard.  Once unencumbered by the baggage of neo-Victorian diction characteristic of most earlier Apollinaire translation–for example, ”you stride alone,” “With shame you catch,” “jeer,” “peer at closely” in the Greet translation above– the his outsider status by becoming the most patriotic of Frenchmen and rushing to enlist in the Great War, a decision that led to his premature death at thirty-eight from the head wounds he had received in battle.   Again like Cendrars, his poetic diction is an amalgam of solecisms, archaisms, foreign phrases, street slang, and eclectic religious and mythological vocabulary.   The precariousness of his sense of identity is the subject of many of his finest poems, especially “Cortège,” where the poet in a dream-vision sees “Tous ceux qui survenaient et n’étaient pas moi-même” (“The many who passed and were not me”),  and who “carried fragments” of a  self that could never come together.

Apollinaire’s Paris is a long way from Baudelaire’s; it is the Paris of refugees, whose odor fills the hall of the “gare Saint-Lazare”, who carry “red eiderdowns” even as the poet himself carries his heart.  It is also the Paris of “Christs of another shape another faith / Subordinate Christs of uncertain hopes” in the form of South Sea and Guinean fetishes.  And, most of all, it is a Paris that the poet adores but is always leaving–to go to Marseilles, Coblenz, Amsterdam, the trenches–almost anywhere.  It is thus that Baudelaire’s imaginary voyage has become real, only to be even more disillusioning than its precursor.

Revell’s translation is not without its faults.  The rendition of the last line of “Zone,”for example,  the famous “Soleil cou coupé” as “Sun cut throated” strikes me as awkward compared to Greet’s “Sun   slit throat,” or Shattuck’s “Sun a severed head.”   The great last stanza of “Cortège” is marred by the translation of “Rien n’est mort que ce qui n’existe pas encore” as “Nothing has died that never existed,” which undercuts the poet’s conclusion that nothing dies except that which has never existed.”  In the same poem, “Baisse ta deuxième paupière” is curiously rendered as “Abase your other eye,” where “Lower” would, I think, have done nicely.   And in “Les Fiançailles”: “la lune qui cuit comme un oeuf sur le plat” (“the moon that sizzles like a fried egg”) is deprived of its sizzle and, contrary to Revell’s usual predilection for active verbs, becomes “The moon is a fried egg.”

But these are minor flaws in what is an ambitious and important poetic project.  My own hope is that Revell will now take on the Calligrammes as well  and give us a Collected Poems.   We need one and Revell, whose visual sense is as acute as his verbal, is just the person to do it.