The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

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SEPT 2010 Issue


Guillaume Apollinaire, Translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith
Letters To Madeleine
(Seagull Books, Out now)

11 May 1915

Little fairy, we had the same notion, we both felt the same concern: neither of us must let too much time pass before sending news. Your sweet card of today—sent on the 3rd—was an even more marvellous surprise (if possible) than your first letter, for I was expecting nothing before twenty days or so had gone by.

I wanted to write you these last few days but I haven’t had a moment to myself—

I promised you details about life here, and this new card of yours asks for such details.

Today let me tell you about the infantrymen’s trenches, where I go from time to time. Here is what happened on my last visit to these trenches whose task it is to defend France. I set off with a driver and a gunner. We stopped to look at several unexploded Boche or Austrian shells, then continued on our way until we came upon a battery belonging to another regiment that was then taking up position. Zoom! Bang! An Austrian 88 exploded four steps away from us and the gunners of the other regiment shouted to us to take refuge with them in their barely completed underground shelters, but the bombardment continued. We were flat on our stomachs, crawling. A revolver-cannon shell, a very little shell, buried itself without exploding at the very spot from which we had just crawled away. No sooner did we get into a shelter than a shell went off at the entrance, throwing leaves and earth all over us. We waited the storm out, then off we went again. We reached the infantry trenches without further difficulty. These trenches are white, dug through the chalk, and incredibly clean and silent. As I have written to someone else, I thought that the Great Wall of China must be like this, but this is a ditch, or rather ditches, for all these communication trenches are linked together ad infinitum. They have names. One of them even has your name: Madeleine Alley. I followed its path filled with feelings that I doubt you could take seriously. In each trench, every five or six metres, is a recess you get into so as to let those coming the other way pass, and opposite each such recess is a hole to drain water out. Most of the communication trenches are head height, but there is one through which you have to crawl—a second-line trench. In the front-line trenches we were just 80 metres from the Boche trenches, you could see them easily from the loopholes and bays. There are bays all along the front line, and at some advanced positions instead of bays there are loopholes: wooden crates with no top or bottom set into the parapet with small sandbags above and around them. That is where the sentries are posted. You don’t see many soldiers. They are in their dugouts. You may see the feet of those who are sleeping, or sometimes at the entrance to one of these holes someone may be reading. During an earlier visit I came upon a sergeant reading a novel by Walter Scott. This time I found a warrant officer reading Gérard de Nerval’s translation of Goethe’s Faust, a corporal engrossed in Louis Noir’s Les Millions du Trappeur (The Trapper’s Millions), and a second lieutenant with, open upon his knees, that relentlessly depraved book Dangerous Liaisons, whose author, Laclos, the undoubted inventor of true vice, Vice with a capital V, was if memory serves an artillery officer. The front-line trenches with their listening posts seemed frail, light-weight, nothing but a veil over the face of a France that they nevertheless protect from the stings of awful insects.        

Bullets whistled over our heads—harmlessly, of course. They whistled through the silence, or rather they lashed that great silence. Here and there a few poilus were polishing the rings they make out of aluminium from the fuses of the Boche 77s, but our visit was over and we made our way back to the rear through communication trenches where young soldiers were washing (or delousing) themselves.

Apropos of the rings, if you would be so kind as to send me the measurement of your ring finger, in two or three days I shall make you one like those the others make—that is, if you would like me to. These are not fine jewellery of course, but they are rather nice, rather poignant, and they make amusing war souvenirs. That’s all for today—next time I’ll tell you about the artillery, which as you know is positioned not far behind the infantry.

I must admit we get a little bored at times in the forest.

Write me at length, my charming little vision. I dare not ask you for a photograph, but if you only knew how much pleasure it would give me to have one, you would perhaps be persuaded to overlook a good many things. Here we are, like wild animals in the forest, and we may well have forgotten the proprieties. But you must not be shocked, for if politeness is no longer our forte I fancy we have made progress with respect to the sort of courtesy whose heyday was the age of chivalry—after all, novels of chivalry are also known as novels of courtly love, and I promise I would attend your portrait with a devotion so immense, so tender, that as distant from you as it might be it could not fail to reach out and touch you. That likeness of you would dwell in the inside pocket of my jacket, on the left side, the same side as my sabre and revolver. Thus pressed close to the heart of your poet, your portrait would be able to chatter with those weapons and so be sure of being in good company.

Un seul bouleau crépusculaire
Sur le mont bleu de la raison
Je prends la mesure angulaire
Du coeur à l’âme et l’horizon.

C’est le galop des souvenances
Parmi les lilas des beaux yeux
Et les canons des indolences
Tirent mes songes vers les cieux...

A solitary birch in the twilight
On the blue mountain of reason
I take the angular measurement
Of the heart relative to the soul and the horizon.

This is the gallop of remembrance
Amid the lilacs of beautiful eyes
And the cannons of indolence
Draw my revery heavenwards

Goodbye little fairy so far away and so near, I kiss your hand.

Guillaume Apollinaire

[Calligrammes written on a piece of birch bark:]

Le ciel est d’un bleu profond Et mon regard s’y noie et fond

The sky is a deep blue
In which my gaze drowns and dissolves

Un invisible obus miaule
J’écris au pied d’un saule

An invisible shell whines
I write beneath a willow tree

[in the shape of a star:]

L’étoile du berger déjà Comme l’aigrette d’un rajah

The shepherd’s lamp already
Like a rajah’s plume

[in the shape of a cannon:]

ou comme une oeillade chérie
brille sur notre batterie

or like a beloved watcher
shining above our battery

Guillaume Apollinaire
at the Front
15 May 1915

    First published in their unexpurgated form in French only in 2005, and never before translated into English, the love letters and poems that Apollinaire sent from the trenches of the Western Front in 1915-1916 to the young schoolteacher Madeleine Pagès are now available in English from Seagull Books as Letters to Madeleine. Apollinaire’s biographer Francis Steegmuller has compared this correpondence to that of “Delacroix and Van Gogh, and the literary equal of any volume of love letters ever published.... Nowhere is there a more ‘living picture’ of a poet in a war ... or, outside of Stendhal, a more vivid picture of war itself.”

    Many of these poems—here seen in their original epistolary context, complete with what editor Laurence Campa calls the ‘intimate feelings’ that were later toned down—would find their definitive place in Apollinaire’s second and last great collection, Calligrammes: Poems of Peace and War (1913-16).


Guillame Apollinaire

GUILLAUME APOLLINAIRE was born in Rome in 1880 as Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitsky. His school years (1887-99) were spent in Monaco and Cannes. Thereafter he settled in Paris and for the first decade of the twentieth century pursued the life of poet, homme de lettres, and friend and promoter of many of the pioneers of the modern movement in art. Emerging from Symbolism, Apollinaire was the harbinger of Surrealism. Today his iconic role as midwife and tutelary spirit to the literary and artistic avant-gardes of the twentieth century is beyond dispute. When the Great War broke out, Apollinaire startled many of his antimilitaristic friends by enlisting and becoming an artilleryman. The Letters to Madeleine constitute a large portion of his literary legacy from his time in the trenches. Apollinaire's war (and indeed his relationship with Madeleine) was cut short by a shrapnel wound to the head sustained on 17 March 1916. He was invalided out, trepanned, and a slow recuperation followed. By the end of the year he had resumed his frenetic literary life in the French capital. But in November 1918 he contracted the Spanish flu, then rampant in Paris, and died just two days before the Armistice. DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH has translated works by Jean Piaget, Guy Debord, Jean-Patrick Manchette, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Antonin Artaud, Thierry Jonquet, Henri Lefebvre, Raoul Vaneigem, and Yasmina Khadra. Born in Manchester, England, he is a long-time denizen of Brooklyn.

translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2010

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