"all the confused texts of the wheels"

Cendrars’s “Prose of the Trans-Siberian Railway and of Petite Jehanne de France” (1913) documents his travels and his longing for a young prostitute he met in France. The poem oscillates between historical events that he witnesses, his own meditation of travel and homesickness and modernity, and his observations of others existing beneath “the sky [which] is like the torn tent of a wretched circus in a little fishing village / In Flanders”. The poem begins with Cendrars in Russia:

At that time I was in my adolescence
I was barely sixteen years old and had already forgotten my childhood
I was sixteen thousand leagues from my birth
I was in Moscow, in the city of the thousand and three belltowers
and the seven stations
And the seven stations and the thousand and three belltowers did
not suffice me

[…]

At that time I was in my adolescence
I was barely sixteen years old and had already forgotten my birth
I was in Moscow and wanted to feed myself with flames
And could not get my fill of the belltowers and the stations
which constellated my eyes
Cannon thundered in Siberia, it was war
Hunger cold plague cholera
And the silted waters of the Amur swept along thousands of carcasses
In all the stations I saw the last trains pulling out
No one could leave for tickets were no longer being issued
And the departing soldiers would much rather have stayed . . .
An old monk sang the legend of Novgorod.

I, the bad poet who wished to go nowhere, I could go everywhere . .

~
I am just now noticing the “interlogue” between the poet who is able to go everywhere, who is all-encompassing, and always walking, and those that are being observed…they are trapped in their situations, in their fatality…

Tears well up deep in my heart
If I think, Love, of my mistress;
She is but a child that I found thus
Pale, unsullied, in the depths of a brothel.

She is but a child, fair-haired, cheerful and sad,
She does not smile and never cries;
But in the depths of her eyes, when there she lets you sip,
Trembles a silver lily, the poet’s flower.
She is soft and silent, and without reproach,
And quivers slowly at your approach;
But when I go to her, this way, that way, gaily,
She takes a step, then shuts her eyes – and takes another.
For she is my love, and other women
Have but dresses of gold over great flaming bodies,
My poor friend is so alone
She is naked, and has no body – she is too poor.

This is the portrait of Jeanne, which seems not so different than Dostoevsky’s prostitutes – a realism that we see develop across genres in attempts to capture the “time-mood” and “time-scene” (Ellison’s terms) of modern life. The movement from teh Russian Revolution to a gentle portrait of this poor prostitute creates the antipodal terms of this poem. To further embody these terms, the line: “Blaise, tell me, are we so very far from Montmartre?” becomes a refrain of the poem –

We are far, Jehanne, you’ve been travelling for seven days
You are far from Montmartre, from the Butte which fed you from
the Sacré Coeur against which you used to huddle
Paris has disappeared and of its huge blaze
Only eternal ashes remain
The falling rain
The swelling peat
Siberia swirling
The heavy rising sheets of snow
And the little bell of madness shivering like a dying wish in the blue sky
The train throbs in the heart of leaden horizons
And your sorrow giggles nervously . . .

The “leaden horizon” establishes impasse and pulse – a psychic mirroring that infuses the external. This is not exotic travel poetry, it does not fetishize the poor or their suffering, but it witnesses and interprets.

We’re the cripples of space
We roll along on our four wounds
Our wings are clipped
The wings of our seven sins
All all the trains are the devil’s cup and ball
The poultry yard
The modern world
Speed is useless
In the modern world
Distances are too great

This doesn’t celebrate speed in the same way Marinetti does – Cendrars realizes that even with modern speed, the world is too large- there is a certain disillusionment throughout this poem. Olson: “I take Space to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy. (Call Me Ishmael)”
The idea that “Speed is useless” is also reminiscent of Carlos Drummond’s de Andrade’s “Your Shoulders Hold Up the World”:

A time comes when you no longer can say: my God.
A time of total cleaning up.
A time when you no longer can say: my love.
Because love proved useless.
And the eyes don’t cry.
And the hands do only rough work.
And the heart is dry.

[…]

Wars, famine, family fights inside buildings
prove only that life goes on
and not everybody has freed himself yet.
Some (the delicate ones) judging the spectacle cruel
will prefer to die.
A time comes when death doesn’t help.
A time comes when life is an order.
Just life, without any escapes.

What helps Cendrars is the existence of Jeanne, who materializes in the poem as his companion on the trains, although it also seems that perhaps he is just imagining her existence, that she is in her head and she becomes real in the poem through that imagining. Regardless, he begins to comfort her, telling her stories of better places, of further paradise and small gestures of intimacy interrupted by

[…] the continuous rushing of the train
Every morning all clocks are set
The train is set forward and the sun is set back
Nothing can be done, I hear the sonorous bells
The big clapper of Notre Dame
[…]
The rusted bells of Bruges-la-Morte
The electric bells of the New York Public Library
The city bells of Venice
And the bells of Moscow, the clock at the Red Gate which kept time for me when I was in an office
And my memories
The train rumbles on revolving plates […]

This revolving is embodied both in the psyche of the poet and in the poem itself, what follows is one of my favorite parts of the poem:

There are trains which never meet
Others are lost on the way
The trainmasters play chess
Backgammon
Pool
Pool balls
Parabolas
The railroad is a new geometry
Syracuse
Achimedes
And the soldiers who butchered him
And the galleys and the ships
And the prodigious machines he invented
And all the ways of killing
Ancient history
Modern history
Whirlwinds
Shipwrecks
Even that of the Titanic I read about in the paper
So many associative images I can’t develop in my verse
Because I’m still a very bad poet
Because the universe overwhelms me
Because I neglected to insure myself against train accidents
Because I’m not capable of going to the end
And I’m afraid.

I saw
I saw the silent trains the black trains returning from the Far East and passing like phantoms
And my eye, like a rear signal light, is still running along behind those trains
At Talga 100,000 wounded were dying for lack of care
I visited the hospitals of Krasnoyarsk
And at Khilok we encountered a long convoy of soldiers who had lost their minds
In the pesthouses I saw gaping wounds bleeding full blast
And amputated limbs danced about or took flight into the raucous air
Fire was on all the faces in all the hearts
[…]
I saw trains with 60 engines fleeing at top speed pursued by flaming horizons and by flocks of crows flying desperately after
them
Disappearing
In the direction of Port Arthur.

~

The associational movement from pool balls to parabolas to a new geometry to Syracuse embodies the flow of the new geometry. The whirlwinds and shipwrecks of perception and memory. And then the sudden grounding of the hospital scene, the soldiers, the amputated limbs. And that final, almost apocalyptic image of the train and engine and crows disappearing.

Throughout the poem, Cendrars engages in what he describes as a deciphering of “all the confused texts of the wheels” and an assembling of “the scattered elements of a most violent beauty.”

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One thought on “"all the confused texts of the wheels"

  1. I just read this poem for my French Literature class (in French, obviously), and there was a lot I didn’t understand. I couldn’t find any form of English translation anywhere, and this helped me a lot. Thank you.

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