finished reading the Selected of Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961) and am now anxious to buy the Collected translated by Padgett.
Blaise Cendrars was born in Switzerland in 1887. After he ran away from home at the age of 16, his father sent him to St Petersburg, where he was employed by a travelling salesman called Rogovin, and witnessed the Revolution of 1905. In 1907 he moved to France, and became a bee-keeper, spending his spare time on the fringes of literary circles. An inveterate wanderer, and generally penniless, he travelled to Brussels, London (where he performed as a juggler in a music-hall), Russia, Antwerp, New York . . . This odyssey is reflected in his most famous poems. Cendrars joined the Foreign Legion on the outbreak of war in 1914, and was seriously wounded in 1915, losing an arm. After the war he travelled to South America and Africa, and worked in film with Abel Gance. His later writings are in prose, but a poetic prose that blends reality and dream. He died in 1961.
Cendrars is in the Whitman-Baudelaire-Rimbaud-Apollinaire lineage. His three major long poems, “Easter in New York” “Prose of the Transsiberian and the little Jean of France” and “Panama or the Adventures of my seven uncles” all take up the trope of the poet-traveler-documentarian (a genre made possible by colonial history). Cendrars is most like Apollinaire, the precise images of urban life, immigration, poverty, industrial development, media, transportation, colonial opportunity, an almost sober exoticism. In this post, I just wanted to look at the three long poems.
First, “Easter in New York” (1912) is composed of rhymed couplets that feel alexandrine – he addresses the Lord, presenting him with the squalor of New York trying to open the Lord’s eyes to the irrefutable (to paraphrase Dostoevsky).
Lord, here are the poor for whom You died,
At the flophouses, crowded like cattle inside.
Enormous black liners from across the sea
Arrive and discharge them pell-mell on the quay.
They are spaniards, Italians, Persians, and Poles,
Russians, Bulgarians, Greeks, Mongols.
They leap the meridians […]
The long list of immigrants definitely feels like Whitman. But no is no ecstatic celebration in Cendrars here, just a recognition and presentation of suffering immigrants.
Lord, the ghetto tonight is swarming with Jews.
They come from Poland, are all refugees.
They sit in their shops under copper lamps
Selling old clothes, weapons, books, and stamps.
The precision and economy of image is striking. His microscopic eye landing on the stamps is quite powerful. The “swarming” and “cattle” of the passage before highlights the sense of dehumanization.
The streets are empty. They are getting dark.
On the pavement I stagger like a drunk.
I am afraid of those shadows the buildings project.
I am afraid. Someone’s there. I don’t dare turn my head.
This fear of the modern city is captured so purely in the last couplet. The buildings creating ominous shadows, the anxiety and mistrust of the streets – the modern city and the poem as entering the dark inferno. One no longer needs Virgil to guide the poet through hell, the poet walks the streets of hell, listens and remembers. The “walking around poem” has replaced Moses’s journey, Dante’s guided tour, Wordworth’s stroll – the modernist poet walks the city with no exit:
And street musicians too, tonight, are on my mind,
the barrel-organ amputee and the fiddler who is blind,
the singer in her straw hat with paper roses;
theirs are the songs eternal, though not everyone knows this.
Lord, give them alms other than gas light flickering blue,
A nice portrait of the poet here as well. The amputee could very well be Cendrars – the paper roses brings me to the end of Ginsberg’s “Howl” which i will quote here in the entirety (because definitely the lineage becomes Whitman-Baud.-Rimb-Apoll-Cendrars-Ginsberg-O’hara):
and the last fantastic book flung out of the tenement window, and the last door closed at 4 AM and the last telephone slammed at the wall in reply and the last furnished room emptied down to the last piece of mental furniture, a yellow paper rose twisted on a wire hanger in the closet, and even that imaginary, nothing but a hopeful little bit of hallucination–
ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe, and now you’re really in the total animal soup of time–
and who therefore ran through the icy streets obsessed with a sudden flash of the alchemy of the use of the ellipse the catalog the meter & the vibrating plane,
who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna Deus
to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless and intelligent and shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and endless head,
the madman bum and angel beat in Time, unknown, yet putting down here what might be left to say in time come after death,
and rose reincarnate in the ghostly clothes of jazz in the goldhorn shadow of the band and blew the suffering of America’s naked mind for love into an eli eli lamma lamma sabacthani saxophone cry that shivered the cities down to the last radio
with the absolute heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.
Yeah, putting Howl next to Easter in New York was a bit unfair, like dropping a big Cab in between 2 Sauv. blancs (worst analogy ever, I know). Returning to Cendrars, returning to that precision – to a pointed rejection of God in a time that is clutching to its last remnants of God:
I am thinking, Lord, of my passing hours . . .
I think no more of You. I think no more of You.