Today, war poetry usually means antiwar poetry. Witness the recent spate of "war poems" condemning the Iraq war. But it was not always thus: In the first years of the Great War, avant-garde poets, whether in France, Italy, or Russia, were given to celebrating "war" as a form of revolution, the welcome destruction of church, autocratic state, and a moribund class system to make way for l'esprit nouveau. Thus Apollinaire's famous "La Petite Auto" ("The Little Car") begins, in Donald Revell's translation:
31st August 1914 I left Deauville a little before midnight
In Rouveyre's little car
Counting the chauffeur there were three of us
We said farewell to an entire epoch
Angry giants stood up on Europe
Eagles quit their nests to find the sun
The poet goes on to declaim that "Inside me I felt skillful new beings / Build and legislate a new universe." A "calligramme," or visual poem, in the shape of an automobile follows, and the poem concludes with that automobile's arrival in Paris "At the very moment of mobilization," with the recognition that "though we were full-grown men already / We'd just been born."
The young Apollinaire, like his fellow poet Blaise Cendrars and such great Italian artists as Boccioni and Sant'Elia (both killed in the war), had no idea what the "new" technological warfare was really all about, and disillusionmentówith warfare itself as well as with the governments responsibleósoon set in. It is the coming of that profound disillusionment that makes Apollinaire's war poetry so poignant today. Revell, whose 1995 translation of Alcools set the stage for this new collection, has chosen only twenty-threeóless than a thirdóof the works from Calligrammes, published in 1918, the year of Apollinaire's death at the age of thirty-eight. The bulk of the omitted work are the visual poems that give the volume its title and its fameópoems like "Il Pleut" and "Lettre-Océan"ówhich, so Revell claims, are "pictorial works, dispatches to the eye," and hence "translation would only delay and garble them." "La Petite Auto" is thus the only calligramme included.
Not everyone will be happy with the rationale for this decision: Revell is such a good translator that I, for one, wish he had tackled more, if not all, of the poems in the volume. The standard English translation is Anne Hyde Greet's 1980 edition for the University of California Press (just reissued), which gives us a complete bilingual text and extensive textual, bibliographical, and explicatory notes, as well as an informative introduction by S.I. Lockerbie. Revell's book is the antithesis of Greet's: It has neither notes nor substantive biographical information, only a two-page afterword in which Revell gives a brief, if dramatic, précis of Apollinaire's situation and justifies his inclusions as, quite simply, his own "favorite pieces."
Nevertheless, The Self-Dismembered Man is an important book on two counts. Not only are its translationsócolloquial, "natural," and sometimes quite freeógenuinely "poetic" in ways that have eluded Apollinaire's earlier translators, but the decision to separate the war lyrics from the calligrammes turns out to give us a truly new slant on the poet's later work. Here the usual preoccupation with typographic format gives way to a new concern for the narrative and emotive power of Apollinaire's mature lyric.
The Self-Dismembered Man takes its title from stanza 18 of one of Apollinaire's last poems, "Les Collines" ("The Hills"), completed after the poet underwent surgery for the piece of shrapnel that had entered his brain:
Je me suis enfin détaché
De toutes choses naturelles
Je peux mourir mais non pécher
Et ce qu'on n'a jamais touché
Je l'ai touché je l'ai palpé
Greet renders the first two lines quite accurately as: "I have at last detached myself / From all natural things." Revell's translation is at first puzzling:
I am the self-dismembered man
Capable of death incapable of sin
And what no one has ever touched
I have touched intimately
To be detached from the external world is not the same thing as to be self- dismembered, but Revell seems to be extrapolating from the subsequent lines, which do show the poet at increasing odds with himself even as he tries to conceptualize a promising future. Indeed, despite all the talk of a "more perfect beauty" born of "symmetry," "The Hills" ends with a series of ominous proto-Surrealist film stills: "A top hat [that] rests / On a table groaning with fruit / The gloves are dead beside an apple," a "chauffeur [who] grabs the steering wheel" and drives "around the corner" into a "virgin universe," and "a grand lady / Going up in the elevator," into an empty sky. In this context, the seemingly rapturous final stanza, with its "golden secret / That everything is only fire / Flourishing a rose / And giving off an exquisite perfume," takes on an equivocal tone. Not for Apollinaire, Eliot's conclusion in "Little Gidding" that "the fire and the rose are one." For if everything is only fire ("Tout n'est qu'une flamme rapide"), extinction is imminent.
Like "La Jolie Rousse" ("The Pretty Redhead"), which is placed here, as in the original Calligrammes, as the last poem in the collection, "Les Collines" marks a return to more traditional lyric form after the experiments of "Les Fenêtres" ("The Windows") and "Lundi Rue Christine" ("Monday in the rue Christine") as well as the surrealistic "Arbre" ("Tree") and the picture-poems. It is as if, at the end of his life, "Having seen battle in the Artillery and the Infantry / Wounded in the head trepanned under chloroform / Having lost my best friends in the butchery," the Apollinaire who is about to marry la jolie rousse (whose golden hair is again linked to "the strut of fires / In small dying roses") can no longer bear the innovation he had worked for so hard. Revell does very well by these stanzaic lyrics, but he is also adept at finding the right tone for the paratactic collage-conversation poems of 1913ñ14. Here is a snatch from Lundi Rue Christine:
Cette dame a le nez comme un ver solitaire
Louise a oublié sa fourrure
Moi je n'ai pas de fourrure et je n'ai pas froid
Le Danois fume sa cigarette en consultant l'horaire
Le chat noir traverse la brasserie
Greet translates this:
That dame has a nose like a tapeworm
Louise forgot her fur piece
Well I don't have a fur piece and I'm not cold
The Dane is smoking his cigarette while he consults the schedule
The black cat crosses the restaurant
This is a perfectly good translation, but Revell gives the lines a more contemporary twist:
The lady has a nose like a tapeworm
Louise forgot her fur
Me I've got no fur but I'm not cold
Consulting a timetable the Dane smokes a cigarette
A black cat crosses the brasserie
The sarcastic use of the word "lady," the reference to "fur" rather than "fur piece," the "Me I've got no fur" construction in line 3, the compact syntax of line 4, where "timetable" is more graphic than "schedule," and the retention of the alliterating "brasserie" in line 5: All these choices bring out the côté Frank O'Hara or other New York poets in Apollinaire's work.
The experimental prewar poems like "Les Fenêtres" (inspired by the 1912 Robert Delaunay painting by that title), "Arbre," and "Le Musicien de Saint-Merry" are among the glories of avant-garde poetry. The war poems start out less auspiciously, their equation of battle with sexual energy and conquest leaving a bad taste in one's mouth, as when, in "Fusée" ("Flare"), "Your breasts are the only bombs I love / Memory of you is the searchlight centering our night / Seeing the great rump of my horse I thought of your haunches." But even here, when the poet turns from memory to the actual scene, the note of fear is palpable:
A drab-eyed screech owl yellow winged pussy-beaked pussy-footed
A green mouse sneaks through the moss
The rice has burned on the camp stove
Meaning a guy has got to be careful around here
In "La Nuit d'Avril 1915" ("1915 April Night"), despite the attempt to view battle as something magical and excitingó"The marvelous forest in which I live is a cotillion / The machine guns play a waltz"óthe poet suddenly notes sadly, "It's raining my soul it's raining but it rains dead eyes," and wonders how long it will take this Ulysses to get back to Ithaca. Increasingly, the "Merveille de la Guerre" ("Marvel of War"), with its beautiful flares that recall "beautiful women who offer themselves and then faint dead away," emerges as monstrous, the earth now opening "her long pale mouths," the trenches, in cannibalistic rites. By the end of "Marvel of War," all talk of a visionary future gives way to the line, "Car si je suis partout à cette heure il n'y a cependant que moi qui suis en moi," which Greet translates literally as "For if I am everywhere at this hour there is only myself who is in me." Revell's version simplifies the syntax and thus heightens its pathos: "Though I am everywhere just now there is nobody here but me."
The self-dismembered man is given to catalogues like the one in "Il y a" ("There's"), which looks ahead to the absurdist list poems of Charles Bernstein, what with "There's a gas-blinded infantryman walking by" juxtaposed with "there are the long tapering fingers of my girl" and "There are rivers that can't climb into bed." The war, Apollinaire concludes, is "the world's great masterpiece of invisibility," of not being there. Accordingly, in the 1917 poem called "La Victoire" ("Victory"), the references to the "new language" seem increasingly hollow:
The street where my two hands swim
Searching the town with subtle fingers
Runs on but who knows if tomorrow
The street dropped dead who can say
Where I may go
Here and throughout, Apollinaire's chief trope is animistic metaphor: It is the street that suddenly dies (in the original, "devenait immobile"), not a particular soldier. Indeed, the projection of Apollinaire's feeling onto objects makes it possible for these lyrics to avoid sentimentality. Read as a narrative of the poet's war experience, culminating in the betrothal with la jolie rousseóa betrothal whose joy is everywhere qualified by references to the poet's loss of "my best friends in the butchery," to his trepanned wound, and to the comparison of his beloved's lovely red hair to the fire of falling bombsóthese poems are as apropos in 2004 as they were in 1918. It is the poet's continual attempt to be brave, juxtaposed with graphic images of the sounds and sights of the battlefield itself, that makes Apollinaire a great war poet. Revell's Self-Dismembered Man would profit from a little editorial workónot even the dates of the poems are suppliedóbut it beautifully captures the originals' poignancy and pathos and reminds us that Calligrammes is not only one of the first experiments with verbo-visual form but a harbinger of the way the next century would come to view the phenomenology of war.
Marjorie Perloff's most recent books are Twenty-first Century Modernism (Blackwell, 2002) and The Vienna Paradox (New Directions, 2004). She is Sadie D. Patek Professor Emerita of Humanities at Stanford University and Scholar-in-Residence at the University of Southern California.