I’m currently perusing through some of Apollinaire’s work, including his concrete poetry, which was published in Calligrammes shortly after his death in 1918. Apollinaire is best known as a Parisian poet and as the inventor of the term Surrealism. I just learned via this blog that Apollinaire’s full name is actually Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki, and that he was born in Italy to a Polish mother. He did not gain French nationality until late in life.
Calligrammes is a good bedtime read because it can be taken one poem at a time, and it’s often quite fun to decipher what the forms are trying to say. Entire decades have been dedicated to the translation of the poems, which is quite difficult given their unique form and scarcity of words, each one bearing significant meaning. I suggest you attempt the poems first in French even if you just know a little (most of the vocabulary in Apollinaire’s form poems is elementary.) For his longer works that do not rely as heavily on form and word nuances, and that contain much more difficult vocabulary, the translated versions will suffice.
I specifically want to address Apollinaire as an immigrant, being one myself, however semi-permanent my visa declares it to be. The poem Voyage discusses travel and the unknown, recognizing all that one leaves behind in the process. Apollinaire describes the woods through which his train travels as being “fresh” and “handsome”, but the night as “pale”, the train as “dying” and the destination uncertain. At the bottom of the poem, he paints a “sweet” picture of the night, followed by the face of a woman that he no longer sees. This woman is presumably Mademoiselle Paula Valmont, to whom the poem is dedicated, but the line can also be taken out of context as the personification of past lands. But, in linking the poem to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Apollinaire also suggest’s the train’s voyage as man’s journey from life to death–we all at some point will voyage into the unknown. The poem’s placement on the page suggests that there are multiple elements to “voyage”–it is never a fluid path from start to finish–and thus there multiple ways to decipher the poem itself.
For my own selfish intents, I’ll focus on the double-edged sword of travel. Being from California, there are a lot of things inherent to my life that I cannot find in France. Mexican food, for one, but having already moved to Boston and Buenos Aires, I am used to missing it. Chipotle does not count, sorry. Last time I studied in France, close by to where I am now, in Strasbourg, I had to buy a down coat because I had left mine in Boston. That particular winter was of a record-breaking cold, so I’ve discovered that I could have survived without the coat this year. I MISS THE COLD—well, not so much the cold as the snow. I miss the everyday struggle of trudging to class through an obstacle course and then sledding back down to my door. OK, it’s not as romantic as all that, but I’m a bit concerned about global warming. Regardless, I hear that even in the cold, it doesn’t snow much in Troyes, so I suppose it’s just another pleasure I’ll have to reserve for the next move.
Voyage demonstrates the unromantic, uncomfortable, disconcerting side of travel. “Fresh” and “handsome” and “dying” and “unknown” are not exactly synonyms. There are all kinds of new things I’ve had to adjust to over the past four years of travel. Apollinaire, in his use of contradictions, suggests, perhaps inadvertently, that it’s just a matter of falling in love with something new. If your old girl is gone for good, you have to move on (not to say that I’ll never eat Mexican food again; California is at least a lot easier to get a hold of than Apollinaire’s lost flame.) I’ll admit it: I’ve fallen for French life. Though I continue to roll my eyes at bureaucracy, I find myself using the phrase “that thing that the French do” less and less frequently. I’d have hightailed it out two years ago if paperwork outweighed all the positives, notably: short workweeks, 87% fat butter, the “faire rien” of Sundays and the respected nature of studies in humanities, which seems to have been lost at home. It took me awhile to get used to it, but I no longer feel guilty when I read in bed for four hours or take two hours just to think about heading to the bus stop. Sure, sometimes I really crave the fast-paced life of the US and have to take my energy out on my running shoes, but like Apollinaire, I’ve come to learn that things are not necessarily greener in any pasture. Though I will not go skiing this winter and am filling out a pile of paperwork as I post this, I’ve stopped setting an alarm and sometimes, just sometimes, I even forget to miss Mexican food.