Cendrars: La Prose du Transsibérien (trans. D. Wellman)

  Blaise Cendrars,
  Translated by Donald Wellman

  La Prose du Transsibérien et
  de la Petite Jehanne de France

  Dedicated to the musicians
  JPR 07

The translator claims that
‘the text… follows the “standard” French version of 2005 rather than the version of 1947 used by [some other translators],
and which I also used in my first translation.
I am glad to have distinguished my work from [others] in this regard.’

At that time I was a kid

Barely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood

I was 16,000 leagues from the land of my birth

I was in Moscow, in the city of 1003 bell towers and 7 train stations

And I didn’t get enough of the 7 stations and the 1003 towers

My teen years were so hot and crazy

That my heart, tower to tower, was burning like the Temple of Ephesus or like Red Square in Moscow at sunset.

And my eyes got shiny in those ancient streets

And I was already such a bad poet

That I didn’t know how to go about it.


Blaise Cendrars, posing in the uniform of the Légion étrangère in 1916, a few months after the amputation of his right arm.

The Kremlin was a huge Tartar cake

Iced with gold

With the big white almonds of the cathedrals

And the honey gold of bells …


An old monk read me the legend of Novogorod

I was thirsty

And I deciphered the cuneiform characters

Then suddenly the pigeons of the Holy Ghost fluttered over the square

And my hands flew up too groaning like an albatross

And that’s the last thing I remember about the last day

of my last journey

And of the sea.


Still, I was an extremely bad poet.

I didn’t know how to go about it.

I was hungry

And all the days and all the women in the cafés and all the glasses

I so wanted to drink them and break them

And all the houses and all the streets

And all the wheels of the carriages, twisting like cyclones

over the bad pavements

I would have liked to plunge them into an armorer’s furnace

And I would have liked to smash all the bones

And tear out all the tongues


liquefy all those big bodies, unfamiliar and naked under garments

that made me crazy …


I foresaw the coming the big red Christ of the Russian Revolution …


And the sun was an ugly wound

Split open like glowing coals.


At that time I was a kid

Barely sixteen and already I didn’t remember much of anything about my birth

I was in Moscow, wanting to feed myself on flames

And I couldn’t get enough of the towers and train stations like constellations to my eyes

In Siberia cannon thundered, it was war

Hunger cold plague cholera

And the muddy waters of the Amur overflowed with millions of rotted corpses

In all the stations I saw the last trains leaving

No one else could go because they stopped selling tickets

And the soldiers who were about to leave really wanted to stay …


An old monk was chanting the Legend of Novogorod for me.


Me, the bad poet, who did not want to go anywhere at all, I could go anywhere

And the merchants too had more than enough money

To go off to seek a fortune.

Their train left every Friday morning.

They said many were dying.


One person took along a hundred cases of alarm clocks and some cuckoos from the Black Forest

Another stovepipe hatboxes and Sheffield corkscrews

Another, coffins made in Malmo, filled with jars of jelly and sardines in oil

And there were a lot of women

Women who open their legs for a price can also be of use

The coffins

All had been patented

I heard that many died down there

The women traveled at a reduced fare

And all had open bank accounts.


Now, on a Friday, it was my turn also

It was December

And I left in the company of a traveling jewelry salesman on his way to Harbin

We had two cars on the express and 34 coffers of jewelry from Pforzheim

German-made trash, ‘Made in Germany’

He had dressed me in a new suit and in getting on the train I lost a button

 — I recall, I recall, since then I often think about it —

I slept on the coffers and it made me deliriously happy to play with the nickel-plated Browning that he had given me


I was such a happy fool

I pretended to play at robbers

We had stolen the treasure of Golconda

And thanks to the Trans-Siberian, we were going to hide it on the other side of the world

I had to defend it against thieves in the Urals who had ambushed

a circus troupe in Jules Verne

Against the Khunkhuz, the Boxers of China

And the angry little mongols of the Grand Lama

Alibaba and the forty thieves

And the followers of the terrible Old Man of the Mountain

And above all, against the most modern

The hotel burglars

And specialists in international express.


And yet, and yet

I was sad like a baby

The train-rhythms

The ‘railroad nerves’ of the American psychologists

The noise of doors the voices of axles grinding on the frozen rails

The gold thread of my destiny

My Browning the piano and the curses of card players in the compartment across the aisle

The stunning presence of Jeanne

The man with blue eyeglasses who paced nervously in the corridor, looking

at me as he passed

The crumpling of women

And the steam whistling

And the everlasting noise of wheels rolling wildly along ruts in the sky

The windows have iced over


And to the rear, Siberian deserts low sky and enormous shadows of Silent Trees

who go up and go down

I slept in a plaid wrapper

Of motley

Like my life

And my life made me feel no warmer than that Scotch


And all Europe appeared in a blast of steam from an express at full throttle

No more interesting than my life

My poor life

This shawl

Unraveling upon coffers filled with gold

Upon which I roll

As I dream

As I smoke

And the only spark in the universe

Is a poor thought …



Tears rise from the bottom of my heart

If I think, Love, of my mistress

She’s no more than a child whom I found so

Pale, pure, in the cellar of a bordello.


She’s only a child, fair, laughing and sad,

She doesn’t smile and never cries;

But in the depths of her eyes when she lets you sip,

A sweet, silver lily trembles, the poet’s flower.


She is sweet and still, makes no reproach,

With a long murmur at your drawing near;

But when I come to her, from here, from there, from a party,

She takes a step, then shuts her eyes — and takes a step.


For she is my love and other women

Wear only robes of gold over their big fiery bodies,

My poor friend is so alone,

So naked she has hardly got a body — she’s so poor.


She’s just an innocent, slender flower,

The poet’s flower, a poor silver lily,

So cold, so alone, and already so faded

That tears overcome me when I think of her heart.

And this night is like a hundred thousand others when a train threads the night

 — Comets fall —

And so a man and a woman, even young, enjoy making love.


The sky is like the torn tent of a poor circus in a little fishing village

In Flanders

The sun is a smoking lantern

And on the tip of a trapeze a woman makes a moon.

The clarinet the trumpet the shrill flute and a wretched drum

And here is my cradle

My cradle

It was always next to the piano while my mother like Madame Bovary

played Beethoven’s sonatas

I passed my childhood in the hanging gardens of Babylon

Playing hooky from school, in the stations as the trains pulled away

Now I have made all the trains run behind me

Basel — Timbuktu

I have also played the horses at Auteuil and Longchamps

Paris — New York

Now I’ve made all the trains run the length of my life

Madrid — Stockholm

I’ve lost all my bets

Only Patagonia remains, Patagonia suits my immense sadness, Patagonia,

and a trip on the South Seas

I’m traveling

I’ve always been traveling

I’m on the way with little Jeanne of France

The train takes a perilous leap and lands upon its wheels

The train lands on its wheels

The train always lands on all its wheels


‘Blaise, tell me, are we really far from Montmartre?’


Far, Jeanne, you’ve rolled along for seven days

You’re far from Montmartre, from the butte of Sacre Coeur

where you were raised

Paris has disappeared and its enormous torch

It’s no more than cinders flying back

The rain that falls

The turf that swells

Siberia that spins

Heavy sheets of snow piling up

And the crazed snowbells that shiver like a last wish in the blanched air

The train throbs at the heart of the leaden horizon

And your grief sniggers …



‘Blaise, tell me, are we really far from Montmartre?’



Forget your anxieties

All the stations with cracked walls leaning over the rails

The telegraph wires on which they hang

The grimacing poles that make gestures and strangle them

The world stretches itself, elongates and snaps back like a harmonica

played by a sadistic hand

Through fissures in the sky, enraged locomotives

Go crazy

And in the gashes

Vertiginous wheels mouths voices

Mad dogs bark at our heels

Demons unchained

Scrap heaps

A mock agreement

The broom-vroom-vroom of wheels



We are a storm in the head of a deaf man …


‘Tell me, Blaise, are we really far from Montmartre?’


Oh yes, you bother me, you know very well that we’re a long way off

An overheated madness roars in the locomotive

Plague cholera pop up like burning cinders on our track.

We completely vanish into the tunnel of war

Hunger, that whore, claws at clouds helter-skelter

And drops stinking piles of dead on the battlefield

Do like her, do your job …



‘Tell me, Blaise, are we really far from Montmartre?’


Yes, we are, we are

All the scapegoats have collapsed in this desert

Listen to the bells of this mangy herd

Tomsk Chelybinsk Kansk, Obi-Tayshet Verkne-Udinsk Kurgan Samara Penza-Tulun

Death in Manchuria

Is our last stop and respite

This voyage is terrible

Yesterday morning

Ivan Ilitch’s hair turned white

And Kolia Nikolai Ivanovich has been biting his fingers for two weeks …


Do like them like Death like Hunger do your job

If it costs ten cents, on the Trans-Siberian it costs ten dollars

Heat the seats and blush under the table

The devil plays piano

His gnarled fingers titillate all the women

Human nature


Do your job

Until Harbin …



‘Tell me, Blaise, are we really far from Montmartre?’


No but …

  let me be …

  let me rest

Your pelvis sticks out

Your belly stinks and you have the clap

That’s what Paris has done to your crotch

A little soul too …

  for you’re sad

I’m sorry I’m sorry rest on my heart

The wheels are windmills in the Land of Cockaigne

And the windmills are crutches that a beggar wheels round and round

We are the amputees of space

We roll on our four stumps

Our wings are clipped

The wings of our seven sins

Trains are the devil’s toys

Hen pen

The modern world

Useless speed

The modern world

The distances are too far off

And at the end of a journey it’s horrible to be a man and a woman …



‘Blaise, tell me, are we a long way from Montmartre?’

I’m sorry I’m sorry Come to me and I’ll tell you a story

Come to my bed

Rest on my heart

I’ll tell you a story …



Come on! Come here!


In Fiji it’s always spring

The indolence

Couples swoon in the high grass and hot syphilis prowls in the banana groves

Come to the lost isles of the Pacific!

They have the name of the Phoenix, the Marqueses

Borneo and Java

And Celebes in the shape of a cat.


We can’t go to Japan

Come to Mexico!

Tulip trees blossom on the high plateau

Snaking vines form the headdress of the sun

One might say the palette and brushes of a painter

Astonishing colors like gongs,

Rousseau has been there

It dazzled him for life

It’s a country of birds

The bird of paradise, the lyre bid

The toucan, the mocking bird

And the humming bird nests in the heart of black lilies


We’ll make love in the majestic ruins of an Aztec temple

You’ll be my idol

An idol of many colors child-like a bit ugly and oddly bizarre

O come!


If you want we’ll take an airplane and fly over the land of a thousand lakes

Nights there are immeasurably long

The motor will frighten our prehistoric ancestors

I’ll land

And build a hangar for the plane with bones of fossil mammoths

The primitive fire will rekindle our poor love


And we’ll love in bourgeois comfort near the pole

O come!


Jeanne, Jeannette, Ninette, nini, nono, titty

Ma-mi my-me my poopoo my Peru

Dodo dolly dildo

Cuddle cunt

Mud pie sweet heart


Sexy she-goat



She sleeps.


She sleeps

And in all this time she hasn’t swallowed a thing

All those faces glimpsed in stations

All the clocks

Paris-time, Berlin-time, Saint Petersburg-time and all the other stations

And at Ufa, a cannoneer’s face dripping blood

And the stupidly illuminated dial at Grodno

And the perpetual forward motion of the train

Every morning you set your watch ahead

The train goes forward the sun falls behind

Nothing helps, I listen to the clocks

The great bell of Notre Dame

The sharp bell of the Louvre that rang on St. Bartholomew’s Day

The rusty carillons of Bruges-the-Dead

The electric chimes of the New York Public Library

The campaniles of Venice

And the bells of Moscow, the clock at the Red Gate that tolled the hours

as I sat at in an office

And my memories

The train thunders over revolving tables

The train rolls on

A gramophone trolls a gypsy march

And the world, like the clock in the Jewish sector of Prague, turns wildly backwards


Rose petals toss in the wind

Now the unleashed storm roars

Trains roll in whirlwinds down twisted tracks

Diabolic toys

Some trains never meet

Others get lost on the way

Station-masters play checkers





The railway lines form a new geometry



And the soldiers who butchered him

And the galleys

And the warships

And the astounding engines he invented

And all the killings

Ancient history

Modern history



Even the Titanic that I read about in the paper

So many image-associations that I can’t get into my poems

Because I’m still a very bad poet

Because the universe sweeps me on

Because I forgot to buy accident insurance for the trip

Because I don’t know how to go about it.

I’m afraid


I’m afraid

I don’t know how to go about it

Like my friend Chagall I should do a series of demented paintings

But I didn’t take any notes on the way

‘Excuse me my ineptitude

Excuse me for not knowing more about the ancient sport of verse’

As Guillaume Apollinaire says

You can read all you want to know about war in the Memoirs of Kropotkin

Or in the Japanese papers that are cruelly illustrated

Why should I look for citations

I give in

To the somersaults of my memory


After Irkutsk the going gets much too slow

Gets boring

We were the first train to circumnavigate Lake Bakal

They decorated the locomotive with flags and lanterns

And we left the stations to the sad refrains of the Tzarist anthem

If I were a painter I’d use lots of red and yellow at the end of this journey

Because I think we were all a bit nuts

So that a great joy blotched the weary faces of my traveling companions

As we got near Mongolia

It roared like an incinerator

The train lost its charm

And I saw in the perpetual screeching of the wheels

The sobbing and wild accents

Of an everlasting liturgy


I have seen

I have silent trains black trains returning from the Far East that passed like phantoms

And my eye, like a tail light, still follows those trains

At Talga 100,000 wounded agonized for lack of care

I have gone to the hospital in Krasnovarsk

And at Khilok we met a long convey of soldiers gone mad

At the medical stations I saw gaping wounds gushing blood from exposed organs

And amputated limbs danced all about or flew into the raw air

Fire was in all the faces in all the hearts

The fingers of idiots tapped on all the windows

And under the pressure of fear faces split open like an abscess

In all the stations they burned the wagons

And I have seen

I have seen trains of 60 locomotives escaping at full velocity pursued by steamy horizons

and bands of crows that took off in desperate flight


In the direction of Port Arthur

At Chita we had a few days respite

Stopped for five days by an obstruction on the tracks

We stayed with Mr. Yankelevitch who wanted me to marry his only daughter

Then the train left

Now I sat at the piano with a toothache

I can look back, if I want, on that calm interior the father’s store and the eyes of his daughter who spent the nights in my bed


And the songs of Hugo Wolf

And the sands of the Gobi

And at Khailar a caravan of white camels

I think I was drunk for more than 500 kilometers

But I was playing the piano and that’s all that I saw

You have to close your eyes on a journey

To sleep

I wanted very much to sleep

With my eyes closed, I identified each country by its smell

And I knew the trains by the noise that they made

European trains keep 4/4 time while those of Asia go at 5/4 or 7/4

Others are muted like a lullaby

Some from the monotonous sound of the wheels remind me of the heavy prose of Maeterlinck

I deciphered all the scrambled texts of the wheels and rearranged the scattered elements into a violent beauty

That I master

and that drives me


Tsitsihar and Harbin

I didn’t go further

It’s the last station

I got off at Harbin like someone who has come to set fire to the Red Cross office



O Paris

Great steaming hearth with the embers of your intersecting streets and the ancient houses

that hang over them to keep warm

Like grandmothers

And here are posters, of red of green — all colors like my life, in short yellow

Yellow the haughty color of French novels

I love to rub myself on the buses of large cities travelling along

The Saint-Germain-Montmartre line takes me to the assault of the Butte

The motors bellow like golden bulls

The cows of dusk browse on the Sacre Coeur

O Paris

Main station for desires that disembark into restless crossroads

Only the paint stores have a little light on their doors

The International Pullman and Great European Express Company has sent me its brochure

It’s the most beautiful church in the world

I have friends who surround me like guardrails

They’re afraid that if I go I’ll never come back

All the women that I’ve met arrange themselves on the horizon

With piteous handwringings and the sad looks of a semaphores in the rain

Bella, Agnes, Catherine, and the mother of my son in Italy

And that one, the mother of my American girlfriend

Wailing sirens cut my soul

Back in Manchuria a belly yet writhes as if giving birth

I wish

I wish I had never traveled

A great love torments me tonight

And despite myself I think about little Jeanne of France.

On account of an evening of sadness, I have written this poem in her honor


The little prostitute

I’m sad so sad

I’ll go to the Lapin Agile to remember my lost youth

And drink a few glasses

Then I’ll come home alone




City of the incomparable Tower the Great Gibbet and the Wheel



Paris 1913



Trans. Donald Wellman

US poet and translator Donald Wellman, 2017.

Donald Wellman is a poet and translator. Just released is his Albiach / Celan: Reading Across Languages (Annex Press 2017). As editor of O.ARS, he produced a series of annual anthologies including Coherence (1981) and Translations: Experiments in Reading (1984). He has translated books of poetry by Antonio Gamoneda, Emilio Prados, Yvan Goll, and Roberto Echavarren. His brilliant translations of Roberto Echavarren’s poem ‘Animalaccio’ are a feature of a recent JPR: here. His Expressivity in Modern Poetry is forthcoming from Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. His poetry has been described as trans-cultural and baroque. His collections include Roman Exercises (Talisman House, 2015), The Cranberry Island Series (Dos Madres, 2013), A North Atlantic Wall (Dos Madres, 2010), Prolog Pages (Ahadada, 2009), and Fields (Light and Dust, 1995)


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