Marjorie Perloff: How “Simultaneous” Is It?

  Marjorie Perloff

  How “Simultaneous” Is It?
  Revisiting the Delaunay-Cendrars Collaboration
  on La Prose du Transsibérien

 
  JPR 07

Figure 1: Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jeanne de France. 1913, Paris: Editions des Hommes Nouveaux. Multicolored inks and pochoir gouache on simili japon paper, 78 by 14 inches. The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida. Other libraries that have copies of the book include The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.

 

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In the annals of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France [figure 1], published by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars in 1913,[Note 1] is regularly referred to as “the first simultaneous book.”

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After all, Delaunay and Cendrars had themselves declared, “Le Simultanisme de ce livre est dans sa présentation simultanée et non illustrative. Les contrastes simultanés des couleurs et le texte forment des profondeurs et des mouvements qui sont l’inspiration nouvelle[Note 2] ”

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And Apollinaire, as Matthew Affron reminds us in his essay for the recent MOMA exhibition catalogue Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925,[Note 3] hailed the Delaunay-Terk collaboration as creating a new kind of reading experience:

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Blaise Cendrars et Mme Delaunay Terck [sic] ont fait une première tentative de simultanité écrite d’un seuil regard où des contrastes de couleurs habituaient l’œ il à lire l’ensemble d’un poème, comme un chef d’orchestre lit d’un seul coup les notes superposées dans la partition, comme on voit d’un seul coup les elements plastiques et imprimés d’une affiche.

[Note 4]

Figure 2: F.T. Marinetti, After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front in an Automobile, 1915. In Les Mots en liberté futuristes. 1919. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure 3: F.T. Marinetti, A Tumultuous Assembly: Numerical Sensibility,in Les Mots en liberté futuristes, 1915. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Blaise Cendrars, a few years before Transsibérien was written, circa 1907.

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In terms of the history of the experimental book,” Affron adds, “La Prose du Transsibérien was a milestone comparable to Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà (“Words in freedom”) of 1914 [figures 2-3] and the graphic inventions [see figures 4-5] of Russian Futurist artists and poets in 1912-16 (though most of these books were handmade rather than typeset).”[Note 5]

Figure 4: Natalia Goncharova, cover design for Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards) by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh, 1912.
Figure 5: Page from Mirskontsa.

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But can one really absorb Cendrars’s poem, with its almost five hundred lines, in one glance? Does it have the spatial form of Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà? And is it collaboration in the sense that Mirskontsa was the collaboration of the artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, working with the poets Velimir Khebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh?

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Consider, to begin with, the history of the book’s production. In April 1913 Cendrars, a close friend of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, brought his finished poem to their studio, and Sonia immediately decided to make a color composition in response. As Cendrars put it in his manifesto for the September 1913 number of Herwath Walden’s avant-garde Berlin periodical Der Sturm:

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… j’ai la fièvre. Et c’est pourquoi j’aime la peinture des Delaunay, pleine de soleils, de ruts, de violences. Mme Delaunay a fait un si beau livre de couleurs, que mon poème est plus trempé de lumière que ma vie. Voilà ce qui me rend heureux. Plus encore, que ce livre ait deux mètres de long! –Et encore, que l’édition atteigne la hauteur de la Tour Eiffel! (Inedits secrets 361, my emphasis).

[Note 6]

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The poem was thus clearly finished when Sonia Delaunay decided to make an accompanying art work for it. Cendrars saw their visual collaboration as a wonderful opportunity, and indeed, the poem’s September 1913 publication was preceded by a flurry of leaflets, subscription forms, and prospectuses.

Figure 6: Cover of the closed accordion book, Prose du Transsibérien. Facsimile, with translation by Timothy Young, published by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 2008.

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Published by the small press and radical journal Les Hommes Nouveaux [see figure 6], it was subtitled “Poèmes, couleurs simultanées de Mme Delaunay-Terk.”[Note 7] Abandoning the concept of the bound book, it takes the form of a vertical sheet over six feet tall (to make it, four smaller leaves were joined together) and foldable like an accordion into twenty-two panels. The height of the Eiffel Tower was to be attained by lining up 150 copies of the text vertically. Unfortunately, far fewer than this desired number of copies was printed.

Figure 7: Subscription form for La Prose du Transsibérien. Collection A.T’Serstevens, Paris, 1913.

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On the left, the panel containing the title page [figure 7] initiates the passage of the eye downward, through a sequence of abstract, predominantly circular and oval shapes rendered in brilliant primary colors like floating balloons [figures 8-9], descending down to the final panel [figure 10], which contains an abstracted red tower shape, penetrating an incomplete orange circle with a green center.

Figure 8: Detail from Figure 1. Upper left and right panels.

Figure 9: Detail from Figure 1. Upper left and right panels.
Figure 10: Detail from Figure 1. Lower left bottom panel with
image of Eiffel Tower inside the wheel.
 

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Although Sonia Delaunay made a number of oil paintings from the stencils of La Prose,[Note 8] the technique of the original model is watercolor applied through pochoir, a stencil process.

Figure 11: Detail from Figure 1. Upper Left panel with title page and Railroad map.

 

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On the right [figure 11], the top panel contains a Michelin railway map of the Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan. Cendrars’s poem follows, panel by panel, rendered in a variety of linear patterns and typefaces of different sizes and colors; the text is surrounded by Delaunay’s colors, bleeding in from the left but now in delicate shades of pastel.

Figure 12: Detail from Figure 1. Bottom right panel.

 

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The right-hand column culminates in the poem’s dramatic conclusion, rendered in red against a transparent blue-grey background: the “O Paris” strophe [figure 12] culminates in the poet’s invocation of Paris in the bold red concluding line:

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                                                  Paris
Ville de la Tour unique du grand Gibet et de la Roue

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By couleurs simultanés, Sonia Delaunay was referring to something quite specific: M.E. Chevreul’s 1839 treatise De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, from which Robert Delaunay derived his doctrine of “simultaneism” as the dynamic counterpoint of otherwise dissonant colors when observed in complementarity.[Note 9] Again, La Prose is a “simultaneous” art work in that, seen on a wall, as it usually is today, rather than as the small accordion book, the viewer-reader does take in text and image simultaneously. Third, the poem itself avoids linearity, cutting back and forth between different time frames and breaking spatial boundaries, so as to emphasize a continuous present.

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But Affron takes it quite a bit further: he finds “simultaneity” in the immediate opposition and attraction of the visual and verbal:

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The type shifts back and forth between roman and italic, and between uppercase and lowercase; it grows and shrinks in font size; it changes color. Delaunay-Terk’s design… presents a rhythmic interpretation, rather than an illustration, of the sensations and emotions in Cendrars’s words. The only direct thematic connection between the book’s verbal and visual tracks comes at its bottom or end, where Cendrars evokes the Eiffel Tower and Delaunay represents the same structure as a bright red shape juxtaposed with the circle of the great Ferris wheel that then stood opposite the tower on Paris’s Champ de Mars. (Affron 83)

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That last sentence must give any reader of poetry pause. For in order to make a thematic comparison between the endings of the pochoir and the poem, Affron is forced to omit what is surely one of the key words of the final line — gibet, meaning gallows, the Grand Gibet being none other than the Guillotine. To call Paris the city of the unique Tower, the Guillotine, and the Wheel, gives both the first and third nouns rather different connotations.

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The tower is of course strictly speaking the Eiffel Tower, beloved by Cendrars and Robert Delaunay, but in the context it also brings to mind towers as dungeons like the “unique” Tower of London. And the wheel, far from being, in the poem’s context, simply the Ferris Wheel, is also the wheel as rack, an instrument of torture. And Mars (Champ de Mars) is of course the God of War.

Figure 8

Figure 9
 

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In their conclusions, then, painting and poem could hardly be further apart. Delaunay’s charming, childlike red phallic tower, penetrating the orange circle, surely here a female form, celebrates the beauty of color, speed and interpenetration that characterizes what Cendrars saw as Delaunay’s sun-drenched painting. True, there are some black oval planes intersecting the bright colored ones [see figures 8-9], but these, like the large whitish plane, function primarily as backdrop that sets off the red, green, and orange.

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The poem, by contrast, becomes in its last strophe, increasingly violent and dark. Affron, aware of the non-illustrative nature of Delaunay’s abstract text, finally concludes that the “underlying theme” of the collaboration is “the productive relationship between painting and poetry” (Affron 84). This seems too vague to be helpful, and neither is the earlier reference to Delaunay’s “rhythmic interpretation” of Cendrars’s moods and emotions. One feels here — and this has become par for the course in treatments of La Prose as visual art work — that the critic (here presumably an art historian) simply hasn’t read the poem.

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Like Apollinaire, whose relationship with Cendrars was by no means cordial,[Note 10] and hence didn’t want to give too much attention to the text itself, Affront contents himself with those elements that enhance and are enhanced by Delaunay’s mise en page.

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Irving Penn, 1950: Blaise Cendrars and his wife.

The UK Guardian says: “Blaise Cendrars — or the ‘son of Homer’ as John Dos Passos called him — is himself a strange kind of fiction: born in La Chaux-de-Fonds of a Scottish mother and Swiss father, he claimed that he left home aged 15 to work in Russia during the revolution of 1905. He [claims he was] a bee-keeper, a film maker, a chef, a picture-house pianist, a watchmaker, and a traveller with drunken gypsies. He spent the first world war fighting with the French foreign legion, where he lost his arm in combat, became an art critic, befriended Picasso, sailed the seven seas, shovelled coal in China, amassed and lost huge fortunes and had his own gossip column in a Hollywood newspaper. Nobody knows how much of this is actually true. Though he certainly lost an arm in the first world war, it is possible Blaise Cendrars was pulling more than one or two legs.”
More — much more — here in the TLS: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1462845.ece. and at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Cendrars

I want here, then, to consider the relationship of text to image in this seminal artwork of 1913. In The Futurist Moment — to recapitulate just briefly here — I remark on the parallel situations of Cendrars and Delaunay. Both “French” artists are, to begin with, not from France: Cendrars, born Freddy Sauser in Switzerland, adopted the name Blaise Cendrars, combining “braise” (ember) and “cendres” (cinders): “Well, one may adore fire,” he wrote in an autobiographical fragment, “but not indefinitely respect the ashes; that’s why I make up my life and exercise my heart (and my mind and my balls) with the poker. The flame shoots forth.[Note 11]

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Cendrars ran away from home when he was seventeen, worked his way through a series of journeys, visiting, for example, St. Petersburg and New York. He had arrived in Paris only in 1912. As for Sonia Delaunay, she was born Sarah Ilinitchna Stern in the Ukraine, adopted by her uncle Henri Terk and then, as Sonia Terk came to Paris to study art in 1905 and marry the gallery owner William Uhde. Amicably divorced a few years later, she married Robert Delaunay, a great friend of Cendrars.

Figure 13: Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower, 1911. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Figure 14: Robert Delaunay, The Tower and the Wheel, 1903. Brush, pen, and ink on paper. Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, 1935.
Figure 15: Robert Delaunay, Hommage to Blériot, 1914. Oil on canvas. Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Kunstmuseum. Photograph by Martin Bühler.
 

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It was, of course, Robert Delaunay’s painting — of the Eiffel Tower [figures 13-14] and especially Homage à Bleriot [figure 15] that provides the background to Sonia Delaunay’s own, more abstract compositions. In Homage à Blériot, the aviator’s flight represented a triumph — and a French triumph at that — for the new technology of speed. In response to Blériot’s feat, Delaunay created a semi-abstract color field of overlapping and interlocking disks, based on “simultaneous contrasts.”

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Delaunay referred to his landscape as the “constructive mobility of the solar spectrum; dawn, fire, evolution of airplanes.”[Note 12] Into this vibrant prismatic field, he placed recognizable images of airplanes, propellers, wheels, birds, and a miniature Eiffel Tower. The actual scale of these objects is curiously distorted:the big red plane in its purplish cartoon-like frame etched against an open sky, painted in bright rainbow colors, sits above what looks like a toy Eiffel Tower. Another plane, this one bright orange, hovers on approach in the darker sky above it, and in the left foreground, we see a large orange-red propeller against a black round disk, framed by white and yellow wheel shapes. On the right, the overlapping disks form the backdrop for birds in flight, the counterpart of the planes above.

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Apollinaire, who was a great admirer of Delaunay’s chromatic painting, called the mode of the Homage to Blériot Orphism — an allusion to its intense lyricism, so different from the more subdued browns and grays of Picasso and Braque.[Note 13] Delaunay’s colorful celebration of those biplanes that, in Blaise Cendrars’s words, “circled around [the Eiffel Tower] and saluted it (lui disaient bonjour,)”[Note 14] seems curiously devoid of any inkling that the airplane might have uses quite different from those of transport or spectacle. And indeed, within a year, airplanes were being used to drop bombs on the enemy.

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Cendrars the outsider, the self-invented patriotic French poet, produced a voyage poem in the great tradition of Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage” and Rimbaud’s “Bateau Ivre.” But in the oppositional spirit of 1913, La Prose due Transsibérien (the title is purposely incorrect since it should be “le prose”), is written in loose paratactic free verse strophes, more reminiscent of Whitman than of Baudelaire, and its narrative dislocates space and time, even as it carefully juxtaposes seemingly unrelated objects. Then, too, this disjunctive poem, with its remarkable tonal and perspectival shifts, announces itself as prose and is dedicated “aux musiciens” so as to stress its defiance of theconventional verbal text: interestingly, the typography used in the pochoir does give the poem the look of a musical score — a look reproduced in the first published edition in book form of the poem itself by Pierre Seghers (1913) [see figures 16-17].[Note 15]

Figure 16: Frontispiece, Blaise Cendrars, Le Transsibérrien.Editions Pierre Seghers, Paris, 1913 (1957). Editions Denöel SA, Paris.
Figure 17: Page 22, Blaise Cendrars, Le Transsibérien.Editions Pierre Seghers, Paris, 1913.
 

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But subsequent editions normalize the poem’s typography, as do its English translations — even Timothy Young’s booklet accompanying the Beinecke facsimile of the accordion book. Here is the first eleven-line strophe, as printed in the Denoël Edition (Paris) and the Ron Padgett bilingual text, whose English version I use here:

En ce temps-là j’étais en mon adolescence
J’avais a peine seize ans et je ne me souvenais déjà plus de mon enfance
J’étais a 16. 000 lieues du lieu de ma naissance
J’étais à Moscou, dans la ville des mille et trois clochers et des sept gares
Et je n’avais pas assez des sept gares et des mille et trois tours
Car mon adolescence était si ardente et si folle
Que mon coeur, tour à tour, brûlait comme le temple d’éphèse
ou comme la Place Rouge de Moscou
Quand le soleil se couche.
Et mes yeux éclairaient des voies anciennes.
Et j’étais déjà si mauvais poète
Que je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout.

[Note 16]

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It is the immediacy, the jauntiness, the energy and seeming candor of these lines that distinguishes Le Transsibérien from other poems of the period — even Apollinaire’s “Zone,” which may have been its model. Repetition, refrain, hyperbole, and the cataloguing of proper names and specific images are the key stylistic features, giving continuity to what is otherwise a fairly free-form narrative.

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The rhythm of that narrative — the story of Blaise’s train journey from Moscow to Kharbin with the little Montmartre prostitute Jehanne, a parodic Joan of Arc, who suddenly disappears from the scene two thirds of the way through the poem and is not heard from again — is designed to capture the motion of the moving train: its forward thrust horizontally does match the vertical movement of Delaunay’s painting, with its interlocking circles, ovals, and crescents, although the fluid visual “journey” has none of the fits and starts or shifts of register that characterize Cendrars’s narrative.

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The pochoir exhibits none of the violence that becomes so central to the poem. At first, violence is equated with sexual energy, to the heart that burns like the temple of Ephesus or Red Square in Moscow when the sun is setting. But by the third stanza, the wild fantasies of our “mauvais poète” are becoming hyperbolically destructive:

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J’avais faim
Et tous les jours et toutes les femmes dans les cafés et tous les
verres
J’aurais voulu les boire et les casser
Et toutes les vitrines et toutes les rues
Et toutes les maisons et toutes les vies
Et toutes les roués des fiacres qui tournaient en tourbillon sur
les mauvais pavés
J’aurais voulu les plonger dans une fournaise de glaives
Et j’aurais voulu broyer tous les os
Et arracher toutes les langues
Et liquefier tous ces grand corps etranges et nus sous les vêtements qui
m’affolent . . .
Je pressentais la venue du Grand Christ rouge de la revolution Russe. . .
Et le soleil était une mauvaise plaie
Qui s’ouvrait comme un brasier. (21, spaced dots are BC’s)

[Note 17]

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Here the desire to devour, break, tear up, destroy, makes way for the dream of revolution, the terrible rupture, heralded by the wounded sun, that anticipates the Great War soon to come. The tone is still jaunty — an adolescent’s comic-book dream of wild adventures — but, as the poem progresses, the sounds and sights of battle — the literal reference is to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 — become explicit.

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At first war is still far away:

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En Sibérie tonnait le canon, c’était la guerre
La faim le froid le peste le cholera
Et les eaux limoneuses de l’Amour charriaent des millions de
charognes
Dans toutes les gares je voyais partir tous les derniers trains
Personne ne pouvait plus partir car on ne délivrait plus de billets
Et le soldats qui s’en allaient auraient bien voulu rester. . .
Un vieux moine me chantait la légende de Novgorode.

[Note 18]

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The young poet, boarding the train with his boss, the jewel merchant, surveys the goods to be delivered to the East — cases of alarm and cuckoo clocks, stovepipes and Sheffield corkscrews, canned goods and sardines — and tries to avoid the impending sense of war and doom.

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The mood is one of Jules Verne science fiction or of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” what with fantasies of brigands, “les rats d’hôtel” (cat burglars), and “les petit Mongols due Grand-Lama.” The journey unfolds in a series of filmic images accompanied by the rhythms of the screeching train. But — and there is no parallel in Delaunay’s pochoir — discordant and ominous images set the stage. The merchandise includes“des cercueils de Malmoë” (“coffins from Malmo”), and the poet finds himself unnerved by the appearance of a “man in blue glasses nervously pacing up and down the corridor and glancing in at me” (“l’homme aux lunettes bleues qui se promenait nerveusement dans le couloir et qui me regardait en passant”). Who is this sinister stranger and what does his presence prefigure?

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Throughout the night, as Blaise alternately daydreams and tries to entertain Jeanne with hyperreal tall tales of mysterious islands, nature is always seen through the lens of technology and industrial detritus. “Le ciel est comme la tente dechirée d’un cirque pauvre dans un petit village de pêcheurs / En Flandres / Le soleil est un fumeux quinquet / Et tout au haut d’un trapèze une femme fait la lune” (“The sky is like the torn tent of a rundown circus in a little fishing village / in Flanders / The sun like a smoking lamp / and way up on the trapeze a woman does a crescent moon”).

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Jeanne’s refrain, “Blaise, dis, sommes-nous bien loin de Montmartre?” is punctuated by increasingly menacing images: even in his tale about Fiji with its eternal spring, “L’amour pâme les couples dans l’herbe haute et la chaude syphilis rode sous les bananiers” (“The lovers swoon in the high grass and hot syphilis drifts among the banana trees”). And “Les fils télegraphiques auquels elles pendent / Les poteaux grimaçants qui gesticulents et les étranglent” (“The telegraph lines they hang from / The grimacing poles that reach out to strangle them”).

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When Jeanne finally falls asleep, lulled by Blaise’s absurd endearments, the poet is haunted, as in the recent Christian Marclay film The Clock, by “Toutes les horloges / L’heure de Paris l’heure de Berlin l’heure de Saint-Pétersbourg / et l’heure de toutes les gares.” And a whole catalogue of clocks and bells from around the world follows.

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J’ai peur: it is here, five strophes before the end (Prose 30), that the note of acute fear comes to the fore. The train is approaching Mongolia and the poem, in an echo of Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre,” turns to recapitulation and lassitude:

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J’ai vu
J’ai vu les trains silencieux les trains noirs qui revenaient de L’Extrême-Orient et qui
            passaient en fantômes
Et mon oeil, comme le fanal d’arrière, court encore derrière cestrains
A Talga, 100. 000 blessés agonisaient faute de soins
J’ai visité les hôpitaux de Krasnoïarsk
Et à Khilok nous avons croisé un long convoi de soldats fous
J’ai vu dans les lazarets des plaies béanties des blessures qui
saignaient à pleines orgues
Et les membres amputés dansaient autour ou s’envolaient dans l’air e…
Et j’ai vu
J’ai vu des trains de 60 locomotives qui s’enfuyaient à toute vapeur pourchassées
par les horizons en rut et des bandes des corbeaux qui s’envolaient désespérément après
Disparaître
Dans la direction de Port-Arthur.

[Note 19]

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This hallucinatory sequence, with its burning trains, its narrator’s eye transformed into rear signal light, and its dance of amputated limbs, eerily prefigures the war of which Cendrars could as yet know nothing, a war in which he was, in 1915, to lose his own right arm. In Au Coeur du monde (1917), the fantasy of La Prose is translated into a more visionary image of the lost hand: “Ma main coupée brille au ciel dans la constellation d’Orion” (My cut off hand shines in the sky in the constellation of Orion” (Poésies complètes 1: 196).

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This strophe is, in any case, the turning point of the poem. As the journey now continues, Jeanne has mysteriously disappeared, there is talk of another girl (M. Iankéléwitch’s daughter), and the sweet memory of the poet’s mother at the piano, early in the poem, gives way to the recognition that “Maintenant c’était moi qui avais pris place au piano, et j’avais mal aux dents” (“Now I was the one playing the piano, and I had a toothache”). Toothache: like that of Vronsky in Anna Karenina, it is the emblem of everyday reality in its dreariest state. Drunkenness and sleep follow, and at Kharbin, “la dernière station,” the poet gets off the train, just as the Red Cross office is being set on fire.

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The end of the line: the fadeout dissolves all further talk of travel and trains: instead, the scene shifts abruptly back to Paris, and, in the final turn, to the poet’s apostrophe to his city, a city that, it now seems, he may never have left. The voyage narrative is framed as dream, a dream turned into nightmare. The address to Paris, in any case, begins on a positive note

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O Paris
Grand foyer chaleureux avec les tisons entrecroisés de tes rues muettes vieilles
     maisons qui se penchent au-dessus et se réchauffent
Comme des a ïeules
Et voici des affiches, du rouge du vert multicolores comme mon passé bref du jaune
          Jaune la fière couleur des romans de la France à l’étranger. . . .

[Note 20]

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Paris, great hearth with the intersecting embers of its streets and its lovely red and green multicolor posters and proud yellow of illicit novels: here is a thread Delaunay could and did no doubt pick up on. But now look at what follows:

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Figure 14
 
O Paris
Gare centrale débarcadère des volontés carrefour des inquiétudes

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Paris, central station where desires arrive, the crossroads of unrest, of anxiety. Haunted, in the end, by spectres of the women he has known, his lost loves including the mothers of his children, and unnerved by the siren cries in the night, the poet concludes:

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Je voudrais
Je voudrais n’avoir jamais fait mes voyages
Ce soir un grand amour me tourmente
Et malgré moi je pense à la petite Jehanne de France
C’est par un soir de tristesse que j’ai ecrit ce poème en son honneur
Jeanne
La petite prostituée
Je suis triste je suis triste
J’irai au Lapin agile me ressouvenir de ma jeunesse perdue
Et boire des petits verres
Puis je rentrerai seul
                                                  Paris
Ville de la Tour unique du grand Gibet et de la Roue

[Note 21]

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Je voudrais n’avoir jamais fait mes voyages! It is the Baudelairean and Rimbaldian theme carried to its logical conclusion. Lonely and sad, the poet will go have a few drinks and, like the “I” of Apollinaire’s “Zone,” return home alone. In the final recapitulation of Paris, we have “la Tour unique,” which can mean either the incomparable or the only one, “le Gibet,” the great gallows or guillotine, and the ever-turning wheel.

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La Prose du Transsibérien ends on a note of lassitude, sorrow, failure: the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do. And for all those who came to this great poem of 1913 only after the Great War, the knowledge of what is to come colors the entire spectacle. And the colors are hardly those of Sonia Delaunay.

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It should be clear by now that the trajectory of Cendrars’s poem is quite unlike that of Delaunay’s vertical pochoir, with its culminating image of the little red tower inside the orange wheel. The energy of Delaunay’s beautiful color spirals is matched by the energy of Cendrars’s poem, but whereas the poem moves from youthful fun and pleasure to the darkness of the Paris night, Delaunay’s visual counterpart does not change emotionally or tonally. Its vertical appearance is illusory, its thrust being spatial as an elaborate construction.

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Indeed, when we talk of the collagiste aspect of Cendrars’s poem, of its fragmented narrative and shifts in register, we must be careful not to impose Delaunay’s formal drive onto Cendrars. The fact is that, its dislocations and time shifts notwithstanding, the poem’s narrative is pretty straightforward. It begins “en ce temps-là,” when the poet is a carefree adolescent in Moscow and takes him, via the train journey, to a maturity no longer so insouciant or fun-loving. Again, the poem moves from the bright sunshine of a summer day in Moscow to the dark night of Paris. A pre-war poem of uncanny predictive powers, it begins by celebrating sexual excess only to conclude, at journey’s end, that the sirens’ grating sounds tear up the soul.

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But now comes the difficult question. Why, if we who read the poem can’t help seeing how different it is from its visual analogue, do we still love the Cendrars-Delaunay collaboration, as it is always called? Why do Delaunay’s couleurs simultanés seem so appropriate for the poem and vice-versa?

58:

In their penetrating analysis of the collaboration, Renée and Judd Hubert admit that “Delaunay-Terk’s sunlit chromatics evoke the very opposite of Cendrars’s somber writing dominated by disease and death.” But they make a strong case for affinities. For one thing, they point out that the text does attain “a kind of simultaneity by constantly turning back on itself in space as well as time. After all the return to Paris coincides with the arrival at Kharbine. ”

59:

This is an important point: the poem does come full circle to end where it began–but with the central difference that the poet is no longer the same. It is also true, as the Huberts note, that Cendrars includes many references to painting and to bright colors in his poem, as if anticipating Delaunay’s pochoir. For example, “Et voici des affiches, du rouge au vert comme mon passé bref du jaune”(“And here are posters in red in green all colors like my past in a word yellow,” Padgett 28). The Delaunay pochoir, the Huberts conclude, which is probably the first abstract work ever used to “illustrate” a poem, can be considered “the other of the text, as its positive and happy complement. Together, text and graphics create a simultaneous spectacle where the negative and positive sides of human existence contrast and combine.”[Note 22]

60:

I am not wholly convinced by this argument. True, the poem’s opening, with its childlike catalogues and transpositions, its absurdist and hyperbolic account of the train journey, does meet its match in Delaunay’s rendition. True as well that the poem repeatedly alludes to painting — “Si j’étais peintre je deverserais beaucoup de rouge, beaucoup de jaune sur la fin de ce voyage”(“If I were a painter I would splash lots of red and yellow over the end of this trip” (Padgett 70) — and thus sets up real links to Delaunay’s pochoir.

61:

But suppose the artist had taken her cue from the imagery of carnage and dismemberment found in the latter half of the poem? Perhaps, in that case, the “abstract” complement would have been in line with the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt or Mark Rothko, and the “simultaneous” book would have been entirely different. Again, the typography used in the pochoir — so expressive in its treatment of boldface, different fonts, mimetic spacing, and so on — is, as I noted earlier, not used in the print versions of the poem, even in its authorized Denöel edition. So the link between avant-garde typography and visual image, appealing as it is, does not, apply to the poem as most readers will know it.

62:

Perhaps, then — and this is characteristic of avant-garde production — we must talk of more than one Trassibérien. Far from being a “simultaneous book” — or in most of its current incarnations even a book — we have, to my mind, a differential text, its production incorporating wall painting, accordion book, or printed poem in “normal” format. The digital versions now accessible would constitute a fourth variant.

63:

Which of these best represents “l’esprit de 1913”?

64:

If Delaunay’s wall painting conveys the Utopian vision of the period, in all its charm and “color” potential, the accordion book reminds us of its relative modesty and poverty, the materials used being inexpensive, the images unobtrusive. But to understand the psychology of the darker side of the avant-guerre, its ethos of contradiction and uncertainty, we can profitably turn to Cendrars’s own text. His poem, we have seen, cannot remotely be “taken in” at a single glance; it is, after all, not an advertising poster. Rather, La Prose du Transsibérien is an ominously prophetic poem dramatizing the intersection of voyage — a trip in search of happy adventure and love — with the war that cuts off the train in its very tracks. The Paris to which the poet returns in the end (and which perhaps he has never left) is a totally changed city. And nothing in Delaunay’s lovely painting is quite comparable.

65:

As for the iconic Prose du Transsibérien, which was a central feature of the Inventing Abstraction exhibition at the [New York] Museum of Modern Art, and, which we contemplate with such pleasure at other museums, like the Zimmerli Art Museum in Rutgers, New Jersey or the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, this work is not “by” Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars: it is a brilliant pochoir, inspired by Cendars’s poem, but made by Delaunay. As such, it belongs, quite rightly, on the wall of a museum.

Notes

[Endnote 1] Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, 1913, Paris: Editions des Hommes Nouveaux. Multicolored inks and pochoir gouache on simili japon paper, 78 by 14 inches. The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida.

[Endnote 2] “The simultaneism of this book resides in its simultaneous and non-illustrative presentation. The simultaneous contrasts of colors and the text form depths and movements of new inspiration,” translation mine. See Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk, letter to André Salmon, October 12, 1913, in Blaise Cendrars, Inedits secrets, ed. Miriam Cendrars (Paris: Denoël, 1969), 364.

[Endnote 3] Matthew Affron, “Contrasts of Colors, Contrasts of Words,” in Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art, ed. Leah Dickerman (New York: Museum of Modern Art: 2013), 82-85.

[4] Guillaume Apollinaire, “Simultanisme-Librettisme,” Les Soirées de Paris, no. 26-27, June 15, 1914; cited in English by Affron, 83: “Blaise Cendrars and Mm. Delaunay-Terck [sic] have made A FIRST ATTEMPT AT WRITTEN SIMULTANEITY where contrasts of colors train the eye to read IN ONE GLANCE the whole of a poem, the way a conductor reads in one glance the notes stacked up on a score, [or] as one reads in an instant the visual and printed elements of an advertising poster.”

[5] Affron, 82-83. Cf. Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre and the Language of Rupture, rev. ed. (1986; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), Chapter 4 passim.

[6] “… I have a fever. And this is why I love the painting of the Delaunays, full of sun, of heat, of violence. Mme Delaunay has made such a beautiful book of colors that my poem is more saturated with light than is my life. That’s what makes me happy. Besides, I think that this book should be two meters high! Moreover, that the edition should reach the height of the Eiffel Tower!” [translation mine]

[7] A facsimile of the original fold-out accordion book, accompanied by a booklet with a new translation by Timothy Young, was published by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for Yale University Press in 2008. The dimensions are three and three quarter inches by seven and one-eighth inches (folded), fourteen and a quarter inches by seventy-nine inches (flat). The painting is on the recto [right], the poem the verso [left], (corresponding to left and right of the pochoir on the wall.)

[8] See, for example, the oil painting in the Musée nationale d’art moderne, Paris, as reproduced in Affron, 86.

[9] Gordon Hughes, in his “Abstraction Chez Delaunay,” in Dickerman, 74-81, explains, “simultaneous contrast occurs when two or more contiguous colors of sufficient size and saturation mutually influence the viewer’s perception of their chromatic intensity and value. The placement of a patch of red net to a patch of blue, for example, will alter how we see both colors” (75).

[10] See, for example, Jay Bochner, Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Re-creation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 58-60. Katherine Schingler, “Visual and Verbal Encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien,” Modern Languages and European Studies (Nottingham, 2013), 6: http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/modern-languages-and-european-studies/Katherine_Shingler_Visual_Encounters_in_Cendrars_and_Delaunays.pdf/.

[11] Blaise Cendrars, Une Nuit dans la forêt (1927), in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Raymond Dumay and Nino Frank (Paris: le Club français du livre, 1968-71), 6: 140, my translation. (“Or, on peut adorer le feu, mais non point respecter indéfiniment les cendres; c’est pourquoi j’attise ma vie et travaille mon coeur [et mon esprit et mes couilles] avec le tissionier. La flamme jaillit.”). Cf. Perloff, The Futurist Moment, chapter 1 passim.

[12] See The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, ed. Arthur A. Cohen (New York: Viking, 1978), p. 14. For discussion of Chevreuil’s theory, see pp. 11n, 23, 31, 52.

[13] See Guillaume Apollinaire, “Modern Painting” (1913), in Cohen, New Art of Color 101; Delaunay himself didn’t care for the term because it was too “literary”: see “Two Notes on Orphism” (1930), Cohen, New Art of Color, 104-105.

[14] Blaise Cendrars, “The Eiffel Tower,” (1924), in Cohen, New Art of Color 75.

[15] Note that on the title page of Seghers’ book, the date is given as 1912. Seghers later admitted this was a mistake, based on Cendrars’s own misleading account of his composition.

[16] Blaise Cendrars, “Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” Edition Complète, Vol. 1 (Paris: Denoël, 1963), 20-33, see p. 20. All further references are to this edition, but since readers will have different editions, I won’t give further page numbers for the French. For the English, see Blaise Cendrars, Complete Poems, trans. Ron Padgett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 15-29. Here is the first stanza:

Back then I was still young
I was barely sixteen but my childhood memories were gone
I was 48,000 miles away from where I was born
I was in Moscow, city of a thousand and three bell towers and seven train stations
And the thousand and three towers and seven stations weren’t enough for me
Because I was such a hot and crazy teenager
That my heart was burning like the Temple of Ephesus or like Red Square in Moscow
At sunset
And my eyes were shining down those old roads
And I was already such a bad poet
That I didn’t know how to take it all the way.

[17]     I was hungry
And all those days and all those women in all those cafés and all those glasses
I wanted to drink them down and break them
And all those windows and all those streets
And all those houses and all those loves
And all those carriage wheels raising swirls from the broken pavement
I would have liked to have ground up all their bones
And ripped out all those tongues
And liquefied all those big bodies naked and strange under clothes that drive me
mad . . .
I foresaw the coming of the big red Christ of the Russian Revolution . .
And the sun was an ugly sore
Splitting apart like a red-hot coal.    (Padgett 16)

[18]    In Siberia the artillery rumbled — it was war
Hunger cold plague cholera
And the muddy waters of the Amur carrying along millions of corpses
In every station I watched the last trains leave
That’s all: they weren’t selling any more tickets
And the solders would far rather have stayed . . .
An old monk was singing me the legend of Novgorod.    (Padgett 16)

[19]    I saw
I saw the silent trains the black trains returning from the Far East and going by like
          Phantoms
And my eyes, like tail lights, are still trailing along behind those trains
At Talga 100,000 wounded were dying with no help coming
I went to the hospitals in Krasnoyarsk
And at Khilok we met a long convoy of soldiers gone insane
I saw in quarantine gaping sores and wounds with blood gushing out
And the amputated limbs danced around or flew up in the raw air
Fire was in their faces and in their hearts
Idiot fingers drumming on all the windowpanes
And under the pressure of fear an expression would burst like an abcess
In all the stations they had set fire to all the cars
And I saw
I saw trains with 60 locomotives streaking away chased by hot horizons and
          Desperate crows
Disappearing
In the direction of Port Arthur.    (Padgett 27)

[20]      O Paris
Great warm hearth with the intersecting embers of your streets and your old houses
        Leaning over them for warmth
Like grandmothers
And here are posters in red in green all colors like my past in a word yellow
Yellow the proud color of the novels of France    (Padgett 28)

[21]      I wish
I wish I’d never started traveling
Tonight a great love is driving me out of my mind
And I can’t help thinking about little Jeanne of France
It’s through a sad night that I’ve written this poem in her honor
Jeanne
The little prostitute
I’m sad so sad
I’m going to the Lapin Agile to remember my lost youth again
Have a few drinks
And come back home alone

                                                                        Paris
City of the incomparable Tower the great Gibbet and the Wheel
    (Padgett 29)

[22]    Renée Riese Hubert & Judd D. Hubert, “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France,” in The Dialogue between Painting and Poetry: Livres d’Artistes 1874-1899, ed. Jean Khalfa (Cambridge, UK: Black Apollo Press, 2001), 59-82, see pp. 60, 70, 78-79. This important essay should be reprinted in a more accessible collection or put on the internet.

Marjorie Perloff, 1957, at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo courtesy M. Perloff.

 

la petite Jeanne de France. 1913, Paris: Editions des Hommes Nouveaux. Multicolored inks and pochoir gouache on simili japon paper, 78 by 14 inches. The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida. Other libraries that have copies of the book include The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Bibliothèque nationale, Paris.[/caption]

 

Paragraph One follows 1:

In the annals of the early twentieth-century avant-garde, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France [figure 1], published by Sonia Delaunay-Terk and Blaise Cendrars in 1913,[Note 1] is regularly referred to as “the first simultaneous book.”

2:

After all, Delaunay and Cendrars had themselves declared, “Le Simultanisme de ce livre est dans sa présentation simultanée et non illustrative. Les contrastes simultanés des couleurs et le texte forment des profondeurs et des mouvements qui sont l’inspiration nouvelle[Note 2] ”

3:

And Apollinaire, as Matthew Affron reminds us in his essay for the recent MOMA exhibition catalogue Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925,[Note 3] hailed the Delaunay-Terk collaboration as creating a new kind of reading experience:

4:

Blaise Cendrars et Mme Delaunay Terck [sic] ont fait une première tentative de simultanité écrite d’un seuil regard où des contrastes de couleurs habituaient l’œ il à lire l’ensemble d’un poème, comme un chef d’orchestre lit d’un seul coup les notes superposées dans la partition, comme on voit d’un seul coup les elements plastiques et imprimés d’une affiche.

[Note 4]

Figure 2: F.T. Marinetti, After the Marne, Joffre Visited the Front in an Automobile, 1915. In Les Mots en liberté futuristes. 1919. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Figure 3: F.T. Marinetti, A Tumultuous Assembly: Numerical Sensibility,in Les Mots en liberté futuristes, 1915. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

Blaise Cendrars, a few years before Transsibérien was written, circa 1907.

5:

In terms of the history of the experimental book,” Affron adds, “La Prose du Transsibérien was a milestone comparable to Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà (“Words in freedom”) of 1914 [figures 2-3] and the graphic inventions [see figures 4-5] of Russian Futurist artists and poets in 1912-16 (though most of these books were handmade rather than typeset).”[Note 5]

Figure 4: Natalia Goncharova, cover design for Mirskontsa (Worldbackwards) by Natalia Goncharova, Mikhail Larionov, Velimir Khlebnikov and Aleksei Kruchenykh, 1912.
Figure 5: Page from Mirskontsa.

6:

But can one really absorb Cendrars’s poem, with its almost five hundred lines, in one glance? Does it have the spatial form of Marinetti’s Parole in Libertà? And is it collaboration in the sense that Mirskontsa was the collaboration of the artists Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, working with the poets Velimir Khebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh?

7:

Consider, to begin with, the history of the book’s production. In April 1913 Cendrars, a close friend of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, brought his finished poem to their studio, and Sonia immediately decided to make a color composition in response. As Cendrars put it in his manifesto for the September 1913 number of Herwath Walden’s avant-garde Berlin periodical Der Sturm:

8:

… j’ai la fièvre. Et c’est pourquoi j’aime la peinture des Delaunay, pleine de soleils, de ruts, de violences. Mme Delaunay a fait un si beau livre de couleurs, que mon poème est plus trempé de lumière que ma vie. Voilà ce qui me rend heureux. Plus encore, que ce livre ait deux mètres de long! –Et encore, que l’édition atteigne la hauteur de la Tour Eiffel! (Inedits secrets 361, my emphasis).

[Note 6]

9:

The poem was thus clearly finished when Sonia Delaunay decided to make an accompanying art work for it. Cendrars saw their visual collaboration as a wonderful opportunity, and indeed, the poem’s September 1913 publication was preceded by a flurry of leaflets, subscription forms, and prospectuses.

Figure 6: Cover of the closed accordion book, Prose du Transsibérien. Facsimile, with translation by Timothy Young, published by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University, 2008.

10:

Published by the small press and radical journal Les Hommes Nouveaux [see figure 6], it was subtitled “Poèmes, couleurs simultanées de Mme Delaunay-Terk.”[Note 7] Abandoning the concept of the bound book, it takes the form of a vertical sheet over six feet tall (to make it, four smaller leaves were joined together) and foldable like an accordion into twenty-two panels. The height of the Eiffel Tower was to be attained by lining up 150 copies of the text vertically. Unfortunately, far fewer than this desired number of copies was printed.

Figure 7: Subscription form for La Prose du Transsibérien. Collection A.T’Serstevens, Paris, 1913.

11:

On the left, the panel containing the title page [figure 7] initiates the passage of the eye downward, through a sequence of abstract, predominantly circular and oval shapes rendered in brilliant primary colors like floating balloons [figures 8-9], descending down to the final panel [figure 10], which contains an abstracted red tower shape, penetrating an incomplete orange circle with a green center.

Figure 8: Detail from Figure 1. Upper left and right panels.

Figure 9: Detail from Figure 1. Upper left and right panels.
Figure 10: Detail from Figure 1. Lower left bottom panel with
image of Eiffel Tower inside the wheel.
 

12:

Although Sonia Delaunay made a number of oil paintings from the stencils of La Prose,[Note 8] the technique of the original model is watercolor applied through pochoir, a stencil process.

Figure 11: Detail from Figure 1. Upper Left panel with title page and Railroad map.

 

13:

On the right [figure 11], the top panel contains a Michelin railway map of the Trans-Siberian journey from Moscow to the Sea of Japan. Cendrars’s poem follows, panel by panel, rendered in a variety of linear patterns and typefaces of different sizes and colors; the text is surrounded by Delaunay’s colors, bleeding in from the left but now in delicate shades of pastel.

Figure 12: Detail from Figure 1. Bottom right panel.

 

14:

The right-hand column culminates in the poem’s dramatic conclusion, rendered in red against a transparent blue-grey background: the “O Paris” strophe [figure 12] culminates in the poet’s invocation of Paris in the bold red concluding line:

15:

                                                  Paris
Ville de la Tour unique du grand Gibet et de la Roue

16:

By couleurs simultanés, Sonia Delaunay was referring to something quite specific: M.E. Chevreul’s 1839 treatise De la loi du contraste simultané des couleurs, from which Robert Delaunay derived his doctrine of “simultaneism” as the dynamic counterpoint of otherwise dissonant colors when observed in complementarity.[Note 9] Again, La Prose is a “simultaneous” art work in that, seen on a wall, as it usually is today, rather than as the small accordion book, the viewer-reader does take in text and image simultaneously. Third, the poem itself avoids linearity, cutting back and forth between different time frames and breaking spatial boundaries, so as to emphasize a continuous present.

17:

But Affron takes it quite a bit further: he finds “simultaneity” in the immediate opposition and attraction of the visual and verbal:

18:

The type shifts back and forth between roman and italic, and between uppercase and lowercase; it grows and shrinks in font size; it changes color. Delaunay-Terk’s design… presents a rhythmic interpretation, rather than an illustration, of the sensations and emotions in Cendrars’s words. The only direct thematic connection between the book’s verbal and visual tracks comes at its bottom or end, where Cendrars evokes the Eiffel Tower and Delaunay represents the same structure as a bright red shape juxtaposed with the circle of the great Ferris wheel that then stood opposite the tower on Paris’s Champ de Mars. (Affron 83)

19:

That last sentence must give any reader of poetry pause. For in order to make a thematic comparison between the endings of the pochoir and the poem, Affron is forced to omit what is surely one of the key words of the final line — gibet, meaning gallows, the Grand Gibet being none other than the Guillotine. To call Paris the city of the unique Tower, the Guillotine, and the Wheel, gives both the first and third nouns rather different connotations.

20:

The tower is of course strictly speaking the Eiffel Tower, beloved by Cendrars and Robert Delaunay, but in the context it also brings to mind towers as dungeons like the “unique” Tower of London. And the wheel, far from being, in the poem’s context, simply the Ferris Wheel, is also the wheel as rack, an instrument of torture. And Mars (Champ de Mars) is of course the God of War.

Figure 8

Figure 9
 

21:

In their conclusions, then, painting and poem could hardly be further apart. Delaunay’s charming, childlike red phallic tower, penetrating the orange circle, surely here a female form, celebrates the beauty of color, speed and interpenetration that characterizes what Cendrars saw as Delaunay’s sun-drenched painting. True, there are some black oval planes intersecting the bright colored ones [see figures 8-9], but these, like the large whitish plane, function primarily as backdrop that sets off the red, green, and orange.

22:

The poem, by contrast, becomes in its last strophe, increasingly violent and dark. Affron, aware of the non-illustrative nature of Delaunay’s abstract text, finally concludes that the “underlying theme” of the collaboration is “the productive relationship between painting and poetry” (Affron 84). This seems too vague to be helpful, and neither is the earlier reference to Delaunay’s “rhythmic interpretation” of Cendrars’s moods and emotions. One feels here — and this has become par for the course in treatments of La Prose as visual art work — that the critic (here presumably an art historian) simply hasn’t read the poem.

23:

Like Apollinaire, whose relationship with Cendrars was by no means cordial,[Note 10] and hence didn’t want to give too much attention to the text itself, Affront contents himself with those elements that enhance and are enhanced by Delaunay’s mise en page.

24:

Irving Penn, 1950: Blaise Cendrars and his wife.

The UK Guardian says: “Blaise Cendrars — or the ‘son of Homer’ as John Dos Passos called him — is himself a strange kind of fiction: born in La Chaux-de-Fonds of a Scottish mother and Swiss father, he claimed that he left home aged 15 to work in Russia during the revolution of 1905. He [claims he was] a bee-keeper, a film maker, a chef, a picture-house pianist, a watchmaker, and a traveller with drunken gypsies. He spent the first world war fighting with the French foreign legion, where he lost his arm in combat, became an art critic, befriended Picasso, sailed the seven seas, shovelled coal in China, amassed and lost huge fortunes and had his own gossip column in a Hollywood newspaper. Nobody knows how much of this is actually true. Though he certainly lost an arm in the first world war, it is possible Blaise Cendrars was pulling more than one or two legs.”
More — much more — here in the TLS: http://www.the-tls.co.uk/tls/public/article1462845.ece. and at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blaise_Cendrars

I want here, then, to consider the relationship of text to image in this seminal artwork of 1913. In The Futurist Moment — to recapitulate just briefly here — I remark on the parallel situations of Cendrars and Delaunay. Both “French” artists are, to begin with, not from France: Cendrars, born Freddy Sauser in Switzerland, adopted the name Blaise Cendrars, combining “braise” (ember) and “cendres” (cinders): “Well, one may adore fire,” he wrote in an autobiographical fragment, “but not indefinitely respect the ashes; that’s why I make up my life and exercise my heart (and my mind and my balls) with the poker. The flame shoots forth.[Note 11]

25:

Cendrars ran away from home when he was seventeen, worked his way through a series of journeys, visiting, for example, St. Petersburg and New York. He had arrived in Paris only in 1912. As for Sonia Delaunay, she was born Sarah Ilinitchna Stern in the Ukraine, adopted by her uncle Henri Terk and then, as Sonia Terk came to Paris to study art in 1905 and marry the gallery owner William Uhde. Amicably divorced a few years later, she married Robert Delaunay, a great friend of Cendrars.

Figure 13: Robert Delaunay, Eiffel Tower, 1911. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.
Figure 14: Robert Delaunay, The Tower and the Wheel, 1903. Brush, pen, and ink on paper. Collection, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Fund, 1935.
Figure 15: Robert Delaunay, Hommage to Blériot, 1914. Oil on canvas. Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel, Kunstmuseum. Photograph by Martin Bühler.
 

26:

It was, of course, Robert Delaunay’s painting — of the Eiffel Tower [figures 13-14] and especially Homage à Bleriot [figure 15] that provides the background to Sonia Delaunay’s own, more abstract compositions. In Homage à Blériot, the aviator’s flight represented a triumph — and a French triumph at that — for the new technology of speed. In response to Blériot’s feat, Delaunay created a semi-abstract color field of overlapping and interlocking disks, based on “simultaneous contrasts.”

27:

Delaunay referred to his landscape as the “constructive mobility of the solar spectrum; dawn, fire, evolution of airplanes.”[Note 12] Into this vibrant prismatic field, he placed recognizable images of airplanes, propellers, wheels, birds, and a miniature Eiffel Tower. The actual scale of these objects is curiously distorted:the big red plane in its purplish cartoon-like frame etched against an open sky, painted in bright rainbow colors, sits above what looks like a toy Eiffel Tower. Another plane, this one bright orange, hovers on approach in the darker sky above it, and in the left foreground, we see a large orange-red propeller against a black round disk, framed by white and yellow wheel shapes. On the right, the overlapping disks form the backdrop for birds in flight, the counterpart of the planes above.

28:

Apollinaire, who was a great admirer of Delaunay’s chromatic painting, called the mode of the Homage to Blériot Orphism — an allusion to its intense lyricism, so different from the more subdued browns and grays of Picasso and Braque.[Note 13] Delaunay’s colorful celebration of those biplanes that, in Blaise Cendrars’s words, “circled around [the Eiffel Tower] and saluted it (lui disaient bonjour,)”[Note 14] seems curiously devoid of any inkling that the airplane might have uses quite different from those of transport or spectacle. And indeed, within a year, airplanes were being used to drop bombs on the enemy.

29:

Cendrars the outsider, the self-invented patriotic French poet, produced a voyage poem in the great tradition of Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage” and Rimbaud’s “Bateau Ivre.” But in the oppositional spirit of 1913, La Prose due Transsibérien (the title is purposely incorrect since it should be “le prose”), is written in loose paratactic free verse strophes, more reminiscent of Whitman than of Baudelaire, and its narrative dislocates space and time, even as it carefully juxtaposes seemingly unrelated objects. Then, too, this disjunctive poem, with its remarkable tonal and perspectival shifts, announces itself as prose and is dedicated “aux musiciens” so as to stress its defiance of theconventional verbal text: interestingly, the typography used in the pochoir does give the poem the look of a musical score — a look reproduced in the first published edition in book form of the poem itself by Pierre Seghers (1913) [see figures 16-17].[Note 15]

Figure 16: Frontispiece, Blaise Cendrars, Le Transsibérrien.Editions Pierre Seghers, Paris, 1913 (1957). Editions Denöel SA, Paris.
Figure 17: Page 22, Blaise Cendrars, Le Transsibérien.Editions Pierre Seghers, Paris, 1913.
 

30:

But subsequent editions normalize the poem’s typography, as do its English translations — even Timothy Young’s booklet accompanying the Beinecke facsimile of the accordion book. Here is the first eleven-line strophe, as printed in the Denoël Edition (Paris) and the Ron Padgett bilingual text, whose English version I use here:

En ce temps-là j’étais en mon adolescence
J’avais a peine seize ans et je ne me souvenais déjà plus de mon enfance
J’étais a 16. 000 lieues du lieu de ma naissance
J’étais à Moscou, dans la ville des mille et trois clochers et des sept gares
Et je n’avais pas assez des sept gares et des mille et trois tours
Car mon adolescence était si ardente et si folle
Que mon coeur, tour à tour, brûlait comme le temple d’éphèse
ou comme la Place Rouge de Moscou
Quand le soleil se couche.
Et mes yeux éclairaient des voies anciennes.
Et j’étais déjà si mauvais poète
Que je ne savais pas aller jusqu’au bout.

[Note 16]

31:

It is the immediacy, the jauntiness, the energy and seeming candor of these lines that distinguishes Le Transsibérien from other poems of the period — even Apollinaire’s “Zone,” which may have been its model. Repetition, refrain, hyperbole, and the cataloguing of proper names and specific images are the key stylistic features, giving continuity to what is otherwise a fairly free-form narrative.

32:

The rhythm of that narrative — the story of Blaise’s train journey from Moscow to Kharbin with the little Montmartre prostitute Jehanne, a parodic Joan of Arc, who suddenly disappears from the scene two thirds of the way through the poem and is not heard from again — is designed to capture the motion of the moving train: its forward thrust horizontally does match the vertical movement of Delaunay’s painting, with its interlocking circles, ovals, and crescents, although the fluid visual “journey” has none of the fits and starts or shifts of register that characterize Cendrars’s narrative.

33:

The pochoir exhibits none of the violence that becomes so central to the poem. At first, violence is equated with sexual energy, to the heart that burns like the temple of Ephesus or Red Square in Moscow when the sun is setting. But by the third stanza, the wild fantasies of our “mauvais poète” are becoming hyperbolically destructive:

34:

J’avais faim
Et tous les jours et toutes les femmes dans les cafés et tous les
verres
J’aurais voulu les boire et les casser
Et toutes les vitrines et toutes les rues
Et toutes les maisons et toutes les vies
Et toutes les roués des fiacres qui tournaient en tourbillon sur
les mauvais pavés
J’aurais voulu les plonger dans une fournaise de glaives
Et j’aurais voulu broyer tous les os
Et arracher toutes les langues
Et liquefier tous ces grand corps etranges et nus sous les vêtements qui
m’affolent. . .
Je pressentais la venue du Grand Christ rouge de la revolution Russe. . .
Et le soleil était une mauvaise plaie
Qui s’ouvrait comme un brasier. (21, spaced dots are BC’s)

[Note 17]

35:

Here the desire to devour, break, tear up, destroy, makes way for the dream of revolution, the terrible rupture, heralded by the wounded sun, that anticipates the Great War soon to come. The tone is still jaunty — an adolescent’s comic-book dream of wild adventures — but, as the poem progresses, the sounds and sights of battle — the literal reference is to the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 — become explicit.

36:

At first war is still far away:

37:

En Sibérie tonnait le canon, c’était la guerre
La faim le froid le peste le cholera
Et les eaux limoneuses de l’Amour charriaent des millions de
charognes
Dans toutes les gares je voyais partir tous les derniers trains
Personne ne pouvait plus partir car on ne délivrait plus de billets
Et le soldats qui s’en allaient auraient bien voulu rester. . .
Un vieux moine me chantait la légende de Novgorode.

[Note 18]

38:

The young poet, boarding the train with his boss, the jewel merchant, surveys the goods to be delivered to the East — cases of alarm and cuckoo clocks, stovepipes and Sheffield corkscrews, canned goods and sardines — and tries to avoid the impending sense of war and doom.

39:

The mood is one of Jules Verne science fiction or of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” what with fantasies of brigands, “les rats d’hôtel” (cat burglars), and “les petit Mongols due Grand-Lama.” The journey unfolds in a series of filmic images accompanied by the rhythms of the screeching train. But — and there is no parallel in Delaunay’s pochoir — discordant and ominous images set the stage. The merchandise includes“des cercueils de Malmoë” (“coffins from Malmo”), and the poet finds himself unnerved by the appearance of a “man in blue glasses nervously pacing up and down the corridor and glancing in at me” (“l’homme aux lunettes bleues qui se promenait nerveusement dans le couloir et qui me regardait en passant”). Who is this sinister stranger and what does his presence prefigure?

40:

Throughout the night, as Blaise alternately daydreams and tries to entertain Jeanne with hyperreal tall tales of mysterious islands, nature is always seen through the lens of technology and industrial detritus. “Le ciel est comme la tente dechirée d’un cirque pauvre dans un petit village de pêcheurs / En Flandres / Le soleil est un fumeux quinquet / Et tout au haut d’un trapèze une femme fait la lune” (“The sky is like the torn tent of a rundown circus in a little fishing village / in Flanders / The sun like a smoking lamp / and way up on the trapeze a woman does a crescent moon”).

41:

Jeanne’s refrain, “Blaise, dis, sommes-nous bien loin de Montmartre?” is punctuated by increasingly menacing images: even in his tale about Fiji with its eternal spring, “L’amour pâme les couples dans l’herbe haute et la chaude syphilis rode sous les bananiers” (“The lovers swoon in the high grass and hot syphilis drifts among the banana trees”). And “Les fils télegraphiques auquels elles pendent / Les poteaux grimaçants qui gesticulents et les étranglent” (“The telegraph lines they hang from / The grimacing poles that reach out to strangle them”).

42:

When Jeanne finally falls asleep, lulled by Blaise’s absurd endearments, the poet is haunted, as in the recent Christian Marclay film The Clock, by “Toutes les horloges / L’heure de Paris l’heure de Berlin l’heure de Saint-Pétersbourg / et l’heure de toutes les gares.” And a whole catalogue of clocks and bells from around the world follows.

43:

J’ai peur: it is here, five strophes before the end (Prose 30), that the note of acute fear comes to the fore. The train is approaching Mongolia and the poem, in an echo of Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre,” turns to recapitulation and lassitude:

44:

J’ai vu
J’ai vu les trains silencieux les trains noirs qui revenaient de L’Extrême-Orient et qui
            passaient en fantômes
Et mon oeil, comme le fanal d’arrière, court encore derrière cestrains
A Talga, 100. 000 blessés agonisaient faute de soins
J’ai visité les hôpitaux de Krasno ïarsk
Et à Khilok nous avons croisé un long convoi de soldats fous
J’ai vu dans les lazarets des plaies béanties des blessures qui
saignaient à pleines orgues
Et les membres amputés dansaient autour ou s’envolaient dans l’air rauque…
Et j’ai vu
J’ai vu des trains de 60 locomotives qui s’enfuyaient à toute vapeur pourchassées
par les horizons en rut et des bandes des corbeaux qui s’envolaient désespérément après
Disparaître
Dans la direction de Port-Arthur.

[Note 19]

45:

This hallucinatory sequence, with its burning trains, its narrator’s eye transformed into rear signal light, and its dance of amputated limbs, eerily prefigures the war of which Cendrars could as yet know nothing, a war in which he was, in 1915, to lose his own right arm. In Au Coeur du monde (1917), the fantasy of La Prose is translated into a more visionary image of the lost hand: “Ma main coupée brille au ciel dans la constellation d’Orion” (My cut off hand shines in the sky in the constellation of Orion” (Poésies complètes 1: 196).

46:

This strophe is, in any case, the turning point of the poem. As the journey now continues, Jeanne has mysteriously disappeared, there is talk of another girl (M. Iankéléwitch’s daughter), and the sweet memory of the poet’s mother at the piano, early in the poem, gives way to the recognition that “Maintenant c’était moi qui avais pris place au piano, et j’avais mal aux dents” (“Now I was the one playing the piano, and I had a toothache”). Toothache: like that of Vronsky in Anna Karenina, it is the emblem of everyday reality in its dreariest state. Drunkenness and sleep follow, and at Kharbin, “la dernière station,” the poet gets off the train, just as the Red Cross office is being set on fire.

47:

The end of the line: the fadeout dissolves all further talk of travel and trains: instead, the scene shifts abruptly back to Paris, and, in the final turn, to the poet’s apostrophe to his city, a city that, it now seems, he may never have left. The voyage narrative is framed as dream, a dream turned into nightmare. The address to Paris, in any case, begins on a positive note

48:

O Paris
Grand foyer chaleureux avec les tisons entrecroisés de tes rues muettes vieilles
     maisons qui se penchent au-dessus et se réchauffent
Comme des a ïeules
Et voici des affiches, du rouge du vert multicolores comme mon passé bref du jaune
          Jaune la fière couleur des romans de la France à l’étranger. . . .

[Note 20]

49:

Paris, great hearth with the intersecting embers of its streets and its lovely red and green multicolor posters and proud yellow of illicit novels: here is a thread Delaunay could and did no doubt pick up on. But now look at what follows:

50:

Figure 14
 
O Paris
Gare centrale débarcadère des volontés carrefour des inquiétudes

51:

Paris, central station where desires arrive, the crossroads of unrest, of anxiety. Haunted, in the end, by spectres of the women he has known, his lost loves including the mothers of his children, and unnerved by the siren cries in the night, the poet concludes:

52:

Je voudrais
Je voudrais n’avoir jamais fait mes voyages
Ce soir un grand amour me tourmente
Et malgré moi je pense à la petite Jehanne de France
C’est par un soir de tristesse que j’ai ecrit ce poème en son honneur
Jeanne
La petite prostituée
Je suis triste je suis triste
J’irai au Lapin agile me ressouvenir de ma jeunesse perdue
Et boire des petits verres
Puis je rentrerai seul
                                                  Paris
Ville de la Tour unique du grand Gibet et de la Roue

[Note 21]

53:

Je voudrais n’avoir jamais fait mes voyages! It is the Baudelairean and Rimbaldian theme carried to its logical conclusion. Lonely and sad, the poet will go have a few drinks and, like the “I” of Apollinaire’s “Zone,” return home alone. In the final recapitulation of Paris, we have “la Tour unique,” which can mean either the incomparable or the only one, “le Gibet,” the great gallows or guillotine, and the ever-turning wheel.

54:

La Prose du Transsibérien ends on a note of lassitude, sorrow, failure: the fancy cannot cheat so well as she is famed to do. And for all those who came to this great poem of 1913 only after the Great War, the knowledge of what is to come colors the entire spectacle. And the colors are hardly those of Sonia Delaunay.

55:

It should be clear by now that the trajectory of Cendrars’s poem is quite unlike that of Delaunay’s vertical pochoir, with its culminating image of the little red tower inside the orange wheel. The energy of Delaunay’s beautiful color spirals is matched by the energy of Cendrars’s poem, but whereas the poem moves from youthful fun and pleasure to the darkness of the Paris night, Delaunay’s visual counterpart does not change emotionally or tonally. Its vertical appearance is illusory, its thrust being spatial as an elaborate construction.

56:

Indeed, when we talk of the collagiste aspect of Cendrars’s poem, of its fragmented narrative and shifts in register, we must be careful not to impose Delaunay’s formal drive onto Cendrars. The fact is that, its dislocations and time shifts notwithstanding, the poem’s narrative is pretty straightforward. It begins “en ce temps-là,” when the poet is a carefree adolescent in Moscow and takes him, via the train journey, to a maturity no longer so insouciant or fun-loving. Again, the poem moves from the bright sunshine of a summer day in Moscow to the dark night of Paris. A pre-war poem of uncanny predictive powers, it begins by celebrating sexual excess only to conclude, at journey’s end, that the sirens’ grating sounds tear up the soul.

57:

But now comes the difficult question. Why, if we who read the poem can’t help seeing how different it is from its visual analogue, do we still love the Cendrars-Delaunay collaboration, as it is always called? Why do Delaunay’s couleurs simultanés seem so appropriate for the poem and vice-versa?

58:

In their penetrating analysis of the collaboration, Renée and Judd Hubert admit that “Delaunay-Terk’s sunlit chromatics evoke the very opposite of Cendrars’s somber writing dominated by disease and death.” But they make a strong case for affinities. For one thing, they point out that the text does attain “a kind of simultaneity by constantly turning back on itself in space as well as time. After all the return to Paris coincides with the arrival at Kharbine. ”

59:

This is an important point: the poem does come full circle to end where it began–but with the central difference that the poet is no longer the same. It is also true, as the Huberts note, that Cendrars includes many references to painting and to bright colors in his poem, as if anticipating Delaunay’s pochoir. For example, “Et voici des affiches, du rouge au vert comme mon passé bref du jaune”(“And here are posters in red in green all colors like my past in a word yellow,” Padgett 28). The Delaunay pochoir, the Huberts conclude, which is probably the first abstract work ever used to “illustrate” a poem, can be considered “the other of the text, as its positive and happy complement. Together, text and graphics create a simultaneous spectacle where the negative and positive sides of human existence contrast and combine.”[Note 22]

60:

I am not wholly convinced by this argument. True, the poem’s opening, with its childlike catalogues and transpositions, its absurdist and hyperbolic account of the train journey, does meet its match in Delaunay’s rendition. True as well that the poem repeatedly alludes to painting — “Si j’étais peintre je deverserais beaucoup de rouge, beaucoup de jaune sur la fin de ce voyage”(“If I were a painter I would splash lots of red and yellow over the end of this trip” (Padgett 70) — and thus sets up real links to Delaunay’s pochoir.

61:

But suppose the artist had taken her cue from the imagery of carnage and dismemberment found in the latter half of the poem? Perhaps, in that case, the “abstract” complement would have been in line with the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt or Mark Rothko, and the “simultaneous” book would have been entirely different. Again, the typography used in the pochoir — so expressive in its treatment of boldface, different fonts, mimetic spacing, and so on — is, as I noted earlier, not used in the print versions of the poem, even in its authorized Denöel edition. So the link between avant-garde typography and visual image, appealing as it is, does not, apply to the poem as most readers will know it.

62:

Perhaps, then — and this is characteristic of avant-garde production — we must talk of more than one Trassibérien. Far from being a “simultaneous book” — or in most of its current incarnations even a book — we have, to my mind, a differential text, its production incorporating wall painting, accordion book, or printed poem in “normal” format. The digital versions now accessible would constitute a fourth variant.

63:

Which of these best represents “l’esprit de 1913”?

64:

If Delaunay’s wall painting conveys the Utopian vision of the period, in all its charm and “color” potential, the accordion book reminds us of its relative modesty and poverty, the materials used being inexpensive, the images unobtrusive. But to understand the psychology of the darker side of the avant-guerre, its ethos of contradiction and uncertainty, we can profitably turn to Cendrars’s own text. His poem, we have seen, cannot remotely be “taken in” at a single glance; it is, after all, not an advertising poster. Rather, La Prose du Transsibérien is an ominously prophetic poem dramatizing the intersection of voyage — a trip in search of happy adventure and love — with the war that cuts off the train in its very tracks. The Paris to which the poet returns in the end (and which perhaps he has never left) is a totally changed city. And nothing in Delaunay’s lovely painting is quite comparable.

65:

As for the iconic Prose du Transsibérien, which was a central feature of the Inventing Abstraction exhibition at the [New York] Museum of Modern Art, and, which we contemplate with such pleasure at other museums, like the Zimmerli Art Museum in Rutgers, New Jersey or the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, this work is not “by” Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars: it is a brilliant pochoir, inspired by Cendars’s poem, but made by Delaunay. As such, it belongs, quite rightly, on the wall of a museum.

Notes

[Endnote 1] Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars, La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France, 1913, Paris: Editions des Hommes Nouveaux. Multicolored inks and pochoir gouache on simili japon paper, 78 by 14 inches. The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, The Wolfsonian-Florida International University, Miami Beach, Florida.

[Endnote 2] “The simultaneism of this book resides in its simultaneous and non-illustrative presentation. The simultaneous contrasts of colors and the text form depths and movements of new inspiration,” translation mine. See Blaise Cendrars and Sonia Delaunay-Terk, letter to André Salmon, October 12, 1913, in Blaise Cendrars, Inedits secrets, ed. Miriam Cendrars (Paris: Denoël, 1969), 364.

[Endnote 3] Matthew Affron, “Contrasts of Colors, Contrasts of Words,” in Inventing Abstraction 1910-1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art, ed. Leah Dickerman (New York: Museum of Modern Art: 2013), 82-85.

[4] Guillaume Apollinaire, “Simultanisme-Librettisme,” Les Soirées de Paris, no. 26-27, June 15, 1914; cited in English by Affron, 83: “Blaise Cendrars and Mm. Delaunay-Terck [sic] have made A FIRST ATTEMPT AT WRITTEN SIMULTANEITY where contrasts of colors train the eye to read IN ONE GLANCE the whole of a poem, the way a conductor reads in one glance the notes stacked up on a score, [or] as one reads in an instant the visual and printed elements of an advertising poster.”

[5] Affron, 82-83. Cf. Marjorie Perloff, The Futurist Moment: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre and the Language of Rupture, rev. ed. (1986; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), Chapter 4 passim.

[6] “… I have a fever. And this is why I love the painting of the Delaunays, full of sun, of heat, of violence. Mme Delaunay has made such a beautiful book of colors that my poem is more saturated with light than is my life. That’s what makes me happy. Besides, I think that this book should be two meters high! Moreover, that the edition should reach the height of the Eiffel Tower!” [translation mine]

[7] A facsimile of the original fold-out accordion book, accompanied by a booklet with a new translation by Timothy Young, was published by the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library for Yale University Press in 2008. The dimensions are three and three quarter inches by seven and one-eighth inches (folded), fourteen and a quarter inches by seventy-nine inches (flat). The painting is on the recto [right], the poem the verso [left], (corresponding to left and right of the pochoir on the wall.)

[8] See, for example, the oil painting in the Musée nationale d’art moderne, Paris, as reproduced in Affron, 86.

[9] Gordon Hughes, in his “Abstraction Chez Delaunay,” in Dickerman, 74-81, explains, “simultaneous contrast occurs when two or more contiguous colors of sufficient size and saturation mutually influence the viewer’s perception of their chromatic intensity and value. The placement of a patch of red net to a patch of blue, for example, will alter how we see both colors” (75).

[10] See, for example, Jay Bochner, Blaise Cendrars: Discovery and Re-creation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1978), 58-60. Katherine Schingler, “Visual and Verbal Encounters in Cendrars and Delaunay’s La Prose du Transsibérien,” Modern Languages and European Studies (Nottingham, 2013), 6: http://www.reading.ac.uk/web/FILES/modern-languages-and-european-studies/Katherine_Shingler_Visual_Encounters_in_Cendrars_and_Delaunays.pdf/.

[11] Blaise Cendrars, Une Nuit dans la forêt (1927), in Oeuvres complètes, ed. Raymond Dumay and Nino Frank (Paris: le Club français du livre, 1968-71), 6: 140, my translation. (“Or, on peut adorer le feu, mais non point respecter indéfiniment les cendres; c’est pourquoi j’attise ma vie et travaille mon coeur [et mon esprit et mes couilles] avec le tissionier. La flamme jaillit.”). Cf. Perloff, The Futurist Moment, chapter 1 passim.

[12] See The New Art of Color: The Writings of Robert and Sonia Delaunay, ed. Arthur A. Cohen (New York: Viking, 1978), p. 14. For discussion of Chevreuil’s theory, see pp. 11n, 23, 31, 52.

[13] See Guillaume Apollinaire, “Modern Painting” (1913), in Cohen, New Art of Color 101; Delaunay himself didn’t care for the term because it was too “literary”: see “Two Notes on Orphism” (1930), Cohen, New Art of Color, 104-105.

[14] Blaise Cendrars, “The Eiffel Tower,” (1924), in Cohen, New Art of Color 75.

[15] Note that on the title page of Seghers’ book, the date is given as 1912. Seghers later admitted this was a mistake, based on Cendrars’s own misleading account of his composition.

[16] Blaise Cendrars, “Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” Edition Complète, Vol. 1 (Paris: Denoël, 1963), 20-33, see p. 20. All further references are to this edition, but since readers will have different editions, I won’t give further page numbers for the French. For the English, see Blaise Cendrars, Complete Poems, trans. Ron Padgett (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 15-29. Here is the first stanza:

Back then I was still young
I was barely sixteen but my childhood memories were gone
I was 48,000 miles away from where I was born
I was in Moscow, city of a thousand and three bell towers and seven train stations
And the thousand and three towers and seven stations weren’t enough for me
Because I was such a hot and crazy teenager
That my heart was burning like the Temple of Ephesus or like Red Square in Moscow
At sunset
And my eyes were shining down those old roads
And I was already such a bad poet
That I didn’t know how to take it all the way.

[17]     I was hungry
And all those days and all those women in all those cafés and all those glasses
I wanted to drink them down and break them
And all those windows and all those streets
And all those houses and all those loves
And all those carriage wheels raising swirls from the broken pavement
I would have liked to have ground up all their bones
And ripped out all those tongues
And liquefied all those big bodies naked and strange under clothes that drive me
mad . . .
I foresaw the coming of the big red Christ of the Russian Revolution . .
And the sun was an ugly sore
Splitting apart like a red-hot coal.    (Padgett 16)

[18]    In Siberia the artillery rumbled — it was war
Hunger cold plague cholera
And the muddy waters of the Amur carrying along millions of corpses
In every station I watched the last trains leave
That’s all: they weren’t selling any more tickets
And the solders would far rather have stayed . . .
An old monk was singing me the legend of Novgorod.    (Padgett 16)

[19]    I saw
I saw the silent trains the black trains returning from the Far East and going by like
          Phantoms
And my eyes, like tail lights, are still trailing along behind those trains
At Talga 100,000 wounded were dying with no help coming
I went to the hospitals in Krasnoyarsk
And at Khilok we met a long convoy of soldiers gone insane
I saw in quarantine gaping sores and wounds with blood gushing out
And the amputated limbs danced around or flew up in the raw air
Fire was in their faces and in their hearts
Idiot fingers drumming on all the windowpanes
And under the pressure of fear an expression would burst like an abcess
In all the stations they had set fire to all the cars
And I saw
I saw trains with 60 locomotives streaking away chased by hot horizons and
          Desperate crows
Disappearing
In the direction of Port Arthur.    (Padgett 27)

[20]      O Paris
Great warm hearth with the intersecting embers of your streets and your old houses
        Leaning over them for warmth
Like grandmothers
And here are posters in red in green all colors like my past in a word yellow
Yellow the proud color of the novels of France    (Padgett 28)

[21]      I wish
I wish I’d never started traveling
Tonight a great love is driving me out of my mind
And I can’t help thinking about little Jeanne of France
It’s through a sad night that I’ve written this poem in her honor
Jeanne
The little prostitute
I’m sad so sad
I’m going to the Lapin Agile to remember my lost youth again
Have a few drinks
And come back home alone

                                                                        Paris
City of the incomparable Tower the great Gibbet and the Wheel
    (Padgett 29)

[22]    Renée Riese Hubert & Judd D. Hubert, “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la petite Jehanne de France,” in The Dialogue between Painting and Poetry: Livres d’Artistes 1874-1899, ed. Jean Khalfa (Cambridge, UK: Black Apollo Press, 2001), 59-82, see pp. 60, 70, 78-79. This important essay should be reprinted in a more accessible collection or put on the internet.

Marjorie Perloff, 1957, at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo courtesy M. Perloff.

 

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