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Saint-Merri


Apollinaire's poem about the flute-player
who, accompanied by "a bevy of languishing women,"
walks the streets around Saint-Merri one day in May 1913
caused problems for the translator:
some of them I thought I could master
simply by heeding
the topographical directions given in the poem itself
and walking the same way the flute-player does
from the moment when he unexpectedly
turns into rue Aubry-le-Boucher from the "Sébasto"
--boulevard de Sébastopol--
until he disappears into a house
over on the rue de la Verrerie.
So, half a century after Apollinaire's musician
I turned into the street
carrying the Pléiade edition in my hand.
It was just before the block was leveled and rebuilt.
Today it is difficult to imagine what it was like:
ramshackle houses all propped up
by makeshift supporting beams,
the gutter full of refuse and garbage…
When I arrived in the rue Saint-Martin
what then was called the "plateau Beaubourg" opened up:
an enormous space full of parked cars
and heaps of trash as after a market day.
The sun was blazing down.
A gushing hydrant turned the street to a lake.
I traced the flute-player's shimmering steps,
continuing north on the rue Saint-Martin
until I realized that I had come
to the vanished intersection at the rue Simon-le-Franc
where the flute-player stopped to drink
from the fountain in the corner of the street.
But the rue Simon-le-Franc now passed directly
through the present Centre Beaubourg
and so this part of its extension
was no longer there.
My street corner was theoretical. Where was the fountain?
Just here, however, the flute-player and I turned around
returning down the rue Saint-Martin
the same way we had come.
The flies led their fly-lives
in the sunshine on the plateau Beaubourg.
If you came near them, you could see their dazzling splendor…
I passed before the portal of Saint-Merri,
a medieval church
with demons and angels.
Today no bells were heard from the tower
as the flute-player turned to the left by the corner of the church--
into the longish rue de la Verrerie.
The women following him
moved to the sound of his flute, it says,
they had flocked together like mad from the little side streets
of which there are so many on this block
and had kept on gathering.
They had names like Ariane, Amine, and Pâquette
with the variant Pâquerette--"Daisy," that is.
When I had turned the corner myself
I wanted to know where I was:
First I had a look at the Pléiade volume and then
at the street sign.
The opening of the rue de la Verrerie
seemed to grow larger like a stage: I remained standing
in the middle of the plot
without understanding what it was all about.
The summer afternoon had an acoustics all its own--
murmuring voices, breezes, the odd laugh.
A woman was improving her make-up.
With her back to the street
another one talked to somebody in the dark
at the side entrance of the church,
a third one slackened her pace, watched the youth
who had the Pléiade edition in his hand:
was he walking around here reading the Bible or what?
The daisy smiled as if requiring an answer
this sunny afternoon--
when it suddenly dawned on me what she was up to.
"Tu viens?" I was so surprised by her question
that I couldn't think of anything to say!
Luckily, I had the poem to think about
and continued straight ahead--
until I suddenly thought I had found the door
where the flute-player had entered
accompanied by the women.…
The house dates from the 16th century.
Here Apollinaire and the priest of Saint-Merri
had entered half a century before me.
Of course they found neither the flute-player nor his women.
There was a remarkable stillness.
Now they had been gone for a long time,
and the yard was even more deserted than then:
the wagons of the haulage contractors had disappeared
and the windows had been nailed up.
Only I was here.--And so it will be for you
and for you and for you
who will once more take this walk
in the block around Saint-Merri.
But as yet you're standing in the echo there
of the flute's faintest tone.

-Jesper Svenbro
(Translated from the Swedish by John Matthias
and Lars-Håkan Svensson)





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