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The Master Letters

Lucie Brock-Broido

Knopf, $20.00

by Bonnie Costello

Reading The Master Letters has brought to my mind what Keats described "on first looking into Chapman's Homer:" "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken." While the use of apostrophe -- an I addressing an absent, intangible Thou -- is a very familiar device, it so dominates The Master Letters that we feel we are in the presence of something entirely new. Indeed, Brock-Broido is the first among contemporary poets to bring this celestial body into such brilliant focus. Not even her wonderful first book, A Hunger, though set in the same general universe of metaphysical lyric, prepares us for this bold encounter. The title of The Master Letters and the epistolary, apostrophic form of many of the poems pay homage to Emily Dickinson, but the poetry is no more derivative than James Merrill's Divine Comedies can be called derivative of Dante. Brock-Broido explains in her "Preamble" (itself a poem) that Dickinson left, along with her fascicles of poems, three documents known as "the Master Letters." "The letters may have been written to Samuel Bowls, or to the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Or they may have been to a lover, or to God." They were likely never posted. Brock-Broido's fascination with these documents led to a series of poems which "echo formal and rhetorical devices from Dickinson's work." But her permutations of both Speaker and Master stretch far beyond the frame of Dickinson's three letters. Rather Dickinson, like the many other voices entering the poem through the time-warp of italics (never quotation marks), helps us to know what key we are in, to find the proper pitch. It is a very high pitch indeed, one that will strain the ears of readers accustomed to more soporific voices. Like Dickinson, Brock-Broido is exhausting in her intensity and metaphoric daring. These poems do not work up to their heights, but set themselves there. "Obsession, Compulsion," for instance, begins:
The Breath is as much of Mob as I can master, love. Steamy
It comes on the winter's windowglass in the shapes of the faces

Of philosophers, there Aristotle's white crown & brow blown
Like the etching of a hunting dog covering tracks in the snow

With his paws.
The capital letters may recall Dickinson, but this is something at once more extravagant than Dickinson, and more restrained than the work of another of its masters, Sylvia Plath. As these lines indicate, Brock-Broido's fertile similes and metaphors do not turn to the familiar world, or to a mythological subtext, or to the self of the poet. Rather, they turn inward, in an infinite regress
toward God or whatever absence answers to their call -- we might even name it the Muse. The Master is a flexible or at least
protean sign, at times a tinsmith, at times an astronomer. It is that vocative mood that particularly marks the boldness of these poems, presenting a communication remote from empirical connections. Apostrophe marks a poem's reflections as an address to someone or something other than the reader. Keats speaks to a nightingale, Sylvia Plath to her dead father. But more importantly, apostrophe expands and intensifies the
lyric moment and projects the poet's voice out toward a subject indeterminate in time and space. The Other does not reply, of course, because it is an extension of the poet's intensity. The Other is brought into being in the act of addressing it. In Brock-Broido, the posited refusal of the Other to disclose itself or yield to the will of the speaker becomes fertile ground for the poet's feeling and invention. The epistolary form
is not a shallow expedient, then, but a
posture akin to prayer -- the I speaking to an absent, sometimes transcendental, sometimes impossible Thou. It places Brock-Broido, for all her originality, in a line of female metaphysical poets from Dickinson to Louise Glück, who seem especially attuned to the sublimity and tragedy of poetic address.

The poems in The Master Letters express volatile emotions -- from abjection to insolence or ecstasy -- as they are cast into the unanswering void. "Obsession, Compulsion" ends: "I will remember you forgetting & bear this, lying -- down -- //Would you but guide, your -- / Punitive Divine." An erotic element may stir in these addresses. It is explicit in "Work:" "I'm intoxicated, a little whore, lie//Now with me while I am still holy like/ This." But even here the erotic turns regenerative of an art that disdains the course of nature. The "lying" makes a poetry of "terrible crystal" to disarm a "daughter," the poet's representative in the future, who will experience the holy "harm" of art from which the poet now so sublimely suffers. The devotional stance, too, is complicated by irony. The "Sir," "Lord," or "Master" of these addresses is equally variable, "a kind of vortex of tempests & temperaments, visages & voicelessness. He took on the fractured countenance of a composite portrait. . . . Editor, mentor, my aloof proportion, the father, the critic, beloved, the wizard -- he was beside himself." At times he designates the poet's gesture of self-projection into the silence of all absences, in which the "secret self" participates.

Richly aphoristic as these poems can be, I would not confidently take any line of the book as its statement of poetics. It speaks too much by ventriloquism; its archness and protean manner resist paraphrase. Yet there are moments that seem self-descriptive, such as this in "Unholy," concerning the self-division of the voice:

Do not think me, Sir, distended with self-pity;
far from my own lean truth. It's this devil of
the ventriloquist bending my lackey's back
again. My voice thrown, my Other littler self
on my own knee, practicing a sleight of hand,
the tongue of the Inventor wagging the tongue
of the Invented. It is true that each self keeps a
secret self which cannot speak when spoken to
If apostrophe is the poetry of absence and Otherness then Death is the mother of its invention. Brock-Broido answers to the muse of death in her stunning opening poem "Carrowmore." Not itself an apostrophe, it sets the conditions for later addresses:
All about Carrowmore the lambs
Were blotched blue, belonging.

They were waiting for carnage or
Snuff. This is why they are born

To begin with, to end.
Ruminants do not frighten

At anything -- gorge in the soil, butcher
Noise, the mere graze of predators.

All about Carrowmore
The rain quells for three days.

I remember how cold I was, the botched
Job of travelling. And just so.

Wherever I went I came with me.
She buried her bone barrette

In the ground's woolly shaft.
A tear of her hair, an old gift

To the burnt other who went
First. My thick braid, my ornament --

My belonging I
Remember how cold I will be.

The poet projects herself into the grave here, thus dismantling time and dislocating identity. The lambs marked for shearing and slaughter seem continuous with the "woolly" earth and its logic of mutability: "this is why they are born to begin with, to end." But the poet and her reader shiver at this exposure against which no "ornament" protects them. (In another poem, "In the Attitude Desired for Exhibition," the poet identifies herself with a taxidermist's masterpiece in the old Irish estate of Lissadell: "I am the red she/Fox in habitat." Death's eerie formalism haunts the immortalizing gesture.) Though the poems are never descriptive, their atmospheres are sharply defined. The landscape of "Carrowmore" owes something to the Bröntes, and a gothic, English/Germanic world of rain, mist, cold breath, late autumn bleakness, characterizes many of the poems, though a Tudor courtliness can also be heard. These are textures more than contexts -- almost all attachments of anecdote and scene are severed from these lyrics. Textures are conspicuously important to the poet, who registers materiality in tulle, crinoline, muslin, linen, cambric. But she is not simply after decorative, brocade affects. The sheer range of reference -- Bodhisattva and Muddy Waters in one poem, Louis Armstrong and Madame Curie in another -- undermines mere textural coherence. Rather, the coherence of these poems is centered in voice. This is all the more remarkable considering the many quotations the volume absorbs into its seamless world. This flexible voice is now abject, now sly, both audacious and humble, but never neutral, never merely observational.

Almost every poem in the collection includes a note at the end of the book. Some of these are helpful identifications which free the poems from the burden of exposition. Carrowmore, we learn, "is a megalithic cemetery outside Sligo, Ireland." Other notes identify the diverse sources of the italicized lines -- Emerson, Hopkins, John Clare, Ezra Pound, August Strinberg, Otis Redding, and, of course, Emily Dickinson. Together, though, these notes detail a sense, which can be drawn from the poems themselves, of a porous yet highly concentrated lyrical identity, and a common spiritual ground which many great imaginations have traversed, but which is at the same time intimate and focused. These imaginations do not compete for our attention or draw us out of the poem into their own distant worlds or some trans-historical, mythological plane. They echo through the poems like personal memories or even incarnations. In this sense at least Brock-Broido is more Joseph Cornell than Ezra Pound or T.S. Eliot.

The I/Thou split of apostrophe is one way of exploring lyric identity, of expressing the agony of embodiment and the longing for a transcendental being. In the last poem here Brock-Broido takes up another way: the shedding of all pronoun, the turn into unstable, multiple predicates of experience and attitude. "Am Moor" ends the volume in an atmosphere much like the one that began it in "Carrowmore." But while in that poem she imagines her own death by reiterating the "I" ("wherever I went I came with me"), in the last poem identity emerges in the painful flexing between "am" and "was." "Am Moor" takes its title from and pays homage to the German poet Georg Trakl. But it writes over the German words (trans: "on the moor") with their English sounds (am/more).

Was chamber & ambage
& tender & burn. Am esurient, was the hungry form.

Am anatomy.
Was the bleating thing.
The strain of these poems, their exceptional diction, their stretch between abstract and concrete, their grammatical transgressions, is a mark of their confidence. The grace of the poems supports their ambition with a braided assonance, an aphoristic phrasing, an epistolary courtesy. They achieve, then, a very human mastery which is their blissful answer to the Master who answers "no," or not at all.

The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium
General Assembly: Poems
Collected and New

Denis Johnson

HarperCollins, $22.00 (cloth)

by Karen Volkman

Denis Johnson's Collected brings together his four volumes of poetry -- The Man Among the Seals, Inner Weather, The Incognito Lounge, and The Veil -- as well as a modest selection of new and unpublished work. Presently most active as a fiction writer, Johnson is the author of four novels and a recent book of short stories, Jesus' Son, which inspires rapturous idolatry in normally temperate souls. The edgy lyricism of his short stories, the manic desperation and grim hilarity of their drifters, drunks, and addicts, find their beginnings in the sepia-tinged night-world of these collected poems. From his precocious first book, The Man Among the Seals (published in 1969, when the author was 20), Johnson's preoccupation has been with the dissipated, the derelict, the delinquent. The book's opening poem, "Quickly Aging Here," establishes an obsession with attrition, a sympathy between tainted environment and tainted aim, that will recur throughout his work: "i feel that i have had/winters, too many heaped cold//and dry as reptiles into my slack skin./i am not the kind to win/and win." Echoing the world of contradiction and conflict through which the poems' speakers maneuver a shaky path, the poems manage a seamless integration of suburban icons -- swimming pools, grocery stores, misfiring cars -- with their moodier images. And foreshadowing Johnson's move to fiction is a taste for persona, a disappearance into the minds of beleaguered others. In "A Consequence of Gravity," a man watches a child play and fail at flight, "as he mourns his
miserable attachment/to the ground," and in his failure recognizes the agony of
transcendent aspiration: "i grow, like an
imprisoned pilot,/heavier, near death, my face/makes mistakes in the last oxygen of the cockpit."

Johnson locates his poems again and again in this chasm between intention and fulfilled action, with its inevitable, irremediable "mistakes" in the midst of extremity -- the appalling losses of a daily moral life. And it is the "face" that most often bears the marks of self-censure or erasure: in the title poem of The Incognito Lounge (1982), and throughout that volume, faces are distorted, shadowed, shut, unrecognizable, or simply absent:

The manager lady of this
apartment dwelling has a face
like a baseball with glasses and pathetically
repeats herself. The man next door
has a dog with a face that talks
of stupidity to the night, the swimming pool
has an empty, empty face.
My neighbor has his underwear on
tonight, standing among the parking spaces
advising his friend never to show
his face around here again.
I go everywhere with my eyes closed and two
eyeballs painted on my face. There is a woman
across the court with no face at all.
Transplanted into a surreal landscape of apartments, nightclubs, and neon-lit shopping strips, Johnson's chiaroscuro portraits of suburban isolation erupt into gaudy grotesques. Here, the artificial intimacies of apartment life point up the real failures of contact, where passing helicopters "going whatwhatwhatwhatwhat" are as communicative as the "manager lady" whose speech is reduced to song lyrics and clichés. And where friends "rodomontading about goals/as if having them liquefied death" are linked in syntax, temperament, and gesture to the "couple of miserable gerbils/in a tiny white cage." While this chic aimlessness may verge on the terminally hip, Johnson's generosity, immediacy, and wit pull him back from that particular pitfall; his stylizations are so original, his annexing of lexicon and experience so spontaneous and natural, that the occasional excessive posturing is neutralized by a core of genuineness and prosodic grace. He is not simply a voyeur, a jaded recorder of societal ills; in the stanza quoted above, the speaker admits complicity in the tawdriness of his vision. Of the faces catalogued, only his gruesomeness is willful: "eyes closed and two/eyeballs painted on my face." The horrifying, cartoonish image and the adolescent belligerence of tone collide with the very adult nature of the poem's
stated subject, "these questions of happiness/plaguing the world." What distinguishes Johnson from so many chroniclers of postmodern angst is his ready admission that terror has its ludicrous side, self-pity its face-paint and unconvincingly clenched fist.

One of his tools is a limber tonal register that can wed lyric convention to his hectically contemporary scenes, as in the sonnet "Heat":

Here in the electric dusk your naked lover
tips the glass high and the ice cubes fall against her teeth.
It's beautiful Susan, her hair sticky with gin,
Our Lady of the Wet Glass-Rings on the Album Cover,
streaming with hatred in the heat
as the record falls and the snake-band chords begin
to break like terrible news from the Rolling Stones,
and such a last light -- full of spheres and zones.
you're just an erotic hallucination,
just so much feverishly produced kazoo music,
are you serious? -- this large oven
impersonating night,
this exhaustion mutilated to resemble passion,
the bogus moon of tenderness and magic,
you hold out to each prisoner like a cup of light?
While his opening gesture of situating the poem "Here" declares an aggressive
investment in establishing a locality in the present -- the here and now -- the poet quickly leaves his static lovers to the
encroachments of a taunting and slightly unsavory erotic landscape. The familiar signifiers of romantic convention --
music, summer, moon -- become charlatans and shysters roaming the larger Lounge of Johnson's vision. Susan's
tipping of her gin is the lovers' only volitional act in the poem; otherwise, they
are passive receivers of their surrounding objects' mockery. The "ice cubes fall,"
"the record falls" (certainly, in this age of CD's, the act of a lost era), "the chords begin/to break," all assaulting the sensibilities of their exhausted perceivers. Typically, the speaker's only recourse is to demand (with bravado) an explanation: "are you serious?" Johnson's turns are often effected by such sudden alterations of address, rhetorical doubletakes. In "Heat," his change in diction also marks a move from his habitual claustrophobic interiors to the outside, to open space, and to the moon itself, opening and expanding the scene -- then abruptly shrinking it to an enclosed, contained "cup of light" echoing the glass of gin with which the poem begins. And if the world's mystery and erotic promise are no better -- or more transforming -- than the gin, why attempt the expansive gesture required to inhabit those deceptive "spheres and zones"?

In his most recent full-length collection, The Veil (1987), Johnson pursues his obsessions in starker terms, incorporating longer narratives and a shattering sequence of poems on a suicidal neighbor. While The Incognito Lounge took place largely at night, by the vague illuminations of streetlamps, signs, or an "electric dusk" so eerie it acquires the qualities of artificial light, the poems of The Veil perform their helpless obfuscations without benefit of external obscurity. In some cases, it is the clarity of the scene that makes its incomprehensible and incommunicable nature all the more devastating: "And then we came out of a tunnel into one of those restaurants/where the natural light was so unnatural/as to make heavenly even our fingernails and each radish./I saw everyone's skull beneath the skin,/I saw sorrow painting its way out of the faces,/someone was telling a lie and I could taste it" ("At the Rockefeller Museum of Primitive Art"). Far from the "two/eyeballs painted on my face" and the ensuing distortion of perception in the speakers of Incognito, the voices crowding The Veil recognize too keenly that clear-sightedness is no cure, merely another injury reinforcing the obliterating darkness against which it is measured:

because we freely admit how powerful the sight is,
we say that eyes stab and glances rake,
but it is not the sight
that lets us taste the salt on someone's shoulder in the night,
the musk of fear in the morning,
the savor of falling in the falling
elevators in the buildings of rock,
it is the dark that lets us it is the dark.
Similarly, in "The Veil," the alcoholic speaker drinks his way into a sure, but bitterly inarticulable clarity, "through which one at last saw the skeleton/of everything, stripped of any sense or consequence,/freed of geography and absolutely devoid/of charm; and in this originating brightness you might see/somebody putting a napkin against his lips/or placing a blazing credit card on a plastic tray/and you'd know. You would know goddamn it. And never be able to say."

For the title of this collection, Johnson chose the final poem in The Veil, "The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly." Titled after the monumental creation of custodian James Hampton, who built the "Throne" over a period of years from junk and scraps gleaned from federal government offices, the poem celebrates the construction of human artifact from the madness and detritus of contemporary life. Such a work, allowing its viewer -- or reader -- to "see in everything a making," succeeds, by its will to beauty, in claiming the gravest authority, to "command you not to fear." The meager flashes of redemptive grace held out in the preceding poems are here foregrounded, though characteristically the source is a work of ludicrous excess, near absurdity, and certain eccentricity by a "probably insane" artist. In titling 20 years of his passionate, incisive poetry after Hampton's creation, Denis Johnson declares his loyalty to the mad American visionary and outsider who scavenges a life of meaning from peculiar leavings. n

Alcools: Poems By Guillaume

Translated by Donald Revell

Wesleyan University Press, $30.00 (cloth), $15.95 (paper)

by Marjorie Perloff

At last: a first-rate, lively, and imaginative translation of Apollinaire's Alcools (1913) to set side by side with Ron Padgett's Complete Poems of Blaise Cendrars (California, 1992). I say at last because both these great French avant-garde poets have been poorly served by their US translators and publishers. Until recently, the only large-scale English translation of Cendrars available was the New Directions selection, edited and translated by Walter Albert, just as the only Apollinaire available was the New Directions Selected Writings by Roger Shattuck. Both were at least 30 years out of date. Shattuck is a great Apollinaire scholar, but the Selected Writings includes only about a third of Alcools and the formal language and syntax of the translations accord with the New Critical norms for poetry prevalent in the late 40s when the book was first published. The same holds true for Anne Hyde Greet's 1965 translation of Alcools (California). Like Shattuck's, hers is a literal translation designed to help the reader who knows at least a little French. Greet has good notes on the individual poems, but her Alcools (long out of print) was not exactly calculated to win Apollinaire a new readership, any more than was Albert's translation of Cendrars. There is a further paradox. From Samuel Beckett, who was commissioned to translate "Zone," to Paul Blackburn and W. S. Merwin, a good number of poets have tried their hand at translating Apollinaire, even as other poets like Frank O'Hara and Allen Ginsberg have claimed this "father of Dada" (O'Hara's epithet) as their master. Yet, just as Padgett was the first poet to take on Cendrars in anything like systematic fashion, Revell is the first poet to give us a full-scale Apollinaire -- an Apollinaire, moreover, who is very much our contemporary.

"I chose," Revell explains in his preface, "to translate many passages in Alcools as `incorrect' mixes of high and low diction, of latinate and slang, of abstracted concretes and concretized abstractions, because it is just such mixes that have made Apollinaire so enabling to our contemporary poets." And again, "I have tried, in translating Apollinaire to the end of his century, to present him a new suit of grammars, a suit cut after his own audacious style." Such updating is necessary, Revell posits, today when "an exaggerated sense of `now' suppresses the more genuine, more useful sense of "for now" inscribed within the etymology of `modern.'"

Let's see what this means in practice. Here is a passage roughly halfway through the volume's opening poem "Zone" (1912). It is the moment when the exuberance of the poet's stroll through the noisy Paris streets begins to give way to something darker:

Maintenant tu marches dans Paris tout seul parmi la foule
Des troupeaux d'autobus mugissant près de toi roulent
L'angoisse de l'amour te serre le gosier
Comme si tu ne devais jamais plus être aimé
Si tu vivais dans l'ancien temps tu entrerais dans un monastère
Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière
Tu te moques de toi et comme le feu de l'Enfer ton rire pétille
Les etincelles de ton rire dorent le fond de ta vie
C'est un tableau pendu dans un sombre musée
Et quelque fois tu vas le regarder de près

Aujourd'hui tu marches dans Paris les femmes sont ensanglantées
C'était et je voudrais ne pas m'en souvenir c'était au déclin de la beauté
(ll. 71-82)
Anne Hyde Greet renders this as follows:
Now you stride alone through the Paris crowds
Busses in bellowing herds roll by
Anguish clutches your throat
As if you would never again be loved
In the old days you would have turned monk
With shame you catch yourself praying
And jeer your laughter crackles like hellfire
Its sparks gild the depths of your life
Which like a painting in a dark museum
You approach sometimes to peer at closely

Today in Paris the women are bloodstained
It was as I would rather forget it was during beauty's decline
Compare Revell:
You are walking in Paris alone inside a crowd
Herds of buses bellow and come too close
Love-anguish clutches your throat
You must never again be loved
In the Dark Ages you would have entered a monastery
You are ashamed to overhear yourself praying
You laugh at yourself and the laughter crackles like hellfire
The sparks gild the ground and background of your life
Your life is a painting in a dark museum
And sometimes you examine it closely

You are walking in Paris the women are bloodsoaked
It was and I have no wish to remember it was the end of beauty
Greet's translation is the more accurate of the two: "Des troupeaux d'autobus mugissants" literally means "bellowing herds of buses," "dans l'ancien temps" means "the old days," not quite Revell's "the Dark Ages," and in line 82, the reference is, as Greet translates it, to "beauty's decline," not to its "end." But the great feat Revell has brought off is to render Apollinaire's racy, nervous, colloquial French in comparable paratactic clauses, specifically in simple subject-verb-object units that render the sense of presence and simultaneity central to Apollinaire's montage. "You are walking in Paris alone inside a crowd:" given the cataloguing of images in the stanza, the reference to "Now" ("Maintenant") is gratuitous, "are walking" is much more effective than "you stride," and "alone inside the crowd" emphasizes the poet's growing alienation much more fully than "you stride alone through the Paris crowds." In the next line -- and here is a favorite Revell device -- the modifying participle becomes an active verb: "Herds of buses bellow and come too close," the latter construction signifying the underlying meaning of "près de toi roulent." Throughout the stanza, the "as if"s and "which" constructions, constructions that rationalize the fluidity of Apollinaire's unpunctuated verse, are replaced by a collaging of equally weighted fragments. In lines 79-80, for example, Revell dispenses with Greet's cumbersome simile ("your life / Which like a painting") and lets the observation stand alone: "Your life is a painting in a dark museum / And sometimes you examine it closely." The covert reference here is to the painful scandal in which Apollinaire was accused of having stolen the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and had to spend a few days in jail before being cleared. It was the sort of incident that made the poet, himself an exile, "examine" (Revell's rendition of "regarder") himself in a rare moment of introspection -- a moment that leads to the vision of Paris as a city of "femmes ensanglantées," followed by the famous line in which the second-person self-address (whether "tu" or "vous") abruptly switches to "je" echoing Rimbaud's "Je est un autre." The dissolution of self is prefaced by "C'était," the verb left hanging with no predicate. It was . . . what? Greet rationalizes this famous line by turning the "et" into an "as" -- "as I would rather forget it was during beauty's decline." Revell restores the ambiguity and again proceeds paratactically: "and I have no wish to remember it was the end of beauty," which is more matter-of-fact, less posturing than "during beauty's decline."

Revell thus gives us an Apollinaire who is, in David Antin's words about Charles Olson, "a man on his feet, talking." "You are ashamed to overhear yourself praying," for example, has the note of actual conversation -- a note absent from Greet's "With shame you catch yourself praying," And so this remarkable poet of the avant guerre, an urban poet whose proto-Dada, proto-Surrealist, comic-fantastic inflections look straight ahead to O'Hara's "I do this, I do that" poems, to Ginsberg's manic catalogues, and to John Ashbery's journeys to mysterious places that turn out to be right in the poet's own backyard. Once unencumbered by the baggage of neo-Victorian diction characteristic of most earlier Apollinaire translation -- for example, "you stride alone," "With shame you catch," "jeer," "peer at closely" in the Greet translation above -- the poems in Alcools become astonishingly contemporary. Even the early quatrain poems now get a new life. Take the last stanza of "The Gypsy" ("La Tzigane"):

On sait tres bien que l'on se damne
Mais l'espoir d'aimer en chemin
Nous fait penser main dans la main
A ce qu'a prédit la tzigane.
Revell retains the rhyming tetrameter quatrain but takes liberties with the meaning:
A person knows damn well he's damned
But hope of loving along the way
Compels us to consider hand in hand
The words the gypsy meant to say.
"Meant to say" puts an unexpected spin on "prédit," but, come to think of it, Revell's reading is perfectly in keeping with the mordant irony of this love song, with its recognition that the gypsy's predictions are worth no more than we make of them.

Thus modernized (or perhaps post-modernized), Apollinaire deserves to have a wide audience in late 20th century America. If Roger Shattuck's Apollinaire was primarily the avant-garde poet of "the Banquet Years," the disseminator of Cubism and father of Surrealism, the wistful lyrical love poet of "La Chanson du mal-aimé," the new Apollinaire emerges as one of us. A French poet who was in fact not French at all, but half-Polish, half-Italian (he was christened Wilhelm-Apollinaris de Kostrowitski by his Polish mother, who refused to divulge the identity of his father -- probably an Italian army officer named Francesco Flugi d'Aspermont), he prefigures the poets of our own hybrid nationalities and origins. Like Cendrars (né Freddy Hauser), Apollinaire compensated for his outsider status by becoming the most patriotic of Frenchmen and rushing to enlist in the Great War, a decision that led to his premature death at 38 from the head wounds he had received in battle. Again like Cendrars, his poetic diction is an amalgam of solecisms, archaisms, foreign phrases, street slang, and eclectic religious and mythological vocabulary. The precariousness of his sense of identity is the subject of many of his finest poems, especially "Cortège," where the poet in a dream-vision sees "Tous ceux qui survenaient et n'étaient pas moi-même" ("The many who passed and were not me"), and who "carried fragments" of a self that could never come together.

Apollinaire's Paris is a long way from Baudelaire's; it is the Paris of refugees, whose odor fills the hall of the "gare Saint-Lazare," who carry "red eiderdowns" even as the poet himself carries his heart. It is also the Paris of "Christs of another shape another faith / Subordinate Christs of uncertain hopes" in the form of South Sea and Guinean fetishes. And, most of all, it is a Paris that the poet adores but is always leaving -- to go to Marseilles, Coblenz, Amsterdam, the trenches -- almost anywhere. It is thus that Baudelaire's imaginary voyage has become real, only to be even more disillusioning than its precursor.

Revell's translation is not without its faults. The rendition of the last line of "Zone,"for example, the famous "Soleil cou coupé" as "Sun cut throated" strikes me as awkward compared to Greet's "Sun slit throat," or Shattuck's "Sun a severed head." The great last stanza of "Cortège" is marred by the translation of "Rien n'est mort que ce qui n'existe pas encore" as "Nothing has died that never existed," which undercuts the poet's conclusion that nothing dies except that which has never existed. In the same poem, "Baisse ta deuxième paupière" is curiously rendered as "Abase your other eye," where "Lower" would, I think, have done nicely. And in "Les Fiançailles": "la lune qui cuit comme un oeuf sur le plat" ("the moon that sizzles like a fried egg") is deprived of its sizzle and, contrary to Revell's usual predilection for active verbs, becomes "The moon is a fried egg."

But these are minor flaws in what is an ambitious and important poetic project. My own hope is that Revell will now take on the Calligrammes as well and give us a Collected Poems. We need one and Revell, whose visual sense is as acute as his verbal, is just the person to do it.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review

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