Issue 4: The Prose of the Trans-Siberian / Blaise Cendrars

Dedicated to the musicians

 

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.

The Kremlin was like an immense Tartar cake
Iced with gold
With big blanched-almond cathedrals
And the honey gold of the bells . . .
An old monk was reading me the legend of Novgorod
I was thirsty
And I was deciphering cuneiform characters
Then all at once the pigeons of the Holy Ghost flew up over the square
And my hands flew up too, sounding like an albatross taking off
And, well, that's the last I remember of the last day
Of the very last trip
And of the sea.

Still, I was a really bad poet.
I didn't know how to take it all the way.
I was hungry
And all those days and all those women in all those cafes 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 lives
And all those carriage wheels raising swirls from the broken pavement
I would have liked to have rammed them into a roaring furnace
And 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.

Back then I was still quite young
I was barely sixteen but I'd already forgotten about where I was born
I was in Moscow wanting to wolf down flames
And there weren't enough of those towers and stations sparkling in
my eyes
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 soldiers would far rather have stayed . . .
An old monk was singing me the legend of Novgorod.

Me, the bad poet who wanted to go nowhere, I could go anywhere
And of course the businessmen still had enough money
To go out and seek their fortunes.
Their train left every Friday morning.
It sounded like a lot of people were dying.
One guy took along a hundred cases of alarm clocks and cuckoo clocks
from the Black Forest
Another took hatboxes, stovepipes, and an assortment of Sheffield
corkscrews
Another, coffins from Malmo filled with canned goods and sardines
in oil
And there were a lot of women
Women with vacant thighs for hire
Who could also serve
Coffins
They were all licensed
It sounded like a lot of people were dying out there
The women traveled at a reduced fare
And they all had bank accounts.

Now, one Friday morning it was my turn to go
It was in December
And I left too, with a traveling jewel merchant on his way to Harbin
We had two compartments on the express and 34 boxes of jewelry from
Pforzheim
German junk "Made in Germany"
He had bought me some new clothes and I had lost a button getting on
the train
-- I remember, I remember, I've often thought about it since --
I slept on the jewels and felt great playing with the nickel-plated
Browning he had given me
I was very happy and careless

It was like Cops and Robbers
We had stolen the treasure of Golconda
And we were taking it on the Trans-Siberian to hide it on the other side
of the world
I had to guard it from the thieves in the Urals who had attacked the
circus caravan in Jules Verne
From the Khunkhuz, the Boxers of China
And the angry little Mongols of the Great Lama
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
And the followers of the terrible Old Man of the Mountain
And worst of all, the most modern
The cat burglars
And the specialists of the international express.
And still, and still
I was as sad as a little boy
The rhythms of the train
What American psychiatrists call "railroad nerves"
The noise of doors voices axles screeching along frozen rails
The golden thread of my future
My Browning the piano the swearing of the card players in the next
compartment
The terrific presence of Jeanne
The man in blue glasses nervously pacing up and down the corridor
and glancing in at me
Swishing of women
And the whistle blowing
And the eternal sound of the wheels wildly rolling along ruts in the sky
The windows frosted over
No nature!
And out there the Siberian plains the low sky the big shadows of the
Taciturns rising and falling
I'm asleep in a tartan
Plaid
Like my life
With my life keeping me no warmer than this Scotch
Shawl
And all of Europe seen through the wind-cutter of an express at top
speed
No richer than my life
My poor life
This shawl
Frayed on strongboxes full of gold
I roll along with
Dream
And smoke
And the only flame in the universe
Is a poor thought . . .

Tears rise from the bottom of my heart
If I think, O Love, of my mistress;
She is but a child, whom I found, so pale
And pure, in the back of a bordel.

She is but a fair child who laughs,
Is sad, doesn't smile, and never cries;
But the poet's flower, the silver lily, trembles
When she lets you see it in the depths of her eyes.

She is sweet, says nothing you can hear,
With a long, slow trembling when you draw near;
But when I come to her, from here, from there,
She takes a step and shuts her eyes -- and takes a step.

For she is my love and other women
Are but big bodies of flame sheathed in gold,
My poor friend is so alone
She is stark naked, has no body -- she's too poor.

She is but an innocent flower, all thin and delicate,
The poet's flower, a pathetic silver lily,
So cold, so alone, and so wilted now
That tears rise if I think of her heart.

And this night is like a hundred thousand others when a train slips
through the night
-- Comets fall --
And a man and a woman, no matter how young, enjoy making love.

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
The clarinet the trumpet a shrill flute a beat-up drum
And here is my cradle
My cradle
It was always near the piano when my mother, like Madame Bovary,
played Beethoven's sonatas
I spent my childhood in the hanging gardens of Babylon
Playing hooky, following the trains as they pulled out of the stations
Now I've made the trains follow me
Basel-Timbuktu
I've played the horses at tracks like Auteuil and Longchamps
Paris-New York
Now the trains run alongside me
Madrid-Stockholm
Lost it all at the gay pari-mutuel
Patagonia is what's left, Patagonia, which befits my immense sadness,
Patagonia and a trip to the South Seas
I'm on the road
I've always been on the road
I'm on the road with little Jeanne of France
The train does a somersault and lands on all fours
The train lands on its wheels
The train always lands on all its wheels

"Blaise, say, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"

A long way, Jeanne, you've been rolling along for seven days
You're a long way from Montmartre, from the Butte that brought you
up, from the Sacré-Coeur you snuggled up to
Paris has disappeared with its enormous blaze
Everything gone except cinders flying back
The rain falling
The peat bogs swelling
Siberia turning
Heavy sheets of snow piling up
And the bell of madness that jingles like a final desire in the bluish air
The train throbs at the heart of the leaden horizon
And your desolation snickers . . .

"Say, Blaise, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"

Troubles
Forget your troubles
All the cracked and leaning stations along the way
The telegraph lines they hang from
The grimacing poles that reach out to strangle them
The world stretches out elongates and snaps back like an accordion in
the hands of a raging sadist
Wild locomotives fly through rips in the sky
And in the holes
The dizzying wheels the mouths the voices
And the dogs of misery that bark at our heels
The demons are unleashed
Scrap iron
Everything clanks
Slightly off
The clickety-clack of the wheels
Lurches
Jerks
We are a storm in the skull of a deaf man . . .

"Say, Blaise, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"

Of course we are, stop bothering me, you know we are, a long way
An overheated madness bellows in the locomotive
Plague and cholera rise like burning embers around us
We disappear right into a tunnel of war
Hunger, that whore, clutches the clouds scattered across the sky and
craps on the battlefield piles of stinking corpses
Do what it does, do your job . . .

"Say, Blaise, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"

Yes, we are, we are
All the scapegoats have swollen up and collapsed in this desert
Listen to the cowbells of this mangy troop
Tomsk Chelyabinsk Kansk Ob' Tayshet Verkne-Udinsk Kurgan Samara
Penza-Tulun
Death in Manchuria
Is where we get off is our last stop
This trip is terrible
Yesterday morning
Ivan Ulitch's hair turned white
And Kolia Nikolai Ivanovitch has been biting his fingers for two
weeks . . .
Do what Death and Famine do, do your job
It costs one hundred sous -- in Trans-Siberian that's one hundred rubles
Fire up the seats and blush under the table
The devil is at the keyboard
His knotty fingers thrill all the women
Instinct
OK gals
Do your job
Until we get to Harbin . . .

"Say, Blaise, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"

No, hey . . . Stop bothering me . . . Leave me alone
Your pelvis sticks out
Your belly's sour and you have the clap
The only thing Paris laid in your lap
And there's a little soul . . . because you're unhappy
I feel sorry for you come here to my heart
The wheels are windmills in the land of Cockaigne
And the windmills are crutches a beggar whirls over his head
We are the amputees of space
We move on our four wounds
Our wings have been clipped
The wings of our seven sins
And the trains are all the devil's toys
Chicken coop
The modern world
Speed is of no use
The modern world
The distances are too far away
And at the end of a trip it's horrible to be a man with a woman . . .

"Blaise, say, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"

I feel so sorry for you come here I'm going to tell you a story
Come get in my bed
Put your head on my shoulder
I'm going to tell you a story . . .

Oh come on!

It's always spring in the Fijis
You lay around
The lovers swoon in the high grass and hot syphilis drifts among the
banana trees
Come to the lost islands of the Pacific!
Names like Phoenix, the Marquesas
Borneo and Java
And Celebes shaped like a cat

We can't go to Japan
Come to Mexico!
Tulip trees flourish on the high plateaus
Clinging vines hang down like hair from the sun
It's as if the brushes and palette of a painter
Had used colors stunning as gongs--
Rousseau was there
It dazzled him forever
It's a great bird country
The bird of paradise the lyre bird
The toucan the mockingbird
And the hummingbird nests in the heart of the black lily
Come!
We'll love each other in the majestic ruins of an Aztec temple
You'll be my idol
Splashed with color childish slightly ugly and really weird
Oh come!

If you want we'll take a plane and fly over the land of the thousand lakes
The nights there are outrageously long
The sound of the engine will scare our prehistoric ancestors
I'll land
And build a hangar out of mammoth fossils
The primitive fire will rekindle our poor love
Samovar
And we'll settle down like ordinary folks near the pole
Oh come!

Jeanne Jeannette my pet my pot my poot
My me mama poopoo Peru
Peepee cuckoo
Ding ding my dong
Sweet pea sweet flea sweet bumblebee
Chickadee beddy-bye
Little dove my love
Little cookie-nookie
Asleep.

She's asleep
And she hasn't taken in a thing the whole way
All those faces glimpsed in the stations
All the clocks
Paris time Berlin time Saint Petersburg time all those stations' times
And at Ufa the bloody face of the cannoneer
And the absurdly luminous dial at Grodno
And the train moving forward endlessly
Every morning you set your watch ahead
The train moves forward and the sun loses time It's no use! I hear the bells
The big bell at Notre-Dame
The sharp bell at the Louvre that rang on Saint Bartholomew's Day
The rusty carillons of Bruges-the-Dead
The electric bells of the New York Public Library
The campaniles of Venice
And the bells of Moscow ringing, the clock at Red Gate that kept time
for me when I was working in an office
And my memories
The train thunders into the roundhouse
The train rolls along
A gramophone blurts out a tinny Bohemian march
And the world, like the hands of the clock in the Jewish section of
Prague, turns wildly backwards.
Cast caution to the winds
Now the storm is raging
And the trains storm over tangled tracks
Infernal toys
There are trains that never meet
Others just get lost
The stationmasters play chess
Backgammon
Shoot pool
Carom shots
Parabolas
The railway system is a new geometry
Syracuse
Archimedes
And the soldiers who butchered him
And the galleys
And the warships
And the astounding engines he invented
And all that killing
Ancient history
Modern history
Vortex
Shipwreck
Even that of the Titanic I read about in the paper
So many associations images I can't get into my poem
Because I'm still such a really bad poet
Because the universe rushes over me
And I didn't bother to insure myself against train wreck
Because I don't know how to take it all the way
And I'm scared.

I'm scared
I don't know how to take it all the way.
Like my friend Chagall I could do a series of irrational paintings
But I didn't take notes
"Forgive my ignorance
Pardon my forgetting how to play the ancient game of Verse"
As Guillaume Apollinaire says
If you want to know anything about the war read Kuropotkin's Memoirs
Or the Japanese newspapers with their ghastly illustrations
But why compile a bibliography
I give up
Bounce back into my leaping memory . . .

At Irkutsk the trip suddenly slows down
Really drags
We were the first train to wind around Lake Baikal
The locomotive was decked out with flags and lanterns
And we had left the station to the sad sound of "God Save the Czar."
If I were a painter I would splash lots of red and yellow over the end of
this trip
Because I think we were all slightly crazy
And that an overwhelming delirium brought blood to the exhausted
faces of my traveling companions
As we came closer to Mongolia
Which roared like a forest fire.
The train had slowed down
And in the perpetual screeching of wheels I heard
The insane sobbing and screaming
Of an eternal liturgy

I saw
I saw the silent trains the black trains returning from the Far East and
going by like phantoms
And my eyes, like taillights, 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.

At Chita we had a few days' rest
A five-day stop while they cleared the tracks
We stayed with Mr. Iankelevitch who wanted me to marry his only
daughter
Then it was time to go.
Now I was the one playing the piano and I had a toothache
And when I want I can see it all again those quiet rooms the store and
the eyes of the daughter who slept with me every night
Mussorgsky
And the lieder of Hugo Wolf
And the sands of the Gobi Desert
And at Khailar a caravan of white camels
I'd swear I was drunk for over 300 miles
But I was playing the piano -- it's all I saw
You should close your eyes on a trip
And sleep
I was dying to sleep

With my eyes closed I can smell what country I'm in
And I can hear what kind of train is going by
European trains are in 4/4 while the Asian ones are 5/4 or 7/4
Others go humming along are like lullabies
And there are some whose wheels' monotone reminds me of the heavy
prose of Maeterlinck
I deciphered all the garbled texts of the wheels and united the scattered
elements of a violent beauty
Which I possess
And which drives me

Tsitsihar and Harbin
That's as far as I go
The last station
I stepped off the train at Harbin a minute after they had set fire to the
Red Cross office.
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
In big cities I like to rub elbows with the buses as they go by
Those of the Saint-Germain-Montmartre line that carry me to the
assault of the Butte
The motors bellow like golden bulls
The cows of dusk graze on Sacré-Coeur
O Paris
Main station where desires arrive at the crossroads of restlessness
Now only the paint store has a little light on its door
The International Pullman and Great European Express Company has
sent me its brochure
It's the most beautiful church in the world
I have friends who surround me like guardrails
They're afraid that when I leave I'll never come back
P
All the women I've ever known appear around me on the horizon
Holding out their arms and looking like sad lighthouses in the rain
Bella, Agnes, Catherine, and the mother of my son in Italy
And she who is the mother of my love in America
Sometimes the cry of a whistle tears me apart
Over in Manchuria a belly is still heaving, as if giving birth
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
Paris, 191
Translated by Ron Padgett
RON PADGETT’s books include the poetry collections How Long, How to Be Perfect, You Never Know, Great Balls of Fire, and New & Selected Poems, as well as three memoirs, Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan; Oklahoma Tough: My Father, King of the Tulsa Bootleggers; and Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard. Padgett is also the editor of The Teachers & Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms and World Poets. His translations include Blaise Cendrars’ Complete Poems (buy it here), Guillaume Apollinaire’s Poet Assassinated, Valery Larbaud’s Poems of A. O. Barnabooth (with Bill Zavatsky), and Flash Cards by Yu Jian (with Wang Ping). He has collaborated with artists such as Jim Dine, Alex Katz, George Schneeman, and Joe Brainard. Padgett has received Fulbright, NEA, Guggenheim, and Civitella Ranieri grants and fellowships, and was named Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters by the French government. In 2008 he was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. He also received the Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America. For more information, go to www.ronpadgett.com.
Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on Pinterest