Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Translation Tuesday returns! Today’s offering is a poem by Swiss-born writer Blaise Cendrars (born Frédéric Louis Sauser). Cendrars was born in 1887, & began writing poetry in the early 20th century while apprenticed to a Swiss watchmaker in St Petersburg; he later studied medicine, but after traveling to Paris & New York, he became convinced that poetry was his calling, & wrote such significant long modernist poems as Les Pâques à New York & La Prose du Transsibérien et la petite Jehanne de France. He also befriended a number of avant-garde artists & writers, including Chagall, Modigliani (note the portrait at the top of the post—one of the very few images of Cendrars in which a cigarette isn’t perched on his lower lip), & perhaps most significantly, Apollinaire. Apollinaire & Cendrars became good friends, & in addition to mutual respect, it’s usually thought there was considerable poetic influence between the two.

Like Apollinaire, Cendrars served in the French Army in World War I—also like Apollinaire, he was seriously wounded. In Cendrars’ case, he lost his right arm—one of his war memoirs was titled La Main Coupée ("The Severed Hand"). Cendrars continued to write, tho he turned away from poetry in the 1920s, & became involved in the burgeoning film industries. He was listed as a “Jewish writer of ‘French expression’” by the Gestapo in World War II, but he survived the war, & died in 1961 after his health failed following a stroke.

Cendrars is another poet I like very well—he can be prismatic, & his lines have great energy. The poem “Contrastes” comes from his 1919 volume Dix-neuf poèmes élastiques (19 Elastic Poems). I translated the entire sequence in the 90s, & I’m sure more will appear here.

Hope you enjoy this one.


The windows of my poetry are wide open on the boulevards and in their display cases
Gemstones of light
Listen to the limousines’ violins and the Linotypes xylophones
The scrub painter rubs his hands on the sky’s towel
Everything’s stained with color
And the hats of the women who pass by are comets in the evening’s conflagration

There’s no more unity
All the clocks now point to midnight after having been set back ten minutes
There’s no more time.
There’s no more money.
In the Assembly
They’re watering down the raw materials’ marvelous elements

At the bar
The blue-collar workmen are drinking red wine
Every Saturday game hen
They’re playing
They’re betting
From time to time a gangster passes by in a car
Or a child plays with l’Arc de Triomphe…
I advise Mr Big to put his protégés up at the Eiffel Tower.

Change of ownership
The Holy Spirit on sale in the smallest shops
I read with rapture swarms of calico
Of poppies
It’s only the pumice-stones of the Sorbonne which have never bloomed
The Samaritan sign plows through the Seine
And over by Saint-Séverin
I hear
The streetcars’ relentless bells

It’s raining electric light bulbs
Mountrouge East Station Metro North South waterbuses world
All’s halo
Rue de Buci they’re hawking L’Intransigeant and Paris-Sport
The sky’s airdrome is now, ablaze, a Cimabue painting
When in the foreground
Men are
And are smoking, factory chimneys

Blaise Cendrars
translation: John Hayes, © 1990-2009


  1. Wow! This is so powerful. Thank you!

    WWI was the "great" war, it really was. Not great like good but great like huge, overwhelming, overarching. It changed everything.

    Thank you for this!

  2. Wonderful poem. And I love the great Modigliani portrait, as well.

    Thanks for the introduction to Cendrars. I'll keep my eye out for his work.

  3. "The windows of my poetry are wide open ..."

    Indeed the poet's call - to be open, as so expressed in "Contrasts" - to experience with all sensibilities, all reason, all emotion and let the "contrasts" be known.

    Change of ownership
    The Holy Spirit on sale in the smallest shops
    I read with rapture swarms of calico
    Of poppies
    It’s only the pumice-stones of the Sorbonne which have never bloomed..."

    Certainly one grasps his offerings and feels his dismay.

    Stop by -

  4. Impressed that your French is good enough for translation! Unless, of course, it took 10 years to do it :)

  5. The great thing about this poem is the flow of imagery is neither pretentious nor is it over-complex. In a strange way it is digestible but also substantive. A bit like roast potatoes.

  6. Hi Reya & Willow & Rose Marie & Lana & Alan!

    Reya: That's true about WWI--I don't think it caused a shifting consciousness, but I think it created a focus for same. Glad you liked the poem.

    Willow: Thanks! Yes, do. There are quite a few translations of Cendrars available. I've always like Modigliani's work myself.

    Rose Marie: The "windows" line is really striking isn't it? Will swing by soon!

    Lana: My French was good enough--I haven't really done any of these translations since the mid 90s ("copyright" range notwithstanding). & when I was doing them I had both the Petit Larousse & a French-English Larousse right next to me at all times! These days my French is beyond rusty.

    Alan: I think Cendrars would be pleased to have his writing compared to roast potatoes--I sure would be! Thanks.


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