Saturday, June 11, 2011


[The next in my series of translations from Blaise Cendrars’ Deux-Neuf poèmes élastiques (19 Elastic Poems)]


He’s sleeping
He’s awake
All of the sudden, he’s painting
He takes a church and he paints with a church
He takes a cow and he paints with a cow
With a sardine
With heads, hands, knives
He paints with a bull’s pizzle
He paints with all the filthy passions of a small Jewish village
With all the exacerbated sexuality of the Russian countryside
For France
Without sensuality
He paints with his thighs
He has eyes in his ass
And all of a sudden your portrait
It’s you reader
It’s me
It’s him
It’s his fiancee
It’s the corner grocer
The cowherd
The midwife
There are buckets of blood
The newborns are washed in them
Skies of madness
Mouths of modernity
The Tower as corkscrew
Christ that’s him
He spent his childhood on the Cross
He commits suicide every day
All of the sudden, he paints no more
He was awake
He’s sleeping now
He throttles himself with his tie
Chagall is astonished to live still

Blaise Cendrars
translation Jack Hayes
© 1990-present


  1. I can’t do the French, so I’m trusting your version. It that, I especially like all those things “he paints with”—a cow, church, etc. And of course painting with his thighs and having an eye in his ass. Painting “with” is an intriguing concept in the poem.

    I also especially like “the filthy passions of a small Jewish village/With all the exacerbated sexuality of the Russian countryside.” I never claimed to know much about Jewish villages in Russia, but . . . I guess I’ve missed a lot! And finally, I like “he throttles himself with his tie.”

    Do you think I need to know a lot about Chagall to “get” the poem? I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s enough to hear the poet’s vision of Chagall as one KIND of artistic mind, perception, execution--Chagall's way of being WITH the world he paints?

  2. Hi Banjo52: Cendrars was extremely interested in artistic process (hence all the "paints with" in the poem), & while I think a knowledge of Chagall's work probably deepens one's appreciation of the poem (in addition to the fact that IMO Chagll's work is masterful & inspiring!), I think one gets a sense of how Cendrars is addressing issues of artistic process even without knowing the work.

    Thanks for stopping by & for such a well-thought-out comment!


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