Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars


Introduction to the Trans-Siberian of Blaise Cendrar
Introduction and translation by

Ekaterina Likhtik Ekaterina Likhtik



Blaise Cendrars is one of the first to introduce modernity into twentieth century poetry. With his style he ushers in a spirit of innovation into writing, he works diligently and tirelessly to find a way to express himself, a way to write his life. In 1910 he writes to his friend Fela in New York, “Ten years of study. I need ten years and I will find my own language. My style.” He spends about a year in New York between 1911 and 1912, deliriously hungry most of the time, but letting nothing deter him from his goal: he must develop his style. For him to write is not a Romantic notion, it is the exhaustive “work of a artisan.” In 1911 he changes his given name, Frédéric-Louis Sauser, to Blaise Cendrars, incorporating into his identity the words “Blaze” and “Ashes”.

For Cendars Trans-Siberian is the transition to a self-defined and elaborated poetic style. He solidifies that style, emphasizing the key to his poetry in the title. Stylistically it is “prose” on which he insists in his poetry. Cendrars is first inspired by the idea of “prose” in the work of Remy de Gourmont in his Le Latin Mystique. In it he discovers the hymns and free verse of the medireview monks of Saint-Gall. Cendrars finds Le Latin Mystique a profoundly humane work, and searches for a way to appeal to the populace at large with his writing, seeking to reverberate in as many layers of the reading public as possible. He says, “I used the word 'prose' in the Trans-Siberian in the early Latin sense of prosa dictu. Poem seemed to me too pretentious, too narrow. Prose is more open, popular.” Blaise attempts to cross the social bridges that often surround poetry, and in that sense his attitude is proletarian. His vocabulary is often offensive to the contemporary aristocracy and his versification is deemed unorthodox.

Cendrars is full of vigor and initiative. He constantly travels, he writes, and, after becoming better known and recognized for his poetic genius, he starts up magazines, he is an art critic, he publishes unknown authors, he explores the spaces between the obvious, he wants to get to the bottom of suffering. The Trans-Siberian describes his initiation or crossing over into manhood, both sexually and spiritually. This is his first great voyage, of which he was able to write for the first time “I saw” in the same way that Goya has written “Yo lo vi”.

Having lived in St. Petersburg, in New York, in London, in Switzerland, having visited an enormously large part of the world and fought in World War I, he is one of the more cosmopolitan poets of the time. This knowledge of the world, of literature, of war and of international lore can all be seen in the Trans-Siberian. The violence of the poem as well as the many references to war and death are associated with the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), and the Russian Revolution of 1905, two events that Cendrars witnessed while in Russia. The work of Cendrars resonates with as much force now at the other end of the twentieth century, as it did in his time. It builds a bridge for us to cross from the beginning of the 20th to the beginning of the 21st.


dedicated to musicians

Trans-Siberian Prose and Little Jeanne from France


I was in my adolescence at the time
Scarcely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood

I was 16,000 leagues from my birthplace
I was in Moscow, in the city of a thousand and three belfries and seven railroad stations
And they weren't enough for me, the seven railroad stations and the thousand and three towers
For my adolescence was so blazing and so mad
That my heart burned in turns as the temple of Epheseus, or as Red Square in Moscow
When the sun sinks.
And my eyes shone upon the ancient routes
And I was already such a bad poet
That I didn't know how to go all the way to the end.

The Kremlin was like an immense Tatar cake
Crusted with gold,
With great almonds of cathedrals all done in white
And the honeyed gold of the bells…

An old monk was reading to me the legend of Novgorod
I was thirsty
And I was deciphering cuneiform characters
Then, suddenly, the pigeons of the Holy Spirit soared above the square
And my hands also flew up, with the rustling of the albatross
And these, these were the last recollections of the last day
Of the entire last voyage
And of the sea.

But I was a very bad poet.
I didn't know how to go to all the way to the end.
I was hungry
And all the days and all the women in the cafés and all the glasses
I would have liked to drink and to break them
And all the shop windows and all the streets
And all the homes and all the lives
And all the wheels of the hackney cabs turning in a whirlwind on the bad cobblestones
I would have wanted to thrust them into a furnace of swords
And I would have wanted to crush all the bones
And to tear out all the tongues
And to liquefy all the big bodies strange and naked under the clothing that drives me to madness…
I sensed the coming of the great red Christ of the Russian revolution…
And the sun was a bad wound
That split open like a burnt up inferno.

I was in my adolescence at the time
I was scarcely sixteen and already I didn't remember my birth
I was in Moscow, where I wanted to feed on flames
And they weren't enough for me the towers and the railroad stations that studded my eyes like constellations
In Siberia the cannon roared, it was war
Hunger cold plague cholera
And the muddy waters of Love pulled along millions of carrion
In all the railroad stations I saw departing all the last trains
No one could leave any more for the tickets were no longer sold
And the soldiers who were going away would have very much liked to stay…
An old monk sang to me the legend of Novgorod.

Me, the bad poet who didn't want to go anywhere, I could go everywhere
And also the merchants still had enough money
To go and tempt fate.
Their train left every Friday morning.
It was said there were a lot of deaths.
One merchant carried away one hundred crates of alarm clocks and cuckoos from the Black Forest
Another, hatboxes, top hats and an assortment of Sheffield corkscrews
Another, coffins from Malmoi filled with canned food and sardines in oil
Then there were lots of women
Women renting between their legs and who could also serve
Coffins
They were all patented
It was said there were a lot of deaths over there
They traveled at reduced prices
And had an open account at the bank.

Now, one Friday morning, it was finally my turn
It was December
And I too left to accompany a salesman in the jewelry business traveling to Kharbin
We had two coupés in the express and 34 chests of jewelry from Pforzheim
From the German peddler “Made in Germany”
He had dressed me in new clothes, and while boarding the train I lost a button
—I remember it, I remember it, I have often thought of it since—
I was sleeping on the trunks and I was very happy to play with the nickel-plated browning
that he had also given me

I was very happy carefree
I made believe we were robbers
We had stolen the treasure of Gloconde
And were going, thanks to the Trans-Siberian, to hide it on the other side of the world
I had to defend it against bandits from Ural who had attacked Jules Vern's traveling acrobats
Against the Khoungouzes, the Chinese boxers
And the Great Lama's enraged little Mongols
Ali Baba and the forty thieves
And those faithful to the terrible Old Man of the Mountain
And especially, against the most modern of all
The hotel rats
And all the specialists from international express trains everywhere.

And yet, and yet,
I was as sad as a child
The rhythms of the train
The “railway marrow” of American psychiatrists
The noise of the doors the voices the axles screeching on the frozen rails
The golden railing of my future
My browning the piano and the cursing of the card players in the next-door compartment
The splendid presence of Jeanne
The man in the blue glasses who nervously paced the hallway and who would look at me as he passed by
Rustling of women
And whistling of steam
And the eternal sound of wheels whirling in madness in the furrows of the sky
The windows frosted over
No nature!
And behind, the Siberian plains the low sky and the great shadows of the Taciturn Ones rising and falling
I am asleep in a blanket
Checkered
As is my life
And my life keeps me no warmer than this Scottish shawl
And all of Europe glimpsed in gusts of wind from a full steam express
Is no richer than my life
My poor life
This shawl
Unraveled on the trunks that are filled with gold
With which I trundle forth
And I dream
And I smoke
And the only flame in the universe
Is one poor thought…

From the depth of my heart tears rise
If I think, Love, about my mistress;
She is but a child, whom I found so
Pale, immaculate, in the back rooms of a bordello.

She is but a child, blond, blithe and sad,
She doesn't smile and never cries;
But deep in her eyes, when she lets you drink from them,
There trembles a gentle silver lily, the poet's flower.

She is meek and silent, and without reproach,
With a drawn out shiver at your approach;
But when I come to her, from here, from there, from a party,
She takes a step, then closes her eyes – and takes a step.
For she is my love, and the other women
Have nothing but golden dresses on great bodies ablaze,
My poor companion is so lonesome,
She is completely nude, she has no body – she is too poor.


She is but a candid, frail flower,
The poet's flower, a slight silver lily,
So cold, so alone, and already so wilted
That tears well up in me if I think of her heart.
And this night is like one hundred thousand others when a train presses on in the night
— The comets fall —
And a man and a woman, even when young, muse in making love.

The sky is like the shredded tent of a poor circus in a small fishing village
In Flanders
The sun is a smoky oil lamp
And at the very top of a trapeze a woman makes a moon.
The clarinet the piston a sharp flute and a bad tambourine
And here is my cradle
My cradle
It was always next to the piano when my mother like Madame Bovary played Beethoven sonatas
I spent my childhood in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
And skipping school, in the railroad stations in front of departing trains
Now, I have made all the trains run behind me
Basel-Timbuktu
I have also bet on the races at Auteuil and at Longchamp
Paris – New York
Now, I have made all the trains run the course of my life
Madrid – Stockholm
And I lost all my bets
There is now only Patagonia, Patagonia, that suits my immense sadness, Patagonia, and a journey to the South Seas
I'm on the road
I've always been on the road
I'm on the road with little Jehanne from France
The train makes a perilous jump and falls back on all of its wheels
The train falls back on its wheels
The train always falls back on all of its wheels

“Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?”

We are far, Jeanne, you've been on the move for seven days
You are far from Montmartre, from the Hill that nourished you from Sacre-Cœur that cradled you
Paris has disappeared and its enormous flame
There is nothing but continuous ash
Falling rain
Rising peat
Whirling Siberia
Heavy rebounding sheets of snow
And the bell of madness that quivers like the very last wish in the bluish air
The train beats at the heart of the heavy horizons
And your sorrow sneers…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”

The worries
Forget the worries
All the railroad stations cracked askew on the road
The telegraph wires on which they hang
The grimacing lampposts gesticulate and strangle them
The world expands elongates and retracts like an accordion tormented by a sadistic hand
In the shreds of the sky, locomotives in a fury
Flee
And in the holes,
The dizzying wheels the mouths the voices
And the dogs of misfortune that bark at our parcels
The demons are unchained
Scrap iron
All is in false harmony
The broom-room-room of the wheels
Jolts
Bouncing back
We are a storm in the skull of the deaf…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”

You irritate me, of course you know very well, we are far
Overheated madness bellows in the locomotive
The plague cholera arise on our road like burning embers
We disappear in the war completely in a tunnel
Hunger, the whore, clings to the clouds as it spreads
And battle droppings are in rancid heaps of corpses
Do as she does, perform your craft…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”

Yes, so we are, so we are
All the scapegoats have croaked in this desert
Hear the screech of this mite-infested herd Tomsk
Cheliabinsk Kainsk Ob Tai Shan Verkneudinsk Kurgan Samara Pensa-Tulun
Death in Manchuria
Is our last stop our last lair
This voyage is terrible
Yesterday morning
Ivan Ulitch had white hair
And Kolya Nikolai Ivanovich has been gnawing his fingers for fifteen days now…
Do as she does Death Hunger perform your craft
It costs one hundred sou, in the Trans-Siberian, it costs one hundred rubles
The benches in fever and red flashes under the table
The devil is at the piano
His gnarled fingers arouse all the women
Nature
Whores
Perform your craft
Until Kharbin…

“Tell me, Blaise, are we very far from Montmartre?”

No but…get the hell out…leave me alone
You have angular hips
Your stomach is sour and you have the clap
That's all that Paris has put in your bosom
There's also a bit of soul… because you are unhappy
Feel my pity feel my pity come towards me unto my heart
The wheels are windmills from the land of Cocagne
The windmills are crutches twirled by a beggar
We are the cripples of emptiness
We roll on our four sores
Our wings have been clipped
The wings of our seven sins
And all the trains are paddleballs of the devil
Farmyard
The modern world
Speed can't do much here but
The modern world
The faraway places are just too far
And at the end of the journey it's terrible to be a man with a woman…

“Blaise, tell me, are we very far from Montmartre?”

Feel my pity feel my pity come towards me I will tell you a story
Come to bed
Come unto my heart
I'm going to tell you a story…

Oh come! come!

In Figi spring reigns eternal
Laziness
Love swoons couples in the tall grass and hot syphilis lurks under banana trees
Come to the lost isles of the Pacific!
They are called Phoenix the Marquesas
Borneo and Java
And Sulaweisi in the form of a cat.

We can not go to Japan
Come to Mexico!
On its high plateaus tulips bloom
Tentacular creepers are the hair of the sun
Could almost be the palette and brushes of a painter
Colors deafening as gongs
Rousseau went there
There he bedazzled his life
It is the country of birds
The bird of paradise, the lyrebird
The toucan, the mocking bird
And the colibri nest among the black lilies
Come!
We will love one another in the majestic ruins of Aztec temples
You will be my idol
A checkered childish idol a little ugly and grotesquely odd
Oh come!

If you wish we will go by plane and we will fly over the country of a thousand lakes,
The nights there are immeasurably long
A prehistoric ancestor will be afraid of my motor
I will land
And I will construct a hangar for my plane with the fossils of mammoths
A primitive fire will reheat our paltry love
Samovar
And we will love one another conventionally near the pole
Oh come!
Jeanne Jeannette Pipette nono niplo nipplette
Mimi milove my dovedew my Peru
Sleepy me zeezee
Moor my manure
Dear li'l-heart
Tart
Beloved li'l goat
My li'l-sin sweet
Halfwit
Halloo
She sleeps.

She sleeps
And of all the hours of the world she hasn't swallowed a single one
All faces glimpsed in railroad stations
All clocks
The time in Paris the time in Berlin the time in Saint Petersburg and the time in all stations
And in Ufa, the blood stained face of the cannoneer
And the foolishly glowing dial in Grodno
And the perpetual rushing of the train
Each morning we set our watches to the hour
The train advances and the sun retreats
Nothing to be done, I hear the echoing bells
The great bell of Notre-Dame
The shrill bell of the Louvre that tolled Bartholomew's
The rusted peal of bells on the death of Bruge-la-Morte
The electric rings of the library bells in New York
The Venice countryside
And the bells of Moscow, the clock of the Red Door that counted for me my hours in an office
And my memories
The train weighs on the revolving plates
The train rolls
A grasseye gramophone a gypsy march
And the world, like the Jewish quarter clock in Prague deliriously turns backwards.

Strip the rose of the winds
Here murmur unchained storms
Trains roll on in a flurry on entangled tracks
Diabolical paddleballs
There are trains that never meet
Others lose themselves on the way
Stationmasters play chess
Backgammon
Billiards
Pool balls
Parables
The steel-rimmed track is a new geometry
Syracuse
Archimedes
And the soldiers who slit his throat
And the galleys
And the vessels
And the prodigious engines he invented
And all the slaughter
Ancient history
Modern history
The whirlwinds
The shipwrecks
Even the Titanic, I read it in a magazine
So numerous the visual associations that I can't develop them all in my verses
For I am still a very bad poet
For the universe overwhelms me
For I have neglected to insure myself against railroad accidents
For I don't know how to go all the way to the end
And I'm afraid

I'm afraid
I don't know how to go all the way to the end
Like my friend Chagall I could make a series of insane drawings
But I haven't taken notes on my way
“Forgive me my ignorance
“Forgive me for no longer knowing the age-old game of poetry”
As Guillaume Appollinaire says
One can read everything about war
In the Kuropatkin Memoirs
Or in the Japanese journals that are just as brutally illustrated
To what end document myself?
I abandon myself
To bursts of memory…

From Irkutsk on the voyage became much too slow
Much too long
We were in the first train to circle lake Baikal
We had adorned the train with flags and Chinese lanterns
And we left the station to sad strains of the hymn to the Tsar.
If I were a painter I would pour a lot of red, a lot of yellow on the end of this voyage
For I believe that we were all a little mad
And that an immense fever bloodied the worked-up faces of my companions on this journey
As we approached Mongolia
That roared like a fire.
The train had slowed its pace
And I noticed in the perpetual grating of the wheels
The mad accents and the sobbing
Of an eternal liturgy

I saw
I saw silent trains black trains returning from the Orient passing like phantoms
And my eye, as a headlight, still runs after these trains
In Talga 100,000 wounded were agonizing for lack of care
I visited the hospitals of Krasnoyarsk
And in Khilok we came across a long convoy of soldiers gone mad
I saw in the lazarettos the gaping gashes wounds that bled to the bone
And amputated limbs danced around or soared through the raucous air
Fire was on all faces in all hearts
Idiotic fingers were rapping on all windowpanes
And under the force of fear the stares burst open like abscesses
In all the stations all the wagons burned
And I saw
I saw trains with 60 engines escaping at full steam hounded by horizons in heat and flocks of crows that afterwards took hopeless flight
Disappearing
In the direction of Port Arthur.

In Chita we had a few days of rest
A five-day stop since the tracks were blocked
We spent it with Mister Yankelivitch who wanted to give me his only daughter in marriage
Then the train took off.
Now it was I who took a seat at the piano and I had a toothache
When I wish to I can still recall that interior the father's store and the daughter's eyes who in the evenings came to my bed
Mussogorsky
And the lieder of Hugo Wolf
And the Gobi sands
And in Khailar a caravan of white camels
I am sure I was drunk for more than 500 kilometers
But I was at the piano and that's all I could see
When you travel, you should close your eyes
Sleep
I would have liked so much to sleep
I recognize all the countries with my eyes closed by their odor
And I recognize all the trains by their rumbling
European trains have four beats while those in Asia are at five or seven beats
Others move softly and these are lullabies
And there are those that in the monotonous noise of their wheels remind me of Maeterlinck's heavy prose
I've deciphered all the wheels' chaotic texts and I've assembled the disparate elements of a violent beauty
That I possess
And which compels me.

Tsitsihar and Kharbin
I am not going any further
It is the last station
I got off at Kharbin as they had just set fire to the Red-Cross office.

O Paris
Large glowing hearth with the crossed pokers of your streets and your old homes that hunch over warming themselves
Like forefathers
And here are the posters, red and green multicolored as my brief yellow past
Yellow the proud color of French novels sold abroad.
I love to squeeze into moving buses in big cities
Those of the Saint-Germain-Montmartre line bring me to the assault of the Hill
The motors bellow like golden bulls
The bovine twilight grazes the Sacre Cœur
O Paris
Central station last stop of desire crossroads of unrest
Only the merchants of color still have a little bit of light on their doors
The “International Company of Sleeping Cars and Europeans Express Trains” has sent me their brochure
It is the most beautiful church in the world
I have friends who surround me like guardrails
They are afraid that when I leave I won't return
All the women I have met tower on the horizons
With gestures full of pity and the sad look of traffic lights in the rain
Bella, Agnes, Catherine, and the mother of my son in Italy
And the one, the mother of my love in America
There are siren screams that rip my soul
There in Manchuria a stomach still throbs as if in labor
I would like
I would like to have never gone traveling
This evening a great love torments me
And despite myself I think of little Jehanne from France.
It is on an evening of sadness that I wrote this poem in her honor.
Jeanne
The little prostitute
I am sad I am sad
I will go to the Lapin Agile to again remember my lost youth
And drink a few glasses
Then I will return alone

Paris

City of the inimitable Tower the great Gallows and the Wheel.

Paris, 1913



Email Ekaterina Likhtik


Back to The Drunken Boat

logo

Back to Top of Page