Blaise Cendrars


La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France
Dedicated to the musicians

 

At that time I was a kid
Barely sixteen and already I no longer remembered my childhood
I was 16,000 leagues from the land of my birth
I was in Moscow, in the city of 1003 bell towers and 7 train stations
And I didn't get enough of the 7 stations and the 1003 towers
Because I was such a hot and crazy kid
That my heart, tower to tower, was burning like the Temple of Ephesus or like Red Square in Moscow at sunset.
And my eyes got shiny in those ancient streets
And I was already such a bad poet
That I didn't know how to go about it.

 

The Kremlin was a huge Tartar cake
Iced with gold
With the big white almonds of the cathedrals
And the honey gold of bells ...
An old monk read me the legend of Novogorod
I was thirsty
And I deciphered the cuneiform characters
Then suddenly the pigeons of the Holy Ghost fluttered over the square
And my hands flew up too groaning like an albatross
And that's the last thing I remember about the last day
of my last journey
And of the sea.

 

 

Still, I was an extremely bad poet
I didn't know how to go about it
I was hungry
And all the days and all the women in the cafés and all the glasses
I so wanted to drink them and break them
And all the houses and all the streets
And all the wheels of the carriages, twisting like cyclones
over the bad pavements
I would have liked to plunge them into an armorer's furnace
And I would have liked to smash all the bones
And tear out all the tongues
And liquify all those big bodies, unfamiliar and naked under garments
that made me crazy ...
I foresaw the coming the big red Christ of the Russian Revolution ...
And the sun was an ugly wound
Split open like glowing coals.

 

At that time I was a kid
Barely sixteen and already I didn't remember much of anything about my birth
I was in Moscow, wanting to feed myself on flames
And I couldn't get enough of the towers and train stations like constellations to my eyes

 

In Siberia cannon thundered, it was war
Hunger cold plague cholera
And the muddy waters of the Amur overflowed with millions of rotted corpses
In all the stations I saw the last trains leaving

 

No one else could go because they stopped selling tickets
And the soldiers who were about to leave really wanted to stay ...
An old monk was chanting the Legend of Novogorod for me.

 

Me, the bad poet, who did not want to go anywhere at all, I could go anywhere
And the merchants too had more than enough money
To go off to seek a fortune
Their train left every Friday morning
I heard that many were dying

 

One person took along a hundred cases of alarm clocks and some cuckoos from the Black Forest
Another, hatboxes, stovepipe, and Sheffield corkscrews
Another, coffins made in Malmo, filled with jars of jelly and sardines in oil
And there were a lot of women
Women who open their legs for a price can also be of use

The coffins

 

All had been patented
I heard that many died down there
The women traveled at a reduced fare
And all had open bank accounts.

Now, on a Friday, it was my turn also
It was December
And I left in the company of a traveling jewelry salesman on his way to Harbin
We had two cars on the express and 34 coffers of jewelry from Pforzheim
German junk, "Made in Germany"
He had dressed me in a new suit and in getting on the train I lost a button
–I recall, I recall, since then I often think about it–
I slept on the coffers and it made me deliriously happy to play with the nickel-plated Browning that he had given me

I was such a happy fool
I pretended to play at robbers
We had stolen the treasure of Golconda
And thanks to the Trans-Siberian, we were going to hide it on the other side of the world
I had to defend it against thieves in the Urals who had ambushed
a circus troupe in Jules Verne
Against the Khunkhuz, the Boxers of China
And the angry little mongols of the Grand Lama
Alibaba and the forty thieves

 

And the followers of the terrible Old Man of the Mountain
And above all, against the most modern
The hotel burglars
And specialists in international express.

And yet, and yet I was sad like a baby
The train-rhythms
The "railroad nerves" of American psychologists
The noise of doors the voices of axles grinding on the frozen rails
The gold thread of my destiny
My Browning the piano and the curses of card players in the compartment across the aisle
The stunning presence of Jeanne
The man with blue eyeglasses who paced nervously in the corridor, looking
at me as he passed
The crumpling of women
And the steam whistling
And the everlasting noise of wheels rolling wildly along ruts in the sky
The windows have iced over
Unnatural!
And to the rear, Siberian deserts low sky and enormous shadows of Quiet Ones
who go up and go down
I slept in a plaid wrapper
Of motley
Like my life
And my life made me feel no warmer than that Scotch
Shawl
And all Europe appeared in a blast of steam from an express at full throttle
No more interesting than my life
My poor life
This shawl
Unraveling upon coffers filled with gold
Upon which I roll
As I dream
As I smoke
And the only spark in the universe
Is a poor thought ...

Tears rise from the bottom of my heart

If I think, Love, of my mistress
She's no more than a child whom I found so
Pale, pure, in the cellar of a bordello.

She's only a child, fair, laughing and sad,
She doesn't smile and never cries,
But in the depths of her eyes when she lets you sip
A sweet, silver lily trembles, the poet's flower.

She is sweet and still, makes no reproach,
With a long murmur at your drawing near
But when I come to her, from here, from there, from a party

She takes a step, then shuts her eyes–and takes a step
For she is my love and other women
Wear only robes of gold over their big fiery bodies
My poor friend is so alone, so naked
She has hardly got a body–she's so poor

She's just an innocent and slender flower
The poet's flower, a poor silver lily
So cold, so alone, and already so faded
That tears rise when I think of her heart

And this night is like a hundred thousand others when a train threads the night
–Comets fall–
And so a man and a woman, even young, enjoy making love.

The sky is like the torn tent of a poor circus in a little fishing village
In Flanders
The sun is a smoking lantern
And on the tip of a trapeze a woman makes a moon
The clarinet the trumpet the shrill flute and a wretched drum
And here is my cradle
My cradle
It was always next to the piano while my mother like Madame Bovary
played Beethoven's sonatas
I passed my childhood in the hanging gardens of Babylon
Playing hooky from school, in the stations as the trains pulled away
Now I have made all the trains run behind me
Basel–Timbuktu
I have also played the horses at Auteuil and Longchamps
Paris–New York
Now I've made all the trains run the length of my life
Madrid–Stockholm
I've lost all my bets
Only Patagonia remains, Patagonia suits my immense sadness, Patagonia,
and a trip on the South Seas
I'm traveling
I've always been traveling

I am on the way with little Jeanne of France
The train takes a perilous leap and lands upon its wheels
The train lands on its wheels
The train always lands on its wheels


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

 

A long way, Jeanne, you've rolled along for seven days
You're far from Montmartre, from the butte that nourished you of Sacre Coeur
that snuggled you
Paris has disappeared and its enormous torch
It's no more than cinders flying back
The rain that falls
The turf that swells
Siberia that spins
Heavy sheets of snow piling up
And the crazed snowbells that shiver like a last wish in the blanched air
The train throbs at the heart of the leaden horizon

And your grief sniggers ...

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

Anxieties
Forget your anxieties
All the stations with cracked walls leaning over the rails
The telegraph wires on which they hang
The grimacing poles that make gestures and strangle them
The world stretches itself, elongates and snaps back like a harmonica
played by a sadistic hand
Through fissures in the sky, enraged locomotives
Go crazy
And in the gashes
Vertiginous wheels mouths voices
Mad dogs bark at our heels
Demons unchained
Scrap heaps
A mock agreement
The broom-vroom-vroom of wheels
Shock
Recoil
We are a storm in the head of a deaf man

"Tell me, Blaise, are we really a long way from Montmartre?"
Oh yes, you bother me, you know very well that we're a long way off
An overheated madness roars in the locomotive
Plague cholera pop up like burning cinders on our track
We completely vanish into the tunnel of war
Hunger, that whore, claws at clouds helter-skelter and drops stinking piles of dead on the battlefield
Do like her, do your job ...

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

Yes, we are, we are
All the scapegoats have collapsed in this desert
Listen to the bells of this mangy herd
Tomsk Chelybinsk Kansk, Obi-Tayshet Verkne-Udinsk Kurgan Samara Penza-Tulun

Death in Manchuria
Is our last stop and respite
This voyage is terrible
Yesterday morning
Ivan Ilitch's hair turned white
And Kolia Nikolai Ivanovich has been biting his fingers for two weeks ...
Do like them like Death like Hunger do your job
If it costs ten cents, on the Trans-Siberian it costs ten dollars
Heat the seats and blush under the table
The devil plays piano
His gnarled fingers titillate all the women
Human nature
Twat
Do your job
Until Harbin ...


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

No but ... let me be ... let me rest
Your pelvis sticks out
Your belly stinks and you have the clap
That's what Paris has done to your crotch
A little soul too ... for you're sad
I'm sorry I'm sorry rest on my heart
The wheels are windmills in the Land of Cockaigne
And the windmills are crutches that a beggar wheels round and round
We are the amputees of space
We roll on our four stumps
Our wings are clipped
The wings of our seven sins
Trains are the devil's toys
Hen pen
The modern world
Useless speed
The modern world
The distances are too far off
And at the end of a journey it's horrible to be a man and a woman ...


"Blaise, tell me, are we a long way from Montmartre?"

I'm sorry I'm sorry Come to me and I'll tell you a story
Come to my bed
Rest on my heart
I'll tell you a story ...

Come on! Come here!

In Fiji it's always spring
The indolence
Couples swoon in the high grass and hot syphilis prowls in the banana groves
Come to the lost isles of the Pacific!
They have the name of the Phoenix, the Marqueses
Borneo and Java
And Celebes in the shape of a cat.

We can't go to Japan
Come to Mexico!
Tulip trees blossom on the high plateau
Snaking vines form the headdress of the sun
One might say the palette and brushes of a painter
Astonishing colors like gongs,
Rousseau has been there
It dazzled him for life
It's a country of birds
The bird of paradise, the lyre bid
The toucan, the mocking bird
And the humming bird nests in the heart of black lilies
Come!

We'll make love in the majestic ruins of an Aztec temple
You'll be my idol
An idol of many colors child-like a bit ugly and oddly bizarre
O come!

If you want we'll take an airplane and fly over the land of a thousand lakes
Nights there are immeasurably long
The motor will frighten our prehistoric ancestors
I'll land
And build a hangar for the plane with bones of fossil mammoths
The primitive fire will rekindle our poor love
Samovar
And we'll love in bourgeois comfort near the pole
O come!

Jeanne, Jeannette, Ninette, nini, nono, titty
Ma-mi my-me my poopoo my Peru
Dodo dolly dildo
Cuddle cunt
Mud pie sweet heart
Tart
Sexy she-goat
She-shell
Cuckoo

She sleeps.

She sleeps
And in all this time she hasn't absorbed a thing
All those faces glimpsed in stations
All the clocks
Paris-time, Berlin-time, Saint Petersburg-time and all the other stations
And at Ufa, a cannoneer's face dripping blood
And the stupidly illuminated dial at Grodno
And the perpetual forward motion of the train
Every morning you set your watch ahead
The train goes forward the sun falls behind
Nothing helps, I listen to the clocks
The great bell of Notre Dame
The sharp bell of the Louvre that rang on St. Bartholomew's Day
The rusty carillons of Bruges-the-Dead
The electric chimes of the New York Public Library
The campaniles of Venice
And the bells of Moscow, the clock at the Red Gate that tolled the hours
as I sat at in an office
And my memories
The train thunders over revolving tables
The train rolls on
A gramophone trolls a gypsy march
And the world, like the clock in the Jewish sector of Prague, turns wildly backwards

Rose petals toss in the wind
Now the unleashed storm roars
Trains roll in whirlwinds down twisted tracks
Diabolic toys
Some trains never meet
Others get lost on the way
Station-masters play checkers
Backgammon
Billiards
Caroms
Parabolas
The railway lines form 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 the killings
Ancient history
Modern history
Whirlwinds
Shipwrecks
Even the Titanic that I read about in the paper
So many image-associations that I can't get into my poems
Because I'm still a very bad poet
Because the universe sweeps me on
Because I forgot to buy accident insurance for the trip
Because I don't know how to go about it.

I'm afraid

I’m afraid

I don't know how to go about it

Like my friend Chagall I should do a series of demented paintings
But I didn't make any notes on the way
"Excuse me my ineptitude
Excuse me for not knowing more about the ancient sport of verse"
As Guillaume Apollinaire says
You can read all you want to know about war in the Memoirs of Kropotkin
Or in the Japanese papers that are cruelly illustrated
Why should I look for citations
I give in
To the somersaults of my memory

After Irkutsk the going slows down
Gets boring
We were the first train to circumnavigate Lake Bakal
They decorated the locomotive with flags and lanterns
And we left the stations to the sad refrains of the Tzarist anthem
If I were a painter I'd use lots of red and yellow at the end of this journey
Because I think we were all a bit nuts
So that a great joy blotched the weary faces of my traveling companions
As we got near Mongolia
It roared like an incinerator
The train lost its charm
And I saw in the perpetual screeching of the wheels
The sobbing and wild accents
Of an everlasting liturgy

I saw
I saw silent trains black trains returning from the Far East that passed like phantoms
And my eye, like a tail light, still follows those trains
At Talga 100,000 wounded agonized for lack of care
I went to the hospital in Krasnovarsk
And at Khilok we met a long convey of soldiers gone mad
At the medical stations I saw gaping wounds gushing blood from exposed organs
And amputated limbs danced all about or flew into the raw air
Fire was in all the faces in all the hearts
The fingers of idiots tapped on all the windows
And under the pressure of fear faces split open like an abscess
In all the stations they burned the wagons
And I saw
I saw trains of 60 locomotives escaping at full velocity pursued by steamy horizons
and bands of crows that took off in desperate flight
Disappearing
In the direction of Port Arthur

At Chita we had a few days respite
Stopped for five days by an obstruction on the tracks
We stayed with Mr. Iankelevitch who wanted me to marry his only daughter
Then the train left
Now I sat at the piano with a toothache
I can look back, if I want, on that calm interior the father's store and the eyes of his daughter who spent the nights in my bed
Mussorgsky
And the songs of Hugo Wolf
And the sands of the Gobi

And at Khailar a caravan of white camels
I think I was drunk for more than 500 kilometers
But I was playing the piano and that's all that I saw
You have to close your eyes on a journey
To sleep
I wanted very much to sleep
With my eyes closed, I identified each country by its smell
And I knew the trains by the noise that they made
European trains keep 4/4 time while those of Asia go at 5/4 or 7/4
Others are muted like a lullaby
Some from the monotonous sound of the wheels remind me of the heavy prose of Maeterlinck
I deciphered all the scrambled texts of the wheels and rearranged the scattered elements into a violent beauty
That I master
and that drives me


Tsitsihar and Harbin
I didn't go further
It's the last station
I got off at Harbin like someone who has come to set fire to the Red Cross office

O Paris
Great steaming hearth with the embers of your intersecting streets and the ancient houses
that hang over them to keep warm
Like grandmothers
And here are posters, of red of green–all colors like my life, in short yellow
Yellow the haughty color of French novels
I love to rub myself against the buses of large cities as they pass
The Saint-GermainMontmartre line takes me to the assault of the butte
The motors bellow like golden bulls
The cows of dusk browse on the Sacre Coeur
O Paris
Main station for desires that disembark into restless crossroads
Only the paint stores have a little light on their doors
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 if I go I'll never come back
All the women that I've met arrange themselves on the horizon
With piteous handwringings and the sad looks of semaphores in the rain
Bella, Agnes, Catherine, and the mother of my son in Italy
And that one, the mother of my American girlfriend
Wailing sirens cut my soul
Back in Manchuria a belly yet writhes as if giving birth
I wish

I wish I had never traveled
A great love torments me tonight
And despite myself I think about little Jeanne of France
On account of an evening of sadness, I have written this poem in her honor
Jeanne
The little prostitute
I'm sad so sad
I'll go to the Lapin Agile to relive my lost youth
And drink a few shots
Then I'll come home alone

Paris

City of the incomparable Tower the Great Gibbet and the Wheel

Paris 1913
Trans. Donald Wellman



 

Follow the voyage of Blaise Cendrars and

'Little Joan of France' on the Trans-Siberian Rail Road,

with graphics and French text.