Guillaume Apollinaire – (Ombre)

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918)

A guest-posting today from our friend (and erstwhile long-time upstairs-neighbor of Allen’s in New York) poet, John Godfrey.

Today, August 26th, is the great Guillaume Apollinaire‘s birthday

“In 1965, the U.S. troop level in Vietnam exceeded 500,000. Allen Ginsberg became perhaps the most flamboyant of many literary opponents to the war. Bearded, beat and outspokenly homosexual, his appeal was great to the young and already converted. (Pull out your old copy of Planet News (City Lights, 1968) which contains “Wichita Vortex Sutra“). Allen’s attack was on the conscience of the government and the capitalist system which had created a bad-faith rationale for the war. Allen’s arguements were anti-establishment and not intented as an attack on the young men drafted who, if regular infantry, were destined for experiences of terror that they remember to this day. At the time, PTSD was not in the vocabulary.

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was born in Italy and his naturalization as a French citizen was made official only one week before he was wounded. A brilliant and not highly organized personality, Apollinaire was quite willing to be mobilized in 1914. There were those with misgivings, but in general France was awash in patriotism and he wanted to express his own. (A long story.) At first in artillery, he wrangled his way into the infantry as a sous-lieutenant and performed at the frontlines. He sought glory and in March 1916 suffered a severe head wound at bois des Buttes. The event was almost accidental – he was in a trench reading a literary journal during a long lull when shrapnel from a sudden shell pierced his helmet. His recovery was difficult. He was restationed in Paris, where he translated dispatches, being familiar with the combatants’  languages. That was for part of his day. In uniform, he rejoined the literary and artistic milieu in which he was accustomed to being at the forefront. But things had changed and he was anxious about his standing.

The young poet Phillipe Soupault (1897-1990) had made a brief acquaintance with Apollinaire before the war  and sent him poems, about which Apollinaire was receptive and encouraging. Soupault was mobilized in 1916 and during his basic training was inoculated with an experimental typhoid vaccine which induced typhus rather than immunization. After recovering he was also restationed to a pen-pushing job in Paris. In February of 1917 he was hospitalized with bronchitis. In hospital a cultivated nurse  requested his aid in a project that was to be a collection of works by soldiers in the trenches. She asked him to solicit a poem from Apollinaire. With some trepidation, around the cusp of February and March, he visited Apollinaire,  who immediately agreed – and wrote the poem “Ombre” right in front of him,. Soupault was astonished.

This is Ron Padgett‘s wonderful translation of the poem. It renders the serenity and lightness of touch Apollinaire brought to grave subjects. In Padgett’s English, the poet has a floating quality appropriate to the tenuous associations of line to line and gives the flight of imagination at the heart of the solar conceit an integral feel, free of showmanship. As with combat veterans, I know, Apollinaire thinks of dead comrades, not of political criminality.

If you are like myself, August 6 – Hiroshima  – is a solemn day, and the sun and moon remind me daily that they, as we say, “pass over”, all the many areas on earth when viciousness and unconscionable cruelty are imposed on civilians, resulting in deaths of women, children and the elderly, and in the death of spirit caused by destruction and rape as warfare. The god that is humbled at the end of “Ombre” – could it be the god of all gods, the god of war or the god of love?  Himself, a survivor?  While the rhizome of devastation covers our world, it is also we who are humbled.

Information above came from a reading of Laurence Campa’s Guillaume Apollinaire (nrf, Gallimard, 2013), which is exhaustive but in French. Soupault’s version of the anecdote is in Profils perdus (Mercure de France, 1963), which has recently been published in a delightful translation by American poet Alan Bernheimer as Lost Profiles (City Lights, 2016). Ron Padgett’s lifetime of translating Apollinaire offers “Ombre” in  Zone – Selected Poems (New York Review Books, 2015)”


Vous voilà de nouveau près de moi
Souvenirs de mes compagnons morts à la guerre
L’olive du temps
Souvenirs qui n’en faites plus qu’un
Comme cent fourrures ne font qu’un manteau
Comme ces milliers de blessures ne font qu’un article de journal
Apparence impalpable et sombre qui avez pris
La forme changeante de mon ombre
Un Indien à l’affût pendant l’éternité
Ombre vous rampez près de moi
Mais vous ne m’entendez plus
Vous ne connaîtrez plus les poèmes divins que je chante
Tandis que moi je vous entends je vous vois encore
Ombre multiple que le soleil vous garde
Vous qui m’aimez assez pour ne jamais me quitter
Et qui dansez au soleil sans faire de poussière
Ombre encre du soleil
Ecriture de ma lumière
Caisson de regrets
Un dieu qui s’humilie


Here you are close to me again.
Memories of my companions killed in the war
The olive of time
Memories that make just one
As a hundred pelts make just one fur coat
As these thousands of wounds make just one newspaper article
Somber impalpable appearance that has taken on
The changing shape of my shadow.
An An Indian crouching in ambush for eternity
Shadow you creep up close to me
But you don’t hear me anymore.
You will no longer know the heavenly poems I sing
But I hear you I still see you
Multiple shadow may the sun watch over you.
You love me enough to never leave me
You who dance in the sun without raising any dust
Shadow ink of the sun
Handwriting of my light
Caisson of regrets
A god who humbles himself

For earlier Allen Ginsberg Project posts on Apollinaire – see here, here and here

also here and here

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