Easter in New York
Flecte ramos, arbor alta, tensa laxa viscera
Et rigor lentescat ille quem dedit nativitas
Ut superni membra Regis miti tendas stipite . . .
Fortunate, Pange Lingua
Bend your branches, oh huge tree, relax but a
little the tension of the viscera,
And relent from your natural rigour,
Don’t lacerate so cruelly
the limbs of the Supernal King.
Remy de Gourmont, Le Latin Mystique
Lord, it’s an old book I open and read
on the day of your Name. Your Passion, your deed,
your anguish, your effort, your words so humane
weep down in the book like sweet gentle rain.
It is an old story a pious monk told.
He wrote of your death in letters of gold
In a missal he rested upon his knee
working slow, working steady, every day of the week.
Seated in his white robes, not once did he falter,
inspired by You, sheltered by the altar.
Time itself stood still in his doorway
as he forgot himself, intent on your portrait.
When the Vesper bells sang psalms in the tower,
the good friar thought it was beyond his power
to know whether his love, Yours, or the Father of mortals
was knocking so hard on the monastery portals.
I am like that good monk, tonight: a strange gloom
weighs on me, and some voiceless waif in the next room
waits behind the door, waits for my call.
It is You . . . It is God . . . It is me . . . or the Eternal.
I have never known You, not to this day,
as a child I have never knelt down to pray.
And yet thinking of You tonight I am scared,
my soul’s your doleful mother as painted by Carrière.
Widow mother in black at the foot of your Cross
beyond all hope and tears, mourning, mourning such loss.
I know the Christs of all museums far and wide
But I feel You tonight walking right by my side.
I am bent and I’m feverish as I stride on down
carrying my shrunken heart into town.
Your split-open side blazes like a great sun
and your hands send sparks flying all round.
The windowpanes of houses are filled with blood
the women behind them are flowers of blood,
strange withered orchids, flowers shedding their spores
like upturned calyxes opened under your sores.
Your gathered blood, undrunk, they have let it slip past
they are lip-rouged, and they are lacy-assed.
The flowers of Passion are white like the tapers we carry,
they are the sweetest in the garden of Mary.
It was towards the ninth hour, Lord, at this time
that your sweet Head onto your Heart reclined.
I am sitting by the ocean shore
recalling German hymns of yore
describing in words so sweet, simple and pure
the beauty of your Face under torture.
In a church, at Siena, inside a cave,
on a wall, behind a drape, I’ve seen that Face.
And in a hermitage at Bourrié-Wladislasz
I’ve seen it in gold relief in a case.
It has two turbid cabochons for eyes
and peasants on their knees, they kiss your Eyes.
Veronica’s shroud carries its print
and so Veronica is your special Saint.
It is the best of relics, displayed across the fields,
it heals the sick, exorcizes all fiends.
I’m pretty sure it’s cured thousands that were deformed,
although I’ve never seen a miracle performed.
It might be, Lord, I lack goodness and faith
to see the splendour of your Beauty’s rays.
And yet, Lord, I have braved a perilous voyage
to contemplate the cut beryl that holds your image.
Lord, I take my face into my hands and pray:
let this vicelike mask of anguish fall away.
Lord, my hands are on my mouth, please hear my prayer:
may I not lick the froth of ferocious despair.
I’m sad and I’m sick, perhaps because of You,
or perhaps of some other. Perhaps because of You.
Lord, the thousands you sacrificed for
throng daycare like lousy cattle – they’re the poor.
From the horizons huge black ferry boats appear
and disgorge them pell-mell onto the pier.
Chileans and Kurds and Albanians,
Tibetans Sri Lankans Rumanians
they leap across the meridians like trained frogs
and they’re thrown pieces of black meat, just like dogs.
This foul pittance, you know, makes their day.
Lord, have mercy on those with nowhere to stay.
Lord in the ghettoes the Jews still swarm like bees
not all come from Poland, but they’re all refugees.
And I know that they put you on trial,
but give them a chance, Lord, they’re not all so vile.
They’re holed up under copper lamps in their shops,
Rembrandt loved to portray them wearing their frocks.
They sell weapons and books and old robes,
just tonight I have haggled over a microscope.
Oh! Lord, after Easter, there’ll be no more You . . .
Lord, Have mercy on these shacks, and on the Jews.
Lord, the humble women who followed your calvary
are hiding away, polluted by men’s misery.
They’re slumped on rotting couches in their slums,
their bones dog-gnawed, and countless rums
conceal the vice that hardens in them like scale.
Lord, I try to talk to them, but my nerves fail.
I wish I were You so I could love prostitutes.
Lord, have mercy on prostitutes.
Lord, I am in the neighbourhood of good thieves,
of fences, ragamuffins, and must-leaves.
I think of the two thieves who were with you at the gallows,
I know you didn’t disdain to smile down on their sorrows.
Lord, one would like a rope knotted into a noose,
but that don’t come for free, son, the rope is twenty sous.
Now that old bandit knew how to philosophize
I offered him some opium to rush him to paradise.
And street musicians too, tonight, are on my mind,
the barrel-organ amputee and the fiddler who is blind,
the singer in her straw hat with paper roses;
theirs are the songs eternal, though not everyone knows this.
Lord, give them alms other than gas light flickering blue,
Lord, give them alms, big money down here too.
Lord, when you died the veil was torn and fell
what was behind, no one did ever tell.
The street’s opening the night up like a gash,
full of gold, full of blood, full of fire and trash.
Those you whipped out of the temple as thieves
now flog passers-by with a fistful of misdeeds.
The Tabernacle Star, back then, took flight
and now burns on the wall in the crude showbiz light.
Lord, the Bank so brightly illuminated
is a safe where your death blood is coagulated.
The streets now deserted turn blacker.
I sway on the sidewalks like a drunken old slacker.
Scary darkness juts out from houses in big flaps,
hobbling steps approach with threatening taps.
I’m being followed. I daren’t turn my head.
I’m scared. I’m fainting. I stop dead.
A hideous weirdo walks by and has me stagger
with a sharp look that cuts and hurts me like a dagger.
Lord, nothing’s changed since the end of your Reign:
evil uses your Cross as its cane.
I trip down the dodgy steps of a café
the Chinese owners are like polished netsuké.
When they bend, their backs smile up at me
as I watch them while I drink a glass of tea.
It is a small teashop, lacquered red,
curious bamboo-framed chromos above my head.
Hokusai painted a mountain in a hundred ways.
I wonder how a Chinese would paint your Face? . . .
This image, Lord, of You, foreshortened,
brought a strange smile at first: I saw you martyred,
but your torment would have been portrayed
with more cruelty than Western painters displayed.
Your flesh would have been cut by the curved blades that swerve,
tweezers and combs would have scored your every nerve,
Lord, you’d have been pilloried without fail,
your teeth would’ve been pulled out, and then your nails,
huge black dragons would have hurled themselves at You
and blown your neck full of flames so red and blue,
your eyes and tongue would’ve been torn out, and that’s not all,
Lord, you’d have been spiked on a long pole.
Thus you’d have suffered, Lord, the utmost shaming,
for there is no crueller torture than impaling.
And then they would have thrown you into a trough
for pigs and sows to come and gnaw your guts off.
Right now everyone’s gone and I’m alone,
I’m lying on a bench against the wall.
I would have liked a church where I could kneel or sit down,
but there’re no bells, Lord, in this town.
I think of tied-up bells: where are the sweet antiphonies?
Where are the ancient bells? Where are the litanies?
Where is the canticles’ unadorned beauty?
Where the liturgies, music, long offices, duty?
Where are your nuns, Lord, and where are your fierce prelates?
Where is the white dawn, the Saints’ immaculate amice?
The joy of paradise is drowned in dust,
the mystic fires don’t burn, the stained-glass windows rust.
The dawn is slow in coming, and in narrow slum halls
crucified shadows are agonizing on the walls.
It’s like a Golgotha in the night’s faint glimmer
that we see, red on black, as mirrors shimmer.
Like a faded loincloth twisting around your waist
smoke curls under the lamp in lazy haste.
Right above, the pale lamp is hanging high
like your Head, sad, dead, bled white.
Weird reflexes are winking on the panes,
I’m scared – and I’m sad, Lord, to be sad and in pain.
Dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via?
– The humble morning light, quivering.
Dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via?
– Lost whitenesses like hands, shivering.
Dic nobis, Maria, quid vidisti in via?
– Spring’s promise in my breast, thrilling.
Lord, the dawn has slipped in cold as a shroud
and has laid the skyscrapers bare in the clouds.
Already the city is alive with sound,
trains thunder and roll underground.
The trains bound and rumble and shudder away,
bridges are seized by the railway.
The city trembles. Cries, smoke and fire
and the raucous wail of steam sirens.
Fevered from gold sweats this throng
jostle and cram down tunnels dim and long.
In the maze of plumed roofs the sun’s so murky,
it’s your Face gobs of spit have made dirty.
Lord, I return tired and mournful, alone . . .
my room is bare as a tomb . . .
Lord, I’m all alone, I’ve a fever . . .
my bed is cold as a coffin . . .
Lord, I close my eyes, my teeth are chattering . . .
I’m too alone. I’m cold. I’m calling . . .
A hundred thousand spinning tops dance before my eyes . . .
no . . . a hundred thousand women . . . no . . . a hundred thousand
cellos . . .
I think, Lord, of the hard times . . .
I think, Lord, of the gone times . . .
I no longer think of You. I no longer think of You.
New York, April 1912
Blaise Cendrars was born in Switzerland in 1887. After he ran away from home at the age of 16, his father sent him to St Petersburg, where he was employed by a travelling salesman called Rogovin, and witnessed the Revolution of 1905. In 1907 he moved to France, and became a bee-keeper, spending his spare time on the fringes of literary circles. An inveterate wanderer, and generally penniless, he travelled to Brussels, London (where he performed as a juggler in a music-hall), Russia, Antwerp, New York . . . This odyssey is reflected in his most famous poems. Cendrars joined the Foreign Legion on the outbreak of war in 1914, and was seriously wounded in 1915, losing an arm. After the war he travelled to South America and Africa, and worked in film with Abel Gance. His later writings are in prose, but a poetic prose that blends reality and dream. He died in 1961.
Cristina Viti’s versions of Apollinaire appear above.
Translated by Cristina Viti
Taken from here