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A Translation of Apollinaire’s “Zone”

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

I love this poem, “Zone.” It opens Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 book Alcools. It was the last poem he wrote for that book, and in some ways it inaugurated the modern era of poetry, with its use of dislocations, collage, lack of punctuation, and fluid identity. It is a poem of huge gaiety and vitality, and also of a despair about death—“your Zone with its long crazy line of bullshit about death,” as Allen Ginsberg had it, in his poem “At Apollinaire’s Grave.” The narrative structure of the 155-line poem is a 24-hour walk in Paris lasting from one sunrise to the next. Its subjects are the things seen and thought about in that walk, including automobiles, detective stories, billboards, a church, immigrants, Jesus, faith and loss of faith, travel, love, and many other things. As he said in his great 1917 manifesto “The New Spirit and The Poets,” poetry should include the world: “In the realm of inspiration, their [the poets] liberty cannot be less than that of a daily newspaper which on a single sheet treats the most diverse matters and ranges over the most distant countries.”

The poem is written in loose couplets, which I and every other translator tend to ignore, the significant exception I’ve seen being the incredible effort by Samuel Beckett, who uses rhymes and slant-rhymes in parts of his translation to give a sense of Apollinaire’s language. It is a beautiful, fascinating, and to my ear, a not quite successful effort. But it stands well with the many other excellent translations of the poem, by Roger Shattuck, Ron Padgett, Donald Revell, and more recently, the highly praised piece by the poet David Lehman. All of these are terrific, but in each I found some bit of language or usage that seemed inauthentic or that struck my ear as wrong. Thus, my translation. I’d be surprised if readers do not react the same way to my effort as I have to the efforts of others, finding flaws in the language translation or bad aesthetic choices made in some of the lines. That’s okay. I don’t claim my translation is better than others, only that it is different, and that it solves some of the problems that I had identified in the work of others. In any case, I encourage every reader to do his or her translation of the poem. It’s the best way to see first hand its stunning beauty and inventiveness.

A few words here about Apollinaire’s life: He was born in Rome in 1880 to a Polish mother and named Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki. He never knew his father or his father’s name, but throughout his life improvised a series of biographical fathers, making himself variously a bastard of princes, prelates, a pope, and others. He came to adulthood in Paris, where the culture was then in a moil of reinvention, and became a member of an incredibly creative circle of artists and writers that included Picasso, Jarry, Max Jacob, and many others. He saw, perhaps before many of them, the significance of the changes taking place, and invented the names, pedigrees, and principles for the revolutions of Surrealism and Cubism. He opened his own poetry to new techniques of collage, polyphony, the shifting self (reflected in “Zone” in the shifting pronoun changes between “I” and “you”). In 1911 he was falsely arrested and imprisoned for six days for the theft of the Mona Lisa, an experience reflected in a couplet in the poem:  “You are in Paris before the judge / Arrested like a common criminal,” and also in his poem “In La Sante.” The false arrest was an incident in which his life seemed to him to take on improvisational qualities of fantasy and improbability. (The actual thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian house painter caught two years later when he tried to sell the painting in Florence.) In a later biographical change, in 1916 he joined the French army for World War I, and was wounded in the head while reading a literary magazine in a wartime trench. Discharged, he returned to Paris, and began a round of prolific activity, publishing erotic novels, fiction, and poetry, editing avant-garde literary journals, writing the play The Breasts of Tiresias, delivering the manifesto “The New Spirit and Poets,” writing the poetry collection calligrammes. In many ways his whirlwind of activity in support of the arts, the invention of new ways of writing poetry, and his constant effort in publicizing the work of his friends is much like that of his contemporary Ezra Pound. By 1918 he had become the foremost critic of his age, reviewing art, literature, theater, and ballet as a contributor to leading journals and newspapers. In May, 1918 he married Jacquline Kolb in a love-match that by all accounts made bride and groom extremely happy. But his health was failing from the war-wound and the subsequent operations. Only a few months later, in November 1918, two days before the Armistice, he died of the Spanish flu. He is reported to have said, on his deathbed, “I want to live! I still have so many things to say!”

“Zone” is considered by many to be his greatest work. I agree, though I would add as among his greatest works “The Pretty Redhead” and “Le Point Mirabeau,” the latter also included in Alcools. These are wonderful poems, and share the same robust vitality and risk-taking as Zone.

I mentioned above that my translation differs from others. I should note some of the differences. The biggest one is in the final line, soleil cou coupé, which is difficult in any case to translate, with its non-duplicatable French language pun: cou (“neck”) is an abbreviated form of coupé (“cut”), and as at least one translator (Lehman) has pointed out, the relation between the words suggests the beginning of sun rising at dawn when it is looks as if beheaded by the horizon. Other translations of this line include“Decapitated sun—” (Meredith), “The sun a severed neck” (Shattuck), “Sun corseless head” (Beckett), “Sun     slit throat” (Anne Hyde Greet), “Sun neck cut” (Mandell), “Sun cut throat” (Padgett) and “Let the sun beheaded be” (Lehman). None of these are satisfactory, nor am I entirely content with my own “The sun now only a half-severed neck,” which, though it includes the word associations, and perhaps maintains some of the shock of the original phrase, loses its necessary compression. My other major change in here is in the treatment of the “flaming glory of Christ,” which refers to the halo around the Christ. I reversed that line with the one following in order to make all refer to the halo, and in order to smooth out the English. There are other minor changes, but these are more in the form of choices among options for translations. They are easy enough to discern by comparing this to any of the other available versions online or in books.

I hope readers find this translation useful and fun, and that it takes them back to the original French of the poem.


Zone

You’ve had enough of that old world at last


O Eiffel Tower shepherd this morning the bridges are a bleating flock

All this Greek and Roman antiquity has exhausted you

Even the automobiles are antiques

Only Religion seems entirely fresh

Simple like airport hangers

O Christianity in all Europe only you are not antiquated

The most modern European is you Pope Pius X

But what about you whom the windows watch

Too ashamed to enter a church and confess

You read handouts catalogues posters all crying out

That here is poetry for this morning here are newspapers for prose

Here are 25-cent detective story thrillers

Portraits of famous men and a thousand other assorted titles

This morning I saw a pretty street whose name I forget

Shining and clean like a sun’s clarion melody

Executives and workers and beautiful secretaries

Pass here four times a day from Monday morning to Saturday night

The siren wails three times each morning

An angry bell barks around noon

Lettering on signs walls and billboards

Shrieks like parrots

I love the grace of this industrial street

Located in Paris between Aumont-Thieville street and the avenue des Ternes


How young this street is and you only a child

Your mother dresses you in blue and white

You are very pious with your oldest friend René Dalize

You like nothing so much as church ceremonies

It is nine o’clock the gas glows low blue you secretly leave the dormitory

You pray all night in the college chapel

Where the flaming glory of Christ’s halo turns for ever

Like an amethyst eternal adorable and profound

It is the beautiful lily we all cultivate

It is the red-headed torch the wind cannot extinguish

It is the pale and ruddy son of the sorrowing mother

It is the tree thick with the foliage of prayers

It is the double gallows of honor and of eternity

It is a six-pointed star

It is God who dies on Friday and rises on Sunday

It is the Christ who soars in the sky higher than any aviator

Who breaks the world altitude record


Christ pupil of my eye

Twentieth century pupil he knows how to do it

And this century changes into a bird and rises in the air like Jesus

The devils in the abyss raise their heads to look at it

They say he imitates Simon Magus of Judea

They shout that he knows how to steal call him thief

Angels hover around him the lovely flyer

Icarus Enoch Elijah Apollonius of Tyana

They float around the first airplane

They let pass those who carry the Holy Eucharist

The priests who rise eternally in raising the host

The airplane lands at last without folding its wings

The sky fills with millions of swallows

Hawks come crows hawks owls

Ibis flamingoes and storks from Africa

The Roc celebrated by story tellers and poets

Holding in its claws Adam’s skull the first head

And the eagle from the horizon with a great cry

From America the tiny humming-bird

From China the long supple pihis

Which have only one wing and fly in pairs

The dove immaculate spirit

Escorted by the lyre bird and the ringed peacock

The phoenix re-engendering itself from its flames

Veiling everything for a moment with its fiery ashes

Sirens leaving their perilous straits

Arrive singing beautifully all three of them

And everything including eagle phoenix and Chinese pihis

Making friends with our flying machine


Now you walk through Paris alone in the crowd

Herds of bellowing buses roll by near you

The anguish of love tightens your throat

As if you could never be loved

In the old days you would enter a monastery

You are ashamed when you catch yourself saying a prayer

You mock yourself your laughter bursting out like hell fire

Sparks gilding the bottom depths of your life

It’s a picture hung in a dark museum

Sometimes you have to look at it closely


Today as you walk the women of Paris are bloodsoaked

It was and I do not like to remember this it was the decline of beauty


Surrounded by fervent flames Notre Dame looked at me in Chartres

The blood of your Sacred Heart flooded me in Montmartre

I am sick of hearing the blessed words

The love I suffer is a shameful disease

And my image of you survives in insomnia and anguish

Always near you this image which is passing


Now you are on the shore of the Mediterranean

Under lemon trees that flower all year

You go sailing with your friends

One from Nice one from Menton and two Turbiasques

We watch in fear the octopus from the depths

And the fish swimming in algae are images of our Saviour


You are in the garden of an inn near Prague

You feel very happy a rose is on the table

And instead of writing your story in prose you watch

The bug sleeping in the heart of the rose


Horror to see yourself drawn in the agates of St. Vitus

You were sad enough to die that day

You looked like Lazarus crazed by the sudden light

The hands of the clock go backwards in the Jewish quarter

And you go back slowly in your life

Climbing to Hradchin and listening at night

To Czech songs in taverns


Here you are in Marseilles amid the watermelons


Here you are in Koblenz at the Hotel of the Giant


Here you are in Rome sitting under a Japanese medlar tree


Here you are in Amsterdam with a girl you find beautiful but who is ugly

She is to marry a student from Leyden

We rent rooms in Latin Cubicula locanda

I remember I stayed there three days and then as many more in Gouda


You are in Paris before the judge

Arrested like a common criminal


You journeyed in sorrow and joy

Before you learned that the world lies and grows old

You suffered from love at twenty and thirty

I lived crazily and wasted my time

You do not dare look at your hands and at every moment I want to sob

Over you the one I love for everything that has terrified you


Eyes filled with tears you look at those poor emigrants

They believe in God they pray the women nurse their children

Their smell fills the waiting room of the station Saint-Lazare

They have faith in their star like the Magi

They hope to make money in Argentina

And come back to their countries after making their fortune

One family carries a red comforter as you carry your heart

This quilt and our dreams are both unreal

Some of these emigrants stay here and find lodging

In hovels in the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Ecouffes

I have seen them strolling at night

Like chess pieces rarely moving

They are mostly Jews their wives wear wigs

They remain seated bloodless in their shops


You are standing at the zinc counter of a crappy bar

You drink cheap coffee with the rest of the losers


At night you are in a big restaurant


These women aren’t cruel they have problems

Even the ugliest of them has made her lover suffer


She is the daughter of a Jersey City Police Sergeant


Her hands which I have not seen are hard and chapped


I have great pity for the scars on her belly


I humble my mouth offering it to a poor girl who has a horrible laugh


You’re alone as the morning comes

The milkmen rattle their cans in the street


The night departs like a half-caste beauty

False Ferdine or Leah watching


And you drink this burning liquor like your life

You drink it like brandy


You walk toward Auteuil you want to walk home on foot

To sleep among your fetishes from Oceania and Guinea

That are a Christ of another form and another faith

Inferior Christs of dark hopes


Goodbye goodbye


The sun now only a half-severed neck


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