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Apollinaire’s “Zone”


[clock] 14-MINUTE READ ISSUE:  Spring 2013

In the heady days leading up to and including the catastrophe of World War I, when Paris was the capital of modern art, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880–1918) stood at the vital center of a gang of writers and artists who embraced the future with such tremendous energy that avant-garde became an adjective of glamour and prestige. Apollinaire—whose circle included painters (Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck) and composers (Satie, Poulenc) as well as poets (Blaise Cendrars, Max Jacob, Pierre Reverdy)—was a superb activist and agitator. He championed Cubism and gave Surrealism its name. In 1917, his edition of Charles Baudelaire’s poems linked the two men as kindred spirits, city poets who doubled as art critics; Baudelaire prefigured Apollinaire as the latter prefigures Frank O’Hara. Also in 1917, Apollinaire issued his manifesto, “The New Spirit and the Poets,” making the case for innovation as a transcendent value. Poetry had to keep up with the technological advances of the day—the cinema, the radio, the motorcar, the flying machine. Driving with a friend from Deauville to Paris in “La Petite Auto,” Apollinaire writes that “the little car had driven us into a New epoch / and though both of us were grown men / it was as if we had just been born.”

Apollinaire experimented with audacious techniques for generating verse. On occasion he would sit in a café and weave overheard phrases into the composition. For his book Calligrammes, he made shaped poems—poems that looked like a mirror, a heart, the rainfall, a pocket-watch. In his most ambitious discursive poems, he wins over the reader by modifying his self-pity with his wit and ebullience. There is a rare combination of enthusiasm and melancholy in Apollinaire’s self-presentation. A line from his poem “Les Collines” (“The Hills”) is etched into his tombstone at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris: “Je peux mourir en souriant”—“I can die with a smile on my face.” 

“Zone,” the central poem in Apollinaire’s career, prefaces his collection Alcools, the title of which translates literally as “Spirits” in the alcoholic sense though I would argue for “Cocktails.” Alcools is in any case an apt title for one who likes to boast that he has “drunk the universe” and chanted “songs of universal drunkenness.” Published in 1913, the year Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring had its Paris premiere, “Zone” is chronologically the last poem in the collection to have been written. The poet was thirty-three years old, the age of Dante embarking on his tour of the afterlife. The poem doesn’t so much praise its objects of futurist desire—the Eiffel Tower, airplanes, a railway terminal—as treat them like pastoral motifs. The heart of the poem is not in the future at all but in a past recollected in anxiety and sadness.

“Zone” heralds a striking new direction in Apollinaire’s work. He discards punctuation to good effect. He refers to himself sometimes as I, sometimes as you (both tu and vous in French), a habit that held a special appeal for O’Hara and other New York poets. The poem’s title embraces (or blends) the meanings of neighborhood, frontier, slum (and slumming), and the female erogenous zone, all of which come into play. (“And I smoke ZONE tobacco,” Apollinaire wrote in a later poem.) Organized around a walk in Paris from one sunrise to another—and from one time zone to another—“Zone” is in loosely rhymed couplets, which presents a difficulty that translators tend to evade. A notable exception is Samuel Beckett in perhaps the most impressive parts of his translation. For example, Beckett renders “C’est le beau lys que tous nous cultivons / C’est la torch aux cheveux roux que n’eteint pas le vent” as “It is the fair lily that we all revere / It is the torch burning in the wind its auburn hair.” In addition to the near-rhyme, Beckett gives us the echo of “burn” in “auburn,” a move that Apollinaire would have appreciated. Kenneth Koch appropriates Apollinaire’s rambling couplets in a nostalgic poem whose title is itself a nod to his influence: “A Time Zone.”

“Zone” has been translated many times, a testament to how well-loved it is among Anglo-Saxon Francophiles. It begins, “A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.” Roger Shattuck translates the line as “You are tired at last of this old world”; Ron Padgett improves on this with “You’re tired of this old world at last.” I cast my vote with Beckett, Charlotte Mandell, and William Meredith, in opting for “In the end” as the poem’s first words, not only because this is the literal sense of the French “A la fin,” but because it lays proper stress on Apollinaire’s audacity in starting with “the end.” It also gives a hint of the poem’s ultimate circularity. Given the iterations of ancien that immediately follow—antiquité, anciennes, and antique all appear in the next six lines—I felt that “the ancient world” came nearer to Apollinaire’s meaning than “this old world.”

A line about refugee families gathered at a train station can stand for many others in the challenge they present to the translator. For “Ils espèrent gagner de l’argent dans l’Argentine,” Oliver Bernard offers the prosaic “They hope to make money in the Argentine.” Anne Hyde Greet goes for the more idiomatic “Hoping to strike it rich in Argentina.” But I wanted to preserve the repeated sound of argent (the French word for money rooted in the word for silver), so I chose the alliterative “They’re hoping to gain some argent in the Argentine.”

The celebrated last line of “Zone,” “soleil cou coupé,” contains a brilliant piece of wordplay that resists the translator’s craft. It’s as if cou (meaning “neck”) is an abbreviated form of coupé (meaning “cut”). The relation between the two words can be said to suggest the action of the sun rising at dawn and appearing as if beheaded by the horizon. The verse has been variously translated as “Decapitated sun—” (William Meredith), “The sun a severed neck” (Roger Shattuck), “Sun corseless head” (Samuel Beckett), “Sun     slit throat” (Anne Hyde Greet), “Sun neck cut” (Charlotte Mandell). Ron Padgett’s “Sun cut throat” cleverly divides the word cutthroat in two. I have opted for “Let the sun beheaded be,” mainly because of the repetition of sounds in the last words. I felt that the relation of “be” to “beheaded” approximated the action in “côu coupé.” 

I discovered “Zone” in my junior year of college and studied it closely when, as a graduate student at Cambridge University, I attended Douglas Parmée’s lectures on French literature and spent a few seasons in Paris. This was in 1971 and 1972. In Paris I lived with this peripatetic poem on such intimate terms that I felt I could hear it in my own voice as I walked from Notre Dame to the Luxembourg Gardens and from there to the cafés of Montparnasse. I made a special trip to the Gare St. Lazare with Apollinaire’s stanza about “ces pauvres émigrants” in my brain. Nevertheless I did not type up a complete draft of my translation until January 1978 when I taught a course at Hamilton College that called for it. After presenting it at a public reading, I let it lie fallow. I worked on the poem often and carefully, if at long intervals, until three years ago when, as a professor at the New School’s graduate writing program, I supervised MFA candidate Ashleigh Allen’s thesis, which focused on Apollinaire and “Zone.” This happy task spurred me to revise my translation yet again. Encouraged by friends, I worked on it some more in summer 2011 and fall 2012. These things take time. The love of the work sustains the effort. 

Apollinaire had too little time. Within a few years of publishing “Zone,” he suffered head wounds at the front in World War I and died of Spanish flu on November 9, 1918, two days before the armistice that ended the war. 


“Zone” by Guillaume Apollinaire

Translated by David Lehman


In the end you’ve had enough of the ancient world

O Eiffel Tower shepherdess today your bridges are a bleating flock

You’ve had it up to here with the Greeks and Romans

Here even the automobiles look antique
Only religion remains new religion
Retains the simplicity of an airport hangar

Alone in Europe you are not antiquated O Christianity
The most modern man in Europe is you Pope Pius X
While you whom the windows watch are too ashamed
To enter a church and confess your sins today
You read handouts pamphlets posters sing to you from up high
There’s your morning poetry and for prose there are the newspapers
Paperback police thrillers for twenty-five centimes
Portraits of the great a thousand and one titles

This morning I saw a pretty little street whose name I forget
Clean and new it seemed the clarion of the sun
Executives workers and beautiful stenographers
Pass this way four times a day from Monday morning to Saturday night
Three times each morning a siren whines
An angry bell at noon
Billboards signs and murals
Shriek like parakeets
I love the grace of this industrial street
In Paris between the rue Aumont-Thiéville and the avenue des Ternes

Look how young the street is and you still only a toddler
Your mother dresses you in blue and white
You are very religious you and your old pal René Dalize
You love nothing more than church ceremonies
It’s nine o’clock the gas turns blue you sneak out of the dormitory
You stay up all night praying in the school chapel
Under a globed amethyst worthy of adoration
The halo around the head of Christ revolves forever
He is the lovely lily that we cultivate
The red-haired torch immune to any wind
The pale and scarlet son of the mother of many sorrows
The evergreen tree ever hung with prayers
The twin gallows of honor and eternity
The six-pointed star
God who dies on Friday and revives on Sunday
Christ who climbs heavens higher than any aviator can reach
He holds the world’s aviation record

Christ pupil of my eye
Pupil of twenty centuries he knows what he’s doing
And changed into a bird this century like Jesus soars in the air
Devils in abysses lift their heads to stare
Look they say he takes after Simon Magus of Judea
They say he can steal but can also steal away
The angels vault past the all-time greatest pole vaulters
Icarus Enoch Elijah Apollonius of Tyana
Gather around the first airplane
Or make way for the elevation of those who took communion
The priests rise eternally as they raise the host
And the airplane touches down at last its wings outstretched
From heaven come flying millions of swallows
Ibises flamingoes storks from Africa
The fabled Roc celebrated by storytellers and poets
With Adam’s skull in its claws the original skull
Messenger from the horizon the eagle swoops and screams
And from America the little hummingbird
From China the long and supple pihis
Who have one wing each and fly in pairs
Here comes the dove immaculate spirit
Escorted by lyre-bird and vain peacock
And the phoenix engendering himself from the flames
Veils everything for a moment with his sparkling cinders
The sirens leave the perilous seas
And sing beautifully when they get here all three of them
And all of them eagle phoenix and pihi of China
Befriend our flying machine

Now you are walking in Paris all alone among the crowds
Herds of bellowing buses roll by you
Love’s anguish grips you by the throat
As if you were fated never again to be loved
In the bad old days you would have entered a monastery
You feel ashamed when you slip and catch yourself saying prayers
You mock yourself your laughter crackles like hellfire
The sparks flash in the depths of your life
Like a painting in a dreary museum
You’ve got to get as close to it as you can

Today as you walk around Paris and her bloodstained women
It was (and I would just as soon not remember it was) the demise of beauty

Surrounded by flames our Lady looked down on me at Chartres
The blood of thy sacred heart drowned me in Montmartre
I am sick of hearing the blessed words
The love I suffer from is a shameful disease
And my image of you survives in my anguish and insomnia
It’s always near you and then it fades away

Now you’re at the Mediterranean shore
Under the lemon groves in flower all year long
You go sailing with your friends
One is from Nice one from Menton two Turbiasques
The creatures of the deep terrify us
The fish swimming through seaweed is the symbol of our Savior

You’re in the garden of a tavern on the outskirts of Prague
You’re in heaven a rose is on the table
Which you look at instead of writing your poems or your prose
You look at the bug asleep in the heart of the rose

You recognize yourself in the mosaics of St. Vitus
You almost died of grief that day
You were Lazarus crazed by daylight
In the Jewish quarter the hands on the clocks go backward

And you creep forward through the story of your life
Climbing to the Hradchin in the evening and listening
To the Czech songs in the cafés

Here you are in Marseilles amid the watermelons

Here at Koblenz at the Hotel of the Giant

Here in Rome sitting under a Japanese medlar tree

Here you are in Amsterdam with a woman who you think is beautiful but is really ugly
She will wed a student from Leyden
You can rent rooms by the hour Cubicula locanda
I remember the three days I spent there and the three at Gouda

You are in Paris summoned before a judge
Arrested like a common criminal

You journeyed in joy and despair
Before you encountered lies and old age
Love made you suffer at twenty at thirty
I’ve lived like a fool and wasted my time
You no longer dare to look at your hands and now I feel like crying
Over you over the one I love over everything that has scared you

Eyes full of tears you look at the immigrant families
They believe in God they pray the women nurse their babies
They fill the Gare St. Lazare with their smell
Their faith in the stars rivals that of the three magi
They’re hoping to gain some argent in the Argentine
And return to the old country with a fortune
One family takes a red eiderdown with it as you take your heart wherever you go
This eiderdown and our dreams are equally unreal
Some refugees stay in furnished rooms
In the rue des Rosiers or the rue des Écouffes in the slums
I have seen them at night walking
Like pieces on a chessboard they rarely move
Especially the Jews whose wives wear wigs
And sit quietly in the back of the shop

You stand at the counter of a seedy café
A cup of coffee for a couple of sous with the other outcasts

At night you go to a famous restaurant
These women aren’t cruel they’re just wretched
Each even the ugliest has made her lover suffer

She is the daughter of a policeman from Jersey

I hadn’t noticed the calluses on her hand

I feel sorry for her and the scars on her belly

I humble my mouth to the poor girl with the horrid laugh

You’re alone day breaks
The milkmen clink their bottles

The night slinks away like a half-breed beauty
Ferdine the false Leah on the lookout

The brandy you sip burns like your life
Your life that you drink like an eau-de-vie

You are walking toward Auteuil you intend to walk the whole way home
To sleep with your fetishes from Oceania and Guinea
There are Christs in different forms and other systems of belief
But Christs all the same though lesser though obscure

Farewell farewell

Let the sun beheaded be

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