Featured review

Horses in Boiling Blood

By Guillaume Apollinaire

Translated by Barry MacSweeney

Equipage, 2005
Series 3 No. 3 - Metamorphoses

Abandoning Cubism for Orphism, he defined Orphic art by its refusal to rely on structures borrowed from the visual sphere: the artist does not reveal reality, he creates it.

Review by Paul Batchelor

Morphic Cubism: The Strange Case of Gwillam Mad MacSweeney


In a winning but eccentric overestimation, Tristan Tzara praised Apollinaire for his use of ‘the exact, real, totally unpromiscuous nudity of the word which is only itself, intended in its round force, with no background of allusions, or, rather, with none of the seductions of sublimated imagery’. It is a moot point whether a language that achieved such an ideal would prove perfectly suitable to translation or impossible to carry over. In either case it is truer to say that Apollinaire’s practice was centred on linguistic phenomena particularly subject to their cultural moment. Humour, obscure literary allusion (often an echo in the cadence of a line), deliberate tonal misfires and à la mode cultural references depend on nuances of language and an intimacy with one’s audience. Consider the opening line of ‘Zone’, the first poem in Alcools: ‘A la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien.’ The tone is colloquial, but the line is a traditional alexandrine. The reader is addressed familiarly, but ‘ancien’ is required to take up the traditional three syllables, instead of eliding into two, as it would in conversational speech. Cadence and meaning are held in a useful torsion. Such incongruities, essential to Apollinaire’s poetry, are lost in the literal translation: ‘Finally you are tired of the ancient world.’

There are few literal translations in Horses in Boiling Blood. While MacSweeney finds some ingenious linguistic equivalents (‘Listen Its Plutting’, lovingly makes use of a Northumbrian dialect word for rain of French origin), his typical mode is somewhat more unbuttoned. In ‘Les Fenêtres’ Apollinaire writes ‘Les Chabins chantent des airs à mourir/Aux Chabines marrones.’ These lines contain considerable wordplay: ‘Chabins’ and ‘Chabines’ were terms used in the Antilles to describe the offspring of mixed marriages between Negroes and mulattos. ‘Chabins’ is also a phonetic pun on ‘le chabanais’ (‘noise’ or ‘racket’). The phrase ‘des airs à mourir’ contains several possible meanings (the Chabins may sing ‘killing songs’ or may ‘sing one to death’), and sounds close to ‘mourir d’amour’ (to be ‘dying of love’, with sexual overtones). A literal translation would read ‘The rams sing sad songs/To the brown ewes.’ MacSweeney’s ‘The Garden Door is Open On The World’ translates these lines as ‘The big rammes at Hexham are doing what they do best ramming/ So the ewes have gone berserk up on the top fields aching to be tupped.’ Here, ‘tupped’ evokes some of Apollinaire’s wordplay, as it recalls Iago waking Brabantio with the cry ‘an old black ram/ Is tupping your white ewe.’ The Chattertonesque kenning ‘rammes’ is one of the many references to Chatterton that recur throughout Horses in Boiling Blood. In this case, it may refer to ‘The Battle of Hastynges’, which includes the lines: ‘As when two bulles, destynde for Hochtide fyghte/ Are yoked by the necke within a sparr.’ Clive Bush has noted that MacSweeney adapted this image in Brother Wolf (his homage to Chatterton), describing a farming practice at Sparty Lea:

strap two
rams together the
wins. Death
on the horns.

Such a network of buried allusion is indicative of the privacy of MacSweeney’s endeavour: for all the theatricality, we are never far from the lonely room of the exile/autodidact. What interests me here is how this ‘privacy’ impacts on our reading experience. When we read, say, Lowell’s Imitations there is always a putative original to be consulted. To experience the imitation as imitation, the reader is required to have some knowledge of the original author/poem/context, as well as a familiarity with Lowell himself: cross-referencing is expected. In contrast, MacSweeney does not appear as a distinct personality in his versions; it is as if the process of translation began at a much earlier stage. Perhaps this is to be expected: Apollinaire’s example (his poetry, his life, his self-mythologising) proved crucial to MacSweeney’s conception of what a poet should be. We might expect a certain amount of ‘feedback’, as techniques MacSweeney originally learned from Apollinaire are put to service in translations of Apollinaire himself.

Consider these lines from ‘Souvenirs’: ‘Un monsieur en bras de chemise/ Se rase près de la fenêtre’ (A man in shirt sleeves/ is shaving at the window). MacSweeney’s version (‘Memories are Made of This’) is as follows:

I was a man in a new-look baggy nightshirt starched and white
Trepanned because of a starreburst in the trenchant trenches
I stood by the window and shaved and shaved away my grievous unrest…

Later, I will consider MacSweeney’s interpolated references to Apollinaire’s biography. I want to draw attention to the way Apollinaire at his most plainspoken (Tzara would say ‘unpromiscuous’) has become distinctly MacSweeneyesque by the use of two of MacSweeney’s linguistic hallmarks. First, MacSweeney’s habit of placing the adjectives at the end of the line (‘a new-look baggy nightshirt starched and white’) creates a rhetorically inflated, orotund effect; the grave, solemn tone enhances the comedy of the image. Second, MacSweeney’s use of repetition (‘I stood by the window and shaved and shaved’) sounds in this instance rather Chaplinesque in its increasingly fevered attempts to accomplish a simple task. What is remarkable is the way MacSweeney’s amplifications reinstate what is lost in literal translation: Apollinaire’s beloved clash of registers.

Interpretive Imagery

Apollinaire used images as part of his effort to get beyond conceptual language, an approach influenced by the emerging Cubist movement. It follows that there is often a deliberate incongruity between the terms of comparison. For example, ‘Fête’ conflates images of shells, fireworks and breasts. As if slightly out of focus, these images never quite cohere, and the suppression of explanatory linking information, often present in Apollinaire’s manuscripts but omitted from the published poems, heightens the suggestive uncertainty of tone. We come to see such discontinuity as a defining feature of Apollinaire’s poetry. Consider these lines:

Il songe aux roses de Saadi
Et soudain sa tête se penche
Car une rose lui redit
La molle courbe d’une hanche

(He dreams of the roses of Saadi
And suddenly his head sinks down
As a rose evokes for him once more
The soft curve of a hip)

MacSweeney’s rendering, in ‘War Roses,’ is as follows:

The roses – my men – bleed like subjects from the rimdom
of the Marquis de Sade – and suddenly his head bends over –
a beautiful red rose reduced and reduced by Bosche brutality
Spreadeagled like your bedroom-lit softly curved haunch-hips

Apollinaire’s figure bows his head in remembrance of past love. In ‘War Roses’, the Persian poet Saadi becomes de Sade (Apollinaire wrote essays on de Sade, and a Sadean novel), and the correspondingly violent image refers to a head wound, presumably Apollinaire’s own shrapnel wound. The image of a wounded body then recalls a spread-eagled body on a bed; this may seem grotesque, but the image itself (‘bedroom-lit softly curved haunch-hips’) is tender and erotic.

Apollinaire’s habit of removing essential information tacitly invites an ungoverned reading. Inevitably, MacSweeney’s equivalents are more grounded (the reader knows that reading Apollinaire occasioned the poems) and this is enhanced through MacSweeney’s references to the trenches (placing Apollinaire) and by his framing many poems as addresses to an absent loved one (placing himself). In other words, for all their capacious gallimaufry, the translations are subject to formal attempts at having their meanings contained or directed. This is distinct from the conventional practice of glossing (silently introducing expository material) and recalls MacSweeney’s earliest published poems, which, as John Wilkinson has noted, ‘suffer from an itch to ensure the reader (in the first place the loved woman) receives the message, a message frequently duller than the image-complex would permit the less governed reading’. Wilkinson cites ‘To Lynn at Work whose Surname I don’t know’, the opening poem from MacSweeney’s first collection, The Boy from the Green Cabaret Tells of His Mother, a poem notably influenced by the French poets MacSweeney was reading at the time.

Relocation, Relocation, Relocation!

So far, I have looked at ways MacSweeney ‘carries over’ Apollinaire into English. But there is more at stake: Horses in Boiling Blood is touted as ‘a collaboration, a celebration’ rather than a translation. The reader is never certain whether the speaker is Apollinaire, MacSweeney, or an amalgam of the two: ‘Gwillam Mad MacSweeney’, as he is called in ‘Miss the Mississippi and Thee.’ This hybrid figure is characterised by his ability to move freely between Newcastle in the late 1990s and the trenches of the First World War. (In fact, Apollinaire was an artilleryman for most of the war, and only in the trenches a short time before receiving the head wound from a piece of shrapnel that led to his being trepanned. MacSweeney invariably presents Apollinaire as wounded, equating trepanation to his own ‘broken head’ ie. his alcoholism.) The hybrid also has foreknowledge of his own death, and the coming atrocities of World War Two, and is separated from the object of his love. The sense of loss is related to the war and, more mysteriously, to the head wound.

The genesis of ‘Gwillam Mad MacSweeney’ appears to be an over-identification between translator and subject. In ‘War Roses’ MacSweeney translates ‘L’air est plein d’un terrible alcool/ Filtré des étoiles mi-closes’ (the air is full of terrible alcohol/filtered through the half-closed stars) as ‘The air is crammed with completely mad spirits’, suggesting the Demons of his earlier work. Another version of the same poem, ‘At the Hoppings’, is more explicit about the nature of the Demons: ‘I breathe alcoholism into the air/Then the starres and argent sky swoon through my filters.’ Identification is matched with a relocation of the poems from Paris to Newcastle: ‘La vie est variable aussi bien que l’Euripe’ (Life is uncertain as the tides of Euripus) becomes ‘The whole of life is strange like the tidalmark at Blayney Row/ Just beyond Dunston Staithes and Stella…’ Such wilfully inapposite equivalents enable MacSweeney to achieve wildly variant effects by staying otherwise faithful to the original. 

‘La petite auto’ includes this description of a car breaking down at night: 

Je n’oublierai jamais ce voyage nocturne où nul de nous ne dit un mot
Ô départ sombre où mouraient nos 3 phares…
…et 3 fois nous nous arrêtâmes pour changer un pneu qui avait éclaté

Et quand après avoir passé l’après-midi
Par Fontainebleau
Nous arrivâmes à Paris
Au moment où l’on affichait la mobilisation

(I shall not forget this nocturnal journey during which none of us spoke
O sombre departure when our three headlights broke…
…and three times we had to stop to change a burst tyre

And when that afternoon we had passed
Through Fontainbleau
We arrived in Paris
At the moment in which they were putting up mobilisation posters)

MacSweeney’s rendering, in ‘The Illegal 2CV,’ is as follows:

I’ll never forget the time the car broke down completely lightless
We were on the old A1 and it was utterly distressing
It was before the war of the spirit between us Before catastrophe…

We went past Dragonville and Belmont and arrived in Newcastle
And saw we were going to have to go and try & slaughter Germans
We turned in Grainger Street and looked at each other lost for words

Observed detail mutates into a paranoid imperative – but then, seemingly innocuous features of the writing process have long held a capacity to threaten MacSweeney: The Book of Demons presents us with a particularly malevolent representation of the usually abstract notion of a poet’s voice, grown independent of the poet and breaking out into the world, trying to tempt him to suicide. Similarly, where another poet might make a literary allusion, MacSweeney will often introduce the figure of a poet into the poem: throughout his poetry, Shelley, Jim Morrison and Anne Sexton visit MacSweeney. MacSweeney’s references to the First World War suggest just such an embattled attempt at translating Apollinaire’s empirical self into the poems. As the registers swing between bathetic translationese (‘We were on the old A1 and it was utterly distressing’) and high-flown lyricism (‘It was before the war of the spirit between us’), the effect is of a volatile, shifting surface: the identification all translators hope for has become something more akin to demonic possession.

In The Truth of Poetry, Michael Hamburger criticises Apollinaire for his ‘inability to resist conventional rhetoric and lyricism of a kind not truly compatible with his equally genuine passion for modernity’. De Chirico celebrates this characteristic in Ritratto premonitore di Guillaume Apollinaire, depicting the poet as a marble bust wearing sunglasses. Apollinaire appears to have drawn strength from his contradictions. Abandoning Cubism for Orphism, he defined Orphic art by its refusal to rely on structures borrowed from the visual sphere: the artist does not reveal reality, he creates it. Even here, the impulse to seek out new forms and structures leads Apollinaire back to a more traditional, Romantic idea of the artist. The supposed polarity of ‘Order and Adventure’ (a longstanding cliché of Apollinaire criticism) is misleading: Apollinaire’s fidelity to the chaotic moment of composition meant that he insisted on both – simultaneously if possible. MacSweeney’s translations are faithful to that spirit, and Horses in Boiling Blood makes a compelling case for radical, creative translation. Champion of so many -isms, Apollinaire would surely have given this process a new name. The title of this essay is one suggestion.

Paul Batchelor

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