Poetry of a Constant Traveler: Blaise Cendrars

Portrait of Blaise Cendrars, 1918
(Oil on cardboard, 61 x 50 cm)
BY Amedeo Modigliani

Translator’s Note

Blaise Cendrars was known to be a constant and wide traveler; by the time of his death in 1961 he had set foot in all four major continents. Born in Paris in 1887, he was given the name Frédéric Louis Sauser, which he would later change. He was raised in Switzerland by his family until 1904 when, still a teen, he hopped the Transiberian Railway to Russia. There he worked with a watchmaker and witnessed (possibly participated in) the revolution. After this experience he re-baptized himself: Blaise Cendrars — “a flame in the cinders.”

He was not interested in simply being a tourist and taking notes. Instead, he created a poetry that, itself, travels. His lines are ways of revealing one of the world’s complexities, while honoring similarities, and praising difference.

As an adult, Cendrars sailed to Africa and South America, and lived for a time in the United States. There is not a single poem in his collection without some hint of his experiences on the road or open sea. Even in his later poems, written in Paris, he used his personal map of the world as a reference point and a baseline for reality. In translating the three poems here, and others, I have grown to admire what I would call his special brand of optimism. He is gruff, masculine, and sometimes judgmental of his fellow man. Yet still, his collected poems read very much like a celebration of industrialization and modernity. And the spirit that frames many of them is one of admiration; he saw globalization as a power that would unite the world. In “Ocean-Letter” his pleasure revolves around exploring creative means of communication at sea; he revels in the world’s quickening pace and speedy growth. The simple facts that there are now various ways of communicating from a ship and that a person can choose one over the other is excitement enough.

Despite relying on travel as a dominant subject — most notable in his frequent use of city names, ports and/or nautical terms for many of his titles — his enthusiasm and wanderlust is often understated and always sober. He was not interested in simply being a tourist and taking notes. Instead, he created a poetry that, itself, travels. His lines are ways of revealing one of the world’s complexities, while honoring similarities, and praising difference. Analytical as he was in his embrace of other cultures, he was never critical of them. He only criticized individuals. In this light, the theme of travel tends to stand for a bigger idea, a vehicle for speaking about something larger — love and distance, capitalism, fatherhood, danger, “the good life,” etc. This quality can be seen, for example, in the masterful last line of “As Far North As Rio de l’Ouro,” a poem in which the rise of globalization and global trade are addressed quite subtly: “We cross six little sailboats filled with salt on their round between Dakar and The Grand Canaries.”

What constantly impresses me is that in his travels, Cendrars associated with people from every social circle and walk of life — be it the ship’s somber engine mechanic or a mysterious duo of affluent German women. What is clear is that he possessed the keen ability to gain the affection and curiosity of those around him, whomever they were. And Cendrars’ poetry never over-tells anything about his companions. He often uses a generic “we” without ever defining or naming the other people in that “we.” However, this gesture and/or intention is not vague, unkind, or unclear; we understand that for him, he is simply with other people whose presence matters, but not their identities. It is sufficient to know that the poet is not alone, as we see in the opening line of “Bilbao”: “We arrive at the Bilbao cove well before dawn.”

Cendrars’ voice is often conversational, something that has its challenges and luxuries for a translator. Similarly, his poetic range and muscle is vast beyond comparison — a master of traditional French forms as well as visionary, experimental verse and everything in between. As a whole, the reader finds, without exception, a poetry rife with adrenaline and restraint, and the poems serve as valuable documents of inquisitiveness and profound investigation.

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

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