02 January 2024

Translation: Blaise Cendrars Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jehanne of France, Part 1

Cover by Sonia Delaunay, 1913

This is Bora Mici's original French to English translation of the poem La prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France or Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jehanne of France by the French early 20th century poet Blaise Cendrars whose name evokes a phoenix. Sonia Delaunay created the accompanying artwork for the poem, which tells the story of the poet's squalid journey on the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to China across Russia alongside a young prostitute who seems to embody a certain redeeming innocence and nostalgic love left behind.

Prose of the Trans-Siberian and of the Little Jehanne of France by Blaise Cendrars with artwork by Sonia Delaunay, Part 1.

Dedicated to musicians

At that time I was an adolescent
I was barely sixteen and could not remember my childhood evanescent
I was 16,000 leagues away from my birthplace reminiscent
I was in Moscow, the city of three-thousand church bells and seven train stations
And I could not get enough of the seven train stations and the three-thousand towers
Because my adolescence was so passionate and so wild
That my heart, now and then, burned like the temple
of Ephesos or like Moscow’s Red Square
When the sun sets.
And my eyes lit up ancient roads.
And I was already such a bad poet
That I did not know how to go all the way to the end.

The Kremlin was like a giant Tartar cake
Crunchy in gold,
With the big all white cathedral mandorlas
And the honeyed gold of the church bells …

An old monk was reading the legend of Novgorod to me
I was thirsty
And I was deciphering the cuneiform script
Then, all of a sudden, the pigeons of the Holy Spirit started flying in the square
And my hands started flying too, with the fluttering of an albatros
And these, these were the last reminiscences of the last day
Of the very last trip
And of the sea.

However, I was a very bad poet.
I did not know how to go all the way to the end.
I was hungry
And all the days and all the women in the coffeeshops and all the glasses
I would have liked to drink them and break them
And all the shop windows and all the streets
And all the houses and all the lives
And all the wheels of the carriages spinning like whirlwinds on badly paved roads
I would have liked to plunge them into an inferno of swords
And I would have liked to grind all the bones
And pull out all the tongues
And liquefy all these strange large naked bodies under the clothes that overwhelm me …
I could sense the arrival of the large red Christ of the Russian Revolution …
And the sun was a bad wound
That was open like a blaze.

At that time I was an adolescent
I was barely sixteen and could not remember my birth evanescent
I was in Moscow, where I wanted to feed on flames
And there were not enough towers and train stations for my eyes to constellate

In Siberia cannons thundered, it was wartime
Hunger the cold the plague cholera
And the murky waters of Love carried millions of carcasses.
In all the train stations I could see all the last trains departing
No one could leave anymore because no more tickets were give out
And the soldiers leaving would have liked to stay …
An old monk would sing me the legend of Novgorod.

I, the bad poet who wanted to go nowhere, I could go everywhere
And the merchants also still had enough money
To try their luck.
Their train left every Friday morning.
We heard that there were many dead.
One of them would bring a hundred cases of alarm clocks and cuckoos from the Black Forest
Another, boxes of hats, cylinders and a selection of bottle openers from Sheffield
Another, Malmo coffins filled with tin-can preserves and sardines in oil
Then there were many women
Women, groins for rent who could also double
As coffins
They were all authorized
We heard that there were many dead over there
They traveled at a reduced fare
And all had checking accounts in the bank.

Yet, one Friday morning, it was finally my turn
It was December
And I also left to accompany the travelling jeweler who was going to Harbin
We had two compartments in the express and 34 chests of Pforzheim jewelry
German bling “Made in Germany”
He had dressed me in new clothes, and while getting on the train I had lost a button
- I remember, I remember, I have thought about it often since
I would sleep on top of the chests and I was so happy to be able to play with the nickeled browning he had also given me

I was very happy carefree
I thought I was playing at highway robbery
We had stolen Golconda’s gold
And, thanks to the Trans-Siberian, we were going to hide it on the other side of the world
I had to protect it against the thieves of the Urals who had attacked the acrobats of Jules Verne
Against the Tungusics, the China boxers
And the little rabid Mongols of the Great Lama
Ali Baba and the forty thieves
And especially, against the most modern
The hotel crooks
And the experts of the international expresses.

Yet still, yet still
I looked like a child sad on the sill
The train’s rhythmic kinks
The “railway syndrome” of the American shrinks
The sound of the doors voices axletrees shrieking on the frozen rails
The golden sestertius of my future
My browning the piano, in the next-door compartment, the cursing of the card players
Jane’s stunning presence
The man in the blue eyeglasses who nervously paced the aisle and looked at me in passing
The crinkling of women
And the steam’s whistle
And the eternal noise of the mad wheels in the furrows of the sky
The windows have frosted scales
No nature!
And behind the Siberian plains, the low sky and the great shadows of the quiet ones that climb and descend.

Read Part 2.

Read Part 3. 

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