Thursday, February 25, 2016

`A Cat Stepping Over the Books'

We spoke abstractly of senility and dementia, probing our fears the way we probe an aching tooth with our tongue, until my friend had had enough. When such “dark thoughts” invade his brain, he related, “[I] say aloud one of the delicious short poems of Apollinaire’s Bestiaire and I put it away at once.” Good advice – poetry as talisman, warding off the grim fate to which none of us is immune. The four- and five-line poems in The Bestiary (1909), Apollinaire’s first collection, are perfect for the purpose – brief, rhymed and metrically precise, at once whimsical and morally pointed, occasionally pious. For English-only readers I recommend the American poet X.J. Kennedy’s version, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in 2011, and including the woodcuts by Raoul Dufy that illustrated the first edition. Here is “The Cat” (and here, the Dufy):

“I hope I may have in my house,
A sensible right-minded spouse,
A cat stepping over the books,
Loyal friends always about
Whom I couldn’t live without.”

Here is Apollinaire’s original, “Le chat

Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis de toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peut pas vivre.

The poem is less about cats than about a domestic refuge. Apollinaire (1880-1918) constructs his sanctuary and stocks it with supplies in five lines (cat and books in one). Kennedy calls it Apollinaire’s “prescription for a happy life.” No mention of age and its depredations or of looming war. And yet, as Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #203, published on this date, Feb. 25, in 1752: “It seems to be the fate of man to seek all his consolations in futurity.” So too with Apollinaire. Here is his “La chenille” (a beautiful word, so different from the English; and here the Dufy):

Le travail mène à la richesse.
Pauvres poètes, travaillons!
La chenille en peinant sans cesse
Devient le riche papillon.”

And here is Kennedy’s “Caterpillar”:

“Toil leads to wealth. Poor poets,
Let’s toil on! By and by
The worm that keeps on striving turns
To a monarch butterfly.”

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