Thursday, April 21, 2011

This inhuman monster is I - adorable Apollinaire, with bonus Raoul Dufy

Did I say something about writing about Goethe?  I’m too fidgety.  I need something lighter.  Something easier.  Something fluffier.

Devilfish (Le Poulpe)

Squirting his ink to the sky,
Sucking his lovers’ blood,
Finding the taste of it good,
This inhuman monster is I.

Well, that’s not all that fluffy.

The poem is by Guillaume Apollinaire, and translated by X. J. Kennedy.  The woodcut is by Raoul Dufy.  They can be found side by side, along with the French poem, in The Bestiary, or Procession of Orpheus (John Hopkins University Press, 2011).  It is Apollinaire’s first book of poems, originally published in 1909, just thirty little poems, one woodcut per poem, and it is not particularly innovative or odd.

I had read a couple of the poems in an Apollinaire anthology, and they slipped past me.  They make sense as a book.  In three poems, Orpheus introduces animals by group – mammals, then insects, then fish, then birds, roughly.  The ox is a bird.  Look, the classifications have some problems.  Some of the poems have some allegorical significance (see above), some are merely clever.

Maybe I can find one fluffier than that devilfish.

Cat (Le chat)

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.

That’s nice.  Honestly, though, Raoul Dufy steals the show (click for more Dufy, courtesy of The Blue Lantern).  My favorite is this Art Nouveau peacock.


When opening his fanlike tail
This bird whose plumes behind him trail
Looks lovelier than when it’s shut,
But he reveals his naked butt.

That really is pretty much how the French goes (“Mais se découvre le derrière”).

Ask your library to buy this book for you.  Don’t buy it yourself – it’s, like, $45 for a comic book.  Nuts.  While you’re at it, ask for X. J. Kennedy’s little book of selected poems, too, The Lords of Misrule (2002), which includes “The Ballad of Fenimore Woolson and Henry James” and is generally excellent, even better than Apollinaire’s Bestiary, although not half as cute.


  1. Those woodcuts are gorgeous! And you're right, the French is just like this, and adorable. What a fun little book.

  2. Fan of Apollinaire that I am (and I really like his Calligrammes), I've never seen this. Lovely stuff.

  3. I'm much more familiar with Dufy's paintings but these woodcuts are wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I just read this myself (in French) and it strikes me as odder than it struck you, partly because of the nature of it -- what is Apollinaire doing, making references to the medieval, and being allegorical, and talking about Jesus, and so forth? -- and partly because of the sneaky humor of it. It's a modern medieval. (Have you ever seen the Surrealists' Bestiary?) I eat this stuff up. Thanks for the heads-up; I'm going to delve further into this one.

  5. That's a great point. I think I saw some of those familiar ideas (allegory, Jesus) and thought "I know what those are" rather than asking the more interesting question "But what are they doing here?"

    No, I have never seen the Surrealists' Bestiary. I don't think so. There's the next step in my French studies - other than getting serious about Zola - the Dadaists and Surrealists.