Here is another World War One poem from Guillaume Apollinaire, written in the trenches on the western front. The title, “Chef de section”, I guess would be something like platoon sergeant, I’m not sure whether that was the poet’s rank, but it is a detail which is rather immaterial to the rest of the poem. Many poems written in these circumstances focus on the absurdity and brutal suffering of war; some focus on details of the soldier’s direct experience. This poem deals with what can go through a soldier’s head as he is waiting to go over the top – not fear, or rage, or calculation, but escapist, erotic fantasy about a long kiss with his loved one. It has the ring of truth about it, particularly as Apollinaire wrote a whole collection of love poems while he was serving at the front, marrying the experience of a soldier with physical and emotional thoughts of separation and longing.
Chef de section
Ma bouche aura des ardeurs de géhenne
Ma bouche te sera un enfer de douceur et de séduction
Les anges de ma bouche trôneront dans ton cœur
Les soldats de ma bouche te prendront d’assaut
Les prêtres de ma bouche encenseront ta beauté
Ton âme s’agitera comme une région pendant un tremblement de terre
Tes yeux seront alors chargés de tout l’amour qui s’est amassé dans les regards de l’humanité depuis qu’elle existe
Ma bouche sera une armée contre toi une armée pleine de disparates
Variée comme un enchanteur qui sait varier ses métamorphoses
L’orchestre et les chœurs de ma bouche te diront mon amour
Elle te le murmure de loin
Tandis que les yeux fixés sur la montre j’attends la minute prescrite pour l’assaut
Guillaume Apollinaire(1880 – 1918)
The sensual nature of the poem is captured immediately with the opening words, “ma bouche”, and, just so we don’t forget that this poem is about kissing, “ma bouche” is repeated 6 more times through this relatively short, 12 line poem. Each time it introduces a new metaphor about the kiss which the poet so desires, and which occupies his thoughts. The kiss has elements of infernal suffering alongside elements of ecstasy and pleasure. Great forces are at work in the kiss – angels, priests, an earthquake, an army, a wizard, an orchestra and choir , this is no ordinary kiss, it channels all the energy and emotion of a great, impossible love. Of course, it is not a real kiss, it is the fantasy of a soldier who knows he is about to into harm’s way and might die in the forthcoming attack. The last line of the poem, almost a throwaway, brings us back from the fantasy to that reality, as the poet looks at his watch and waits for the time planned for the next attack. There is a sharp contrast between the neutral, sparse tone of this last line, and the emotionally charged language which precedes it, describing the desired kiss.
Fantasy can help, but ultimately there is no escape from reality.
Another reason I like Apollinaire is that he had such a fabulous vocabulary, I almost always learn a new word or two from his poems. How about “gehenne” in the first line?
The Poetry Dude