The Operating System

5th Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: Day 26 :: Ashleigh Allen on Apollinaire's 'ZONE'

[box]It’s hard to believe that this is our FIFTH annual 30/30/30 series, and that when this month is over we will have seeded and scattered ONE HUNDRED and FIFTY of these love-letters, these stories of gratitude and memory, into the world. Nearly 30 books, 3 magazines, countless events and online entries later, and this annual celebration shines like a beacon at the top of the heap of my very favorite things to have brought into being. [If you’re interested in going back through the earlier 120 entries, you can find them (in reverse chronological order) here.]
When I began this exercise on my own blog, in 2011, I began by speaking to National Poetry Month’s beginnings, in 1966, and wrote that my intentions “for my part, as a humble servant and practitioner of this lovely, loving art,” were to post a poem and/or brief history of a different poet…. as well as write and post a new poem a day. I do function well under stricture, but I soon realized this was an overwhelming errand.
Nonetheless the idea stuck — to have this month serve not only as one in which we flex our practical muscles but also one in which we reflect on inspiration, community, and tradition — and with The Operating System (then Exit Strata) available as a public platform to me, I invited others (and invited others to invite others) to join in the exercise. It is a series which perfectly models my intention to have the OS serve as an engine of open source education, of peer to peer value and knowledge circulation.
Sitting down at my computer so many years ago I would have never imagined that in the following five years I would be able to curate and gather 150 essays from so many gifted poets — ranging from students to award winning stars of the craft, from the US and abroad — to join in this effort. But I’m so so glad that this has come to be.
Enjoy! And share widely.
– Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, Managing Editor/Series Curator [/box]


 Guglielmo Alberto Wladimiro Alessandro Apollinare de Kostrowitzky, aka Guillaume Apollinaire, with his fiancee, Madeleine Pagès, in 1916.
Guglielmo Alberto Wladimiro Alessandro Apollinare de Kostrowitzky, aka Guillaume Apollinaire, with his fiancee, Madeleine Pagès, in 1916.

[line][script_teaser]If you’re fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of Paris (or New York for that matter) as a young person, you will live this poem intimately if you pay attention. Society has proven unpredictable for him, and this poem is a reflection of that unpredictability, he morphs reality ever so slightly, he defines surrealism. [/script_teaser]
I fell in love with the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire because he was no bullshit and I appreciated that. My favorite writers have traditionally been the ones who entirely, honestly show me how they see and exist in the world. This is the main, very simple, reason I initially came to love the poetry and writings of Guillaume Apollinaire. A man whose life straddled the 19th and 20th centuries, born in Rome, Italy, he was raised in France and passionately considered himself a Frenchman. His writing is at once vulnerable and playful, yet he remains secure in his assertions.
In Paris the Symbolists and the avant-garde influenced him, and just a year before the First World War began, he published his influential collection of poetry: Alcools (1913). This is the first collection of his I came across as a teenager while researching other early 20th century French poets, and it is the collection that has influenced my writing and reasoning the most. It is not only Apollinaire’s enthusiasm and frankness that attract me to his poetry, but his uses of pronouns in natural discourse that encompasses and addresses the personal as well as the collective in “Zone” specifically (although he plays with this to great success and astonishment elsewhere).
“Zone” is his masterpiece, for many of us, in part because it doesn’t need to tell you it is – its existence suffices. I came across Apollinaire out of chance, which seems to fit. He was not a poet I studied in any of the courses I took as a high school student in a lycée in France or even at a university in Canada where I was limited to: Cocteau, Céline, Prévert, Colette, Sarraute, and Camus. We spent the entirety of grade 11 reading J-P Sartre, and J-J Rousseau in my French class. While both men’s enlightened musings seemed at first irrelevant to my female teenage life, they introduced me to a literature that didn’t tell me how to feel, but one that introduced me to how these people interacted with their thoughts and their world; thus readying my mind for Apollinaire and eventually my ability to trust and vocalize own perceptions. “Zone” is a poem that takes you on a journey through the modern world, it is a blueprint for how to map out experiences, valuing a seemingly random, surreal order that echoes that of the very world he occupied.
Oddly enough, since I became an Apollinaire aficionada as a teenager, I continuously return to him with the same care and ease as I do older relatives who live in Western Europe, who I don’t see regularly. There’s a familiarity that is unique between people who should be strangers, and it’s this sensation of being surprisingly known and knowing that I get with reading “Zone”.  From the very first line, the reader is paying attention because our mortality is on the line: “À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancient” (In the end you are tired of this ancient world). At the beginning of the poem he’s placed an exit you refuse to take since it’s an entrance into the Modern world of the poem, or, rather it’s your entrance since he uses “tu” (second person singular). Here’s your world, take it or leave it.
I should confess, my reading of the poem is in its original French and as such, I can’t help but be sidetracked a bit by the pronouns, which have always stood out to me in “Zone”. Of course there is much scholarship around the poem’s relevance to Modernity and vice versa, but that’s never been of great influence or concern to me. Perhaps this is a meditation on pronouns “je”, “tu”, and “vous” – first person singular, second person singular and third person singular, respectfully. When one uses “tu” (second person singular) it’s as if they’re looking a person in the eye; this could be a friend, family member, or anyone else you would speak to informally using eye contact. “Vous” on the other hand, is used for anyone one wouldn’t talk to at eye level. This is only reserved for professors, employers, clergymen, the Queen, and anyone with a professional/social rank above the speaker; but it can also be used to create distance from someone one does not see eye to eye with. It should be noted that one does not move between “tu” and “vous” fluidly in speaking or writing, but, over time, there is an innate sense for which one to use and when. Apollinaire also uses first person singular, “je”, which places him right there alongside you, dear reader, as you wander around and wonder at Paris and the Modern world it exists in. You both (“je” and “tu” or I and you) exist in this Paris, feel nostalgic about things in the near and distant past, had a childhood, went to church, and now hear the buzzing of planes overhead together. This is brotherhood and it has value in the modern world, just as it did in the past. There is the sense of waking up to the Modernity, an urgency to not simply let things happen around you, but to be a part of them.
Apollinaire discusses the present world using Paris and it’s artists as they stand among him; he attaches pastoral sentiment and remarks on the changes he sees without altering them tremendously, playing and constantly seeing things on the surface and reacting both superficially and profoundly. Modernism encourages this superficiality, but also requires more depth, especially with the war and its machines on the horizon. He observes himself (“je”) and a dear friend (“tu”) for most of the poem. One of my favorite stanzas comes in halfway through the poem:

“Maintenant tu marches dans Paris tout seul parmi la foule
Des troupeaux d’autobus mugissants près de toi roulent
L’angoisse de l’amour te serre le gosier
Comme si tu ne devais jamais plus être aimé
Si tu vivais dans l’ancien temps tu entrerais dans un monastère
Vous avez honte quand vous vous surprenez à dire une prière
Tu te moques de toi et comme le feu de l’Enfer ton rire pétille
Les étincelles de ton rire dorent le fond de ta vie
C’est un tableau pendu dans un sombre musée
Et quelquefois tu vas la regarder de près”


There is something largely relatable in each of these lines. How often I have felt a fool walking around a city, knowing completely that I am alone, and yet, there is an audience. The audience won’t love me, but it is watching and judging nonetheless. What is their use? What is mine? The last couplet is what truly haunts, and it is also precisely what Apollinaire himself is doing with the writing of this poem – he is looking in at the portrait of his life hung in a sombre place that houses artefacts. A thing we occasionally do when we have the time, strength, or both – purposefully look in on ourselves.
I continually return to this poem with the same curiosity and certainty that there is an unturned stoned or a metaphor that has meant one thing suddenly means another to me because of a shift in perception or an rebalancing of morals – who can say? Today there are at least two years standing between me my last reading of “Zone”; of course, the poem takes a new shape. [You’ve gone and done it again, Guillaume.]
Indeed, Apollinaire’s main focus here is a meditation on Modernity and the modern city as a contact zone, a place of infinite potential, a per-war frenzy post l’age d’or opulence. For him, the Industrial Revolution is in full swing and Haussmann’s vision of Paris is near completion. In “Zone” Apollinaire straddles the space and time. What I find difficult are the parts that relate to me the most, the nostalgic past needs letting go and the beautiful, filthy present must be consciously experienced for us to have any control over our lives. This poem reminds me, in my own life, that inaction or indecision is still a decision. For Apollinaire and those who make up “Zone” one must learn the new walk of Modernity in that very moment, while it is being defined, lest they turn bitter and be left behind. The well-travelled, Italian born Apollinaire urges his fellow artists, countrymen, and maybe even more generally Europe forward via acute awakenings of their daily life. At the end of the poem, one get’s the idea that what he’s been going on about is that while the past exists, it can’t control the here and now. The past is alive where it still serves (in the past), but, let us be part of this horrifying and stunning present world that is changing at the speed of light.
At times “Zone” has felt like a letter home, a journal entry, as a marker of time for Apollinaire and his friends as they, with nostalgia, let go of the past through this meditation on it’s tender moments – the church will come with us, and knows more about what occupies the sky than our airplanes. Apollinaire goes from addressing the Pope (AKA “L’Européen le plus modern”) very formally using “vous” to the churches relation to him and his friends who use may go to confession, but they spend their days concerned with writing and reading.


“Et toi que les fenêtres observent la honte te retient
D’entrer dans une église et de t’y confesser ce matin
Tu lis les prospectus les catalogues les affiches qui chantent tout haut
Voilà la poésie ce matin et pour la prose il y a les journaux
Il y a les livraisons à 25 centimes pleines d’aventures policières
Portraits des grands hommes et mille titres divers
J’ai vu ce matin une jolie rue dont j’ai oublié le nom”

Here he elevates newspapers to poetry and the memorable thing he has forgotten; thus drawing our attention to the fact that it’s not the place where one experiences beauty that’s relevant, his focus is on the experience of the beautiful street. It is quotidian happenings like this keep this poem timeless for me because, really, he is mentioning the grit of life, which must have value – it’s how I (and many others) spend the days of life. This is reminiscent of the New York School. One need only look to O’Hara or Ashbery to see what people did with this idea of elevating and profoundly questioning the quotidian present lay bare beside the past. And before them, Apollinaire wrote about his friends and their excursions:


Maintenant tu es au bord de la Méditerranée
Sous les citronniers qui sont en fleur toute l’année
Avec tes amis tu te promènes en barque
L’un est Nissard il y a un Mentonasque et deux Turbiasques
Nous regardons avec effroi les poulpes des profondeurs
Et parmi les algues nagent les poissons images du Sauveur

Here he uses second person singular “you”/“tu”, who is on board a boat in the Mediterranean but then says “we”/”nous” see the savior in the fish at the bottom of the sea. You are on the boat, but we all see the very Holy thing happening in the water. Why do I love these crazy pronoun shifts so much? I don’t know but I think it has something to do with the ability to experience things we aren’t present for, to be with those we love at all times.
And I really could go on pointing out stimulating images or experiences by one of the many people who seem to occupy this poem, but I urge you to read the poem and, if you write, to use a variety of vague pronouns in your own poetry. Additionally, if you’ve only ever read the English translations (there is a rich bevvy of translations at your disposal – David Lehman’s is at the bottom), you’ve known no better than to wonder about who the “you” was – singular or plural? It does shift, and it’s when he addresses things related to the church do we read the formal “vous”. The second person singular “you” is very tender and the “je” (I) even more tenderly understands, loves, sees, offers the “tu” and the entire world he mentions.
The first, happening every presently “today”:
Aujourd’hui tu marches dans Paris les femmes sont ensanglantées
C’était et je voudrais ne pas m’en souvenir c’était au déclin de la beauté
Entourée de flammes ferventes Notre-Dame m’a regardé à Chartres
Le sang de votre Sacré-Coeur m’a inondé à Montmartre
Je suis malade d’ouïr les paroles bienheureuses
L’amour dont je souffre est une maladie honteuse
Et l’image qui te possède te fait survivre dans l’insomnie et dans l’angoisse
And of course the final 20 lines are the peak of the crescendo of the poem, when the images shatter, each line its own stanza, its own meditation:

Tu es la nuit dans un grand restaurant
Ces femmes ne sont pas méchantes elles ont des soucis cependant
Toutes même la plus laide a fait souffrir son amant
Elle est la fille d’un sergent de ville de Jersey
Ses mains que je n’avais pas vues sont dures et gercées
J’ai une pitié immense pour les coutures de son ventre
J’humilie maintenant à une pauvre fille au rire horrible ma bouche
Tu es seul le matin va venir
Les laitiers font tinter leurs bidons dans les rues
La nuit s’éloigne ainsi qu’une belle Métive
C’est Ferdine la fausse ou Léa l’attentive
Et tu bois cet alcool brûlant comme ta vie
Ta vie que tu bois comme une eau-de-vie
Tu marches vers Auteuil tu veux aller chez toi à pied
Dormir parmi tes fétiches d’Océanie et de Guinée
Ils sont des Christ d’une autre forme et d’une autre croyance
Ce sont les Christ inférieurs des obscures espérances
Adieu Adieu

It’s a roll-call of experiences that ends in the death of the sun, preceded by a superstitious phrase a French citizen would only say to someone they have no intention of seeing again in this life. “Adieu” is reserved for enemies and those near death, and here Apollinaire says it twice. This roll-call encapsulates his Modern life: Church – check, boulevards of Paris – check, suffering women – check, nostalgia for childhood and innocent past – check, awkward acceptance of Modernity – check, filth, dawn, blue collar workers, immigrants, beauty, death, violence – yes to all of it, And these things that he experiences, we all do to some capacity in our lives. If you’re fortunate enough to live in the vicinity of Paris (or New York for that matter) as a young person, you will live this poem intimately if you pay attention. Society has proven unpredictable for him, and this poem is a reflection of that unpredictability, he morphs reality ever so slightly, he defines surrealism.
Things can be grim and beautiful in this day-to-day living in a city constantly changing at a time that doesn’t wholly make sense. Apollinaire has taught me that you can describe your own pulse while you search for another. And we are all entitled to voice our observations and experiences as we search and live, exist and pray though this occasionally drab existence. Guillaume Apollinaire doesn’t reflect the times, but remarks on and discusses what happens when you digest the times (a true gourmand). He’s not just watching, he’s consuming life to live it. There is a confessional sentiment we find in other early 20th century French writings, this idea that one is the child of the society that raised it, as such one cannot but be an honest likeness. Guillaume Apollinaire can’t help but exist as he does at the time and place in which he exists, and for me, he encourages me to be so frighteningly, undistracted and present.
A link to David Lehman’s recent translation:
A link to the original (French) text:
[textwrap_image align=”left”][/textwrap_image] Ashleigh Allen is a Canadian poet and teacher who was raised in Toronto and grew up in New York City.
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