Blaise Cendrars The Capilano Review and Samoyed Dogs

Cendrars 2 Don’t you love titles like that?  Nobody knows what you’re talking about and there’s too many words.  Let’s just move on.  But I had this urge, you see, for reasons that will quickly be explained, to come again after many a day to the Capilano Review, to acquire the most recent issue of this venerable and usually quite interesting, high-concept, well edited and, hopefully, well-funded publication that should always do well.

I was intrigued recently when, I can’t remember just how, I learned that the Capilano Review was publishing a story on French writers of the early 20th Century who had mentioned “Vancouver”, the city, in their writings.  You know, in their stuff.  In their writings.

I knew about Blaise Cendrars because he’s one of the reasons this blog exists.  Of course it exists.  He wrote a poem called “Vancouver”.  He wrote it when Vancouver was, like, young.  Cendrars too.  I didn’t know that Apollinaire had written a poem that also mentions Vancouver.  Or that Marcel Thiry, a Belgian poet, a guy, I must admit, I’ve never heard of, also wrote a poem around the same time as Cendrars and Apollinaire that mentions Vancouver.  And it’s all here in the Spring 2014 Capilano Review article “Colin Browne & Ian Wallace / A conversation”.  I know I know.  It’s not spring anymore.  What’s your point?  It’s a great article..  Really enjoyed it.  There’s a couple of questions though.  Of course there are.  But first this:


VIII.  Vancouver

Ten P.M. has just struck barely heard through the thick fog
that muffles the docks and the ships in the harbour
The wharfs are deserted and the town is wrapped in sleep
You stroll along a low sandy shore swept by an icy wind
and the long billows of the Pacific
That lurid spot in the dank darkness is the station of the
Canadian Grand Trunk
And those bluish patches in the wind are the liners
bound for the Klondike Japan and the West Indies
It is so dark that I can hardly make out the signs
in the streets where hugging a heavy suitcase
I am looking for a cheap hotel

Everyone is on board
The oarsmen are bent on their oars and the heavy craft
loaded to the brim plows through the high waves
A small hunchback at the helm checks the tiller
now and then
Adjusting his steering through the fog to the calls
of a foghorn
We bump against the dark bulk of the ship and on the
starboard quarter Samoyed dogs are climbing up
Flaxen in the gray-white-yellow
As if fog was being taken in freight

Okay members of the academy.  This translation is still my favorite and was written by Monique Chefdor.  I caught up with it a few years back in a volume published by The University of California Press.  Impressive.  The poem first appeared in the original French in 1924.  It was a poem Cendrars wrote before The Great War.  He lost his right forearm in that war.  I bet that hurt.

The Capilano article includes an admirable new translation by Mr. Colin Browne himself.  Nice job, but I still like Mme Chefdor’s for that image.  ‘Samoyed dogs are climbing up’.  ‘…grimpent des chiens samoyèdes…’  Got a nice beat to it.  samoyeddogs are climbing out.  Emerging, it might be, out of the fog.  Like this blog.  It gave me the idea for a name for this blog which I started some time ago for reasons now lost to me.

A fine article, as I say, although Messieurs Browne and Wallace put forth the canard that Monsieur Cendrars was never in Vancouver.  It’s a lie.  They claim he was never here, that he made the whole thing up and cribbed some of it from a French novel from the same period.  Let’s set the record straight.  Blaise Cendrars was in Vancouver.  I had coffee with him in the defunct Marr hotel café down near the waterfront before he sailed.  I’m lying.

Just a couple other things about this fine TCR piece.  Mr. Wallace, in the course of a not overly long article, employs the word “trope” four times and the equally regrettable “tropes” twice.  Mr. Browne uses the still regrettable word “trope” once.  Mr. Wallace employs the even more regrettable word “meme” mercifully but once.  Meme is not a manly word.  It impresses nobody and in fact fogs things up.  It never sharpens the focus.  Get it the heck out of here.

I was surprised to see Mr. Browne misquoting his own translation of “Vancouver” stating at one point in the conversation that the passengers in the boat are being rowed out to the ship by a “little hunchback”.  Again, not true.  The hunchback is on the tiller as the poem clearly states.  Wa.

Wa is a good word.  I think we should see it more often.

How it goes, bud?
How it goes, bud?

Thank you for the memories Blaise!  The “Normandie”, eh?  Nice job.







Author: Steven Brown


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