Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fading Post Cards

Postcard from Picasso to Apollinaire, 1918*
 War constantly reminds both soldiers and those who love them that life is short and change is constant.  The brief, six-line poem "Post Card," by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, delicately illustrates the beauty and terror of living moment to moment. 

Post Card

I write to you beneath this tent
A Star Shell, CW Nevinson
While summer day becomes a shade
And startling magnificent
Flowers of the cannonade
Stud the pale blue firmament
And before existing fade.
            Translated from the French by Oliver Bernard

Everything in the poem is fleeting: blink and you might miss the moment when twilight turns to night and the summer day becomes a "shade," a punning play on the two meanings of the word, evoking both evening shadows and ghosts. 

Like fireworks, artillery shells light the sky, startling in their unexpected flashes and in the magnificence of the air-born explosions.  Many soldiers wrote home and described the haunting beauty of the deadly shells; Apollinaire condenses the thought into a single image, comparing the cannonade to flowers in bloom. 

The brief poem doesn't march to a conclusion, but rather gently dies out: the illumination fades before it ever really existed.  Only two rhymes are used in the poem, and the poet is sparing even in his use of syllables:  the first three-lines contain eight syllables each, while the last three lines subside to only seven syllables.  It is as if the scene of the poem appears for only a second in the light of a candle before it is snuffed out.  Life in wartime is ephemeral, and ironically, the postcards written during the First World War have become collectible ephemera. 

Apollinaire mailed the poem "Post Card" to his friend Andre Rouveyre on August 20th, 1915.  Wounded by shrapnel in March of 1916, Apollinaire never fully recovered, and he died of the Spanish flu on November 9th, 1918, just two days before the war ended. 
Apollinaire, wounded 1916
*An actual postcard sent from Picasso to Apollinaire in 1918 was sold in June of 2015 for the record amount of $188,000.  Ironically, Apollinaire never received the postcard, and it was marked "return to sender." 


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