Friday, November 4, 2016

Nothing Much

Apollinaire (wounded)
The French soldier Guillaume Apollinaire was thirty-five when he volunteered for military service in December of 1914. Born as the illegitimate son of a Russo-Polish woman who lived in Rome's Vatican, Apollinaire moved to Paris in his twenties, was arrested (wrongly) for the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre, and counted among his artist friends and collaborators Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, Gertrude Stein, and Pablo Picasso. In both his life and art, Apollinaire was a freethinking, bohemian adventurer.

In a poem written shortly after war broke out, Apollinaire wrote, “Nations hurled together so they might learn to know one another,” and as poet Tony Hoagland remarks, “Apollinaire's definition of war as a kind of terrible blind date is comic, cosmic, and, on one level, terribly true.”* Restless and intense, Apollinaire's poem “Nothing much” (in French, “Peu de chose”) races from thought to thought with the rapidity of machine-gun fire, mirroring the surreal nature of everyday life in a war zone.

Nothing Much                                                      Peu de chose

How many d’you reckon we’ve killed                    Combien qu’on a pu en tuer
Christ                                                                  Ma foi
It’s weird it doesn’t affect us                                 C’est drôle que ça ne vous fasse rien
Christ                                                                  Ma foi
A slab of chocolate for our German friends Une tablette de chocolat aux Boches
Fire by Christ                                                      Ma foi Feu
A camembert for their gunners                              Un camembert pour le logis aux Boches
Fire by Christ                                                      Ma foi Feu
Each time you say fire! the word                           Chaque fois que tu dis feu! Le mot
      becomes steel that explodes far off                      se change en acier qui éclate là-bas
Christ                                                                 Ma foi
Take cover                                                          Abritez-vous
Christ                                                                 Ma foi
Kra                                                                     Kra
The bastards are answering back                           Ils répondent les salauds
Strange language by Christ                                  Drôle de langage ma foi

           --Guillaume Apollinaire, trans. Martin Sorrell

The poem begins with a casual question, tossed over the shoulder to a comrade while staring at the enemy’s trenches, or perhaps muttered over a shared cigarette during an artillery barrage. Almost immediately, the conversation is interrupted by the cry of “Christ,” the name both an obscenity and a prayer, its contradictory meanings simultaneously true. Under fire, men experience multiple moments in a heartbeat, and diverse realties clash in sudden violence.

Stereoscopic photo
The tone of the poem is jumpy and uneven, mimicking the jerky movements of soldiers in early silent films and the twitching nerves that come from living under shellfire. The abrupt shifts in thought also reflect the men’s sense of chaos and dislocation. With nearly all punctuation removed from the poem, normal coherence and meaning making are also a struggle. Both the poem and the war have created an uncertain and ever-changing world.

Although constantly interrupted, the French soldiers reflect upon the ways the war is affecting their psyches: even as they kill countless other men, they curiously note that nothing seems to have changed, either in the war or in themselves. The men toy with the idea of offering chocolate and camembert to their German enemies, perhaps recalling the spontaneous exchange of food and drink during the Christmas Truce of 1914. And yet interrupting the consideration of these gift is the order, “Fire, by Christ!”  Any imagined reconciliation with the enemy is disrupted by the sharing of an altogether different kind of gift that is blasted into the lines of the German ‘friends.’ The command – fire! – is itself a weapon as “the word becomes steel that explodes far off.” Each blast of artillery begins with language, and in this war, words are twisted and used to prolong the suffering. It is no wonder that even a casual conversation between soldiers is shot through with uneasy tension.
French war poster

The Germans “answer back” in this strange language of war. Up and down the Front, the guns speak with their own voices, often drowning out the whispers, muttered curses, and talk of the soldiers. Cannons roar, rifles bark, and nothing can be heard above the answering volley of the enemy’s fire. A strange language indeed.

Perhaps most unsettling is the poem’s title, “Nothing much,” or in the French, “Peu de chose.” The title makes light of the horrors of war, proclaiming that they are, after all, “nothing much.” Perhaps the greatest violence done to the men is that they have been made numb to the terror and death that surround them.

* Tony Hoagland, “I Seem to Be at a Great Feast: The War Poems of Guillaume Apollinaire,” American Poetry Review, July/August 2014.

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