The Bestiary, Guillaume Apollinaire (translated by Martin Sorrell)
Arc Publications, 2022 £7.00
The poet in the animals
This is a translation of Apollinaire’s first published book, made up of very short (four or five line) poems, described on the back as ‘verse sketches of beasts, fish, birds and insects, together with their guide and mentor, Orpheus’.
It’s interesting to me how many of the poems aren’t just sketches of the named subject, but also reflect on Apollinaire’s own life. These references are understandably pretty glancing, given how short the poems are, but Sorrell’s helpful notes draw out the implications. For example, ‘The Tibetan Goat’, in its entirety, reads as follows:
The hairs of that goat and even
Those which Jason won at such
A cost are as nothing set against
The head of hair I love so much.
The notes explain:
The woman implied in line 4 is Marie Laurencin, the young painter Apollinaire was smitten with at the time. Possibly she was flattered by the comparison of her hair with the Golden Fleece, possibly less so by having it likened to a goat’s.
I like the way that you get a sense of the translator’s personality, too, through asides like this. The original poems appear opposite the translations, so readers can observe the formal choices made by both Apollinaire and the translator.
‘The Snake’ lists mythical women who have been ‘victims’ of the animal, with the last line hinting at Apollinaire’s own conquests. It ends:
Cleopatra, Eve, Eurydice ...
I could name another two or three.
‘The Cat’ gives a sense of his domestic side: ‘I want in my house / A woman of sound reason / A cat among my books’, whereas ‘The Octopus’ perhaps suggests both indiscriminate seducer and poet, with charmingly ambiguous braggadocio/repentance:
Throwing its ink at the sky
Sucking blood from what it likes
And finding it so very tasty,
This inhuman monster’s Yours Truly.
A few poems cut by Apollinaire for being too risqué are included at the end of this edition, giving a further insight into his thinking.
For me, the main pleasure of the collection is these glimpses of the human face peeping out from the bestiary.
Ramona Herdman, 17 September 2022