Or, Procession of Orpheus
X. J. Kennedy, Translator
(Johns Hopkins University Press)The Bestiary was Apollinaire's first published set of poems; in fact, his first published anything outside of art criticism and some gummy pornography that he produced when he ran out of money ... (A Young Don Juan's Memoirs, 11,000 Strokes). Picasso who probably was no literary critic thought 11,000 Strokes to be "Apollinaire's finest work."
The twenty-six animals in The Bestiary get four or five lines each, plus a woodcut by Raoul Dufy. Despite the translator's kind words, the poems are really not worth writing home about, being somewhat childish (as all good bestiary poems should be). For instance, "Cat"
I hope I may have in my house,Le chat
A sensible right-minded spouse,
A cat stepping over the books,
Loyal friends always about
Whom I couldn't live without.
Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis de toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peut pas vivre.
§ § §
Outside these homely verses, there are Dufy's woodcuts. They are thick, gorgeous, perfectly enclosed, sinuous and whimsical. The book design is obviously a work of love ... leisurely, exquisite. Poems set on the left-hand side; woodcuts are centered to the right, the whole being bound with lavish care.
We've been entranced over the years with the works of X. J. Kennedy, and, outside of merely translating, we detect his fine hand in this fine morsel. It's a book to love, a treasure-trove for people who care too much for great woodcuts, plus cats, dolphins, doves, and rabbits --- not to say grasshoppers, flies or fleas ("Fleas --- friends, even lovers, / How cruel are those who suck / Our blood in loving us, and those / Best loved are out of luck.")
Apollinaire almost got his friend Picasso to illustrate the original edition (one sketch is included in the frontispiece). Thank the muses that the artist opted out. Picasso's animals shown here feel protean, stunted, uninspired. Dufy's cuts on the other hand are gorgeous, make the whole worth it, make life worth it. Fleas, jellyfish, carp, whales and all. [See cunning rabbit below.]
--- A. W. Allworthy