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Reviewed by:
  • Reading Apollinaire's 'Calligrammes' by Willard Bohn
  • Peter Read
Reading Apollinaire's 'Calligrammes'. By Willard Bohn. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. x + 260 pp., ill.

Forming a diptych with his Reading Apollinaire's 'Alcools' (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2017; reviewed in FS, 72 (2018), 297-98), Willard Bohn's latest book offers close readings of nineteen of the eighty-four poems in Calligrammes, aiming to cover 'almost all of the more demanding poems' in that complex collection (p. 1). The texts of all but one of the selected works are included in an Appendix, with Bohn's excellent translations. Part of the book's originality lies in it being, as Bohn says, 'a collective venture' (p. 2). Working from the critical bibliography established by Claude Debon in her 'Calligrammes' dans tous ses états (Vanves: Calliopées, 2008), supplemented with more recent research and English-language publications, and with the support of the interlibrary-loan staff at Illinois State University, Bohn has gathered and inspected a whole procession of responses to Calligrammes, from a 1920 article by Louis Aragon, through three generations of post-1950 scholarship, up to an Apollinaire exhibition catalogue from 2016 and various internet resources. Broaching his chosen poems individually, in their order of appearance in Calligrammes, Bohn quotes or encapsulates the views of other critics, which he contradicts or develops in his own meticulous commentaries. He often juxtaposes contrasting interpretations, leaving the reader to choose, or to retain them as equally viable possibilities. The result is a diverse, polyphonic, international, and ahistorical appreciation of the poems, faithful to the criss-crossing voices and spatio-temporal simultaneity that Apollinaire readily deployed, and appropriate to the multifaceted style of writing that Bohn defines as 'cubist poetry' (a label Apollinaire rejected). An automatic spellchecker also enriches the mix by giving us a soldier who serves as 'a foreword observer' (p. 125) and 'sapins' that become 'a thousand little fur trees' (p. 231). Bohn helpfully clarifies recondite words, phrases, and imagery favoured by Apollinaire, explaining underworld slang and military jargon and reproducing a painting from the Musée Carnavalet to show that the 'marchand de coco' who appears in 'Arbre' was an old-time, peripatetic street-vendor of hot tea in winter and liquorice water in summer. Readers may question certain of Bohn's assertions, asking whether the 'Poems of Peace and War' in Calligrammes really 'fall into two main groups: experimental poetry and war poetry' (p. 1), given that the pre-war and wartime poems are often equally daring and innovative. In the provocatively ironic 'L'Adieu du cavalier', do we really first encounter a 'silly young man' indulging in 'foolish talk' (p. 137)? Or a soldier who 'can hardly wait to engage in battle' (p. 135)? In 'Océan de terre', set in slimy, frontline trenches, does that long, slow line — 'Et puis nous sommes tant et tant à être nos propres fossoyeurs' — really show Apollinaire 'laughing up his sleeve as he pretends to dig his own grave' (p. 148)? Bohn both displays and stimulates debates and disagreements, confirming that there can be no 'final understanding' (p. 3) of these poems. Fortunately, as he writes in his substantial discussion of 'La Victoire', the penultimate poem of Calligrammes, '[w]here [End Page 626] there are multiple contradictions there are also multiple possibilities to explore and multiple opportunities to exploit' (p. 175).

Peter Read
University of Kent, Canterbury


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