“Mon Cher Apollinaire”: Jordan A. Rothacker’s Death Day Letter to the Father of Surrealism

Criticism: Jordan A. Rothacker

November 9, 2018

Mon Cher Apollinaire,

It has been one hundred years to this day since you left us. Since I was a young Joycean—a generally weird-bookish-kid who at seventeen joined the International James Joyce Foundation, wrestling with angels and giants beyond his grasp and understanding—I have found your name intriguing, your poem “Zone” enchanting, and yet your mystique impenetrable. Of you, Apollinaire, I assumed a symbolist maybe, some modernist likely, some French poet liked by those I liked … but I never plumbed deeper than my superficial assumptions and for two decades you directly haunted me with only one image from “Zone”: the Eiffel Tower as a shepherd herding the bridges of Paris … Bergère ô tour Eiffel le tropeau des ponts bêle ce matin (or in Samuel Beckett’s translation, “This morning the bridges are bleating Eiffel Tower oh herd”).

I’ve been reading you for only a few years, reading all of you finally, and I realize I’ve known you all along. You have been waiting for me, just out of reach in a shadowy horizon of the Bardo through which we all commune. For twenty years your voice has called back to me from this future. For twenty years the past has been waiting.

What were you? That should be obvious. You were me, and everything I want to be. You were an artist, a writer, the writer. Mortally dead at thirty-eight, you left an oeuvre, a true corpus, a slippery body of work to wrestle, an angel unto itself. You were a body-builder, and this body is the product of work. The hell with charges of dilettantism and naïve autodidacticism, you tutored wealthy children and published works of graphic pornography, because hey it’s a wicked life but what the hell everybody’s got to eat and I don’t know which of those gigs is less desirable (I do actually, I’ve taught the privileged). The anatomy of your writerly attributes—smut-peddler, short-storyist, poet, novelist, dramatist, essayist, art critic—shows breadth, but the depth sinews each part together. When I behold the body in its parts I shudder, I awe, I think, I arouse, I weep, and I smile. There is no higher honor, there is no greater role.

You were born Apollinaire, but the name they gave you was Wilhelm Albert Włodzimierz Apolinary Kostrowicki. You’ve been described as Polish, but in the Great War you earned with blood (and death-deferred) your citizenship to “France, the guardian of the whole secret of civilization.”

You, like Ovid, another Orphic poet of love and life, looked back to look forward. In the poem “Procession” you tell us how you built yourself out of your past:

The procession passed and I looked in it for my body
All these turned up and were not myself
Brought one by one the pieces of myself
They built me little by little as a tower is raised
The people heaped themselves up and I appeared myself
Who was formed of all the bodies and all the human things

The past the Dead The gods who created me
I live to move on as you yourselves have lived
And turning from the future’s emptiness
I watch within me all the past arise

I didn’t realize how I had made myself until you described your method. It me, I declared in the parlance of my time, and then epigraphed my next book, Gristle, with those last four lines above.

Your Bestiary evoked the Orphic tradition, the tradition of Hermes Trismegistus, thrice-great and undyingly prophetic. Like Ovid, like Maawaam, you understood your place in time: the poet, the shadow man, the handmaiden of civilization. Like a modern Adam, you gave name to forms created by gods. Surrealism and the Orphic, ever-present and eternal, only needed your nomenclature. Your relationship to time and your time in particular especially amazed Jorge Louis Borges. In his essay, “The Paradox of Apollinaire,” Borges wrote of you, “Although he lived his days among the baladins of Cubism and Futurism, he was not a modern man. He was somewhat less complex and more happy, more ancient, and stronger. (He was so unmodern that modernity seemed picturesque, and perhaps even moving, to him.) He was the ‘winged and sacred thing’ of Platonic dialogue; he was a man of elemental and, therefore, eternal feelings; he was, when the fundaments of earth and sky shook, the poet of ancient courage and ancient honor.” I think Borges saw some of himself in you and you in himself, as I do. This is most likely a reason why many of us who love you love you.

As anomalous it seems to be an artist so of, and yet outside of, their time, today I find it in a handful of my colleagues, peers, and betters (better angels). If only you could read such multi-faceted (and mindful of the past) contemporary American writers as Anne Carson, Teju Cole, Toni Morrison, and William T. Vollmann. I find the four of them difficult to designate with our ever-flawed genres and critical categorizations; which is another aspect of what makes them so great, so important, and so similar to you.

You’ve been hailed as an impresario of the arts for your time and this might be a serious point where you diverge from the writers I’ve just mentioned. Carson, Cole, Morrison, and Vollmann all comment on their time period with perspectives generously rooted in the past, even ancient past, but your active and diligent work has little precedent when considered against how much of your own work you still had time to produce. As an art critic you were a booster of friends, but when we acknowledge that your friends were Picasso, Braque, and Modigliani (to name a few biggies), it’s hard to level the charge of nepotism. You applauded the Futurists because you realized that in the arts—and for the artist—the future is now. (Maybe this is where Borges finds you to view the modern as picturesque). Moreover, defying the notion of the alienated flâneur or the tortured artist/novelist alone in a garret, shivering, hungry, but inspired, you embraced collaboration, brotherhoods, and art as the basis of community. I still reel from historic magnitude of “Parade,” the ballet/performance piece for which you wrote the program, Jean Cocteau wrote the libretto, Pablo Picasso did the sets, Léonide Massine did choreography, Erik Satie composed the music, and Sergei Diaghilev provided the Ballets Russes.

It is hard for me then to think of a total equivalent to you for my time, or any time after your own. Warhol is the closest, maybe. However, other than your Calligrams, you were not a visual artist, but you understood visual arts and through your skill as a writer, a critic, you bring the most important works and artists of your time to life for us today. Warhol gave us a philosophy of art and you gave us, shortly before your death, the essay-manifesto-prophecy, “The New Spirit and The Poets (L’Esprit Nouveau et les Poètes).” What is this New Spirit of which you spoke? We can describe the phantasmagoric and ephemeral by what it does, not how it appears, and this spirit, “strives further to inherit from the Romantics a curiosity which will incite it to explore all the domains suitable for furnishing literary subject matter which will permit life to be exalted in whatever form it occurs.” You gave us a noble and antiquated goal that we deeply, deeply suffer for in our current cultural and political condition: “To explore truth, to search for it.”

I feel this New Spirit in my fingers mashing these keys. The pain of truth cuts my fingers on smooth plastic, environmentally destructive plastic attached to a machine (technology that once excited you) made by slave labor in China utilizing minerals mined by slaves in the Congo tortured still by King Leopold’s ghost.

You thought this technology would set us free: “one can predict the day when, the photograph and the cinema having become the only form of publication in use, the poet will have a freedom heretofore unknown.” Maybe that day is still to come; you were right about so much else. Moreover the place of the poet in building the future is a hallowed and cherished position for you. “Poets will be charged finally with giving by means of lyric teleologies and arch-lyric alchemies a constantly purer meaning to the idea of divinity, which is so alive within us, which is perpetual renewal of ourselves, that eternal creation, that endless rebirth by which we live,” you say. You put much pressure on us poets, but the new spirit is worth ferrying: “The new spirit is above all the enemy of estheticism, of formulae, and of cultism. It attacks no school whatever, for it does not wish to be a school, but rather one of the great currents of literature encompassing all schools since symbolism and naturalism. It fights for the reestablishment of the spirit of initiative, for the clear understanding of its time, and for the opening of new vistas on the exterior and interior universes which are not inferior to those which scientists of all categories discover every day and from which they extract endless marvels.” I get chills when I write your words back to you and also think of J.G. Ballard and his exploration of inner landscapes; so many since your passing have heard your clarion call.

Oh, but “Zone,” how often I return to “Zone,” in which you take the flanêur of Baudelaire and Rimbaud (and even Cendrars with his “Easter in New York”) into 20th Century modernity (or post-modernity, for some) paving the way for the Situationists’ drift walking, Sinclair’s psychogeography, and everyone inspired by each of these points up to Rebecca Solnit’s recent praise of walking. In “Zone” the city is a living thing for you and everything matters. The urban is a cosmos with all parts necessary and contingent. You listened and suggested I listen too. The greatest literary value that you found in my country was Edgar Allan Poe and Walt Whitman—producers of verse on which I was raised and nourished—who also marveled at the modern and took to hoofing its boulevards and alleyways.

In your family’s coat of arms, a serpent holds an apple in its mouth and wears a crown upon its head. You forwent the Kostrowicki name for the more godly, Apollinaire. However, you lived your crest. An artist of royal aristocracy, you ate and offered the sweetest sinful fruit of knowledge.

Oh, and I must confess, I read your letters to Madeleine that you sent during the War. History has granted you the great reward of intrusion, nakedness bare in text for all the world to read. The letters have meant something to me, that you should know. I have shuddered at your ability to capture your love for her and to cope with the horror and destruction of war through an undying love and focus on Madeleine back home. “I adore your desire and the spiritual voluptuousness that we both feel so acutely … Voluptuousness thrills every atom of my being,” you told her amid more graphic delights. Ultimately it didn’t work out for you and Madeleine; she was not the one. Like you, I have married a jolie rousse. My Jessica, like your Jacqueline, a conquering goddess who’s “hair is really gold … a flash of lightning which endures / Or flames which dance a proud pavane.”

I always miss you, dear friend, and it is always good to catch up. I promise not to take another hundred years before I write you again.

Ave atque vale,

Jordan Albert Rothacker

Jordan A. Rothacker is a poet, novelist, and essayist living in Athens, Georgia, where he earned a Master’s in Religion and a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. His journalism has appeared in periodicals as diverse as Vegetarian Times and International Wristwatch, while his fiction, poetry, reviews, and essays can be found in such illustrious venues as Red River Review, Dark Matter, Dead Flowers, Stone Highway Review, May Day, As It Ought to Be, The Exquisite Corpse, The Believer, Bomb Magazine, and Guernica. For book length work check out Rothacker’s The Pit, and No Other Stories (Black Hill Press, 2015), and novella (or “micro-epic” as he calls it) and his first full-length novel, And Wind Will Wash Away (Deeds Publishing, 2016). He edited Maawaam’s My Shadow Book (Spaceboy Books, 2017), loves sandwiches (a category in which he classifies pizza and tacos), and debating taxonomy almost as much as he loves his wife, his son, his dogs, and his cat, Whiskey. A collection of weird tales, Gristle, is forthcoming from Stalking Horse Press.

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