Apollinaire was an imp. A self proclaimed rakehell. Coiner of cubism, orphism, surrealism.
A poet, playwright, artist, erotic novelist, journalist, art critic, gourmand.
A soldier returned from the war.
Not many have attempted his mastery of this literary art form since he died in the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, aged just 38.
I love all of the Apollinaire calligrammes, but my favorite is Il Pleut. It’s Raining. A rivulet of letters slanting down the page.
It’s raining women’s voices as if they had died even in memory
And it’s raining you as well marvellous encounters of my life O little
Injured during World War I, like so many Apollinaire returned from battle not the same.
But his prolific creative output continued and when he died so swiftly and unbelievably, the artists and literati of Paris – his friends – walked alongside Apollinaire’s funeral coach for his interment at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, known as the City of the Dead.
Writer J. Peréz-Jorba described Apollinaire’s sudden loss to those close to him, and to the arts, and to France.
The flu had seized him and in the space of only six days had made mincemeat of his robust body. Apollinaire had been wounded twice at the front: one bullet perforated his lung and another struck him in the head. He had to be trepanned. But the song continued to flow in serious spurts from the fountain in the garden of his heart. Until the hour of his death.
We attended Guillaume Apollinaire’s funeral. A few birds were chirping in the sunlight. Only ten days before we had spoken with the great poet in Excelsior’s editorial offices. Now we were following his coffin, with an infantry lieutenant’s peaked cap on top, among an iridescent cascade of flowers. The flowers of his poems were dropping their petals in our minds.
I had long wished to visit the grave of Apollinaire in Division 86 of the Père Lachaise, home to several million souls including many more famous than him: Proust, Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde, Colette, Maria Callas, Jim Morrison.
And so I found myself there.
Heavy rain had made the cemetery’s cobblestoned paths treacherous.
Between downpours we sheltered, despite the lightning, beneath the canopy of one of its 5,000 ancient oak, ash, maple, plane, acacia and hazelnut trees.
Our cheap umbrellas blew inside out, but finally the rain gave way to drizzle, and we soon found the tranquil plot where Apollinaire and his widow, Jacqueline, are buried together.
Although he died a century ago, Apollinaire is still well loved, and his grave is still well tended, adorned with trinkets, flowers, and slivers of blue and green sea glass.
I had brought no flowers or trinkets, so my gifts were practical: remembrance, appreciation, and plucking the weeds beneath his tombstone.
As we prepared to leave, a woman wearing lofty espadrilles and a gauzy dress walked up the slurried cobblestones to exit the cemetery, but her ankles twisted in her flimsy footwear.
She was lucky not to fall.
She stopped, tried again, slipped, tried again. Again … again … again.
We moved to help but she gracefully reached down to untie the ribbons of her shoes, removing them and stepping lightly past rows of tombs and sarcophagi, through the old gates and into the wet streets of Paris.
We followed, stopping at a nearby bakery for a pastry.
My hands were gritty from pulling Apollinaire’s weeds.
I wondered whether it was bad luck to eat a croissant with fingers that had so recently touched the earth surrounding the dead.
I decided I didn’t care.
I ate the pastry, and licked the crumbs from my palms.
Then we returned to our little hotel on the Boulevard Voltaire where I doodled words into the shapes of Paris landmarks and thought about the deceptive simplicity of Il Pleut.
It was indeed raining in Paris, and that afternoon I dreamed of rivulets of words trickling down the page.
Of Apollinaire, the naughty imp, coiner of artistic terms and movements, creator of the modern calligramme.
As far as we know, there are no Minnesota calligrammes.
But our landmarks would make fetching poetic images, would they not?
A loon, a bald eagle, a farm silo, a Wobegone Trail bicycle.
A walleye, the Big and Little Dippers, a Dairy Queen cone, the Freeport water tower.
We’ll get to work on these and more here at LenaMina.com