The poets and the world war: “La guerre au Luxembourg” (“The War in the Luxembourg”) by Blaise Cendrars

Blaise Cendrars (1887 - 1961)
La Main coupée (“The Bloody Hand”) remains today a prominent novel among the books we inherited from the First World War, but we are not allowed to forget that Blaise Cendrars lent his name to a long poem that still today is a vivid example of what we could call his “amputated literature”. La guerre au Luxembourg (“The War in the Luxembourg”) is the poem he wrote in October 1916 after having lost his right hand in September 1915. Upon closer inspection this poem represents the first piece of literature he wrote after the injury and, unlike the aforementioned more popular novel that was published only after the end of the Second World War in 1946, this poem was published already during the war, in 1916, by Daniel Niestlé in 1,000 copies (with six drawings of Moïse Kisling, who volunteered and was injured like Cendrars during the combats of the Champagne offensive). Today the readers can easily find it in Du monde entier au cœur du monde. Poésies completes (“Complete Poems”, see the edition translated by Ron Padgett and with the foreword by Jay Bochner in the catalogue of University of California Press).

This poem is able to open a new chapter that touches delicately the world of infants and of their games in war time. Cendrars has just been wounded and brings his sons to the Parisian Luxembourg Garden where he finds some children playing war. The starting point and the headway of this poem is the contrast between the recent war experience of the poet and the ironical way of portraying the kids playing in the Luxembourg Garden. For each reader the strong impression is probably given by the strange contrast between the awareness of war and the self awareness of those kids on one side and the awareness of reality of battlefields where Blaise Cendrars was just wounded on the other side. Great example of his cubist poetry, “The War in the Luxembourg”, arrives as a sharp arrow to our ears. We invite you to read and discover these verses
at this link or in the above mentioned publication. Only a few words about the artist who lent his art to the first edition of this poem. Moïse Kisling is a Polish painter naturalized French in 1915. The analogies with Cendrars are evident: they were not born in France (Cendrars was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland), they became French later, they both fought in the French army and got seriously wounded. In the image you see one of the drawings that this Polish-French artist (made famous by the portraits Amedeo Modigliani dedicated to him) created to insert into the sounds and pass through the vibrant images of Cendrars.

A page of the poem with the illustration of Moïse Kisling

"Great War – Piave and Isonzo: soldiers at the front". A new photography exhibition

Austrian soldiers walk across the Grave di Papadopoli
The CEDOS (Centre of historical research on the Great War) of San Polo di Piave is a small but lively cultural association that promotes studies and events around the legacy of the Great War with a strong focus on photography. The Centre was in fact established in conjunction with the donation by Eugenio Bucciol of an important collection of WWI pictures with the intent to preserve and valorize this visual material. Bucciol, who is still active member of the CEDOS, lived for a long period in Vienna, where he collected in the city war archive a series of photos taken by the Austrian Army when it occupied Friuli and part of Veneto after the rout of Caporetto. A selection of these images are now at the centre of a new exhibition which celebrates the soldiers’ life at the front.

Two rivers mark the virtual contours of the exhibition, the Isonzo – which actually traced the front line as soon as Italy entered the WWI in 1915 – and the Piave – where after the rout of Caporetto the Austrian advance and the Italian retreat came to a precarious equilibrium of forces in autumn-winter 1917. Most of the 143 photos on display were shot on the battle fields and in the Italian territories occupied by the Austrian Army and depict the multifarious situations of the everyday life of these places at those years. Of course the bitter logic of the war comes to light, with its trenches, battles, wounded and fighting soldiers, with its strategic plans and the works behind the front lines. But also the local population is not neglected: the exhibition commemorates the suffering and the famine, the hard work and the despair that the civilians had to endure. Finally the – sometimes fierce, sometimes serene – interaction between these two worlds is depicted in the photos.

The exhibition “Grande Guerra. Isonzo e Piave: soldati al fronte” was opened on last 13th December and will run till 11th January 2015. You can visit it in San Polo di Piave from Thursday to Saturday 15.00-19.00 and on Sundays already from 09.30. Further information here.

(We thank the President of CEDOS, Sergio Tazzer, who sent us some photos to share with our readers in the coming days on a dedicated post.)

"Je sors enfin du Bois de la Gruerie": a sort of poetical manifesto by Jacques Darras

Contemporary poetry on World War I is not at all a paradox. We have already suggested – and we will keep on offering – poems by contemporary authors dealing with the cultural and human legacy of the Great War: they prove that we can – and we should – be still personally involved in the living remembrance of this common past. However the new work by the multiple-prize-winning French poet, writer and translator Jacques Darras succeed in bringing us perhaps a step further than a “simple” living remembrance. With its long poem entitled Je sors enfin du Bois de la Gruerie (Editions Arfuyen, 2014) he offers a “prismatic” composition, which discloses to the reader different accesses to the Great War and he relates this multiplicity to a beating heart at its centre. It is not easy to do justice to this work in a short review, but we’d like to discuss at least some central features of Darras’ long poem in order to stress its importance in indicating a new and fruitful attitude toward the Great War.

We may start with some formal and stylistic remarks. The work covers 208 pages and it is organized in 15 chapters. Lyrical compositions, prose texts, short manifestos and (sometimes long) quotations are combined in an amazing structure, in which the rhythm has a central place. A continuous change of register within the work (from the ironical to the polemical, from the narrative to the assertive one) creates a polyphony of attitudes and perspectives, so that the readers cannot be passive, but are forced to enter in a creative relation. Moreover Darras’ mastery in exploiting his "outil-poème" comes to light in the incredible wordplays, neologisms, assonances. One should read aloud to enjoy fully the “Dada aesthetic” of this poem.

Jacques Darras
Je sors enfin du Bois de la Gruerie arises from a biographical event in Darras’ family history. His grandfather died in September 1914 in Bois de la Gruerie, on the western side of the forest of Argonne, in the territories of the Department de la Marne. This wood was the setting of cruel fights from September 1914 up to the autumn 1918 and a large number of remnants are still visible today. Here, few months after the beginning of the conflict  Édouard Darras was hit by a grenade. Only after about a century his grandson returns to these places, walks among the trees and on the today hidden trenches and deals with his domestic memories. Jacques Darras cannot avoid to recognise the deep impact that this event had on his father’s life and, as a consequence, on his own life. He draws so a red line across the decades, across the places and occurrences that tie together his family history. And yet he does not restrict his reasoning and his feelings to this first biographical stage; he uses instead them as a magnifying glass to embrace the collective experience of the Great War: millions of men were killed, millions of women were left alone, and their families, relatives lived their absence. A mass carnage - the personal family fate is part of it. The whole is accessible primarily by its part, by this intimate experience and remembrance. The part, the biographical element gets its true weight and size only within the whole.
Especially in chapter 13th this sense of sharing mournfulness, compassion (in its etymological meaning), real pietas comes to light. But also in chapter 7th – at the centre of the book, as a pivot of this magnificent poetical mechanism – we find crucial passages: Darras first describes – or imagines, but is it so different? – the death of his grandfather, 27 years old, as he was pulverized by the grenade; he then spies out the emptiness left in his life but he finally confesses he cannot tell the death of his grandfather apart from that of the other soldiers: he bears now with him ten thousand dead men in addition to his grandfather, he leaves from the Bois de Gruerie with all the anonymous soldiers who passed away there. And yet Darras’ work avoids all celebratory and heroic attitudes and shows a great justice and composure in dealing with the Great War: an attitude of moderation and tact-, that we should wish to see more and more predominant during the Centenary.

Gruerie wood in 1916
The book can be seen as a report of (and a guide for, since the reader is invited to travel over it again) a journey from oblivion to memory. This is also the meaning of the title: getting out from the Bois de la Gruerie corresponds to break the silence and the forgetfulness of this personal/collective tragedy and enter the living world, to regain full awareness not only of the past events, but also of their effects on the present and even their lesson for the future.  Also from this point of view a personal recollecting the family memories is entangled in the collective tale. A wide collection of voices and records of famous French, English and German authors represents the chorale, which supports Darras’ effort to frame anew and in a clearer way the series of cultural, political and historical events, which lead to the Great War. And being a poet, Darras summons poets and writers of that time up: the Dada poets (much more than the surrealists) and then again Apollinaire, Barbusse, Breton, Céline, Cendrars, and Pierre-Jean Jouve (who actually deserves much more attention than what he usually draws); but also the German voices of Hugo Ball and Erich Maria Remarque, even of Ernst Jünger. And then the author celebrates especially the English War poets: Wilfried Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas.

Great honour is paid however to a “trio d’intelligence majeure”: Romain Rolland, Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud. They raised their voices above the collective madness, they praised the peace and unmasked the subtle mystifications of the “uniformity of the uniforms”, which covered a foreseeable massacre under the ideals of Homeland, Duty even Beauty. It is especially in opposition to the propaganda and the homogenization (and so devastation) of the culture at the beginning of the First World War that the pacifism of authors like Rolland becomes an admonishment and a spur for us, the readers, too. It is about to preserve true critical sense not only towards the opposite pole war/peace, but also and above all toward the rhetorical attitudes and standardised ideas, no matter if in relation to the legacy of the Great War or in relation to the contemporary social and political conflicts in our world, starting from Europe. Here again Darras offers us a great lesson with this book, driving us to deal with our history, to face its problems and to take a position, which always means to act in our life accordingly. Je sors enfin du Bois de la Gruerie is therefore not only an honest tribute to the Great War as both personal and collective history, but also a sort of manifesto for the present and for the future. In this sense we can only wish that this work will reach as many readers as possible, so to really imprint the Centenary.

"I fotografi della Grande Guerra". Czech photographers of the Great War. The exhibition in Milan

Gustav Brož, Polní udírna
It was inaugurated last Thursday at Centro Ceco (Czech Cultural Centre) in Milan a photo exhibition that is going to be open till January 10. The layout offers for the first time the shots of three Czech soldiers equipped with cameras: Gustav Brož, Jan Myšička and Jenda Rajman. This exhibition represents a world preview of these three different collections that have been unseen for decades. All experts agree on the high and relevant value of these images that show somehow three different stories on different fronts of the Great War. The war of Gustav Brož was on the Italian and Russian front, while Jan Myšička collected his pictures on the Hungarian (precisely in Eger) and Italian fronts. Jenda Rajman’s name is connected with the images of the hospital of Podmelec (today Slovenia). Before ending this post with the information and tips to reach this important exhibition in Milan, we wish to give you at least one link related to Gustav Brož from where you may start catching by yourself the incredible prowess of this group of Czech soldiers equipped with cameras.

"I fotografi della Grande Guerra" / “Photographers of the Great War"
From 27 November to 10 January 2015
Opening time: MON-THU 13.00 - 18.00; FRI 10.00 - 16.00;
last Saturday of the month 10.00-17.00.
Free entrance

Czech Centres 2010 - Centro Ceco
Via G.B. Morgagni 20129 Milano
Milano (Italy)
T. +39-02-29411242 | E.
Metro line and station: M1, Lima

World War I trenches restored on Colle della Tombola (Susegana, Italy)

View on Castello San Salvatore from the trenches
With the Centenary approaching, old trenches and fortifications systems are slowly surfacing from the abandoned nature. We owe the rediscovery and the promotion of this physical legacy of the Great War to some important actors. Indeed everywhere, especially in Europe, interesting archaeological projects explore the territories and try to uncover forgotten traces of the First World War, to detect possible trenches within the vegetation and to restore them. Some of these projects – for example that of the village of La Boisselle, in the Somme region – have already attracted the attention of the international community and encouraged the cooperation between archaeologists, historians and many other volunteers. But many other maybe smaller, but not less important initiatives are rising around and we’d like today to present one of them.

The Association ArcheoSusegana was founded in 2013 and gathers a group of volunteers with the aim to combine historical research and archaeological restoration of sites (some dating back to the prehistory) and old ruins in the territories of the Collalto, an ancient Italian noble family. The group is based in fact in Susegana, where the Collalto had one of their family castles, the San Salvatore Castle, which was heavily damaged during the Great War by the Italian artillery. The small village of Susegana lies in fact near the river Piave and thus on the Austrian-Hungarian side of the front after the rout of Caporetto. No surprise so if also in these territories forgotten traces of the Great War have surfaced and thanks to the work of ArcheoSusegana we can now visit them.

Walking along the trenches
Architect Michele Potocnik, who supervises the archeological works, told us during an interview how the members of the Association ArcheoSusegana unearthed new trenches on Colle della Tombola, a little hill near the Collalto Castle and about 3 kilometers from the river Piave. On the top of the hill there was a small Austro-Hungarian war village, today traces of about twenty sites can be recognized in this small area. On the northern side of the hill, barracks and storage where probably built as outpost connected to the fortifications on the underlying Ruio valley. On the southern side trenches were dug to connect antiaircraft, artillery and/or observation post. After the restoration works, which combine successfully preservation and rediscovery targets avoiding to restore the ditches in their original depth, we can now walk along the trenches and enter the fortified post. Standing here one could easily observe the Piave and, just behind, the Montello, where the Italian Army was disposed. Today trees screen the vision line, but it is not hard to image what the sentries could see and hear during the final part of the Great War, from autumn 1917 to the end of the conflict. 

The works are still in progress both in uncovering the war traces and in opening passages in the wood to enable visitors to gaze upon the former targets – San Salvatore Castle, the river Piave and the Montello. But ArcheoSusegana has already made safe some sections of the trenches and often organizes guided tours for schools and groups. If you want to visit them, contact the Association using the link above. And for all those interested, yet unable at the moment to travel to Susegana, we suggest to watch the video below and get at least an idea of this interesting and praiseworthy archaeological project.