brief, mundane points of contact with the oh-so human world

Sometimes i say “au revoir” when i mean “bonjour,” & sometimes i say “merci” when i mean “s’il vous plaît.” Generally when this happens, the person i’m speaking to doesn’t even permit the ghost of a smile.

Dear server, dear barista, dear clerk at the museum, please smile when i say the opposite of what i mean!

Most of my interactions consist of the simplest, most basic requests. “I would like a hot chocolate please;” “I would like six mushrooms, a leek, a lettuce, & two carrots;” or “A table for one person please.”

Things get a little trickier when i buy two avocados from the fruit & vegetable stand in the Marché St. Martin where the seller—a young curly-haired man who almost-smiles at my shy yet stalwart attempts to communicate—inevitably wants to know if i want to eat them today or tomorrow. “One for today & the other for tomorrow…” This is a complicated exchange.

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Oddly enough, simple though they be, these interactions have become precious to me—not because my French is coming back or improving, nor because each small “success” gives me a nudge toward what i may be too timid otherwise to attempt.

Rather, they’re precious because they are, however brief, however mundane, points of contact. Little groundings in the human world for one who easily drifts off, who’s easily captured by the interior life & held more or less safe–but isolated–there…

i’m struck by how public life, the life of the streets of Paris in particular, animates Apollinaire’s poems. In this, they are not unlike our own dear Whitman…

One family carries a red comforter the way you carry your heart /That comforter and our dreams are equally unreal /Some of the immigrants move in here and stay / In the hovels on the rue des Ecouffes or rue des Rosiers / I’ve often seen them taking the evening air…*

One of my now-daily interactions concerns a young woman who sits on the corner of Rue du Château d’Eau & Rue Lucien Sampaix, just where i turn to take my morning walk to the canal.

She wears a white head-scarf, a heavy light-blue jacket & long skirt & sits in all weather, even the recent snow, her well-used to-go cup on the sidewalk. Something about her face reminds me of paintings by Corot, but maybe this is only because i find myself wondering what she thinks about all day, the same way i wonder about the women in those paintings, their interior lives.

“Bonjour, Madame,” she says to me. “Bonjour,” i say. & as i pass “Bonne journée,” she says with a lilt. If I knew how, i would ask her—what? Like, how much does she need for the day in order to feel like she can go home–or are things more complicated than that?

 

On Tuesday when it had just started to snow, i went to the cinema to see The Darkest Hour. At first it seemed i’d be the only one at the 1:20 pm showing—which i admit felt discouraging. Sitting rapt in a dark theater with strangers is a kind of intimacy after all.

Then a group of teenagers noisily straggled in. Laughter, jostling, calling to one another across the seats… As a few girls took the seats between me & the aisle, one of them spoke to me—i think she was apologizing for the stir they were creating—wrecking my solitude, as it were. i wish i could have told her how grateful i was they’d come!

Eventually we had a little conversation, their command of English being far superior to my tenuous & limited French. Turns out a couple of them were somewhat interested in why i was there, with my notebook in my lap, sketching before they came in—pretty good one of them pronounced. & i was definitely interested in them—what were they doing here in the middle of a school day?

It seems half the class had gone off to the Alps skiing, & the other half stayed in Paris & were having their history lessons reinforced via this outing along the Canal St. Martin in the snow & an Oscar-contending film.

i got it—these were the kids whose families couldn’t afford to send them skiing, or who didn’t care about the glitz & glamor of the slopes, who were maybe even contemptuous of it. They were the shy kids, the geeks & artists. My people.

 

*from “Zone,” by Guillaume Apollinaire, translated by Ron Padgett

 

 

 

 

[pigeons, poems, a countertenor singing a medieval chanson…

Yesterday a pigeon just about took the top of my head off.

Come to think of it, maybe the bird did, in that instant, with a pigeon-y ease, skim off the top of my head only for it to settle itself again, just like that, a little less right, a little more askew.

Having the same effect, then, as a poem, a true poem, a poem worth its salt & keyed-up hours of making, or a poem worth its truffle, its sudden arrival in the duff of everyday.

You can be a poet in any field of activity, Apollinaire wrote in “The New Spirit,” provided you go forward in a spirit of adventure, seeking new discoveries. I would amend this bold statement, adding that a poem can be enacted in a multiplicity of ways, not only on the page.

The pigeon got me thinking, not yesterday but today, this morning, as i walked against the gray, rain falling like something very old & tired which cannot, like Sisyphus, escape its labors; as i walked to dispel some gloom left over from being woken in the wee-est of hours by what sounded like a procession, only a procession that wasn’t going anywhere, a procession stalled nearby—but where? Men’s voices shouting or chanting rhythmically, cheering perhaps, i couldn’t make it out. What was happening? & where? It was 1:30 am, it was 2:00, it was 2:30… The voices would recede, then come back stronger. There was something tidal about it. Then again it was like being swooped by what you cannot see…

Until finally another voice yelled over the rest, & the night which had been so disturbingly jubilant grew suddenly eerily still.

But the pigeon, as i started to say, got me thinking…thinking about what i love about being here, which in some instances is also what i find most challenging about being here , particularly being here alone.

In no particular order this is the list i’ve come up with so far—off the top of my head, as it were…

–Cézanne’s fruit seeming ready to tumble off the table at the slightest nod of one’s head…

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–The long-necked water-bird i wrote about in my last post which also hangs out high in some trees that might be cottonwoods, some kind of poplar at any rate, heart-shaped leaves decaying on the ground around their stately trunks.  Oh & the bird has company up there, a dozen other long-necked birds, at last count.

–The peeling paint in churches. The nobility of a little honest wear…

 

–The things you see when you look up, like the placard happening to mention that Gustave Flaubert lived here between 1856 and 1869.

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–Flurries of black-headed gulls over the canal. Their—pardon me if i say the obvious—foreign cries.

–Sunday afternoon concerts in churches, where, for free, a countertenor hitting those impossible, hauntingly high notes in a minor key, a medieval chanson, will surely make you cry.

–That i am constantly meeting my younger self who was here in the summer of 1983 & has, it turns out, never left.

With a pleasing mixture of nostalgia, irony, regret & distance Louis Aragon wrote about similar encounters with his younger self in Paris. Getting older we lose ourselves, he writes, “like wheels and dust in the changes.” Our younger selves have a way of enduring that our older selves have given up on, or let go of.

–The wobbliness of walking on cobblestone streets.

–Shop windows. Fabrics, books, stuffed birds, oddments, woodwinds, handbags, shoes–how rich i feel, simply looking…

 

–That my end of the Canal St. Martin, with Quai de Valmy on one side & Quai des Jemmapes on the other, is closed to vehicular traffic every Sunday. That’s right, every Sunday. & every Sunday how this simple fact delights.

–The scent of pastries baking, of old churches, bouquets & potted plants put out on the corner every day…

–A type of winter pear called Conference, which taste of blossoms & snow.

–The unclassifiable colors of Cézanne’s fruit. Red? Gold? Orange? And how it follows you into the streets, through your days here, throwing you off-kilter, making you less certain of practically everything…

 

 

 

 

[untitled] a tone poem

 

Today was a new bird on the Canal St. Martin, a bird large & long-necked, with a clownish face, yellow beak & dark crest, who dove with hardly a splash & came up far down the canal. i tried to take its picture but every time i got close enough for a decent shot, it turned quickly, skittishly, wildly & made for the opposite bank.

Unnamed bird, you are like this being here, like this day i try to fix, skittering out of reach…

Today was also chickweed, bunches of tiny green ears listening along the stairs of the bridges.

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Of the canal’s several bridges, shaped like inverted crescent moons, my favorite is the highest, the one that makes me feel dizzy, as if i’m standing on the moon, or am perched in a chestnut tree…

The bridge is much sturdier, i hope, than a chestnut tree’s high limbs.

Today was moss & lichen & the damp-burlap scent of corners, which mimics the scent of home.

Today was old heavy iron rings set among the paving stones, rings used perhaps for tying up boats, for making them fast. Now weeds make fast around the rings, little grasses that remind me of Poa annua–& may be that very strain, who knows?

There are so many similarities between the Old World & the New, & yet being here is not at all like being there. Why? How to put a finger on it?

Begin with the bird whose name i don’t know, end with the man whose question i can’t follow…

Today was getting lost, turning in directions that felt “wrong” only to find they were “right.” Finding myself on the Rue des Vinaigriers when i’d thought it ran perpendicularly to here.

Where is here? Where am i? Who are you?

Courage said the young man who thought she was ridiculous for asking.

Confidence is for sissies said a wise & older friend.

Today was the gray of wanting but not being able to touch what you want, that necktie, that silk scarf in the shop closed on Mondays. Or the museum open odd hours but never when you come.

Still, today was odd hours.

You saw three sparks/And then nothing The dream/The dream the sun* 

Today began with a dream as so many here do. The house had been completely changed; someone else was living there, or about to live there, after the oddments on the porch had been sorted & given away…

 

*Apollinaire, [Untitled], translated by Ron Padgett

 

 

 

 

guidebooks, lucy honeychurch, apollinaire & the river

Never force anything but learn to let the painting say what it wants to say ~~ Pablo Picasso

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Picasso may as well have been talking about life. Never force anything…Being alone in Paris gives me little lessons in this practice, well, just about every day.

Unlike Lucy Honeychurch in Forster’s Room with a View, i left my Baedecker, & every other guidebook, at home. But in my apartment there’s a guidebook i consult from time to time, a guidebook which assures me that the fabulous outdoor market Marché d’Aligré is not to be missed—the produce! the flowers! the cheeses! the wine you can buy by the cup & sip on your stroll amongst the stalls! the adjoining flea market or marché aux puces!

On a day i’m feeling confident enough in my French to brave the fruit & vegetable sellers i leave the apartment with a sack under my arm, expecting both a festival atmosphere & to come home with the orangest of mandarins, the frilliest lettuces, the longest, silkiest of leeks.

Even with Google maps, i take some wrong turns on my way—because when i’m looking up & around in wonder, awe & amazement i can’t possibly look as well at my phone.

But the sun is out after a morning of rain, there’s a fresh riverine scent & late-January’s late afternoon light, violet-gold, in the air. Having skipped lunch, i can taste the Spanish mandarin…

Finally i reach the Place d’Aligré, & after walking around & around the large building there, i realize there is no outdoor market today, probably because—well, duh—it’s winter. Its damp & chilly & rains part of every day. What fruit, vegetable or anitques seller in his or her right mind would want to be out in that?

Zut! Merde!

 The large building does house an indoor market, through which i take a quick stroll, so disappointed i can’t bring myself to purchase the overpriced mandarins, not even one.

Dusk coming on, la tombée de la nuit—literally the fall of the night—i’m sort of beginning to feel as if i’m fading, falling myself, disappearing into the wrong kind of blue.

After that sky-blue I blend in with the horizon until night/falls and it’s a very sweet pleasure/To say no more about anything I do it’s an invisible being doing it/And buttoned up and all blue now blended into the sky I/disappear, wrote Apollinaire in his poem “4 O’Clock.”

 The sky over Paris is canal blue, the blue of circling gulls, the blue they weave with their lazy flurries, the blue of the poem Apollinaire wrote while in the trenches of WWI, after receiving the gift, the miracle, of soap from his fiancée Madeleine. Elsewhere he wrote: “Nine days without washing, sleeping on the ground without straw, ground infested with vermin…One of the parapets of my trench is made of corpses…No writer will ever be able to tell the simple horror of the trenches…” It’s something to imagine him receiving a bar of soap & then making a poem to express the wonder of it amidst so much grief.

Along the Seine where i’ve somehow arrived, i come across a sculpture garden. The abstract pieces aren’t animated, exactly, but they do, in this light, breathe differently than such things do by day. They don’t so much occupy space as let space fall or drape or tuck around them as it will. The calm has a taste like pears, organic ones, grown in orchards in the Dordogne.

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When Lucy Honeychurch finally forsakes her Baedecker, she comes alive…

The winter river is spilling over the quays. Its color deepens from chalky brown to dusky olive to another color that means Listen, Écoutez!!  Somewhere bells are ringing. You can just make them out through the unceasing wave of traffic. But the long boats, with the water so high, even if you live there, are unreachable…

 

rainy sunday, st eustache, remembering…

it’s also raining you marvelous encounters of my life O droplets/and these rearing clouds start neighing an entire world of auricular towns/ listen to the rain while regret and disdain weep an ancient music…~~Guillame Apollinaire

A rainy Sunday afternoon in Paris.  The gray like a persistent beat coming through the walls, almost quiet enough to ignore. But not quite…Hmm, how to escape it? The cafés, thrumming with animated conversation, might feel a bit oppressive to this solo traveler with her journal & bilingual edition of Apollinaire.

i opt for The Darkest Hour—Les Heures Sombres—in English with French subtitles & make my way damply to the cinema at Les Halles, where those who are not sitting in cafés are shopping…& those who are not shopping are at the cinema… By the time i’m nearly to the front of the line, the showing is “complète”—soldout.

Not much for shopping at glitzy stores i decide to find a café after all. Exiting the marketplace i’m faced with St. Eustache, a 14th century church.

Perhaps my soul needs the kind of succor a somber gothic église affords.

The stonework is stunning, the stained-glass windows are stunning, the woodwork, yes, is stunning–meaning intricately carved, pieced, joined, considered. (Later i will discover wonderful words like tracery, tympanum & voussoir to name the features.)

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Of course i feel small here, i’m supposed to feel small while something called god fills the spaces around & above me. Rain on the faraway roof sounds like someone breathing in the next room, or the next.

What i feel most is my mother’s presence. Who was, as mothers are, a kind of god to me. She who came of age during WWII. She who later taught me to read before i entered school & who set the family clock—who was the clock, time herself who kept us all in check…

My flesh & blood mother was either more or less complicated than that. She traveled neither much nor far. Someone who thrived on routine & predictability, she probably couldn’t embrace the unknowns that travel of any kind imposes. She loved the Style section of the NY Times & appreciated both the fine & decorative arts—Paris, & so many other cities, would have suited her.

All my adult life there was an unbreachable distance between us, though we never talked about it. Me in Oregon, her in the Midwest. My kids little, my kids grown, my seemingly constant overwhelm, the end of my marriage, all the things you need a mother for…

i step into the Lady Chapel, recalling how she prayed daily to the Virgin Mother until her mind wouldn’t let her remember to pray, or to finish her prayers once begun. Her ancestry included a fraction of French, about 1/8th, from her father’s mother.

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The coral-orange & sea-green painted onto the vaulting & statues speak both of hesitancy & breaking through…

Travel, it seems, is not what one does to get away from one’s personal past–because the past slips in, eh bien, where & as it will. My hope is that time doesn’t overly varnish it, either with nostaligia or with regret.

Today i light a candle & sit for some minutes, thinking of all these things, & more. In my dream last night Mother tells me we’ve moved the house. i step inside. It’s high in the air with windows looking into trees with huge leaves & enormous mauve peony-like flowers…

with monet’s water lilies

 

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What strikes me at first is their size, taller than i am & each mural filling a section of wall, eight sections in all in two circular rooms–nearly 100 linear meters for those who relate well to numbers.

& though i hate to admit it, my next thought is of wallpaper, circa 1978.

But then the pictures start to move a little, to breathe, breathing the long breath of a pond in summer, a pond in the early days of fall.

Then i hear bird song, wondering which bird sings first on summer mornings at Giverny where Monet painted these scenes. Dawn in French can be said three ways: l’aube & l’aurore & le coucher du soleil.  Does the same bird sing last at nightfall?

What’s surprising is that the paintings are so blue–and who knows maybe the birds are blue, too. Shadow & sky are their genii, in all shades of blue. Blue of cloaks, blue of starlight, blue of gravitas & quiet & dragonflies & sleep. All the many blues i want nothing more than to touch, to put on even, but ever-conscious of the museum guards i keep my distance.

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Following the devastation of WWI, Monet gave the eight murals to the nation of France on November 12, 1918, one day after the armisitice was signed. They were–& are–symbols of peace. The painter said they were meant to create “an illusion of an endless whole, of a wave with no horizon & no shore.” Which is, if you think about it, how peace, in its elemental form, manifests.

The lilies themselves appear in all colors, creamy white of course, but also red, orange, yellow, tinged with green. They fluctuate, they shift, mirroring in a way our moods at various times of day.  No wonder they feel like kin, spun of the same cloth as we.

Monet made approximately 250 paintings of water lilies in his last 30 years, during which time his world became cataract-cloudy. Curiously enough what moves me most about the murals at L’Orangerie are the painter’s attentiveness to the effects of sunlight changing throughout a day–Monet’s expertise we might say–but also & more poignantly is the one corner of a mural he left blank, a mural i understand to be depicting evening, paint reaching into but not quite filling the space in the bottom right hand corner…

As though he were acknowledging the silencing of color & light that will overtake us all in time…

i imagine poetry street into being…

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Under the overturned lute with its/One string I am going my way/Which has a strange sound. ~~W.S. Merwin, “Air” 

For a week now i have been wandering the streets of Paris. i carry in my shoulderbag a journal & a book of poems, an anthology of French poetry my friend Ross sent to me before i left the States, or “Zone,” a selection of Apollinaire’s poems translated by Ron Padgett. “This morning I saw a pretty street whose name I have forgotten,” wrote Apollinaire, “Clean and new it was the bugle of the sun”–this wandering, this remembering & forgetting & hearing the sun’s own music, i’m convinced, is poetry street….

A street which is also a corner, any corner, let’s say where the Quai de Valmy meets Rue Lucien Sampaix along the Canal St. Martin. A passerby approaches, asks something urgently you can’t understand. She is lost, this you know. But you can’t help her because you, too, are a visiter here. The wind catches at her voice & carries it off as you shake your head, the French word for sorry–désolée–tripping, falling off your tongue. & this is how you know you exist, that her going leaves you with both a sadness & a lilt, a sadness & lilt that let you know poetry street maybe has found you. A swan makes little circles in the canal, trying to stay in line with the sun, to fit into that acute angle. You pull out your phone to take its picture & notice the young men exercising on the other side of the canal have stopped their jumping jacks & are taking out their phones too. The French word for swan is cygne, which sounds a lot like sing, seen & sign.