I love Paris in the Fall

October 30, 2011 § 2 Comments

I know all you American parents will roll your eyes, but there’s no disputing it: Parisian kids are exceptionally cute. They’re graceful and elfin; they flicker in their bodies and spark in the sunlight. And if you think I’m just seeing things—well, maybe. But there’s no doubt that they’re much more relaxed and spontaneous than NYC kids, more like children in the grand old days of when I was a kid in the suburbs, as well as being disarmingly polite. So an eight year old running down a city street (with no mother shouting anxiously after her) will, if she accidentally brushes against you, sing out, “Pardon, Madame!” and keep running. Ditto if she’s running through a subway car. It made me even happier than looking into a window of jewel-like tarts.

I felt almost instantly at home in Paris. I remembered more French than I thought I would, and the French spoke more English and with far less attitude than when I was last there a quarter of a century ago. If was lost or confused, I asked for help and people were kind and took much more time than they needed to. The men were so gallant I started thinking maybe I was 25 again.

The old gray Paris I remembered is much cleaner and more colorful.  Shop signs, awnings, banners, table cloths—bright reds and blues and greens, handsome graphics. And of course more colorful in the other sense, too, a more diverse population, which also made me feel at home.

Highlights: The Munch show at the Pompidou Center; the Seine in sunlight; the middle-class neighborhood we stayed in, where the cafes were full of old men drinking wine at 10 pm; the cheese plate in a café on the Left Bank whose name I don’t remember; The Musee D’Orsay, every bit of it; Manouche (gypsy) music in Samois Sur Seine, while visiting Andree; reading my poems to Andree and getting voice tips; suffering one of the familiar curses of my married life as Charles pushed through the “sortie” door when the metro turnstile refused his ticket and then, as the alarm screeched and wailed, having to pull him onto the closest train, which was luckily going in the right direction. Finally, the woman at the desk in the hotel I stayed in alone, my last two days, who seemed to dance as she spoke, her head, shoulders and hands moving slightly in time to her singsong voice: routine enacted as private pleasure, as a tiny bliss I shared, the kind you feel when a friend idly reaches out to loop your hair behind your ears.

On the plane home, I was surrounded by British schoolboys on a tour, which made my stomach sink, and yes, they did shout across to each other the whole time, but it was made up for by the delight the boy next to me showed when he realized he could have as many Sprites as he wanted, free. He told all his classmates this in a voice as excited as if they were getting booze. And when the stewardesses brought around tiny cups of ice cream—post dessert dessert—he shook his head in incredulity. “And this is economy,” he said under his breath. No, it was Virgin Atlantic.

I want to go back. I can’t even afford to go to see my mother  for Christmas, but I’m already dreaming of Paris again, Paris when my fortunes turn, when I write my bestseller about how my cats are really angels, here to impart the knowledge that the universe, against all appearances, is kind and just and very fond of us: if you close your eyes and say, “kitty, kitty, kitty,” three times a day until further notice, all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. (Julian of Norwich.)

Actually I think my cats are angels. But like most angels, they have no purpose but to look androgynously beautiful and ignore the sweat and tears of humanity.

Correction: they do not ignore my tears. They take great exception to them. But that’s another story, one I’ve been telling lately in poetry because it’s easier to see the comic side in poems. Liars and sex make good comedy—something I’ve barely begun to explore. But then my ex-lover’s lies still take my breath away. OK, enough. The book will be out soon. Save your pennies.

The Drunken Boat


As I was going down impassive Rivers,

I no longer felt myself guided by haulers:

Yelping redskins had taken them as targets

And had nailed them naked to colored stakes.

I was indifferent to all crews,

The bearer of Flemish wheat or English cottons

When with my haulers this uproar stopped

The Rivers let me go where I wanted.

Into the furious lashing of the tides

More heedless than children’s brains the other winter

I ran! And loosened Peninsulas

Have not undergone a more triumphant hubbub

The storm blessed my sea vigils

Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves

That are called eternal rollers of victims,

Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!

Sweeter than the flesh of hard apples is to children

The green water penetrated my hull of fir

And washed me of spots of blue wine

And vomit, scattering rudder and grappling-hook

And from then on I bathed in the Poem

Of the Sea, infused with stars and lactescent,

Devouring the azure verses; where, like a pale elated

Piece of flotsam, a pensive drowned figure sometimes sinks;

Where, suddenly dyeing the blueness, delirium

And slow rhythms under the streaking of daylight,

Stronger than alcohol, vaster than our lyres,

The bitter redness of love ferments!

I know the skies bursting with lightning, and the waterspouts

And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,

And dawn as exalted as a flock of doves

And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!

I have seen the low sun spotted with mystic horrors,

Lighting up, with long violet clots,

Resembling actors of very ancient dramas,

The waves rolling far off their quivering of shutters!

I have dreamed of the green night with dazzled snows

A kiss slowly rising to the eyes of the sea,

The circulation of unknown saps,

And the yellow and blue awakening of singing phosphorous!

I followed during pregnant months the swell,

Like hysterical cows, in its assault on the reefs,

Without dreaming that the luminous feet of the Marys

Could constrain the snout of the wheezing Oceans!

I struck against, you know, unbelievable Floridas

Mingling with flowers panthers’ eyes and human

Skin! Rainbows stretched like bridal reins

Under the horizon of the seas to greenish herds!

I have seen enormous swamps ferment, fish-traps

Where a whole Leviathan rots in the rushes!

Avalanches of water in the midst of a calm,

And the distances cataracting toward the abyss!

Glaciers, suns of silver, nacreous waves, skies of embers!

Hideous strands at the end of brown gulfs

Where giant serpents devoured by bedbugs

Fall down from gnarled trees with black scent!

I should have liked to show children those sunfish

Of the blue wave, the fish of gold, the singing fish.

—Foam of flowers rocked my drifting

And ineffable winds winged me at times.

At times a martyr weary of poles and zones,

The sea, whose sob created my gentle roll,

Brought up to me her dark flowers with yellow suckers

And I remained, like a woman on her knees…

Resembling an island tossing on my sides the quarrels

And droppings of noisy birds with yellow eyes

And I sailed on, when through my fragile ropes

Drowned men sank backward to sleep!

Now I, a boat lost in the foliage of caves,

Thrown by the storm into the birdless air

I whose water-drunk carcass would not have been rescued

By the Monitors and the Hanseatic sailboats;

Free, smoking, topped with violet fog,

I who pierced the reddening sky like a wall,

Bearing, delicious jam for good poets

Lichens of sunlight and mucus of azure,

Who ran, spotted with small electric moons,

A wild plank, escorted by black seahorses,

When Julys beat down with blows of cudgels

The ultramarine skies with burning funnels;

I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off

The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,

Eternal spinner of the blue immobility

I miss Europe with its ancient parapets!

I have seen sidereal archipelagos! and islands

Whose delirious skies are open to the sea-wanderer:

—Is it in these bottomless nights that you sleep and exile yourself,

Million golden birds, o future Vigor? –

But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.

Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.

Acrid love has swollen me with intoxicating torpor

O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!

If I want a water of Europe, it is the black

Cold puddle where in the sweet-smelling twilight

A squatting child full of sadness releases

A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.

No longer can I, bathed in your languor, o waves,

Follow in the wake of the cotton boats,

Nor cross through the pride of flags and flames,

Nor swim under the terrible eyes of prison ships.

Arthur Rimbaud, translated by Wallace Fowlie



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