Poem Schedules

 

When you’ve been away for a while, it’s easy to find yourself split between time zones, thinking not only of your piece of the day, but of what others must be doing. Each day at noon, I think the first few friends on the East Coast waking up, my mother pulling the dead leaves off the flowers in her garden. At five, David is making coffee in San Francisco. I wake up in every one else’s middle of the night. The dissonance of this jet lag never totally goes away.

For a long time, the weather stayed warm, making me think that summer was continuing, that I had found myself outside of East Coast fall and the next semester starting and the nights turning cold. But now the jacket I have isn’t warm enough, and one afternoon at the flea market, I acquire a red wool one. A cold wind blows the sound of jazz guitars from the doorway of Espace Django Reinhardt. On one of my last days in Paris, I walk the length of the Promenade Plantée, an elevated garden snaking it’s way through the city. It smells like fallen leaves here, and I realize that October has crept up on me.

Today, I finished a draft of my translation of Paol’s book. There’s still much to be done, but the lines on the page have more substance to them now, stacking up like days on a calendar.  I’m resisting the temptation to immediately go back and start changing things.

To distract myself, and also out of curiosity, I’ve been going to readings. Now that everyone is back from vacation, there are many poetry series hosting their first events of the fall. At the Maison de la Poésie, I see Dany Laferrière, Cécile Mainardi, Jacques Réda, and Michael Ondaatje. The way the first two French poets read is direct and serious, without any preliminaries or talking between poems. The poems are sometimes long ones, or pieces excerpted from long ones, but still they just pause for a few seconds, sometimes not even mentioning a title. The audience seems to take this as a given.

It’s pretty common in America for poets to double as stand up comedians, charming the audience with their anecdotes as well as their writing. Someone told me that it was Robert Frost who started this custom of long, amusing introductions. When, to my surprise, Jacques Réda makes jokes and describes the context of his writing, it turns out he’s translating an American poet who he says is little known in France—none other than Frost.

As I listen to him read his translations, I realize how much of Frost’s way of reading is about that same disjunction in time. You talk to the people in the audience, you engage them in a casual way, you move the conversation forward. But it’s always interrupted by the poems, and the consciousness of them as little worlds full of histories evolving and seasons turning and people aging at the rate the poet decides. While you’re in the room in a certain time zone, the poems are making schedules of their own. 

Workshop in Paris

I’m excited today because the baker finally started treating me like a regular instead of that weird girl who takes too long to count her change. I’ve been going in there every few days for a croissant and a cup of coffee, and this morning she decided to acknowledge me.

Baker: “so you like these croissants, huh?” Me (putting on what I hope resembles the authority of a French person who has eaten thousands of croissants): “Why, yes, they’re the best in the neighborhood. I’m in here all the time.” Then the baker says something that, while often repeated by salespeople and not exactly impartial, still gives me a little thrill. “Mais vous avez raison” or “Well, you’re correct.” Just like that, my taste in pastry has been validated. Gold star.

If this seems like not much of a breakthrough, vous avez raison. But it’s little conversations that make me feel like I am actually living in France. And not just getting by, but seeing familiar faces.

I’ve also recently realized that my French is good enough now for me to eavesdrop—which, with the way they tightly pack café tables, is inevitable. Outside the nail salon two ladies are discussing how many children it’s appropriate for a husband to ask his wife to have. And next to me at lunch, a man describes a marital crisis while his female companion applies a terrifying shade of purple lipstick. If I were a novelist, I’d start wondering if these two pairs know each other.

Instead, I decide to drop in on a poetry workshop at Shakespeare and Co.—a weekly discussion run by David Barnes, who co-edited an anthology with BU’s own Megan Fernandes. The room where the workshop is held is as famous as Bay State’s 222—a reading room, library, and office for writers like Hemingway and Joyce.

On a rainy Paris evening, the workshop hosts a diverse group—a Russian student writing in English, an older man from Amherst, MA, a woman from Yale who lived in the same building I did, a British poet. I’ve brought a poem and a few pieces of the translation to share, but many visitors just listen, dropping in on the discussion and soaking up the atmosphere.

I don’t blame them—if you turn your back on the queue of tourists snaking through the aisles, it’s easy to feel nostalgic. The piano is playing in the other room between the bells of Notre-Dame. The place smells like rain and old leather binding. But I can’t help imagining that Woody Allen, not Hemingway, is coming up the stairs.

 

Où mêne la vie

From previous trips to France:

1.     The first time, third grade, testing for vertigo by jumping up and down on the second deck of the Eiffel Tower. Much more frightening than the enclosed upper deck.

2.     Speaking no French in the cafés, but forming the sentences in my head. Horrified that when it arrived, my peanut butter sandwich had a thick layer of butter on it.

3.     The small wooden animals in the living room of my cousin’s house. Stacked into the air like acrobats. The photo, age eleven, of me on their front steps in a horrible, neon striped dress.

4.     Sixteen, driving through the south with my parents. Rolling bruise-colored fields of lavender. The castle town of Carcassonne and the fireworks bundled and guarded by policemen under every arch.

5.     An unfinished summer course during college, a home-stay in the Place des Fêtes with a harried mother and her son. Whenever I showered, they would scream at each other. The metal skeletons of the market tents left out in the rain. The immense decadence of Paris and listening, on the other end of a bad connection, for news of a turn for the worse, of my father’s illness, of the need to go home.

I never expected to return to that last part of the city, but one night I go to listen to jazz at a place near the square. I had forgotten the long escalator up from the metro, and I forget to hold the handrail as I look down. At once, my knees give a little at the sensation of falling backward, at the long tunnel sliding into the ground, at the strangeness of seeing again through the eyes of an earlier, more naïve self.

I’ve arrived in Paris just a few days after my 26th birthday. This time, I’m staying near the Bon Marché, in an apartment so generously loaned by Alice Kaplan, one of my French professors from college. Here, where there are other translators and even workshops for itinerant writers, I’ll be able to get some perspective on the work I’ve done so far.  

But places are not always predictable—for my birthday, Paol has given me a children’s book called Où mêne la vie? or Where Does Life Lead? It’s a joke of course—on each page a father answers his daughter’s question with various scenarios including adventure, success, art, and (in typical Catholic French fashion) paradise, hell.

Where does this version of France lead? To writing, to translating, to jokes that unexpectedly turn wise. And to remembering, but with humor as well as seriousness. As Paol writes:

bang bang     these memories

                        are rabbits

            you pull out of a hat

                 and then hooray

 

Fresh Paint

Painters reuse their canvasses, new poems fill older forms, and cities get built over cities. Paol went to school here, in the center of Quimper, when it looked nothing like it does now. Today, the town is lovely—a medieval square with a cathedral, houses built with exposed beams, stone streets for pedestrians, bright pinwheels and cans of sardines in the windows of tourist shops. Despite its charm, the restored city feels a little too polished, the flowerpots and cobblestones a little too carefully placed.

Then, it had another aspect—the oldest neighborhood was one of the poorest, and the boarding school at the top of the hill had been occupied by the Germans in World War Two. They used it as a prison.

Walking around the square, Paol talks about the poem I’m currently translating as a puzzle. And like many of the best-loved puzzles, it’s not guaranteed that all of the pieces are still in the box. The temptation in English is to fill in these gaps, to make the sections of the poem fit tightly together.

But seeing the restoration of Quimper is a caution against that approach. Too much superficial polish can make the elliptical movement of a fascinating poem seem only clever. Like the city center with its fresh paint and chocolate shops, tidiness can present the past in a way that dissuades curiosity—to leave some things unexplained is to allow for more complexity of memory and interpretation.

To borrow an analogy from magnets, I want the connections in these poems to be close enough to attract, but not so close they’re already stuck. So I walk around the city, past the macaron seller, the carousel, the cafés with their white and orange chairs. And I think of ways to make the English of the translation a little stranger, to keep it in the realm of the untidy—where most of us actually live.

 

Second Childhood

Sometimes your vision becomes so saturated with a landscape that you’re forced to turn inward, to find a way to catalog the features of the place. As Paol says about travelling alone: “you have to have an interior life.”

So far, I’ve been understanding this place through the translations of his poems. When I walk in the meadows near this farm and learn (the hard way) that there are thorns big enough to pierce the soles of my sneakers, I think of Paol’s lines about children picking blackberries and the miserly earth which places sweetness next to scratches. Of course, to fight the brambles for the berries makes them sweeter.

It’s natural for writers to understand landscapes by putting them into words. But words in what language? When I first arrived, I was exhausted by French, by forming the sentences in my head before I could say them, by trying to process the grammar around me.

Now that I’ve been here for almost a month, casual conversations are easier. On this farm overlooking cliffs and sea, the effort to speak well has been replaced by a childlike feeling of taking the measure of words, of learning a language by looking around me. My little cousins do this work consciously, pointing at things and saying the words that go with them, but for adults it becomes automatic—except in a foreign place. Now, the swallow flying over the surf has an almost tactile fluttering of vowels: hirondelle. The little purple flowers are bruyère. And the blue-green water covering the white sand has its own Breton name: glaz.

The measuring of new words and objects feels integral to writing as well as to childhood. If you define good writing in the easiest (most glib) way, it’s “the right words in the right order.” But in order to conjure a place like this, you have to know its names. And like summoning a genie who grants wishes, the tactile is part of the process—you have to rub the lamp as you say its name.

I walk the empty dune paths and repeat the words for everything I see, hear, smell. And slowly they stick. I have leaves of vervaine in my pocket from the garden. I have blackberry juice in my skin.