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 On this farm overlooking cliffs and sea, the effort to speak well has been replaced by a childlike feeling of taking the measure of words, of learning a language by looking around me.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.