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.