A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Lyrical Paris

I conjure up an imaginative Paris, half-real, half-mythical: Jacques Prévert scribbling poems on café tablecloths; Baudelaire, in drug-induced somnolence, stumbling down alleyways through puddles of spilt absinthe; Sartre and de Beauvoir debating existentialism in Les Deux Magots; Jean Genet finding epiphanies in Art Nouveau urinals; Henry Miller wallowing in nostalgie de la boue and celebrating the lotus flower and its muddy roots; Rilke’s panther pacing up and down its cage in the Jardin des Plantes; the mentally ill and terminally insane in the Salpêtrière, endlessly gesturing; government ministers and their mistresses legislating and fornicating in the Palace Bourbon and the Palais du Luxembourg; portrait painters in Montmartre flattering their sitters by accentuating the good bits and airbrushing the dodgy bits; pretty sirens in the posh bars of the Boulevard Saint-Germain beckoning in the tourists for a flinchingly expensive glass of red; smart prostitutes patrolling the Bois de Boulogne like efficient businesswomen, while the lurid, tacky ones smoke crack in the backstreets of Pigalle; fashion-accessory shih tzus and chihuahuas trotting by their Versace and Gaultier-clad owners along the Champs-Élysées, or being carried in handbags like exquisite, tiny invalids; clochards swigging cheap wine on the quays near the Pont Saint-Michel; the open-air bookstalls lining the Seine’s Left Bank, a scene unchanged for a hundred years; the mathematical, metallic chic of the Tour Eiffel . . .

. . . but, above all, I imagine the songs of Paris, those innumerable clichéd, romantic songs, crooned by an Yves Montand or a Charles Aznavour, and those more authentic, lived-in songs from the big heart of a diminutive Edith Piaf, and I trawl through these songs, and am drawn inexplicably to a dozen of them; then I steal a line from this one and a line from that one, like a jackdaw filching rings dropped in the Tuileries Gardens, and arrange them in a different way, cut-and-paste fashion, until a poem emerges from this musical bric-a-brac, and finds itself. You might call it a cento or poetic patchwork, an assemblage or lyrical collage . . .

Lyrical Paris

We may never get to Paris
And find the café of our dreams
So I’m leaving for Paris
Don’t try to find out where I am

April in Paris
Chestnuts in blossom
Holiday tables under the trees

Sous le ciel de Paris
Marchent des amoureux
Sous le ciel de Paris
Coule un fleuve joyeux

Paris c’est une blonde
Qui plaît à tout le monde

I’ve got nothing to lose
But the hole in my shoes
And small change

The pavement cafés
On the Champs-Élysées
Are deserted
And the trees are so bare
On the Boulevard de la Madeleine

I walk the boulevards
And I ask the moon and the stars to find you
But we don’t exist
We are nothing but shadow and mist
Nothing but shadow and mist

I’m throwing my arms around Paris
Because only stone and steel
Accept my love
Because nobody
Wants my love


George said...

Well done, Robert—a beautiful and fascinating lyrical collage indeed! I was frozen by the the last five lines of your very interesting poem—frozen by the recognition that there go I. There is always something different about Paris, is there not? Is there any other major city that can turn a life upside down like this one?

Vagabonde said...

After reading your comments on Friko’s blog I came back to your blog. I wrote a comment back in December and should have come back sooner. About Paris – I think people expect too much of the city. I was raised there – went to kindergarten all the way to university – so it is different for me, it is home. I think all the Paris blogs which constantly admire the city – or the parts tourists see – bring too many expectations. I also think that one’s mood makes a huge difference – if you are in love and with the loved one, Paris will be wonderful, if you are older and alone, it is quite different. I like all the old huge buildings, it makes me feel secure – that the past is still there. Here in Georgia, we constantly bulldoze old buildings – if a parking lot will bring more money, then the big Victorian house will be razed. Also the Parisiens are cold, aloof and very strong about their privacy, so if you are alone, this emphasize it. I do not know how many times you have been to Paris, but as in everything else, if you go there several times then you will enjoy it more as you will have made memories. I like to go back to the Latin Quarter, go back to look at my old schools, eat at my restaurants or drink an expresso at an outside café where I used to go with my mom, I savour it all.

Goat said...

Wow, I enjoyed Vagabonde's comment almost as much as your poem and that terrific first paragraph. The more sordid the description, the more beguiling the place sounds. I also loved the "I’ve got nothing to lose/But the hole in my shoes" rhyme!

I'm really intrigued (like most people of taste?) by the idea of visiting Paris. Hopefully I can arrange to be in love there. I couldn't feel any more lonesome or isolated than I do in Korea, and I suspect the food's better!

Ruth said...

I like your found poem collage. I enjoyed your prose reflections even more, and I thought you had jumped off where James Fenton left off in "The Alibi"; What's madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? (Roethke)

Perhaps you have been to Paris many times, and Vagabonde is right that it was simply the juxtaposition of your visit after the camino that tainted your mood. I haven't visited Paris enough times (7, I think) yet to experience this; I have gone into a state of heightened euphoria, always upside down in a good way (per George). But I truly embrace your prose images, which reflect the depths of the place, the pain of its truth. Sometimes the city is almost too much, every time you come around a corner or over a hill and there is more beauty. So strangely the tawdry truth lends it more palatable.

I must be talking nonsense.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks George, Vagabonde (welcome!), Goat and Ruth for your really interesting comments.

I suppose I've been to Paris four or five times for short visits, mainly in my teens and twenties. The first time I actually did sleep on a bench with those winos by the banks of the Seine (and woke in the middle of the night to find a rat on my sleeping bag. Oh, the youthful bohemian life, when you not only read Orwell, but also follow in his footsteps!) My longest stay was two or three weeks (perhaps a month, I can't remember) in my twenties when I visited a girlfriend (Carmen, whom I later married) who lived there. That was a brilliant time, and we really discovered the city.

I hadn't been to Paris for decades until just recently, at the end of my Le Puy GR 65 walk. Certainly, as Vagabonde says, we can come to Paris loaded with far too many expectations — after all, it's one of the most celebrated, written about, sung about, romanticised about places in the world. And it is beautiful, for sure — though (and here I agree again with Vagabonde) the Parisians can seem very snooty unless you know them well, and they are not at all like the friendly, provincial French.

Next time I'll definitely go accompanied, and I'm sure we'll have a fantastic time!

The Solitary Walker said...

PS Not nonsense, Ruth! I understand what you mean. And there's beauty in the tawdriness too, isn't there? As Toulouse-Lautrec and Baudelaire and Henry Miller and so many other artists recognised and described.

Susan Scheid said...

Such a beautiful tribute to the Paris of the imagination. It's simply brilliant to think how you came to this, given what you experienced in "real life." This reminds me, I can't really say why, of a Charles Trenet version of the first poem by Verlaine I learned, so long ago: here. Sometimes, the imaginary version is the best.

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks, Susan. I love that Verlaine poem, which I featured on my other blog 'Turnstone' last autumn. I also really like Charles Trenet — 'La Mer' is my favourite of his.

Dominic Rivron said...

When I think of Paris and music I always think of this (and the film, come to think of it)...


If I hear much more about Paris I'll be sending off for a passport (not had one for nearly 30 years - that's a thought).