Letter from Paris
I have seen Durer’s famous Rhinoceros and it is real.
I’ve been drinking Kir Royale with a topping of red rose petals.
Poor rose, unable to defend itself!
I read Michaux and learn French for “lemon grass”,
on labels in Tang Frères, for mango.
A block away the Seine does its thing,
Tantric couples kissing on a bridge of padlocked hearts,
a barge of steaming rubbish passing.
A bonded pair of white swans nest
on the Île de Cité.
Apollinaire grew tired of antique words,
but WW1 never killed his need of them.
The Rhinoceros in Paris does wonders for writers’ block.
I imagine Heinrich Heine saw Paris full of spires
and compared it to Innsbruck, or Nuremberg,
an exile’s town haunted by chimneys,
gargoyles and manticores.
I see ‘ten thousand chimneys spume’ –
a poet’s metaphor for the libidinous
in the Age of Riesling and Euro self-regard.
Writing proceeds like a categorical aperitif
paid for on infinite credit.
My Paris is spireless – more rotundas,
Second and Third Empire.
Paris is my mother’s Buddhist sutra on illusion
and all the concentric circles of our suffering.
Paris is full of words I will never understand,
relatives I will never meet,
chairs I will never sit on
in galleries that will outlive me.
The poets’ women are “gone from their lives”,
like my mother-in-law,
a blitz evacuee
who became a model of dyslectic beauty
“revealed ten thousand times”.
I do not promise to make sense of predecessors
who can’t make Paris theirs – a territory
like rivers. I am not employed
to define Paris or to explain
why Carla Bruni’s pregnancy should interest us,
and why she married Nicolas.
I don’t know. What did she see in him?
Nicolas knew the names of flowers, she said.
Yesterday we studied questions, the open and the closed,
then stopped to watch a demo,
distracted by chants the class rushed to the windows,
a thousand striking teachers seemed important.
This is our French: American NATO wife,
Korean husband, Russian lawyer,
the fur loving Romanian coiffeuse,
the priest from Bucharest.
We finish with a video of creole Réunion.
On the way home I stop for Viennese poppy seed cake.
Heine came to Paris, kept writing in German,
his partner couldn’t read his poems.
Translating them into French didn’t help her,
but didn’t hurt.
She was German, only ever spoke in German,
and never forgot it.
I will never be any more French, or blond,
the way the 10th is African, the way the 4th is poodles.