Parfum de Rose

La Vie en Rose - À la Porte de Clignancourt - Black Coffee - Fleuve National - Life in the Provinces

La Vie en Rose 

 

When you’re walking back into Paris from the ruins of Sarcelles and Saint Denis

make sure to admire the stolen obelisk

the haute couture

and the grim faces of the SNCF workers about to go on strike

 

Tell yourself that you didn’t buy

and that you aren’t wearing rose-coloured glasses

from that shop on the Champs-Élysées

 

Keep telling yourself that this is the best of all possible worlds

that there's a grand and circular harmony in the Place d’Italie

and in the footprints of Molière and Art

that anyone can see

À la Porte de Clignancourt

(After Jacques Brel)

One of the great joys in life is to watch a girl walk into the light

from inside some dingy bar to see her white ankles sing

while the sailors coming into the port sniff the air

and imagine green mermaids wandering the streets.

At night the bar is full of gold-diggers

and girls who no longer sport tails,

eyes like whirlpools, or lashes like ropes in the storm

that the sailors remember dimly from their collective dream 

of being ship-wrecked on a floating island in a steam 

and being eaten by pretty cannibals 

and completely forlorn.

The dream turns to mist

until the accordion stirs the wind in the sails 

and the sailors rise from their codswept tables

and cast their nets across the planks of the dancefloor

shimmering with mermaids

who feared that because the seas were full of danger

there were no pirates anymore.

 

Black Coffee

(From Rue de Poteau to Boulevard Ornano)

 

I feel like a coffee, a black coffee, with lots of sugar in it

so I walk southward up Rue de Poteau

past La Piscine, which serves mojitos strong as the Cuban tide

of memories within me (for a minute I'm lost

deep in green and sandy memories on the beach at Playa Ancón)

but I shake myself and move onward

past Jules Joffrin and the Café du Nord, soon forgetting the guantanamera

and hum instead Dans le port d'Amsterdam y'a des marins qui dansent... *

I turn left on Rue Ordener till I reach Rue Ornano

and open the doors of Le Rallye

the streets are noisy but the café is noisier

booming with the voices of Senegal and Gabon

descendants of those who weathered the tides of history

robbed by pirate ships

from the ports along the Gold Coast and Zanzibar

to be reborn in the markets of Cairo and New Orleans

the galley ships and the caravans

of the Western and Eastern trades come back to me

through the seaweed of my pirate past

and I find myself dreaming of the majestic Nubian on board

stretching her dark arms to the jungle sky

and ask the waiter, timidly

so quietly that he can barely hear me

if they have cane sugar

———-

* Jacques Brel: In the port of Amsterdam / There are sailors who dance...



Fleuve National

(From Parc des Buttes-Chaumont to Place de la République) 

 

the streets flow like streams, combine into rivers

downhill from the pagoda high on Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

down Rue de la Villette, splashing into the Vietnamese shops

on Rue de Belleville, funnelling southwest past Edith Piaf

singing in the doorway about Ménilmontant

and la belle France of yesteryear

her voice lost in the gurgling of cars

racing downward toward the parting of histories

liquid traffic flowing left and right

to the Mekong and the Niger

straight through the intersection

past the fall of Tangiers and Dien Bien Phu

scarf-bannings and burning cars

squeezing, chopsticks scattered over a bronze Maghreb table

into the heady currents of Place de la République

  

 

Life in the Provinces

(Place des Augustins, Aix-en-Province)

 

It was as if they'd travelled overland from the centre of the world

to an outpost fringed with barbarism

 

It was as if they were from Athens or Rome

and they'd come to shed some light in a faraway colony

in a dark corner of the Earth

but all they found were people who had no idea who they were

 

One could see it in their wide open eyes

with their seal-brown irises

soft like the eyes of pansies

and in the wonderfully hidden

yet not completely forbidden way May-lin slid her slim fingers

underneath the hand that dangled so closely

almost asking to be taken

as they walked across Place des Augustins

in this alien land, oceans from Suzhou

 

It was as if she was asking to be embraced

if not by this new land

then by the one who shared her estrangement from it

after they walked up Rue Espiarat to their rented apartment

almost asking for that soft hand to caress her golden shoulders

and slide the white cotton strap downward

letting the dress fall next to the books barely opened

 

Neither had found much company to keep with them

although the brochures had painted a very different picture

of the famous Alliance Française in Aix-en-Provence

where this fad of a language had recently sprouted

with its Chanel and its Jean-Sol Partre and its unpronounceable Rs

as if it were a French concession

blessing the mortal beings of this Earth with an angelic tongue

 

Except that they were stuck in a classroom six hours a day

while the thin Provençal sun rose without a word

budding in the early Spring

 

May-lin thought of wild cherry blossoms and fragrant melon-seed tea

as she watched the hard Northerners drinking cup after cup of strong coffee

in their Patagonian jackets, grimacing bar-room smiles at them

as if they were common labourers bathing in salt water on the shores of Aberdeen

 

They reminded her of marauding Huns

and she wondered why the French hadn’t built a wall

to stop the northern giants with their guttural sounds

from descending into the cafés and southern valleys of lavender

 

On the street she squeezed the hand beside her

as she thought about the morning spent sitting in wooden rows

two wooden statues with indecipherable smiles

living up to the stereotypes

Even during the breaks

they could barely talk to their neighbours

who kept shouting things in English and German

stupid things about Guinness and a girl called Miley

 

She squeezed Chungtao's fingers tighter

almost begging to crush her lips

into those lips she'd been watching

trying to master the long u sound

and the incomprehensible articles

le, la, les

 

For the past two weeks she'd watched closely from the corner of her eye

as Chuntao mangled the French language with those soft lips

painted with an almost translucent lacquer

Pêche Originale  

that they bought at the trendy cosmetics shop, Essence de Provence

 

As she stood on the cobbled street, key in hand

she heard herself say, Chuntao, monte

her soft pink tongue

the soft lips

that she lacquered every evening

with what she called Péché Provençal  

 

——

Next: Pyramids

Back to the top of this page

Poetry Contents