Monday, September 5, 2016

Why my Pere Lachaise poem doesn't work

I'm teaching Creative Writing this semester.  The man who usually teaches it is off on sabbatical, so I get to teach it, which I thoroughly enjoy.

I have a delightful group of students- 17 of them- and they are enthusiastic and engaged in the class.

I am learning as much as I hope they are.

The assignment for tomorrow's class is to read and discuss Chapter  2 and Chapter 8 of our text,
The Making of a Story.

I am using Tom's syllabus and texts, and this is a great one.  It's loaded with wonderful stories as models as well as evocative prompts and exercises.
Anyhow...  In reading Chapter 2, titled "The Splendid Gift of Not Knowing,"  I was reminded of Richard Hugo's great book  The Triggering Towns, which I own and read about twenty years ago.
So the author of our text quotes Hugo's observation that in poetry there is a "triggering subject" and then there is the "real subject."
I knew that.
But it hit me tonight.  I thought of my poem  "October in Pere Lachaise" and knew I had never been satisfied with it, although I included it in my book  Vexed Questions.
It hit me that the poem describes the triggering subject, but never touches the real subject... and what is the real subject?  Death?  Death and Fame?  Death and Memory?  Something there that I must think about more.
Here is the poem.  I have a feeling that I will be revising it extensively.
October in Pere Lachaise
“Like all true stories, it begins and ends in a cemetery”
  The Shadow of the Wind
Walk through the wide gateway
on an October afternoon. Notice
golden  dust motes  rise from cobblestones,
 dry leaves underfoot, faded green overhead
in slant afternoon light.
The living visitors unfold their maps.
Stand above the concrete slab where
Simone Signoret and Yves Montand lie together-
Try to say goodbye. Everywhere, stone
men with handlebar mustaches guard
crowded city of the dead,
tombs like row houses.
Black iron bat spreads wings on somebody’s gate.
Move  living lips as you recite
the names of artists and  writers
under these cobblestones,
litany of pens and brushes:
Balzac ( head on a platter)
Saint Saenz
Colette, Corot, Callas,
Gustav Dore over there,
whose specters haunt the pages of the Inferno-
Dante and Virgil, like the
Black and White Magpies, big as crows,
complain and flap away, startled, as you
approach the chapel gazebo
where Abelard and Heloise
 lie side by side ,  stone effigies like medieval monarchs
in Westminster Abbey.
Remember her words to him:
We fluctuate long between love and hatred
before we can arrive at tranquillity,
 and we always flatter ourselves
 with some forlorn hope
that we shall not be utterly forgotten.
Is that Theodore Gericault, that
 prone stone  man with brush and palette
reclining on top of the tomb, young, swirling shirt,
 staring out over the headstones
 thinking of what to put next
on the canvas,
what color to apply to the roiling grim
Raft of the Medusa?
Contemplate the concrete context of
Raspail: veiled figure reaching up
to grasp the grille of the mausoleum,
his widow, yearning to join him…
urns upheld by angel faces, while winged skulls
 bolster the four corners.
Bronze Victor Noir,
killed in a duel,
laid out in his best suit,
boots with square toes,
top hat by his side,
prostrate on top of the slab that
contains him.
Sunday wind busies itself,
searches among the crunching leaves,
clusters of trees,
evergreen shrubs,
layers and hills throughout this largest public park in Paris
and its narrow sidewalks.
You come across a
boy with dog stretching forepaws into his lap, another
boy with laced up shoes, hair in ringlets like Fauntleroy,
young nude man and woman lying on their backs
side by side, heads inclined to each other,
while another woman
kneels above them on one knee,
one step above them.
She stretches out her arms like wings.
Trip on an oak tree
growing out of tomb,
roots crack the concrete slabs. Lift your eyes to the
monumentally casual man whose huge toes
curl around the edges of his platform.
Tread the tangle of streets and alleys:
Who named them?
Avenue lateral du Nord,
Branches of Chemin Bourget,
Avenue du Puits,
Chemin du Coq,
Chemin du Pere Eternel,
Chemin Moliere et La Fontaine,
Chemin du Dragon…

Despondent cherub
elbow on stone, hand holding up his chin
regards the early deaths:
stone baby, stone pillow under curly head,
left arm bent at elbow and pudgy hand curled
round a rattle,
right arm at side –
someone has put a living red rose there…
his left leg bent at knee,
head turned a bit,
sleeping in stone.

There’s more of this:
Concrete young mother reclining
with her baby in her arms,
baby at her breast,
Smile on her face,
Buried together

Who still gets flowers?
Sarah Bernhardt
Rosa Bonheur
Edith Piaf
Oscar Wilde
Gertrude Stein
Chopin, with seated girl, head bowed,
holding a cross and stone flowers in her lap.
Living pink begonias bloom on Modigliani.
Jim Morrison, awash in roses,
daily visited by aging Yanks.

You see originals and copies:
Angel models from Chartres and Notre Dame
Angels from the vision of a 19th century carver
One concrete slab with two black bronze arms
punching through the lid, hands clasped,
begging for escape.

With the flapping Magpies,
squawk your eulogies
Into the warm golden air.

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