Letter to Alfred Corn
Alfred, we both know there's little dactylic pentameter
that can be spotted and quoted from classic anthologies
(although Hephaistion's Handbook on Meters cites "Atthis I
loved you once long ago" as an example, without much on
Sappho, but still, could a presence be much more felicitous ?)
so this epistle is, much like good friendship, unorthodox,
framed both by Sappho and schoolmasters, and, overseeing the
words of itinerants, Wystan? Jean-Arthur ? Elizabeth ?
Aimé and Léopold lighting the Left Bank with Négritude ?
August has shut down the shops and cafés on my market street ;
when they re-open, la rentrée, fresh start, it will be without
me. I'll be back in New York, feeling ten times more alien
than where the polyglot boulevards intersect , linking up
11e and 20e, Maghreb, punk chic, kashruth, chinoiserie.
Once one could say that Manhattan was barely America,
which -- in Manhattan -- was meant as an insider's compliment.
Now it's as flag-ridden as the Republican "heartland," where
you behave better than Ovid in exile, not whimpering,
making the best of a stint as a scholar-in-residence.
For two good weeks we were neighbors, and living our parallel
lives, you at liberty, sampling the fruits of the capital --
notably, joys of the eye, its museums and boulevards,
while I attempted to pilot a relay of immigrant
artisans (David and Mario, Portuguese masons and
Nicolas, Serbian, plumber, and Sokli, Tunisian,
painter, Jérôme, electrician, from Sénégal, none of whose
papers I'd swear were in order, no more than my own are, all
working unsupervised for an unscrupulous contractor,
sleazy, incompetent, straight out of some New Wave gangster film,
who extracts money with threats from me, lets them go weeks unpaid)
-- if I was lucky and someone showed up on the work-site where
shelter was knocked down to gougings in plaster, precarious
walls spouting naked bouquets of distressed electricity.
That was the place I'd returned to with certainty suddenly
gone, when my life was made moot by disease, when companionate
passion had turned to disdain's acrimonious grievances
and I was left a late-quinquagenarian celibate
-- still, when I mounted the spiral stairs slant with three centuries'
steps (like the furrows defining the smile of a laureate)
I was home safe in the cave that I'd made for the possible.
(Who, though is safe, from the "shocking disease," from the bulldozer
wreaking revenge for the sins of the sons on their families,
or from the dynamite-bookbag in the cafeteria,
or from the tinderbox arrogant ignorance lights for us,
turgid with power, and willing to offer up holocaust ?)
Ambulant scholar uprooted from tenure-track coteries
(who dared rip open the envelopes of the academy)
you are an expert at wanderings, vagaries, pilgrimage,
sometimes volitional, sometimes compelled by necessity.
Paris was part of your salad days and your apprenticeships :
Benjamin, Baudelaire, bars, Henry James, baroque opera.
When you returned to it, changed, had it changed for you ? Every
street I walk down with one friend, then alone, then with somebody
else is three streets; is a new glyph incised on a palimpsest
someone, a painter, a novelist, poet or essayist
also inflected by naming, exulting or suffering
there, what she noticed, he turned from, we commented on as we
strolled, in no hurry, towards something convivial. (We could have
stayed on the rue de Belleville to the Buttes-Chaumont, following
Breton and Aragon, seen if the statue was voluble...)
Late afternoon of Assumption, a holiday layered with
faces and pages and facets of (largely) this Hexagone :
nuns in white habits who sang a cappella, Le Thoronet's
ruins behind them sky-domed, or the nine-o'clock mass which was
washed in the filtered light Matisse's windows poured down the pews,
dramas in Vence, below, held for post-prandial gossip-fests.
This year it's solo, the 3e, and who'll intercede for us
itinerants while the world goes to hell in a handbasket
(floats like a discarded dinner-dress down to the aqueduct ) ?
Still, the square's peaceable kingdom of Chinese and African
toddlers, mixed couples, clochards with guitar singing Dylan songs
-- slurring the lyrics a bottle of plonk helps approximate --
stays what it's been, just as friendship seems durable. Let me at
least for your birthday, just past, be, though cautious, an optimist,
who loves the world both despite and because of its disarray,
planning new flâneries shared in our mutable capital.
("At this I loved you then long ago when you were
a scruffy ungracious child" was my neophyte's take on it.)
Published in Gay & Lesbian Review and The London Magazine (U.K.)
Issue 15 or Lodestar Quarterly home page