A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
Things seem to be getting back to normal here, but not without a sort of teeth-clenched assertion of normalcy.
Last night I dropped by an art installation/poetry presentation on rue Richard Lenoir where my friend the Pittsburgh poet Deborah Bogen has a couple of pieces up. A huge, multi-floored space, much good artwork accompanied by text. Perhaps a hundred people in attendance, artists and their writer pals there, friends & family, curious droppers-in. Very much a “carry on” spirit, in spite of the fact that the venue was within blocks of Friday night’s slaughters. The street, though, not normal: people hurrying along to their destinations, the gates to the public park within the median divider chained, padlocked.
I got there just in time to hear Deborah read one of her prose poems, then headed down into the metro toward Beauborg for an event. Took the #6 train, transferred at Bastille to the #1, intending to get off at Châtelet, walk up toward the Pompidou. At Bastille a young woman boarded the train clearly frightened, laser-focused on her cell phone screen, & began urgently talking with strangers as we boarded. Kind citizens—they, too, checking their cell phones for news, tried to calm her—she seemed on the verge of a panic attack. Calme, they kept saying, il n’y a rien. (It’s nothing.) Just “something going on” near Bastille, maybe other places, but probably nothing.
Châtelet, I thought, might not just then be a good idea. Too big, too crowded, so instead I got out at Hôtel de Ville, decided to walk just a little longer in the direction of Beauborg/Saint Eustache. As I crossed a street on Rivoli a police van pulled up, three police jumped out, rifles in hand, peered down the street. I quickened my step. Stores and cafés on rue Saint-Martin, my route, were closing—that’s normal for Sunday night—but the bringing-in of chairs a little accelerated, I thought. Waiters looked at cell phone screens as they worked. I asked one what was going on; “I think it’s a false alarm,” he said.
At the event itself I spoke with a woman who’d earlier been leaving a metro station; police told those in the station to evacuate, and to hurry. She was “older,” maybe eighty, and spoke about how carefully she had to step in order not to fall. Later a man came in—he turned out to be one of the most obnoxious Americans I’ve met in a years—who was miffed that he’d been “inconvenienced,” he called it, coming along Saint-Martin just minutes after I had, herded with the wave of a policeman’s gun into a café, hustled to the upstairs salon, and told to stay there until further notice. “We might be here for a very long time,” a stranger beside him said in English. “Peut être overnight!” Turned out he’d been ushered into a Sunday evening meeting of a roomful of Rosicrucians, two of whom began proselytizing right away. I laughed when he told the story: what the hell was this—being whisked out of the street for fear of some crazy Islamists only to be imprisoned in a cell of crazy Rosicrucians? “I don’t see the humor in that at all,” said the American. Sorry, I’m Irish, I told him.
He was released after fifteen minutes when things calmed down. One helicopter over the area, but it was all a false alarm, the trip home happily uneventful. But the news later reported a panic in the Place de la Republique—a firecracker was said to have gone off—a crowd sprinting away, and though the report was surely overblown, clearly it doesn’t take much these days to cause a lot of people to want to get the hell out of a given area quickly.
Late this morning I headed down to the Comêdie-Francaise/Palais Royale area to meet my pal Jeffrey for a noodle lunch. It’s a good forty-minute walk from our place. I wanted to leave in time to be in front of Trinité church for the Paris-wide minute of silence at noon: not to “pray,” but really just to be within what I was sure would be a silent crowd honoring those dead and injured in the attacks. Our thoughts wouldn’t do a damned thing to bring back the dead, but perhaps in some energetic way the injured & the families of all might somehow receive good thoughts, some succour? I don’t know.
But I left a bit late to make it to Trinité, and when noon came found myself on rue Blanche just in front of the pompiers’ station. And there they were: in uniform, in formation, heads down, these first responders, most of them young, the age those attacked —all of them undoubtedly involved Friday—completely confused at first, reports said, by what they came into. Noon now, church bells began ringing, and at that moment shopkeepers & cooks & waiters came out of storefronts, stood facing the street individually, clasped hands at their waists and looked down—as I did, of course. For a moment, things did stop. Then a small white truck came down Blanche, its driver oblivious, people remained in solemn stances for a while, and the minute was over. I continued down the street, and within thirty steps saw that the driver of the panel truck had stopped, was now backing up, and for a moment I had the thought, disoriented, that he was backing up to go back in time, retrieve his lost minute; it was then that I realized my usual homeostasis is a little out of whack right now.
I did arrive at Trinité, and chided myself for what I’d naïvely, almost romantically expected. It was five past noon, the intersection was as busy as ever—walkers, drivers weaving in & out, and in front of the church, a group of tourists getting off a double-decker bus. Then, Trinité’s noon bells: five minutes late. Joni Mitchell’s Refuge of the Roads came into my head: “… and we laughed how our perfection/would always be denied…” Oh, well.
What stays with me as I write this is the scene of which I was an accidental part: shopkeepers and restaurant workers standing at noon on rue Blanche, just at the curb, in their quiet minute. They could have stayed inside, of course, made their obeisance privately, in a darker, more intimate place. But it seemed almost that these men and women, some carefully dressed, some in the stained white aprons of restaurant cooks or bussers, were there to pay honor not only to the dead, to the injured, but also to the streets of Paris themselves: the daily streets around which their lives have been lived, will continue to be lived.
copyright 2015 Gerald Fleming.