from KING OF A RAINY COUNTRY (after Baudelaire)
Wanting a brioche for breakfast, I took the
back street with the hippy murals. The sky was dull but dry.
Approaching me was a woman with a child and carrying what had
to be a ukulele in a small black case. I hurried on,
calculating which boulangerie would be the best bet.
As I entered the chosen one a beggar on the pavement was shouting, not at me, not at anybody. A black poodle was waiting at the door. I emerged with the half bread/ half cake and remembered I needed coffee and grape juice, so I veered for Carrefour. The yellow sign with the name was lit up like a lighthouse beam dimmed by fog. I found my two items, added a third – confiture aux figues violettes. At the check-out I realised I had insufficient cash so I eased my card into the machine. A jolly young dark-bearded man queued behind me was engaged in cheerful banter with the cashier. They were both laughing. I bustled my new belongings into a plastic bag and scuttled out of the supermarket.
I nearly ran into a soldier in camouflage uniform with a black machine gun nestling in his arms. What was he doing here? I felt like I was back on the streets of Derry in the 70s. I stood aside to let him walk on, but he was in no hurry. I knew it would be bad luck to march past him. Apart from anything else, that machine gun could go off accidentally. I remembered stories about it having happened before.
When eventually I got halfway up the street the young man from the supermarket came running after me – votre carte, monsieur. Merci, I said, merci, as he walked away. I realised that if it hadn’t been for the soldier, I’d have been gone from sight, and would have no idea of what had happened to my card. Just then I heard faint music that had to be emanating from a ukulele. Each plucked note seemed to drop from the cloudy sky. They all seemed slightly out of tune.
That night I couldn’t sleep. I kept seeing
soldiers, they were walking along every street in Paris. They
could see in the dark. They could fly – I watched three of
them drift across the face of the moon. One shot at it, a
quick rat-tat-tat from his machine gun that downed a bat who
was in the wrong place at the very wrong time. Another fired
his musket at an owl – he missed the first time, but
muzzle-loaded again twice within a minute and finally downed
the big-eyed nocturnal bird, whose corpse fell on the sleeping
head of a homeless man, who jumped to his feet, shouting.
I felt like a cognac but had none, so I opened a bottle of nondescript Bordeaux. I also, for some reason, peeled a baby onion and chewed it raw, then swallowed the pieces. Was that the explosion of a bomb I heard faintly from far across the city? I switched on my iPad and looked at the breaking news but there was no report of a bomb, in Paris or anywhere. I slipped a CD of Ali Farka Toure into my laptop.
I opened the shutters and took my glass of wine out onto the balcony. I leant over and looked down at the Rue Rodier which was more or less empty – apart from a couple who were being too public with their intimate activity. ‘Baudelaire, are you there?’, I whispered into the not quite dark. ‘I need some guidance on how to continue responding to all this.’ At that the sky took on a slight lavender hue, the moon seemed to revolve, two stars fell into the Atlantic or the Mediterranean, I couldn’t say which, and a dog howled somewhere up in Montmartre. If I didn’t know better I’d say I was stoned on marijuana, or that Baudelaire was, despite his being in the land of the dead, and not having had any time for the stuff. Ali Farka Toure’s njarka sawed away like an aural dancing snake in the room behind me.
I poured myself another glass of the red wine. I’d heard no further sound of what might be explosions or no further shooting, and the soldiers had left the sky, which had resumed its normal colour. There was half a cooked beetroot in the fridge which I picked up, ground pepper onto, and devoured, then washed the red from my fingers. I lay down on the sofa and looked at the ceiling. For some reason I’d have welcomed seeing a large spider up there. Or hearing a mouse rustling about in the corner of the room. I thought of the white, albino mouse I’d kept as a pet, that I’d given the name of Luigi to, and that I’d let go up one sleeve and down the other, emerging with his pink eyes flashing. My mother had hated that little creature. She’d called it a rat. Once when I went off to the Gaeltacht in Ranafast for three weeks, she starved the mouse and I came back to find it shrivelled and dead. Murderer!
Why were these memories coming back to me? Was it the armed policemen and soldiers? Was it the still shocking news of those who’d been gunned down, or blown up by the fanatics in November 2015? I sat back and tried to let the music wash over me. Once I’d seen Ali Farke Toure play live in the South Bank Centre in London and I’d never forget it. I poured one more glass of the wine and put the cork in the bottle.
Cimetière du Montparnasse
When I went out into Rue Rodier this morning
there was a short, baldish, mad woman screeching at all and
sundry as she walked up the middle of the road. Is this how
the day begins, I asked myself. I decided there and then I had
to go to the Cimetière du Montparnasse and stand in front of
Baudelaire’s grave. These long-distance attempts at
communicating with him weren’t working too well.
I eventually found the grave. It wasn’t the grandest, I’d have to say. An off-white tombstone rising from a cement grey and white horizontal stone that I’d call cramped, and yes scruffy. Not what I’d expected for arguably France’s best-ever poet. On the tombstone, among other names, Charles Baudelaire, à l’age de 46 ans, le 31 août 1867. Far too young, really. It didn’t mention that he’d died of syphilis. On the flat stone loads of flowers, red mainly, a preponderance of roses. Some of these were withered. There were also, oddly enough, a number of Metro tickets, a 20 cent coin, and a cigarette. And little stones, too angular to be called pebbles. And there were at least three scribbled notes. Two of these were in French, the third in English. I copied down what it said – I wait for a burning dreamland, a temple in flames, come the unknown (the commas are mine). Were these lines of Baudelaire’s in translation? (I stuck them into Google when I got back but the search yielded nothing.) Or were they a message for me? I was intending to ask him what was going to happen in France, and if there was any way I should be responding in what I was writing. If this was his answer, it was a pretty gloomy one. I verbalised my question to him, suddenly unaware if he’d understood English or not. No answer came back in any language. I did a sort of a genuflection and walked slowly away.
As I was here I decided to also pay homage to Beckett. I’d once found his grave before and left a note on it – Godot here, where the fuck are you? This time I had difficulty locating it, but I did. The dates were 1906 - 1989. A longer stint of life. No tombstone, but a more refined flat stone, in grey speckled marble. Beckett would have found these times troubled too.
I remembered the Peruvian poet, César Vallejo, used to lie here. His most famous poem opened with the line I will die in Paris in the rain. It had been raining the day I went looking for his grave, and in my search I kept meeting a Peruvian couple on the same quest. Eventually it was explained to us that a week previously the Peruvian authorities had exhumed Vallejo’s remains for reburial in Lima. At least Baudelaire was still here. I was glad I’d come to see him.
Because Baudelaire loved the circus I wanted
to see one in Paris, and I wanted, if possible, to see one he
might have seen. The obvious one, after a bit of research, was
the Cirque d’Hiver which started in 1852 (called
then Cirque Napoléon), so he might very well have
visited it. In fact, given his predilection for the circus and
all such activities, I could be sure he’d been there.
What could I find out about the Cirque d’Hiver? The first thing I had to rule out was that it wasn’t just a winter circus, given the name. Apparently not, but the bad news was that the next run of performances were in Le Havre. Did I want to go enough to take a train to Normandy, and pay for a night in a hotel there? Baudelaire certainly wouldn’t have seen it in Le Havre. It probably didn’t travel anywhere back then.
And I wanted to know what animals were left performing in the circus, if any. When I’d lived in London I’d witnessed the shocking development of animal-free circuses. I have never wanted animals to suffer, but the memory I had of circuses coming to Donegal in my childhood, with satanic monkeys, terrifying tigers, solitary lions, remained very powerful to me. Those animals had not seemed mistreated. I had never been too thrilled by the clowns or the tightrope walkers. It was the circus animals that had excited me. I couldn’t find out much about what I’d see in Le Havre.
I suddenly remembered that the wonderful Elizabeth Bishop had penned a poem called ‘Cirque d’Hiver’. I tracked it down, and re-read it, for the first time in years. It was charming, and beautifully made, as one might expect, but it was slightly alarming. It depicted the movement of a mechanical toy – a little circus horse, with real white hair, with a little dancer on his back, both pierced by a stake that turned into a big metal key beneath the horse. It didn’t hold out much hope for seeing real animals.
I decided I needed to go to Rue Amelot to see the building of the Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione, as it’s known since the Bouglione family took it over. I wanted to see the building as I’d never seen a circus that didn’t take place in a tent. The building was apparently an oval polygon with 20 sides, and Corinthian columns at the angles, but no tent pole. Baudelaire would have loved it.
The Quai de Bourbon on the Île Saint-Louis
was unusually crowded as I walked down it, looking for a
famous ice-cream place I remembered being brought to one
previous time I was in Paris. Trouble was I couldn’t remember
the name. I walked as briskly as the hordes would allow me,
keeping an eye out for pictures of ice-cream cones. Suddenly a
man brushed against me in passing and I somehow knew strongly
I’d wanted all my life to meet this special personage. The
smile and the wink he gave me persuaded me he too was not
averse to a meeting. I could not resist returning both the
smile and the wink, although I never indulge in winking,
believing it to be too arch.
I turned and looked for him. He was easy enough to spot, being resplendent in a dark red suit that looked like it had been designed by Armani. His hair was black and long, and beautifully styled. His face brought to mind medieval Italian depictions of the visages of angels.
He did not turn to greet me, but he knew I was there. I stuck close to him and began following down some hidden steps to an underground club of some kind. The door opened by itself to moody jazz music that was extremely tasteful and not too loud. The place was crowded but none of the men and woman there, though all unusually beautiful, looked happy. I’d never seen eyes that looked so empty, or faces that showed how much they wanted to feel more alive. There was no dancing, or kissing, or even much walking around. No one seemed to be drunk, either.
By the time I sat down at a table with my new friend I felt I’d known him for fifty years. We ate exquisite foie gras with mustard seeds and green onion, drenched in jus d’oie. We drank an inordinate quantity of the best St Emilion I’d ever put down my gullet, and weirdly, after some hours, I realised I was no more drunk than he was. The wine kept coming.
Then a delectable young woman who looked like she wanted to hang herself or had hanged herself brought along a pack of playing cards – an amazing-looking deck that had a different imaginary animal painted on the back of each card. My companion favoured a variant of poker called Texas Hold Em, one that I knew was preferred by the professionals. He played so well he might have been a professional himself. I fancied myself as a poker player, so I foolishly pitted myself against him, despite the high stakes he insisted we play for. And so I lost my soul to him. I wasn’t too bothered, I confessed, as I didn’t believe in the concept of a soul, or an afterlife, even, though who then were these people in the club with me? At any rate I displayed an admirable indifference to the loss.
We tired of the card-game soon afterwards and took to chatting in earnest. We discussed America and Russia, and the pros and cons of the Internet. We debated the current state of international football, of which my companion had a low view. We got onto the arts, which again he felt was not as fully-firing as in previous eras. What later poet, he asked, had improved on Baudelaire? I had to agree with him on that one. He wanted to know why no one on earth realised how absurd they were being in their beliefs and outrageous demands. His own worldwide bad name didn’t seem to bother him too much, but he assured me that what he most wanted to do was abolish superstition. He confided that only once had he been apprehensive of his own powers, and that had been when he’d heard a clever Australian priest (and he listened to them all) declaim from the pulpit that the Devil’s most skilful trick was to convince you he doesn’t exist.
I wanted to ask him about his old friend and sparring-partner, God, but as I’d convinced myself I no longer believed in Him, I didn’t. I doubted The Shining One had ever granted such a lengthy audience to any mortal. I didn’t want to overstep my welcome. In the end, as the first streaks of dawn lightened the windows, the great personage fêted by so many poets over the centuries, said to me: ‘I’d like you to keep a happy memory of me, so to compensate for the inestimable loss of your soul I’m giving you the stake you’d have won if you’d been luckier. All your desires from now on will be realised for you. You’ll be immensely powerful, you’ll be adored, rich, you’ll flit from country to country at will. All the loveliest women in the world will fall for you.’
If it hadn’t been for the crowd of people around me I’d have thrown myself on the ground in front of this generous being and kissed his green crocodile-skinned shoes, thanking him for his immense kindness. But very quickly after I had finally taken my leave, I began to have serious doubts about his delivering his promises to me. If I’d believed in God I might have prayed to Him right then to ask him to make sure the Devil kept his word.
I was beginning to have second thoughts
about my idea of branching out into painting. Oh, I could draw
a line with graphite as good as any non-professional, but
being realistic, a lot more was needed. And painters tended to
start scarily young, didn’t they? I’d once had the pleasure of
visiting the Picasso Museum in Malaga, the city where Pablo
grew up. They had some canvases painted by him as a child and
they were amazingly accomplished. The museum also had quotes
from Picasso, recorded at different stages in his life. One of
them was this: ‘When I was a child I painted like an adult,
now that I’m an adult I keep trying to paint like a child.’
Very neat, I’d thought then and still do. I suspected I was
incapable of painting like a child or like an adult.
The idea of becoming a forger had forced its inglorious way into my mind, then. I’d tried to bar its entry but couldn’t. The outrageous question as to whether Baudelaire had ever done art forgeries or not was even forming in there. I knew he’d been more famous in his lifetime as an art critic than as a poet, and a lot of his friends were artists. Maybe some evening over wine Edouard Manet egged him on to copy a work of his beloved Delacroix, to great hilarity in both men – Manet stepping in occasionally to show what to do. Baudelaire certainly left enough evidence to prove he understood how a painting worked and didn’t work. In a famous essay, he recounts joining ‘a crowd of fools’ standing in front of a painting, where flies could be seen buzzing about, and Baudelaire was interested in it only because of ‘the attraction of the horrible’. He wanted, he writes, ‘… to study the moral character of a man who had begotten such a piece of criminal extravagance. I wagered that he must be fundamentally evil. I made inquiries and my intuition was gratified to win this psychological wager. I learnt that this monster regularly got up before dawn; that he had ruined his housekeeper and that he only drank milk.’
Right, that was that, then. I got the feeling though, that if the man described had better sleeping patterns and drank good wine he wouldn’t have been a better painter. What would Baudelaire have made of the moral character of a forger? Not much, probably. Maybe I should crumple this idea of a new career and drop it in the poubelle.
First, though, I’d check out a famous forger of about my own age – a German-born man originally named Wolfgang Fischer, but who has long operated as Wolfgang Belracchi (taking the surname from his wife, Helene). This duplicitous fellow forged, according to international police, more than fifty works of art, and passed them off successfully, amassing millions of euros. Among the works forged were three by Heinrich Campendonk and five by Max Ernst – his forgery of the latter’s painting ‘La Fôret’ was so good that it fooled Ernst’s widow. Belracchi has said he got a special kick out of standing in front of a painting in a big gallery like MOMA, knowing he’d painted it. Well, the police caught up with him and chucked him into a German prison for six years, ordering him to make huge reparations. He got out after three years, however, on condition he only painted in his own name from now on. The interesting thing is that his own paintings now sell for millions anyway, and he goes around New York with the aura of a hippy rock star, while his New York gallerist calls him the Robin Hood of Art.
Not a bad recommendation for the career of a forger, then. I’d give it some serious thought, despite any possible misgivings Baudelaire might have had. The one thing that worried me, though, was that even Belracchi had started young – he’d successfully copied a Picasso painting when he was fourteen.
I had to push my way onto the Métro
yesterday at Franklin D Roosevelt because it was so crowded. A
big, disreputable fellow with long, stringy hair and dirty
clothes made it hard for me to get on, as he stood there in
the entrance with a shopping trolley, packed with paper and
books. I squeezed into a negotiated niche behind him and
glowered. He paid no attention, engrossed as he was in reading
the book that he had open on top of the pile. It took me two
stops to realise what he was reading so intently – a French
translation of the Koran!
I was off that Metro train as quick as a rat leaving a corpse the police were arriving at. The Koran? Why in fuck’s name was he reading that? What did he know that I didn’t know? Had he been warned he needed to convert to being a Muslim? The least shall be most, and all that? Or was he slowly or quickly being groomed into becoming a terrorist? The Metro, with its lack of security checks, was all too ripe for such activity.
As I stood there on the platform at Pyramides I began to feel I might have overreacted. The next train rattled and bustled to a halt. This one was quite a bit emptier. I even found a seat. I was busy making notes on an envelope when I had an interruption – I was about five stops from Cadet where I was intending to get off. It was a busker, of a sort – I was used to them from the U-Bahn in Berlin. There, they would usually be Romanian gypsies playing the violin off-key and singing maudlin, clichéd songs, but this was different. For a start, a CD machine was switched on and rap music was issuing. Then the young man began singing something edgy in Arabic that kept to the insistent rhythm. He didn’t look Arabic, no more than the man on the first train with the Koran had, but still. Was something happening that I should know about? I didn’t get off this train prematurely, but I was glad when my stop came.
As I walked up the platform towards the exit, I saw a huge advertising poster featuring a cat that had been dyed bright pink. It was wearing a silver crown. Who would do that to a cat for profit, I wondered? What this was the modern commercial world was coming to? Was that part of what was being reacted to by the Islamists?
I came up the stairs at Cadet and there was a child beggar sitting on the top step, holding out a plastic cup. He was barely eight years old. He had black hair, which was covered with a black hood. He had an Arab complexion.
Shaking my head, I fled to my street, Rue Rodier, to lie low. I took the lift up to the flat. I had no food in, I quickly realised, and I was hungry, so I had to go out again. I had no desire to go far. There was an Algerian restaurant up the street, I remembered. I’d been wanting to try it out for while so I decided to give it a go.
I walked in and it was completely empty. Nevertheless, a very polite waiter came out to me and sat me down at a window table. I ordered couscous with lamb and a carafe of Algerian wine. While I waited I began to admire the table lamp. It was a metal camel with the lamp-pole sticking out of its back. Around the bulb was a fringe of tiny red beads strung on white string, and depicted on the fringe, three times, was a basic portrayal of a woman in red, blue and black.
The couscous was fine, the Algerian wine also. The emptiness of the restaurant was pretty spooky, though, especially when I remembered what had been happening in Paris recently, and the fears that were abroad – the soldiers with machine guns that were walking around the local streets. Restaurants like this were clearly being blanked now, a reaction to the not too-distant shootings and bombs. When I descended the stairs to the basement toilet, and found the stair-carpet very worn, I knew there had been a decent and regular clientele here before. This drop in popularity was a very unfair development, I felt. The standard of the cooking was still good. Nobody should be held to blame for terrorism because of their skin colour, or their arbitrarily presumed connection to the perpetrators.
[Matthew Sweeney’s most recent collection, Inquisition Lane, came out from Bloodaxe in 2015. His previous collection, Horse Music (Bloodaxe, 2013), won the inaugural Piggott Poetry Prize. In between there were two pamphlets in 2014, The Gomera Notebook (Shoestring) and Twentyone Men and a Ghost (The Poetry Business).]
Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Sweeney, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.