Poetry Prizes

It is warm in Paris this morning, perhaps unseasonably warm. I think I saw something about an unseasonably warm weekend on the news on the treadmill at the gym yesterday. The sun is squaring its angles on the church across the street (I have just made the bed, which is my working space, legs up, books spread around me, the ideal surface, everything at hand), the pigeons fluff up their wings in the sun, the crows visit a buttress, looking for scraps from the couple who live in an apartment on the roof, whose Virginal (I wrote Virginia, the computer corrected) Creeper is flaming red. I have just checked for falling stones. Workmen are peering into a manhole, open at ground level. Maybe they are speeding up my internet connection?

I am revising my Baudelaire translation, which I'd set aside for several months, and have returned to with fresh--and hopefully more objective--eyes. Some of it strikes me as good, and some needs more work. It will always need more work, of course. Like everything else. Like the poems I might send to a competition at the TLS, or I might not. Poetry competitions are a mug's game. If this one is hoping to pay its prizes and its judges with the entry fees, there will have to be several thousand applicants for the honour of being one of three poets featured on the poetry pages of the TLS in the Christmas issue. I'm thinking maybe not. 


At night, before bed, I meditate for 15 or 20 minutes. I took a mindfulness class some years ago, I have the tapes, I still use them. The voice calms me. I probably know the text by heart, but it crowds out the other voices, somewhat. But an empty mind? No, I don't really know how to stop the voices which, depending on day-to-day circumstances, are quieter or more vehement. People worry about becoming forgetful...sometimes I think it would be great to be able to forget things, selectively, of course. 

There are techniques to stop obsessing about stuff. I'm learning, but it's not always easy.

In Palo Alto I meditate in front of a window that looks over a tree-lined creek, at the sky, the stars (that shine most evenings in California). Lots of houses on the other side of the creek, but the trees hide them. The stars put things in proportion, things like time and the importance of my little worries and ambitions in the vast scheme of things, if there is a vast scheme of things. Here in Paris I meditate on a cushion on a bathmat on the floor of the bedroom in front of a window that looks straight across the street at a church--a very big church--with a complicated roof line and stained glass on several levels. I'm looking at something human beings made, quite a different experience, I think, from looking at treetops, sky and stars. Or maybe not so different, because, I suppose, as Larkin wrote in his poem "Church-going" (I think it's that one), even if you don't think you are religious, you can still respect the fact that churches are places with a serious human purpose.


Yesterday, coming back from a bike ride along the quais of the Seine, after we turned our bikes into a bike-share station on the Quai Voltaire, we walked up the rue Bonaparte and stopped in to the church of St Germain des Pres, which is being restored. The first stage, the choir, has been completed and is open to visitors. It is very ornate, very beautiful (though I also love the very plain vestiges of an old church to the right of the entry). The vaulted ceiling is a deep blue-black like a night sky with stars. 

This and that


For years, beside my bed in Paris, I've kept a copy of Viriginia's Woolf's Diary, which I read a few pages at a time at night. I bought the diaries as they were published and read them at the time; for the last few years I've been rereading them. But now I've reached the last volume, and in the last volume, the last two years of her life. War has just been declared--another war, she already lived through WWI. She is under stress, finishing her book about her friend Roger Fry (the painting on the right is Fry's 1917 portrait of Woolf); she has to force herself to work. And I'm not sure I'm going to read this volume to the end.

The quotidian: I've started going to the gym again, walking by my favourite bookshop, Compagnie, saluting Montaigne's statue and polishing his shoe for luck, on the square that faces the Sorbonne, a look-into the courtyard of Cluny Museum, which is being renovated. A couple of autumns ago there were some hollyhocks--volunteers--against a wall, popped up between the cobbles. I wrote a poem about that. Then the gym and home along the Bd St Germain, which has some stalls set up selling food...baby clothes...what have you. I walk fast, get impatient if I'm stuck behind amblers--should get over that.

I also began volunteering at the Soupe Populaire again--lots of old friends there, among the diners and among the volunteers, and especially the wonderful Noria, who is the paid cook and supervisor, a wonderful woman, with three children, the oldest of whom is now in his first year of medical school. She comes to work at 8, leaves home at 7, dropping her youngest, a four year old off at the creche, because it is too early for school--la Maternelle--the 'motherly school' or nursery school--at that hour. 

Today, this afternoon, I think I want to take a bike ride along the quai as far as I can go on the right bank, which is to the far end of the 15th arrondissement, I think. Tonight my daughter is coming late from London for an informal high school/lycee reunion with some of her friends.



I subscribed to the bike-share programme, Velib, a couple days ago and have used it twice so far, with great joy. The first time was on the right bank, where there are two stations, under two bridges. It took us a while to follow the instructions and get a bike--and we weren't the only ones: we thought we'd get some help from a young American-British couple, but they were swearing at the computer system as gustily as we were. But anyway we got a bike, the quai, which was closed to automobile traffic last year, was fairly empty, it being a weekday, and I went to the bassin de l'arsenal and back a couple times while Michel walked.

Today we got two bikes and were on the left bank where you can ride from (almost) the Pont des Arts to the depths of the 15th arrondissement, way past the Eiffel Tower. Today being Sunday there was lots of foot, skateboard, scooter and other traffic, but it was still lovely to get from one end of Paris to another so easily and with the Seine flowing alongside.

The quais on both banks are being fixed up, with games, cafes, rock-climbing for kids, lounge chairs, fruit trees. I prefer the right bank. It runs through less upscale neighbourhoods and its denizens feel ordinary-er.

Elizabeth Bowen, Charles Richie


Just finished reading Elizabeth Bowen's correspondence with the Canadian diplomat, Charles Richie, Love's Civil War. I like reading her letters better than reading her novels, or at least the few I've read, say, The Heat of the Day, which is dedicated to Richie, and in which he is a principal character. For me, the dialogue in that book is stilted, as I think I've noted in an earlier blog post, while the tone of the letters is more natural, if keeping up a largely epistolary relationship with a lover over many decades can be natural. There are excerpts from Richie's journals and they are equally fascinating about an extremely complex character who, in his photographs, looks utterly buttoned up, who was the Canadian ambassador to the US under Kennedy and Johnson, then to France, then High Commissioner to Britain, while married to one woman, having a lifelong relationship with Bowen and passing affairs with a number of others, and his pain, guilt and, often, joy. 

She was older than he was and died before him; after her death he discovers that many sides of Bowen's life were probably hidden from him, and that the various people with whom she was close are all now in many cases jealous of her other friends and lovers: "I need to know again that I was her life. I would give anything I have to give to talk to her again, just for an hour. If she ever thought that she loved me more than I did her, she is revenged."

I would love to read Richie's journals, with their details of his public life, but probably won't. Bowen I will continue reading. I suppose she is the Jane Austen of the 20th century: dry and piercingly perceptive, with a penchant, in life as in her novels, for houses.

Off to Paris on Tuesday. Meanwhile the sunset here is still red behind the trees and the peepers are peeping. I have just gone around and "lit the lamps"--all 3 or 4 of them--an evening ritual.


Yesterday, biking home from the gym and library, I noticed a cloud or two, small, white and fluffy, on the horizon, but mostly the sky was sky blue. And I thought how nice it would be--for a few months--to be in Paris, which we will on Wednesday, and to look out our kitchen window every morning and see a grand show of clouds, changing, like the ocean changes, and silver-grey as if the zinc roofs of the buildings around us ran off into the sky.


Well, what do you know? Two days after my post on the robots collecting the trash in my neighbourhood, the New York Times has a story about robotic arms moving stuff around Amazon (startling how"Amazon" no longer has, at first encounter, anything to do with the continent of South America: there was a story about lost tribes in the Amazon today, and it took me a few head-scratching seconds to realize that it wasn't that Amazon), and how this is just so much better for the warehouse workers, for example "Linda" who until recently was exhausting herself loading and carrying and stacking plastic bins filled with merchandise, and how she now spends her day outside a fenced cage in which robots do the same work, managing the robots--a job which, however, should also, no doubt soon, disappear. "Linda" says her new job is much more varied and intellectually stimulating. So you see, mechanization is not the end of work / workers after all.

I feel a lot better about the future of work.

Meanwhile the roof overhead is crawling with workers installing insulation on our 16-unit building, who every so often break into song, so I'm off to the gym and library until relative silence returns.

Trash collection

I just noticed that the trash collectors, the two men, who go behind the truck, pick up the bins and put them on the back of the truck to be dumped, remove the bins and set them back on the street, have been replaced--in our neighbourhood--by a school-bus yellow robot with two arms that hug the bin, lift and dump it, set it carefully back in the street, and the truck (self-driven?) moves on.

(Here's a YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxJzDubWJMQube)

'That's neat,' I thought. 

But what happened to the two men, the two (ok, back-breaking) jobs?

Do they get jobs in fastfood? At the Ikeas?

In Paris we live right above and down the street from the place the garbage collectors congregate with their trucks. Sure, trash collector may not be a great job description, but there seems to be a lot of social activity, an esprit-de-corps among them (mostly Africans, or Franco-Africans), a lot of jostling and joking, a lot of male, sorry, bonding. Somehow I don't imagine this being quite the same at MacDonald's, but maybe I'm just nostalgic.